- A Short History
by Alistair Currah (courtesy
of Doug Herbertson)
With great sadness I have to report the death of Doug Herbertson on
1st March 2001 after a long illness. When I first started this project,
I really didn't know how much enthusiasm there would be for it, but upon
meeting fellows like Doug, I knew it would be worthwhile. He remembered
his time on Gan with great fondness, and the long typewritten tale he
did for me about his time on Gan and Hittadu, and about his ramblings
in the G.I.P, were so descriptive and colourful I knew that a website
would be a worthwhile project. Thank you Doug for infecting me with your
enthusiasm. Rest In Peace.
Gan of the Maldives. Some time ago, I met a chap
called Doug Herbertson at his home in Warminster, Wilts. He was
an ex Gannite, ex Hittadu Hermit to be precise, and he wished to
lend me his slides and a couple of Gan Island Posts to help with
my project. He also gave me a many worded, detailed essay of his
time on Hittadu. Excellent stuff! The most intriguing thing he
gave me however was a dog eared book. This book, completely
anonymous on the outside, was called "In The East My Pleasure"
and was by J. Alan Thompson. It was published in 1949 and the
publisher was Andrew Dakars of London. Now I have to say here
that the writing style was virtually unintelligible, and I
cannot say that I have read the whole book. But Doug pointed out
a few pages that were of interest. They relate to a British
soldier posted to Addu during WW11 and here are one or two
"...... The guarding islands burst from the clutching waves
with names to be branded upon our empty tongues, lovely and evil
names, the names of serpents. Gan, Willingilli, Hittadu, Maradu,
Midu, Fedu, Heratera. Scene for an episode of sweat, disease and
dismal dying. Sleek cocoon for the waiting typhus born of the
angered rats brought to earth from the crashing jungle palms.
There are no crosses, no romantic helmets resting on the soggy
cross-piece. The sea, the anatomist, dissected with blunt knives
our canvas covered comrades. The red equator cut across the
atoll water. Figures without shadows, sexual Peter Pans. Our
anchor trailed the depth of the atoll......"
"...... On Gan of the Maldives we fought the jungle and the
sweeping rain for space and breath. The white tents hugged the
shore, bound by the lifting glare from the brilliant coral sand.
The trees dipped. Husks of coconuts bred our death. Our leather
became a brown, pulpy paste. The locks rotted and fell from our
mouldering baggage. The coral sand launched a cankering invasion
of the human ear. No animal lived, no crop breathed, the fish
swam deep. Only the coconut thrived....."
"..... Tinned salmon, bully beef, tea. For months.
Appetizing, nourishing, sustaining. Cold and tepid. Covered with
our breeding flies. Seething and copulating on the open tin.
Rags and handkerchiefs salt with sweat, the crutch cold and
damp, the blistered armpits, forehead a-rash with ceaseless
itch. Prickly heat marching round the body in thickening red
columns. Tinned salmon, bully beef, tea. And no mail......"
And so the book rambled on. Addu atoll in 1942 was a far
different kettle of fish to what it became later. The atoll,
together with Kelaa in the north of the Maldive chain, was a
major refuelling point for allied shipping during the War. Addu,
a top secret base known as Port "T", was heavily defended.
Nearly all the islands had gun emplacements and were linked,
apparently, by a light railway built on causeways. Cruisers,
troopships, battleships and aircraft carriers were frequent
visitors. Radar and Radio were installed. Catalinas and
Sunderlands constantly flew missions from the lagoon.
Plans were drawn up for airfields on Gan and Midu in the latter
part of 1942 for the Fleet Air Arm. For unknown reasons, one was
never built on Midu, but on Gan 3 runways were constructed from
crushed coral. These rudimentary runways handled a lot of
traffic, mainly search and rescue Walruses, and Dakotas.
Submarine hunting in the mid Indian Ocean was also a major
activity, using Liberators and Catalinas.
One fellow, Jack Burgess, recalls going after German U boat
U/862. After the success of ENIGMA in the Atlantic, many of
these craft were sent elsewhere to seek new targets. The Indian
Ocean proved to be a happy hunting ground for them. Jack, in a
160 Sqn Liberator, was sent with two others to Addu to try to
intercept U/862 before it reached its destination, Penang. The
three Lib crews were warned that Gan had very short runways,
leaving absolutely no room for error. Two of the Libs landed OK,
but the other hit a navigation light on coming in to land, and
ripped its bomb bay doors off, rendering it unserviceable.
Unfortunately U/862 got away, There was just too much ocean and
only two Libs to cover it, an impossible task. After eight days
at Addu, Sqn Ldr Stacey and Jack stayed behind to patch up the
u/s aircraft, which was achieved using corrugated sheeting! Upon
returning to their base at Ratmalana, Ceylon, the Liberator was
found to be more seriously damaged than at first thought, and
was declared a write-off. Liberators were also regularly flown
from Gan on Meteorological flights.
The atoll luckily escaped major attack during the War, the only
real casualty being the "British Loyalty", a ship that had
called in for fuel and was subsequently torpedoed .A high flying
aircraft had been spotted over the lagoon a week previously, and
although searches were made by aircraft from Gan, it wasn't
found. But days later, a Japanese submarine spotted a gap in the
anti torpedo nets and firing diagonally, hit the ship. The
attack, at night, woke the entire atoll with the explosion.
Luckily no one was killed, but the ship was badly damaged. It
remained at anchor until after the war, when it was towed
south-east of Hittadu and scuttled. Today the ship is a diving
The Maldivians, for their part, found the whole thing very
exciting. Normally very much a backwater as far as world affairs
were concerned, the horrors of a World War would seem very
distant to them. For most of the time, their idea of WW11 were
of men with fantastic gleaming noisy machines roaring out of the
sky, and huge ships steaming constantly in and out of the
lagoon. The dreadful inhumanities of the European and Far East
war was to them, virtually non existent. It could be assumed
that they were very unwilling to be drawn into a war that didn't
concern them. But it must be remembered that the Maldive Islands
were a British Protectorate at the time, and they felt very
loyal to Britain. Whatever they could do to help, they willingly
British Forces straddled the Maldives, having bases not only in
Addu in the South, Kelaa in the North, but also a refuelling
point for seaplanes at Male, the capital. To the British
serviceman however, Addu was a hateful place. Re-supplies were
always late and mail virtually non existent. Most of the War
passed Addu by, and those based there spent most of the time
bored rigid, struggling to keep dry and above all, disease free
in the steamy tropical jungle. Amenities were virtually nil. The
RAF, when they came back in `57, realized that to post
servicemen there, there had to at least be something to occupy
the mind, so sports and pastimes were introduced. These were
expanded as the years went on. Hardly any such thing existed for
the poor wretches sent there during the war. It was a thoroughly
disliked, unremembered posting, and deservedly so.
Gan was closed in March `45 although American B-25`s used it
occasionally, without British permission, for a few more months.
By the end of the year there was no Western presence anywhere in
Add atoll, and the Adduans were left again to their peaceful
existence, far from the world's gaze. The peace didn't last long