"Well, I'm here so lets find out a little about
the place. I have discovered that it is one mile and a half long, three quarters
of a mile wide. The highest point is six feet above sea level. It is one of
thirteen islands forming Addu Atoll, the most southern of the Maldivian chain.
The lagoon formed by the thirteen islands, is about seven miles across and
deep in places. It makes a perfect natural harbour and was used by the Royal
Navy during the Second World War. There was also an army detachment here during
that time for defence purposes. There are two entrances into the lagoon, the
Gan channel which is the main one and the other one called Wilingili channel.
The only signs of that time are one or two gun emplacements and the remains
of the causeway that linked Gan with the adjoining island Fedu.
The island was covered with quite dense vegetation with a native village at
one end housing some 800 Maldivians. They grew bananas, breadfruit and of
course there was an abundance of coconuts. Other forms of life were snakes,
some poisonous, over twenty species of birds, the most common being the little
white tern, fruit bats more like flying foxes and rats, estimated to be in
their thousands. They were considered to be such a hazard, that two professors,
both rat experts were brought out to study the rats habits and life style.
They set up a huge marquee with rows of cages and benches with all sorts of
equipment. They engaged about half a dozen locals to catch rats for them and
soon established that the rats formed no health threat like those found in
'civilized' countries where they inhabited sewers and lived off rubbish. (Gan
rats were very clean and lived in coconut trees. Fruit bats would bore holes
through the husks and shells of the coconuts growing on the trees to reach
the flesh of the nut, when finished, the rats climbed up the trees and nested
in the empty shells. Having examined literally hundreds of rats, the professors
announced that the rats were disease free. All of this appeared to us laymen
to have been a terrible waste of money it being known from the outset that
the coconut trees would all be removed to build the airfield No trees, no
rats! Mind you, plans to clear all the vegetation had to be quickly revised
The highest point on the island being only six feet above sea level, given
the situation where high tides coincided with severe tropical storms, serious
erosion would occur so, wherever possible vegetation was left and was supplemented
with fast growing grass obtained from Canada.
Before construction of the base could commence, two things had to happen.
First a temporary landing strip had to be built to allow normal aircraft to
be used because the Sunderlands were being phased out of service and secondly,
the village and all its inhabitants, had to be moved to the adjoining island
of Fedu. We had obtained the permission of the Maldivian Government to do
Hence my first job was to carry out a survey of all the inhabitants, the size
of each family, details of each house, size etc. did they have a well, how
many coconut trees, bread fruit trees and banana palms did each family have.
It was most interesting and what friendly people they were despite the fact
that they were going to be uprooted and moved to the next island Their lives
were run on a communal system. Each day all the men would gather in the village
square where the headman would allocate them their jobs for the day. Some
to go fishing, others coconut picking, others collecting bananas etc. and
all would be brought back to the village square and distributed to each family.
The 'village square' was just an open space leading from the beach, bordered
on the land side by two large buildings used for Storage and meetings.
As a race, they appear to be a mixture of Polynesian, Indian, and Arab, which
indicates that over the centuries many of the nations were engaged in travel.
The Maldivians will vehemently deny it, but there are also traces of Portuguese
in their ancestry and many bear Portuguese sounding names. One evening there
was a big celebration in the village square and I was told this was commemorating
the time when they had repulsed the Portuguese who had tried to land on their
islands. In view of the names held by lots of the Maldivians, it is quite
apparent that many Portuguese must have gotten ashore! In fact the census
I carried out revealed that practically every family had at least one member
with a Portuguese sounding name.
My first impressions were of a contented people never appearing to seek more
than their neighbours had and when we first arrived, if you offered one a
cigarette, he would immediately break it in half and hand a friend the other
The only trade they conducted - again organized through the headman was with
dried fish and copra that they transported in quite large sailing boats to
Ceylon in return for tools such as machetes, knives etc. and material. The
women made their dresses from the material, the tops of which were beautifully
embroidered. Such wealth as they could accumulate was made into ornate gold
necklaces and worn by selected young girls in the village. Presumably the
headman decided which girls would wear the necklaces and for how long. I never
saw any worn by girls over the age of about sixteen Mind you, lots of the
girls would be getting married at that age and would have to pass on the necklace.
When the villagers were made aware of their intended removal to the next island,
it was anticipated there would be some protests, but no, they all accepted
the upheaval with absolutely no signs of hostility towards us. The houses
they were to occupy were designed and built in the UK, prefabricated wooden
buildings with corrugated roofs and from what I could gather, there had been
little or no discussion with the Maldivians themselves. As a consequence,
when the houses were erected on the adjoining island, hardly any of them were
used as living accommodation, the locals preferred to build their own homes
to their own liking and design and which would be far cooler to inhabit than
those with corrugated roofs.
Healthwise, generally speaking they appeared to be quite healthy although
elephantitus was one ailment not uncommon. Anyone who suffered with it was
banished to another island called Bushy, where they had to remain. They were
kept supplied with the necessities of life, but anyone afflicted with the
disease was not a pleasant sight The ones we saw on Bushy had different parts
of their bodies affected and one in particular I remember was a poor chap
whose testicles were so large he was only mobile by carrying them in a sort
of wheelbarrow. Others it was arms, legs, faces even and presented a pitiful
sight. Not an island to visit.
Our own domestic arrangements in those early days could be described in one
word - 'basic'. We slept in two man tents, our camp beds had to be raised
off the ground some two or three feet to avoid not only the rats and snakes,
but also the flood water because during some of the tropical storms, flash
floods would occur and the water would stream through the tents in a matter
of minutes. I had only been there a couple of days when I was awoken during
the night by a sudden storm and saw shoes floating out through the tent opening
like model boats.
Ablutions were a bit of a giggle. Attach a small drum with holes in the bottom
to a coconut tree, hand pump water into it and 'voila!' one shower later modernised
by the attachment of a real shower rose fixed to the drum. One of the amazing
things about the island was that you could dig down four or five feet virtually
anywhere on the island and you would find fresh water. I recall one hole being
dug only feet from the beach and the water in it was not brackish so fresh
water on the island was not going to present a problem, or so we thought.
Toilets were three buckets in a coconut frond shelter in a clearing. One was
well advised to use them during daylight hours because should an urgent visit
be necessary during the night and you were able to find them, you could never
be sure who or what you would sharing them with, snakes were regular 'squatters'.
We Air Ministry civilians did not have our own mess at first. So some of us
joined forces with about half a dozen RAF sergeants and organized the building
of a mess just off the beach. It transpired that later, for a while, this
became the official sergeants' mess and it was on record subsequently carried
forward to the permanent mess when it was completed that the first two members
of that mess were R.R.Halfacre and L. M. Chalk. The original building consisted
of a bar and 'dining hall'. The construction was a timber frame of coconut
tree trunks, the roof was layers of coconut palm fronds, the walls constructed
of plaited fronds were only about four feet high, the remaining space to the
roof was left open for coolness. Quite rustic and comfortable 'til hit by
horizontal rain during tropical storms.
In those early days when we were totally reliant on the aircraft getting through
with the food supplies - and there were times when it couldn't - it was then
necessary to supplement our diet with fish caught in the lagoon. This was
mainly tuna. We would go out in an RAF launch and were nearly always successful
in landing a tuna up to three feet long. Fried tuna steaks were quite palatable
on those occasions according to the majority, I do not find tuna attractive
now but at that time, it was 'When needs must' I suppose.
This is probably a good time to pen a picture of the planning, organisation,
manning etc. that was to go into the construction of the staging post
The whole job was intended to cost £4,700,000 - doesn't that sound a
paltry amount now and is, compared with the one hundred million plus for the
Millenium Dome. The main contractor was Costains. We - the Air Ministry (AMWD)
- were to supply the plant, vehicles and equipment necessary to complete the
work and to that end, all the lorries were specially designed and built by
Thomeycroft to cope with the exacting conditions of the work and were all
four-wheel drive with special gearboxes. There would also be articulated lorries,
vans and Land Rovers. All of this would have to be shipped out from the U.K.
and would be off-loaded on to landing craft and brought ashore through a channel
blasted through the coral reef. More about the off-loading operation later.
The person in overall charge of the work was Alex Smith, Senior Resident Engineer,
Air Ministry Works Directorate. In his team were Air Ministry civilians, consisting
of civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, surveyors, architects,
draughtsmen, us stores and accounts types, clerk of works, station engineers,
plumbers, carpenters, electricians and power station engineers.
Messrs. Costains team would be made up of much the same professions and trades
as ours, but their main work force would be some 2000 Pakistanis, recruited
in Pakistan and flown direct to Gan. They would be plant operators, drivers,
carpenters, plumbers, labourers, cooks and bearers.
There had to be a small contingent of RAF personnel including aircraft maintenance,
marine craft section to man the air-sea rescue launch and crew the landing
craft. There was a medical officer and orderly, the MO. He was a gynaecologist
would you believe. There was also a couple of RAF police. In charge of the
RAF. contingent was a squadron leader, he had no jurisdiction over anyone
else but did consider himself as Lord of the Island. He really enjoyed the
early days, preferring to live in his tent like a true pioneer. Spent all
his days careering around the island in his land rover, trying to order everyone
about until Alex Smith put him in his place and then he just careered around
the island ignored by everyone and the high-spot of his day was when an aircraft
was making the flight from Ceylon and he had to make his weather prognosis.
So, we have an island a mile and a half long by three quarters of a mile wide
which is to be transformed into a staging post with a runway extending the
whole length of the island, living quarters, messes, hospital, cinema, tennis
courts, aircraft maintenance section with huge fuel tanks, a fuel jetty to
allow tankers to tie up and discharge their cargo of aviation fuel, a complete
communication section on an adjoining island and various other ancillary projects
connected with the staging post. But before any of this can be started, temporary
camps would have to be erected to house Costains, the RAF contingent, the
Pakistanis and us. The island was to become somewhat crowded.
I have no intention of giving a blow by blow description of the job as it
progressed, merely some of the happenings which I hope may be of interest
and perhaps amusing. The temporary runway was constructed at virtually right
angles to what would eventually be the permanent runway. It was planned this
way in order to minimise interference with the construction work of the main
runway Built of compacted coral sand, the temporary runway was soon in use
and the number of flights increased, each one bringing in more of the key
personnel. A freighter arrived bringing with it the landing craft secured
to its upper deck the channel through the reef was blasted out and the concrete
ramp leading from it was completed.
I have deliberately steered clear of talking about the reef because later
when things had settled down a bit, it was to play a large part in out leisure
activities and deserves a chapter to itself
More ships arrived carrying the plant but there was one small snag, there
were no qualified drivers on the island, the Pakistanis who had been recruited
to do the driving were still in Pakistan due to delays with aircraft to fly
them here. So my mate Les Chalk and me, not at this stage being overworked
with the costing and accounting of the project, asked the 'Boss Man' Alex
Smith if we could do the driving and having assured him we knew what we were
doing, he agreed.
First to be unloaded into the landing craft were the bulldozers, only one
per landing craft as they were huge. Les and I quickly 'genned' up on the
rudiments of getting them moving forwards and backwards and raising the blade,
- the book made it sound simple - but our attempt to drive the first ones
off caused much hilarity to the assembled onlookers which soon ceased as the
monsters, when given a bit of 'wellie' roared an erratic path up the ramp
and the spectators fled. Once clear of the ramp, there was nothing to worry
about because everything we pointed the 'dozer' at simply disappeared beneath
it. The power of those machines was unbelievable and once we had all - I think
it was ten of them -ashore and parked up some distance away, we had prepared
a perfect track along which to drive everything else we brought ashore. Graders,
earthmovers, cranes on tracks, cranes on wheels, lorries including articulated
ones, vans, we drove the lot and had the time of our lives. What we found
a little bit difficult at first was reversing the 'artics' through the coconut
trees and back down the ramp on to the landing craft and taken back alongside
the ships to be loaded up with more stores to come ashore. This was simpler
than off-loading the stores into the landing craft and then having to manhandle
Among the first items we brought off were the prefabricated buildings that
were to be our living quarters, kitchen and mess buildings of which there
were three. One for the senior staff, one for us non-industrials and the other
for the industrials. My quarter was to be one of four in a block which would
be sited right on the edge of the beach with the veranda facing out over
the lagoon. These buildings had also been specially designed for Gan - far
superior to those for the locals - mosquito proofed and the roofs highly polished
to reflect the sun rather than absorb it and it was most successful, our quarters
were always cool.
During the early months I became an honorary crew member of the air sea rescue
launch, courtesy of F/Lt. Stone the marine craft section officer. It meant
I had several long runs way out to sea because we would go out and meet every
ship when due and escort it through the channel into the lagoon. I was often
able to take the wheel when at high speed and that was really something. I
remember the little wooden assault craft we had acquired when I was on the
rocket craft. That one was capable of about 35 knots and was a bone-jerking
ride but the air sea rescue launch was a much more substantial craft and apart
from very rough weather was quite a smooth ride at 30+ knots.
As Christmas 1957 approached, things were beginning to get a bit organised.
The NAAFI was operating from a shack made of coconut trunks and palm fronds,
so our bar in the sergeants' mess generally speaking was quite well stocked.
Our new civilian messes were all but ready to use, but the Pakistani cooks
and bearers had not arrived - the tradesmen took priority over the domestics
when it came to flying them down from Pakistan. We moved into our quarters
anyway, absolute heaven after the tents.
One incident that springs to mind when talking about Christmas 1957 was that
during the early part of December, Les Chalk, George Povah and me occupied
three of the four quarters. In our block we became rather fed up with the
food being served in the sergeants' mess so we decided to' go it alone'. This
did not present too much of a problem for us because quite a few things were
available from the NAAFI and we could obtain eggs and chicken from the Maldivians.
Cooking food was no problem at all, we had the brand new kitchen with its
cookers, fridges etc. standing there idle so we used it.
A few days before Christmas, the NAAFI manager approached us saying he was
having some fresh turkeys flown in for Christmas and could we possibly keep
them in one of our fridges until required. We told him this presented no problems
and very soon after we had three or four huge turkeys hanging in the fridge.
Christmas Eve he came and removed all bar one of them to distribute to the
various messes. After a few days. Les Chalk -who never missed a trick - went
over to the NA.FI and told the manager that unfortunately the remaining turkey
had gone bad and did he wish to have it back or should we dispose of it. With
apologies for not having taken it away, the manager asked if we would mind
disposing of it "No trouble at all" says Les and promptly came over
to the kitchen, switched on an oven, and roasted what looked more like an
ostrich than a turkey. It was huge and the three of us lived off it for days,
breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, it was lovely and absolutely FREE!
The main runway was to be constructed of compacted ground coral, six inches
of lean mix concrete and topped with four inches of pavement quality concrete.
Supplies of coral were readily available but one day while carrying out test
explosions on the reef to everyone's amazement rock was discovered which meant
that contrary to popular belief the island was not formed entirely of coral
and we now had an abundance of real hardcore to use in the runway construction.
With the massive batching plant working virtually non-stop the runway noticeably
grew day by day as did the huge apron. It all had to be cut at regular intervals
and the joints filled with a special compound to allow for expansion and contraction
according to the temperature. It was this compound that initiated the problems
with our water supply in that rain washed the chemicals into the ground and
contaminated all the water on or in the island Scientists proclaimed it was
not harmful to drink and certainly no-one was taken ill from it but it made
beverages like tea and coffee and the NAAFI's locally produced lemonade taste
foul. Consumption of beer increased tremendously. Fortunately with the tropical
storms unleashing torrential rains the problem eventually solved itself.
One day, a large beautiful yacht sailed into the lagoon and dropped anchor.
Her name was Zarifa and belonged to Hans Haas, famous at the time for his
underwater films of marine life currently being shown on television in the
U.K. He was here to make a film about sharks in the Indian Ocean. His wife
Lottie a very beautiful woman was not with him alas, she was in Ceylon expecting
a baby and did not rejoin the Zarifa until long after the yacht had left Gan.
During the two or three weeks Hans Haas stayed in Gan, I had the opportunity
of having several conversations with him about his life making underwater
films. Some of us were invited aboard the Zarifa to watch him and his crew
at work filming. We sat and watched it all on closed circuit television as
he and a cameraman filmed sharks in the lagoon. At times they would swim righ
tup to him and he would casually brush them aside with his hand. He said they
would never be a danger to humans in the lagoon, because there was plenty
of food for them but there was always the chance of an old or injured shark
not fast enough to catch a meal might turn to easier prey such as a human
if there happened to be one about. Of course since then, many studies have
been made of sharks and their habits and the danger is not so great as was
thought in those days. I still wouldn't give them the chance though. What
we did have in the lagoon from time to time were huge Manta rays that came
there to breed.
Another visitor one day unfortunately ended up staying. I was driving on the
far side of the island, had a couple of Maldivians with me, when we came across
a turtle on the beach. The Maldivians became quite excited and asked me to
take it back to the village because it was quite a delicacy to them. We walked
down the beach to collect it and it was only then that I realised how big
it was. We managed to turn it over onto its back and drag it up to the land
rover and manoeuvre it aboard. To give you some idea of its size, its shell
would only just fit into the back of the land rover. I drove back to the village
- this was before we moved them to the next island - where they hacked the
poor thing to death and made a kind of stew with it and certainly enjoyed
eating it. I was offered some but declined. Sadly I have no idea what happened
to the shell but in any case it was far too big to bring home.
The months were passing by, we were using our own messes and kitchen staffed
with the Pakistani cooks and waiters and life was not too bad. A committee
had been formed with members from each of the three messes, to run the kitchen.
They arranged the meals, supervision of the Pakistani staff, maintained the
accounts and issued the food bills to all members.
Each mess had its own elected officers the most important being Bar Officer,
a position every member had to hold because it really was hard work. Construction
of the airfield continued virtually day and night so there were always some
members calling in the mess at all hours, generally looking for a drink. It
was not easy for the Bar Officer to carry out his normal duties and make certain
that drinks were always available. From early evening to very late, he never
left the bar.
As living conditions improved, it was amazing how the number of official VIP's
increased The A.O.C. Far East, The Earl of Bandon was a regular visitor from
Singapore and had his own personal aircraft. Much of his time on the island
was spent, not with the 'Robinson Crusoe' squadron leader but going round
meeting and chatting with everyone in their own messes. A very approachable
chap. Another group of occasional visitors was members of the Maldivian Government
in Male, the capital in the northernmost atoll of the chain. A special aircraft
was laid on for those occasions. We didn't mind that but there were occasions
when some Under Secretary of State decided to visit and that meant some essential
stores, foodstuffs etc. would have to be left behind in Ceylon to make room
for him and his entourage. The other annoying thing about those visits was
having to wear a shirt!
I haven't mentioned that from the time we arrived we did employ some of the
Maldivians. Initially it was as cleaners and dhobi boys and they became very
jealous of their jobs. Later it was possible to employ some of them on other
jobs and after we transferred them to the other island to live, it was quite
a sight early in the morning to see them all arriving for work m their boats.
It had been agreed with the Maldivian government that we paid the workers
not with money - that was of no use to them - but with rice. I can't remember
the formulae we used, but each week I would have to tot up the hours each
man worked, translate that into pounds of rice, hand the rice to the headman
who would distribute it to the men. This system worked very well to everyone's
satisfaction until the headman was replaced by a Maldivian government official
who started cheating the men out of their rice ration and we literally had
a war on our hands. Another instance where education brings with it the opportunity
to cheat your own people. Clearly demonstrated in the various countries of
This was our first experience of angry Maldivians. These normally placid,
happy people became a very dangerous mob with one intent, to catch the government
representative who had swindled them and kill him. Of that I am sure they
were quite capable and much as he deserved it, Alex Smith decided to defuse
the situation. We took a load of extra rice to where the crowd were in the
village square and gave it to them, reinstated the headman and let it be known
to the crowd that all rice would in future be given to him, never to a government
official. They had created quite a bit of damage in the village searching
for the government official and even afier our assurances, they still wanted
his head. He was secreted away under the protection of the RAF police and
hidden until an aircraft could be sent to fly him out. Things were a bit 'dodgy'
for a while, the British government considered the situation serious enough
to despatch a destroyer to Gan for our protection. It swept into the lagoon
all closed up at action stations and a little surprised to finds things had
settled down. I have a feeling the gun crews were a little disappointed the
opportunity to loose off a few rounds had disappeared The name of that first
destroyer escapes me but it was relieved by another destroyer HMS Cavalier
who stayed in the lagoon for about two weeks.
We were invited aboard to visit the Chiefs and P.O.'s messes on two or three
occasions during the two weeks the ship was there, they made us very welcome
and in an effort to repay them, we invited about ten of them ashore to our
mess for an evening. We left all the catering arrangement to Bill Fairclough,
a man approaching six feet in height. How Bill managed to lay on such a spread
remains a mystery. He must have bribed aircrews to fly in some of the things.
On the night, the Navy lads couldn't believe it, neither for that matter could
we! It belied all the stories of the poor chaps on the island roughing it
There was fresh cold turkey, ham, beef, there was a whole crayfish per person
and a wonderful variety of salad. It turned out to be a superb evening. As
usual, the peculiar properties in the beer had the effect of reverting men
to their ape ancestry, convincing them they could climb trees again. Several
attempts were made on the coconut trees outside the mess, the best attempt
was to the height of about twelve feet but all ended up the same way with
each 'Tarzan' sliding gently back to earth, arms enveloping the trunk of the
tree like some ardent lover. Result, ripped shirts and grazed chests. I have
thought many times since that had it all been videoed, it might have helped
some professor with his studies of man, or then again, it might have made
him change his occupation. There were also attempts from time to time to ride
bicycles up trees and on one notorious occasion the 'bossman' Alex Smith tried
it with a Land Rover. That didn't work either - neither did the Land Rover!
Yet the local natives would shin up the coconut trees, no effort at all and
retrieve coconuts - so much for us superior chaps.
Some of us were also made very welcome on the merchant ships and treated to
some lovely meals. The senior officers on most of these ships, Captain, 1st
Officer, Chief Engineer etc. were allowed to bring their wives which was very
nice for them because these trips were virtually around the world and took
eight or nine months They had come to Gan from the U.K. via the Suez Canal
and when they had off-loaded in Gan, would proceed to Ceylon, then eastwards
to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and across the Pacific to America, through
the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic and home, picking up and dropping cargo
Time was passing, the island was taking on the appearance of a huge slab of
concrete with buildings beginning to sprout up. A pier was being constructed
out over the reef so that there would be clear water for tankers to berth
against and discharge their cargo of aviation fuel direct by pipe to the huge
storage tanks to be assembled at one end of the island.
Time for U.K. leave was fast approaching. It had been agreed we would have
two U.K. leaves during the two years construction period and believe me, the
'powers that be' were not being over generous. Living on that island despite
the lighter moments was hard going. Films of tropical islands portray them
as being so idyllic but Gan could evaporate those visions very quickly. We
hung suits in wardrobes and three months later all that remained were a few
buttons on the floor having rotted completely away. Within days, any clothing
left banging would be covered in green mould. Walk on coral sand for a few
weeks in leather shoes and all that would be left was the uppers. The slightest
graze or cut would immediately turn septic if coral sand got anywhere near
it I mentioned earlier that we were all supposed to be Al fit but that the
Power Station Engineer sent out there had an artificial leg. Every three or
four days he would have to take to his bed feeling absolutely rotten. The
RAF doctor examined him regularly but could find nothing wrong him. One day
I was talking to Hans Haas and happened to mention how every few days this
chap was laid low with some peculiar complaint. Hans Haas asked if it would
possible for his physician to examine him, which he duly did. When he had
finished his examination he asked if he could take the artificial leg bock
aboard the Zarifa to shorten it ever so slightly. When he brought it back
and it was fitted back on, the chap never had another day's illness. According
to the physician, the motion created by walking on the coral sand with his
artificial leg was making him 'seasick' and the slight adjustment to the leg
completely cured it. We were impressed!
Back on Gan, my four weeks leave in U.K had taken eight weeks to accomplish
and the progress made was quite noticeable as the island became transformed.
I must comment on the state of the plant and vehicles that Les Chalk and I
had driven ashore brand new, less than twelve months ago. At times the operating
capacity of the bulldozers was reduced to about 50%. The Pakistani drivers
had taken them over and inside a few weeks one 'dozer had been driven off
the edge of the reef and lost in hundreds of feet of water - the driver had
managed to jump clear -, two other 'dozers had to be cannibalised because
the drivers inflicted so much damage with their bad driving that sufficient
spares could not be supplied from the U.K in time to keep them all running.
Local conditions played havoc with the vehicles Without exception, all the
Bedford vans were off the road, their bodies completely rusted through with
the coral sand and salt The articulated lorries had aged far beyond their
year of life but could still transport supplies. The Land Rovers stood up
to the conditions best of all and kept running without too much attention.
The specially designed four wheel drive Thorneycroft lorries had suffered
mainly due to the appalling driving of the Pakistanis. Many of the gearboxes
had been completely stripped and but for the expertise of Costain's M.T. engineer,
very few of the lorries would have been working. Despite all of this, the
job was proceeding to schedule
Earlier I mentioned what a major part the reef played in our leisure activities.
Each island had it own coral reef which is a living thing growing all the
time. From the beach outside our quarters, the reef extended out into the
lagoon some thirty yards before dropping sheer away to a depth of several
hundred feet At low tide a lot of the reef was exposed and it was fascinating
to walk on it watching the multi-coloured fish and to examine the variety
of corals. Quite early on we discovered a weird looking fish which we sent
to the British Museum and they identified it as a rare species of stone fish.
You had to be wary of Moray eels, they could give you a very nasty bite. We
built a raft which we could pull out to the edge of the reef and sit there
fishing and watching all the marine life, it was marvellous. There was also
an abundance of shells on the reef, all sizes and shapes and as1 discovered
later, some were quite rare and worth quite a lot of money. It was also confirmed
that a lot of the shells had only previously been found on The Great Barrier
Reef off the East Coast of Australia One unfortunate thing was that the beautifully
coloured coral soon lost its colour when brought out of the water and dried
It was necessary to be very careful when walking on the reef, one tiny scratch
from the coral turned septic in a very short time. But many happy hours were
spent on the reef.
This atoll was full of surprises. Occasionally we would take a boat to other
of the islands and on one of them was a house with a mosaic floor very similar
to Roman ones I have seen in say Italy or Malta. Never did find out how it
came to be there or how old it was.
I know mention has constantly been made of the NAAFI, but it was the major
supplier for most of our needs, beer, cigarettes etc. Selling these items
in our messes, we could charge what we liked for them providing we did not
sell cheaper than the NAAFI canteen charged. After some months, our mess had
accumulated quite a large amount of funds so we decided that all drinks dispensed
on a Monday would be free. The only effect that had was that in the main,
members did not drink on a Monday and what was consumed did little to reduce
the funds so that arrangement was dropped. The way we did eventually reduce
funds was to order additional 'goodies' from Ceylon for special dinners and
we also provided each member with a silver tankard suitably engraved with
the members' names. We obtained the tankards from Singapore.
A regular visitor to our mess was the RAF adjutant, he couldn't get on with
the Robinson Crusoe Squadron Leader and asked if he could possibly on occasions
join us for a drink. Incidentally it was he and his wife I was sitting with
in the Officers Mess in Singapore when I was waiting for the mystery civilian
VIPs to arrive. Anyway, one night in our mess on Gan who should appear but
the adjutant. He had obviously had a few drinks but we refused him admission
because he was not wearing a tie. He disappeared but after a few minutes was
back without a stitch of clothing on other than a tie tied around his waist
adjusted to present a modicum of decency. He was immediately allowed in and
there remained for the rest of the evening having conformed with the rules
of the mess, which stated "After 1800 hrs ties will be worn".
Our second Christmas on the island was almost on us and with much improved
food and with good accommodation, the festive season promised to be a good
one. The job was going well, relations between Costains and us (Air Ministry)
had improved a lot. Inter mess visits over the holiday took on a far more
On Boxing Day, Costains invited us to their mess for lunch and treated us
most royally. I found myself at the top end of the table next to Costains
senior agent - whose name escapes me. A marvellous meal was laid on with fine
wines, no expense spared. Over coffee, the agent asked me what I would like
to drink saying he was going to have a Remy Martin. Yes this was a mysterious
introduction to what I consider to be the best cognac in as much that on this
occasion it came in the shape of a full bottle, not a glass for my enjoyment.
The agent also had a bottle to himself as did George Povah sitting opposite
me. The party continued for quite a while, thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.
But there was a sequel. A few weeks later I was checking the details of an
interim payment request from Costains for work done and stores purchased and
lo and behold carefully hidden among all the items was one covering the whole
cost of food and drink for the party they had laid on for us on Boxing Day
amounting to several hundred pounds. Some of the friendly accord evaporated
when Boss Man Alex Smith returned the account to them with an instruction
to pay it themselves, it would not be met from public funds.
"Now Costains gave us a wonderful time
And at Christmas asked us to wine and dine.
It didn't even cost a bob
For they booked it down as part of the job."
Occasionally we received visits from foreign warships that came to around
in the lagoon but none were allowed to drop anchor or stay. Also had a couple
of private yachts call in for water but they were not made too welcome and
prolong their visit.
Sometime in the second year, the 'powers that be' decided we should cease
paying the Maldivians rice for their labour and instead, they should receive
wages paid in Sterling like any other employed person. I acknowledge that
not having to freight it in from Ceylon made more space for more important
stores and of course it was far simpler to calculate their 'dues' To avoid
bringing them all over to Gan for payment, I took the money over to the other
islands by means of a little fibre glass dinghy with an out-board. Made pleasant
little excursions. But paying them in cash I thought a very unwise move because
having seen us go into the NAAFI to purchase gramophone records for the mess,
they would buy similar things with nothing to play them on. They bought other
electrical items but they had no electricity supply to use them and it caused
a lot of upset among the families
For some time past I had had another little job to keep me occupied. Boss
man Alex Smith was not happy with the Pakistani labour force. He was convinced
there was a lot of work dodging going on in the Pakistani camp particularly
among the kitchen staff resulting in the main labour force turning up late
for work blaming the cooks for not having meals ready early enough. There
being over 2000 Pakistanis, it meant the kitchen staff having to work shifts
throughout the 24 hours of each day in order to meet the demand.
I made my first visit to the camp kitchen between one and two o'clock in the
morning and immediately had a roll call of all staff who should be working
that shift There were several absentees and when I enquired as to their whereabouts
it was "Oh Sahib, men gone mosque praying". I had little doubt they
were in their chaipoys so I told the head chap in the kitchen that in future
all praying would be done when not shift working and when I visited again
if there was anyone missing, I would stop a day's pay from everyone. Naturally
there were loud protests but it worked because any future visits I made it
was always "All men present Sahib" - and they were.
"The Pakistanis have great renown
For working hard at laying down
But if you ask them what they're at,
They're saying their prayers without a mat."
In the kitchen were huge vats some filled with lamb curry, others with boiled
rice and huge piles of freshly baked chapaths. We had a Pakistani clerk working
in our office, he invited a couple of us over to the camp for a meal, it was
My second U.K. leave was in March 1958. Again it was Ceylon to Singapore by
Hastings but this time it was by RA.F. Comet from Singapore to the U.K. there
were no mix ups or delays involved with the return flight to Gan, the difference
with the flight was that I flew Comet to Karachi and then Hastings to Ceylon.
When I arrived at Gan, there was a letter dated l7th.March 1959 waiting for
me, advising me that a provisional booking had been made for my passage home
at the end of the tour. I would be travelling on the P&O Strathaird,
berth 49, sailing from Ceylon on 4th October 1959. Les Chalk was also booked
on this ship.
Several of us had decided some months earlier that rather than fly home, it
would be nice to round off the 'Gan Experience' with a leisurely trip home
by sea. In the event and partially due to the disintegration of clothing on
Gan - described earlier - we later cancelled the sea trip and settled for
On the subject of aircraft, an incident occurred one day that forced the authorities
into providing an aircraft permanently based on the island on stand-by duties.
It so happened one day that a tailboard on a lorry dropped on the head of
a Pakistani labourer causing quite serious injuries. It was immediately obvious
primitive medical facilities on the island could not deal with the injury
and the man would have to be urgently evacuated to a hospital in Ceylon. There
was considerable delay before an aircraft could be sent and the man's life
hung in the balance for some hours, which must have seemed like days to our
gynaecologist medical officer who worked wonders to keep him alive. Eventually
he was airlifted to a hospital in Ceylon where he recovered but his mental
state was so impaired that he could not work again and was flown home to Pakistan.
We had been extremely lucky up to that stage that no serious accidents had
occurred, but now we were to have an aircraft on permanent standby - thankfully
only one horse had bolted before the stable door was closed, metaphorically
We were advised that an aircraft had left U.K. with a crew of two, pilot and
navigator but then it went U.S. in Egypt. Spares were flown out from U.K.
and it must have been about two weeks later when it lobbed into Gan. Good,
relief all round, we were now covered for emergencies - or were we?
The aircraft could carry enough fuel to reach Ceylon with TWO persons aboard,
pilot and navigator, but if it had to carry a third - injured - person, it
could not reach Ceylon which meant it would have to leave the navigator behind
and the pilot would have to do his own navigation with absolutely no navigational
aids on the 500 mile trip across the ocean.
By June/July 1959 the transformation of the island was well on the way to
completion. The service messes, quarters. NAAFI. Club, church, administration
block, technical buildings, hospital, in fact everything necessary for the
staging post to operate were well on schedule, the communications section
and navigational aids were still waiting for a lot of equipment. More R.A.F.
personnel were beginning to arrive.
Must mention the huge safe that arrived by ship one day destined for the administration
block, there were no keys with it. No problem for Les Chalk, he opened it
in seconds much to the concern of the RAF.
With the new runway available, we started to see other types of aircraft flying
stores in, the Beverly Box Car became a regular visitor. It appeared huge
when standing alongside it, the twin tail planes were the size of double decker
busses. The old faithful Hastings made many trips until one day, one came
in carrying mail and a couple of passengers and as it touched down, the starboard
side undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft ended up a sorry looking heap
on the edge of the runway - a write off.
"They told us Hastings would do the trick,
And get our mail here twice as quick,
One came in the other day,
And by the look of the wreck, its here to stay!"
That is a verse from a ballad composed by one of our charge hands, Gordon
Wright, to the tune of 'Island in the Sun'. Practically every incident that
happened on the island, earned a verse in the ballad and on most occasions
was being sung the day the incident occurred. Unfortunately not all are suitable
to be reproduced here, but you will already have noticed a couple of verses
I have included.
A Comet lV was expected one day on a proving flight from U.K. A big day this
so practically everyone turned out to see its arrival and landing on the new
runway. It came sweeping in, touched down and two tyres burst in a cloud of
smoke from burning rubber. It could have been a real disaster but for the
pilot managing to hold the aircraft on the runway until it came to a halt,
leaving two long scores in the runway behind it A big RAF enquiry followed
and the conclusion reached - 'The accident was due to an unsatisfactory runway
surface causing the tyres to burst' or words to that effect. Boss man Alex
Smith was furious that the RAF were using 'his' runway as the reason for the
accident, refused to accept the findings and demanded a further enquiry at
which he or a representative be present. The Air Ministry backed him and pressure
was brought to bear and a further hearing took place. What came out at this
hearing was that the aircraft had descended from maximum height much too quickly
and that the wheel hydraulics were still frozen solid and on touch down, the
wheels were unable to spin. I saw those tyres and they looked as if someone
had taken a large knife to them and sliced a huge chunk out of each. The runway
was exonerated and Boss man Alex Smith was happy again.
Pleased to say there were no more accidents although more and more aircraft
were being used to fly in supplies. The island couldn't yet be used as a staging
post for regular passenger flights because all the required navigational aids
were not operable, neither was adequate available accommodation and facilities
should a stop over be necessary.
The time for me to leave Gan was getting near and thoughts turned to the events
on the island during the last two years and how it has affected the local
people. My lasting memory is the absolute friendliness of the Maldivians in
the early days, I am not a communist but the communal living of these people
certainly evoked an attitude of share and share alike and help thy neighbour.
Now, two years later how are they? Their island is wrecked for ever - although
as a staging post it had soon outlived. its usefulness due to more modern
and longer ranged aircraft - they were displaced to another island, provided
with houses quite unfitted to their way of life and which they didn't use,
changed their attitudes to one another to the extent they took what they could
for themselves, not for each other, much more 'What's mine is mine`, the fall
out from our western ways, does that sound
cynical? No, it is what seems to happen all over the world in the name of
progress. I have no idea what is happening on Gan now, maybe it is a holiday
resort and as such can I suppose provide something for the islanders.
There was one final little twist before I left I received notification that
a booking had been made for Les Chalk and me on a flight leaving Katunayake,
Ceylon on 22nd September 1959. Unfortunately Boss man Alex Smith had, over
the past few weeks, due to the pressure of the job, become rather difficult
to deal with and one night after he had had a few drinks, I was talking to
him about my leaving the island in time to catch the flight from Ceylon on
22nd September 1959. He thought about for a few minutes then said "You
are not tour ex until 241h, September and you are not leaving the island before
The next day he wrote a letter to RAF Movements pointing out that he "had
requested a booking be made for Mr.R.Halfacre departing Gan on 24th September
or, first available aircraft thereafter and the booking made for Mr.R.Halfacre
on 22nd September from Ceylon was unacceptable." He went on "To
save him considerable embarrassment in the future, please make arrangements
in accordance with my instructions. " Despite all that fuss Les and I
left Gan in time to catch the flight on 22nd September - but we didn't make
it! As I will explain later.
Les and I had our farewell party in the mess, said our farewells and were
carried aboard a D.C.3 (Dakota) which fortunately had a couple of beds as
well as seats. The pilot did a low circuit of the island for our benefit before
heading for Ceylon and Gan, that slab of concrete, gradually vanished in the
So finally I arrived at Milford on Sea, surprising everyone because no one
had any idea where I was. After a few days we returned to Launceston to await
knowledge of where I was to be posted next. Not long to wait, I reported for
duty at EQ Coastal Command on 5 .October 1959 to work for the Chief Engineer.
That didn't last very long because on 30t1~November 1959 I was transferred
to No. 10 Works Area at RNF.Station Ruislip but only until February 1960
when I was transferred to No.6 Works Area, Exeter there to remain until 1963.
No more overseas postings despite requests for tours of duty on different
Pacific Ocean islands such as Gilbert and Ellis, but no luck.
I would like to finish with just one more verse from the ballad 'Desert Island
they call Gan'.
"When I return to my motherland,
And leave behind all the sweat and sand.
I'll wish the clowns who on Gan are stuck
The very best of British luck!"