Tonfanau Army Base


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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8 thoughts on “Tonfanau Army Base

  1. Tony Hopkins

    I was posted to Tywyn as it was called then August 1979 until 1984. It had change from a Army Outward Bound Centre to a Joint Service Mountain Centre.
    The staff was a collection of RAF, Army Physical Training, Marines, Royal Navy and Army Instructors.
    and their families lived in military quarters that run along the outside of the camp.
    So many stories to tell about an enjoyable time in this part of North Wales.

  2. John Batty

    I was selected for course no.63 at the Army Outward Bound School from 11/9/1961-29/9/61 it rained most of the time but I survived aged 16 and must have done something right to achieve a B grade which was not easy! I still have my daily journal that I wrote up each night and with a few photographs!

  3. Richard Ward-Jones

    My parents were one of the first people to have a caravan at Llymgwrill . Aged 10 in 1955 I can remember seeing targets being flown across the bay and gunnery practice taking place . The caravan site was also the area of an old army camp with huts , rifle range and gun emplacements still in evidence .

  4. Denys Nigel Lubbock

    I have a letter dated 4th January 1947 sent from my late father to his parents when he was posted to Tonfanau to train as an anti-aircraft gunner. When he arrived with others at the train station at midnight due to train delays, there was no one to meet them. They went to the police station who telephoned the camp who then sent a car to collect them. He says the camp is immense with about 1,000 personnel, a regiment to teach light anti aircraft gunners on, (he thought), 14mm Beauforts. He was expected to be there for ten weeks. There was a large cinema about 100 yards from his hut with the cookhouse about 50 yards away. Of the 160 recruits in his batch 30 were selected as ‘PO’, Potential Officer, of which he was one of the 30. The benefit being a little more comfort such as your own chair and a more comfortable hut. One problem was the delay in delivering lockers so initially he was living out of his kit bag.

  5. John Stothart

    I worked there in 1985 as a film editor on the BBC serial “The Monocled Mutineer”. The camp was used as the location for a First World War Army Camp. The cast included Paul McGann and Timothy West.
    We were based there for around 2 months

  6. Frank Price

    I was working for the Ministry of labour at the camp resettling the Ugandan Asians and others. The idea being that we found them jobs and housing. They were an absolute delight very polite extremely kind and brilliant cooks/chefs. We all hadRegular invitations to their rooms to eat with the families . Their attitude in the face of dreadful circumstances was amazing and I will never forget them


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