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OCTU at Heysham Tower

During World War II The Tower was requiisitioned by the War Ministry for military use. This eventually settled into becoming an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) which is sometimes referred to as  ‘163rd’ OCTU and others  possibly as ‘168th‘ OCTU’.

This photograph from the HHA  Archive taken at the main entrance to the Tower we presume is at the completion of training for this group of cadets.
The six men in the front row centre are probably the officers running the unit and there are also three uniformed women in the photograph.  Below is an invitation to a ‘Passing Out’ dance which would have taken place at the same time as the photograph.


For those interested in military history  The Artist’s Rifles Regiment  was established in the 19th century.  During WW2 it functioned only as an OCTU .         For  further information   click here.

We have found a good source of information  on The Tower in WW2 is from personal recollections of this period. In 2004-2007 BBC ran a Peoples ‘War website to which people contributed. Dorothy Swallow from Heysham  was one such. Here is an extract from what she wrote:

I was five when the war started. I attended St Peters Church of England School, Heysham, Morecambe, Lanc.
We had a beautiful holiday camp which was turned into an army Barracks for the soldiers to train to go to war. We used to watch them my two brothers, training under the barbed wire. We had a look out station observation post. Giant Gun by the beach. A big log across the road so no vehicles could go to the Harbour where the Irish Boats and tankers came in. The barracks were guarded by a centaury (sentry) with his gun by his side. We could hear pots and pans being washed. We were quite nosey.
My mother would wash an army shirt for a penny and she helped in a boarding house with eighteen airmen billeted.

You can download the full contribution as a pdf  here.

The Auxiliary Territorial Service was a non-combatant regiment for women from 1939 - 49 after which it became the Womens Royal Army Corps.The website  A T S Remembered  is another valuable source. Dorothy Chilton jsubmiited a 4-page record of her service to the website.  She joined the ATS in Liverpool and is pictured here on Morecambe front in 1940.  These are relevant parts of her record:

My first posting was to the men‘s OCTU at Heysham Towers in Morecambe. The Company Commander was Berthe Tansley-Witt. We joined with the male officers for dances, a choral society and concerts. In the production of Priestley‘s play ”Laburnum Grove“ I  took the part of Elsie. We did not have many air raids. I don‘t think the port at Heysham was of great importance. Liverpool was usually the target.
I used to go to the Tivoli Theatre at Morecambe, and was introduced to Thora Hird who was in the repertory company there.

It would seem that there were far more women posted at the Tower than just the three in the group photograph. They would be involved in secretarial and clerking duties.  It would also seem there was a lively social life going on.

On the webiste of the National Library of Wales we came across  a letter written by Cadet A Lewis at Heysham Tower OCTU to a friend in South Wales. his home area. In it he gives a descriiption of Heysham:

You'd like this place - it has a little of Cwmcelyn about it - flat quick sands where crabs crawl about at dusk, little black hunchbacks in mud pools of vermillion and rose. And a pub the sailors from the harbour drink in - a Welsh boat from Holyhead put in this week and I've been drinking with the Gogleddi. We sang Welsh, too, near closing time.
e cliffs are grassy and corrupt - a zoo, very decrepid, with a browned-off sickly bear and two scruffy monkeys, crowns the fields and the gorse bushes drift with odours of Bryll Cream - the R.A.F. at night manoeuvers with the tripper girls. The church on the cliffs is very fine-rugged white sandstone, with a  ruined chapel and stone coffin beds.

It is clear that this is prose of a special quality and reading further through the letter we find he has already had poems published. Very soon it becomes clear that this is the renowned  WW2 poet Alun Lewis  who died in 1944 on active service in Burma. Some critics are of the opinion his mastery of words is better than that of Dylan Thomas. For more information about War Poets in general click  here.  Thank you to Philippa Lyon for this link.


As recently as June 2015  The Guardian had as poem of the week., ‘All day it has rained’   which describes the relaxed details of a slow Sunday at a military training camp in ‘Edward Thomas country’ mixed with foreboding about what will follow. Download the full text   here.

It is perhaps not coincidental that not only was Alun  Lewis associated with the Artists’ Rifles regiment but so also were WW1 poets, Wilfrid Owen and Edward Thomas.


When the war ended many of the wartime OCTUs were no longer needed.  At Heysham the military found another temprorary use for The Tower.

Spanish Republican (anti-fascist) Group in Heysham 1945

The politics of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 are both simple from the Spanish angle and complex as far as the rest of Europe is concerned. The story of  how a group of 226 refugees from the Republican side of the Civil War came to be in England in 1945 is told by Dr Richard Cleminson of the University of Leeds in the  International Journal of Iberian Studies in 2009 (possibly published earlier elsewhere and available on the internet).They didn’t all arrive at the same time but groups were scattered in various locations one of which was Heysham, before finally all being brought together in a camp in Chorley. The picture is of a small group at Chorley.

A correspondent from Adlington, near Chorley,  who has an interest in this story, has given us a list of  30 names of those who were in Heysham; we assume this would have been at Heysham Tower, used on as an  OCTU during WW2. Richard Cleminson cites as one of his references a short article by Eduardo Castro entitled
We Also Stood Alone (A Short History of a group of Spanish Republicans interned at Heysham, Lancashire) Castro, E.J. (1945), Morecambe and District Spanish Aid Committee. Richard tells us that the copy he consulted is a hand written one in the   Marx Memorial Library, London
The Morecambe Group mentioned issued this as an 11 page  English translation from the original Spanish.
Can anyone locally supply a copy and/or supply any further information about the Heysham Spanish Group?


© Marie Louise Berneri :
reproduced from Dr Cleminson’s article
 with his permiisson