Tonfanau (pronounced ton-van-eye) is an old military camp, just half a mile from Tywyn, used during the Second World War as an anti-aircraft training facility; a row of gunning placements pointing out to sea still runs along the shore. The trainees were supplied with targets by the nearby RAF Tywyn who riskily towed disposable gliders(the targets) using Hawker Henleys. There is one story of a Henley towing a target for the camp when the Royal Artillery were operating a new radar system and the gunners did not bother waiting for the second blip before letting fly. As rounds exploded around him, the pilot hastily radioed down to the Army saying “that they were towing the target; not pushing it”. Not surprisingly, the preferred aircraft for artillery training was the remote-controlled Queen Bee which was an unmanned version of the Tiger Moth.
The base operated until 1966 when it was mothballed. Network Rail still maintain a station at Tonfanau even though the reason for its existence largely disappeared when the base was closed. The site is now derelict with little remaining of the buildings or infrastructure that supported the camp. Today, you are more likely to visit the village to attend one of the motorbike races that are held here during the summer.
This sleepy village also has another claim to fame: it was proudly used as a refugee camp for Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin’s brutal regime.
Ugandan Asians & Tonfanau
In October 1972, Tonfanau became home to over 3,000 refugees who made the 4,000-mile journey from Africa having been given just 90-days to leave Uganda.
The Asians, mostly Gujarati, had lived in Uganda for generations having been encouraged to settle by the British Imperial Service during the days of Empire to help with building of the railways. Many came and settled and raised their own families building careers as teachers, shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. On 5th August 1972, President Idi Amin scapegoated the entire community blaming them for the country’s economic ills claiming that they were “bloodsuckers” who were exploiting the wealth of the country at the expense of native Africans. On 26 August 1972, the President gave them until the 9th November to leave. The vast majority did, many at gun point, taking with them only what they could carry. There were many reports of lootings, violence and killings. Pratibha Patel, who now lives in Pontypool, describes her memories of her expulsion aged just ten:
We were asked to leave the country. 90-days they were giving us to leave the country. Where do we go? What shall we do? Frightening. Army everywhere, guns everywhere. When we were told we had to leave we saw guns at every corner. It was very frightening.
– Pratibha Patel, 1972 Refugee
Of the estimated Ugandan-Asian population of 80,000, 30,000 sought refuge in Britain. Twelve resettlement camps were hastily set-up nationwide to accommodate the refugees – Tonfanau was one of these camps.
In the autumn of 1972, a welcoming party was established comprising many locals who had rallied round to help providing warm clothes, books, magazines, and toys. The instructions given to the volunteers were simple: they were told to choose a family, make friends, and adopt them.
In the six months the ex-military base was open, over 3,000 refugees were kept warm and well-fed by an army of local volunteers during a Welsh seaside winter. By the spring of 1973, the last temporary residents of Tonfanau had left to be resettled across the UK.
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