When the luxurious Ocean Hotel was first opened in 1938 nobody could have imagined that, within 18 months, the Second World War would break out and the building would be requisitioned by The War Office and taken over by the army as a training centre.
After the War Billy Butlin bought the neglected building, refurbished it, and added it to his popular holiday camp empire as the headquarters for his hotel division. In 2004 the Ocean Hotel finally closed its doors and the building was left to deteriorate whilst planning applications were made by developers for the site.
Respected writer and local historian Douglas d’Enno wrote about the Ocean Hotel during the Second World War period of its history in an article which was published in 2005. He has kindly made this article, reproduced here, available to The Saltdean Zone.
BITTER MEMORIES OF ‘B’ COMPANY
Among the fascinating documents in the Mass-Observation Archive series recording everyday life in Britain from 1937 to the early 1950s are three startling wartime papers relating to service life in Saltdean’s now-derelict Ocean Hotel as recalled by a member of the ATS.
The role of the women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which numbered some 20,000 recruits during the Second World War, was to replace men from the Army.
They acted as office, mess and telephone orderlies, drivers of lorries and other vehicles, butchers, bakers, postal workers, ammunition inspectors, military police and gun crews and additionally performed many other operational support tasks.
Companies were based at “depots” and Saltdean’s luxury hotel, only opened the previous summer, was taken over for the purpose in December 1939.
The first letter from our anonymous correspondent, a fervidly patriotic Scot, was sent the following Spring.
She was a nurse by training who in the First World War had served as a hostel forewoman in the WAACS (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) and loved it.
When peace came she had moved to the USA and continued her work as a nurse, school matron and school camp caterer. When Hitler’s war started, she patriotically dashed over to join up.
Fate led her to “The Ocean”
Yet before long she was requesting a discharge
On March 1, 1940, she wrote:
“Imagine my disappointment on coming here to more muddle and more chores. I was on HQ staff but was supposed to do the usual two weeks in a company, even though I am not a new recruit and I would not let them think that I hadn’t the gumption to scrub concrete passages (if you’ve ever had a shot at that you’ll know it’s a futile job), burn rubbish, etc. “
“I was awfully upset for a few days when I came here but I’m getting used to the concentration camp. It’s absurd to think that the war is going on against tyranny and aggression yet this place is full of it. Some of the officers are very rude, they bully the NCOs who for the most part are very ordinary types, and then they in turn bully the girls.”
A perfect example of the uncouthness of NCOs was the instance where some girls left the dining hall by the wrong door and an NCO said,
“Them girls must be taught to be be’ave. We must learn them manners.”
Our informant aired her grievances publicly, writing to Eleanor Rathbone MP, who, however, felt the complaints were too vague to do anything about, stating it was the first case of muddle in the women’s services she’d heard of.
A letter was also fired off to journalists Tom and Cryssal Pudney, who were writing a series on women and war work in the News Chronicle. They replied “If we had only had it before dealing with the A.T.S. question, we should have done our best to find out about such things you mention – which many of us suspect without having definite proof.”
In her letter of March 13, our unhappy service woman complained that she was beginning her fifth month in the army and hadn’t done anything “worth crossing the street for.” There was misery, humiliation and disregard for comfort, health and self-respect. The recruits had to queue – mainly for meals – seven times a day for an average of 15 minutes (one time it was 35), in some cases after backbreaking fatigues.
These included the scrubbing of concrete passages on hands and knees already referred to. The sand came off the concrete all time, it could not be made to look decent and fingers were left black and bruised. Although the hotel had a marvellous dishwasher, it was rather noisy. Any washing-up not done by 9 a.m. (sometimes masses of it) had to be done by hand because the noise annoyed the CO.
The food was “rotten” and inadequate, yet the waste was terrific, and all the girls supplemented. One meal caused a large number to be sick in the night. Tea was served in buckets! Anyone sick, however ill, had to report on her feet. There was a lack of comfort in the quarters. Bedrooms could not be left before 9 a.m., nor could the wash-basin in them be used between the inspection at that hour by a sub-leader and the 12 o’clock inspection by a higher officer.
Off the premises, there were the hated route marches through the streets, with idiotic saluting by women officers and some men officers and the absurd guard’s swing of the arms. Then there were the regular shifts of guard duty – with a stick. It could not be used to hit anyone but there was much ridiculous, and often humiliating, training in how it should be held.
Ultimately, the girls became either smarmy, trying to curry favour with the NCOs and officers, or rebellious. Some simply ran away.
Our informant’s discharge came through just before Easter 1940 and she successfully applied to join the WAAF. Prior to taking up her appointment, she filled in by working as matron in a private house in Chelmsford accommodating 10-12 “difficult” evacuees.
Following training at West Drayton, where there were 22 – “a nice crowd” – in her hut, she was posted to a secret station and worked at the RAF HQ. With an officer who was “a sport” and sharing a comfortable apartment house with so many colleagues to a flat, each with their special trades, she thoroughly enjoyed her new life.
Her days in ‘B’ company at the Ocean Hotel became, thankfully, a fast-receding memory.
- The Ocean Hotel at the time of opening in 1938. Courtesy of Douglas d’Enno
- Original ATS promotion poster
- ATS brass hat badge. The service’s initials are surmounted by a King’s crown and surrounded by a laurel wreath. Courtesy of Douglas d’Enno
- ATS Recruits at Saltdean by Dorothy Coke, 1940. The ATS at the Ocean, as depicted in one of a series of postcards from the Imperial War Museum.
- ATS Eleven O’clock Break by Dorothy Coke, 1940. We believe this depicts ATS ladies having a relaxing break on one of the Ocean Hotel’s balconies, also from the Imperial War Museum collection.
For further reading that may interest you, we can recommend Brighton In The Great War by Douglas d’Enno. Just click on the image for more information.