|The Maldive Islands, collectively one of the most desirable holiday destinations
in the world, were virtually unknown in the West up until the 1950s. Not one
of the twelve hundred islands was a holiday resort then, and it is unlikely
that any of them would be even now had it not been for events occurring beyond
the shores and influence of the Maldives themselves.
In the 1950s, the Maldivian people were living in a time warp, scraping a
living from fishing and coir production as they had done for centuries. They
were, if not entirely happy, settled in their ways and not seeking to change
anything. And despite their remoteness and apparent vulnerability, they lived
in relative security as a British Protectorate.
Then, in 1956, two events occurred which signalled a complete change in lifestyle
for many Maldivians. The first was the election of Colonel Nasser as President
of Egypt; the second, and by far the more significant, was the election of
Solomon Bandaranaike as Prime Minister of Ceylon. Both men were staunch nationalists,
and both were opposed to the idea of any foreign military presence in their
Nasser stirred up hornets' nest when he nationalised the Suez Canal. The
Suez Crisis, as it came to be known, led to the banning of British aircraft
from over-flying Egypt and Syria, thus cutting off a major east-west route.
Up until then, Bandaranaike had been amenable to Britain retaining military
bases in Ceylon, but after an Anglo-French attack on Egypt, he became fearful
that bases in his country might be used to launch other military attacks.
He therefore exercised his rights under a treaty of 1947 to demand that Britain
relinquish all her bases in Ceylon, including the airfield at Katunayake.
This demand, when met, would effectively cut off all routes across the Indian
Ocean for British aircraft.
Britain had a major problem. No aircraft could fly non-stop over the Indian
Ocean, so it was essential to find a re-fuelling station, or staging post,
to replace Katunayake. Britain's attention turned immediately to the island
of Gan in Addu Atoll, the most southerly island in the Maldives. It had been
a naval base during the Second World War, and was considered to be available
because a 1953 treaty gave the British Government the option to re-activate
Gan in case of emergency. This they decided to do. But the obscene haste with
which they sought to do it led to a debacle out of which neither the British
nor the Maldivian governments emerged with any credit.
The British Government was well aware that if the Maldivian Government adopted
the same neutralist stand intimated by India and now demonstrated by Ceylon,
they would have no hope of being permitted to set up a staging post on Gan.
They had to act fast, before India and Ceylon became aware of their intentions
and lodged protests with the United Nations. So, in mid-December, 1956, the
British Deputy High Commissioner in Ceylon flew to Male, capital of the Maldives,
to negotiate terms for the lease of Gan with the Maldivian Prime Minister,
Ibrahim Ali Didi.
Fortunately for Britain, Mr. Didi was pro-British and saw British occupation
of Gan as a good economic proposition for the Maldives. But he could have
capitalised on Britain's urgency, had he been aware of it, and negotiated
much better terms. The annual rental agreed for the island for example was
a derisory £2000. But Didi gave his blessing without putting the proposition
to his own government, an error of judgement that the British seized upon
without delay and sent in a works party to Gan.
When the Maldivian Government learned of Didi's deal and Britain's fait accompli
they were outraged. They began to plot against Didi and, early in 1958, when
Didi returned from a meeting with the RAF on Gan he was summarily dismissed.
The new Prime Minister, Ibrahim Nasir, immediately declared the treaty agreed
by Didi invalid as it had not been ratified by the Maldivian Parliament. He
demanded that Britain withdraw from Gan. Britain refused, declaring that the
treaty with Didi was legal.
Throughout 1958, while the two governments argued over the terms of the agreement,
the people of Addu Atoll revelled in their good fortune. They abandoned their
traditional trades to earn much more by working for the RAF. The money to
pay them was passed by Britain to the Maldivian Government, who, at their
office on Gan, paid the men on presentation of a chitty recording what was
due to them. But, as negotiations were getting nowhere, the Maldivian Government
decided to put pressure on the British Government by withdrawing local labour.
Towards the end of 1958, they sent their representative in Ceylon, Ahmed Zaki,
to speak to the Adduan workers on Gan.
On January 2nd, 1959, Zaki addressed the Adduans. He announced substantial
tax increases and ordered them to cease working for the RAF. The Adduans immediately
rioted. The government office was ransacked and burned to the ground. Zaki
had to be rescued by the RAF and flown to Ceylon.
The next day, the people of Addu unanimously voted to break away from their
Male masters and form their own republic. It would be called The Adduan People's
Republic. Their new president was atoll headman, Abdulla Afif Didi. On 19th
January 1959, Afif wrote to Queen Elizabeth asking her to recognise the new
Afif, who was a hero in Addu, was quite the opposite in Male, where he had
been convicted for plotting to overthrow the Maldivian Government during the
Second World War. His punishment for this had been seven years in isolation
on a small island, during which time he saw only the people who brought him
food by boat.
It soon became clear that it was not just Addu Atoll's present grievances
that brought about the rebellion, because almost immediately the rebel republic
was formed, the neighbouring island of Fua Mulaku and the nearest atoll Suvadiva,
joined forces with Addu. Neither of them had anything to do with the RAF or
Gan. The enhanced republic was re-named The United Suvadiva Islands. All three
communities claimed to have suffered from neglect and ill treatment at the
hands of the Maldivian Government for many years. Unfortunately, it was the
presence of the RAF on Gan that gave them the courage to rebel, and the Maldivian
Government accused the RAF of fomenting the rebellion.
The Maldivian Government's first act of retaliation was to stop shipments
of food to the rebel islands. But when 33 deaths from starvation in Suvadiva
Atoll were reported in March 1959, the British Government sent a shipment
of rice to the starving atoll, and built up stocks of food in Addu. This was
considered by the British as a humanitarian act, but by the Maldivian Government
as interference in their internal affairs.
It was at this stage in the political quagmire that I arrived in Addu Atoll.
I was a member of a party of around eighty, detailed to install wireless and
radar equipment for the new transit station. We touched down on Gan at 10.30am,
10th March 1959. At that time, we were blissfully unaware of any problems.
When I arrived, the island was just one big construction site. It had been
stripped of vegetation, apart from some palms and bougainvillaea along the
beachheads and of course in the area of the still inhabited Gan village. The
partly built runway extended from the eastern end of the island to a point
some yards west of the apron. It was just long enough to cater for twin-engined
aircraft such as the Dakota and the Valetta, typical RAF workhorses of that
era. My party arrived aboard Valettas, popularly known as 'pigs' because of
their dumpy profile.
Apart from us, the island was the temporary home for a group from the Signals
Regiment, a number of European tradesmen and around 1200 Pakistani workers
employed by the main contractor, Costain. There were also representatives
of the Ministry of Public Works and a small group of specialists from Marconi.
Unskilled labour was provided by around 500 Adduan men, most of who sailed
in from the other islands every day.
The runway was the only part of the island with a finished surface. The main
road was crushed coral and very bumpy, as we discovered when our steel-canopied
truck carried us from the apron to Station Headquarters to register. In the
heat of the day it was like travelling in an oven. By the time we had collected
our bedding and mosquito nets from the store we were lathered in sweat and
desperate for a shower. It was a relief to learn that our next and final stop
for the day would be our living quarters.
We thought it was a joke at first when the truck drew up outside a series
of long huts, built of interwoven palm fronds and roofed with rusty corrugated
iron. But we were home. Basic as some of the RAF accommodation we'd experienced
so far had been, nothing could compare with this. The huts, we were told,
were called kadjans.
Inside, each kadjan was partitioned into about six rooms, each containing
four bunks. There were no doors or windows, just gaps in the walls. The partitions
themselves were about two metres high, as were the outside walls. This of
course was good for air circulation, as there were no fans. A single electricity
bulb hung from the rafters in the middle of each room, and one power socket
was fixed to the 'window' wall. The floor was rough, unsealed concrete.
When we'd made our beds and slung up our individual mosquito nets, we realised
that there was no other furniture - no lockers; no tables; no chairs. We asked
where they were and were told either on a ship on the high seas or still in
the UK. In the meantime, we had to make our own from discarded crates available
from the stores compound.
So began out stay in the kadjans. We borrowed a truck and collected a series
of plywood and plain wood crates from the stores, booked out saws, hammers,
jemmies and screwdrivers, and set to work. Soon we had a crude table, stools
and lockers of sorts in each room. It was several weeks before we got proper
Our wash room was in a prefabricated building at the top of the beach behind
the kadjans. It contained along one wall six showerheads, and along the opposite
wall about ten wash-hand basins. It was very basic. Water from the wash-hand
basins and showers was channelled through holes in the wall to soak away on
the beach. There was no hot water. With eighty of us trying to use it first
thing in the morning it could be very crowded.
But the best was yet to come - the toilet blocks. There were three of them,
on the opposite side of the road from the kadjans. They were built of concrete.
Openings at each end were linked by a narrow corridor, which passed a series
of doorless cubicles each containing a chemical toilet. Lying on the floor
was a large pump action spray containing DDT. We soon learned what that was
for. Before using one of the cubicles, it was advisable to spray it liberally
with DDT to combat bluebottles during the day and mosquitoes at night. You
can be sure that no one spent longer in there than was absolutely necessary.
Periodically, full toilet buckets were picked up by a squad of Pakistani
labourers and emptied into a container lorry. The lip of the container was
above head height, and it was quite a feat to lift a heavy bucket and empty
it cleanly. One of the Pakistani labourers, full of fun and quite athletic,
used to empty each bucket, then, if there was an audience, turn cartwheels
back to the toilet block, still carrying the dripping bucket. I wouldn't have
relished sharing accommodation with him!
In the kadjans, we soon got weary of the rough concrete floor, mainly because
grit was carried on bare feet into bed. The only time this didn't happen was
during spring tides, when we waded to bed through a couple of inches of water.
We asked at the store for bed mats and were told that the only bed mats on
the island were in the Senior NCO's quarters. We stole them that night while
all the Senior NCOs were at their mess. It says a lot for them that they did
not chase us to get them back.
The airmen's mess had seen better days. The mosquito netting was metal and
much of it had rotted away, so dining meant competing with flies for the contents
of your plate. At breakfast we were a bit wary of funny little brown things
in the corn flakes. At first we carefully spooned them out, but as time went
by, we just ate them along with the flakes. I still don't know what they were.
The NAAFI was a quaint kadjan building with a thatched roof. It contained
an assortment of rickety tables and chairs, including a table made from a
barrel bearing the legend, 'Malcolm Club, Singapore.' The bar was a simple
plywood counter, and an out-of-tune piano graced one of the corners. I played
it occasionally when we had 'skiffle' nights. The other instruments would
be a guitar, and a double base made from a wooden crate, a broom handle and
a piece of string. There were no glasses in the NAAFI, so one drank straight
from the bottle or can, much as the trendy set do now - only we were first!
We had no imported soft drinks, so the NAAFI made lemonade and sold it in
small bottles. They never really mastered the quantity of fizz to put in it,
however, and there were many instances of bottles exploding. The situation
was considered serious enough to prompt an instruction in Station Standing
Orders, to the effect that these bottles must not be carried in pockets!
The NAAFI also ran a shop on Gan. It sold mainly cameras, books, shirts,
sweets, cigarettes and toiletries. No item could be removed from the shop
until fully paid for. Despite this, I had a nasty letter from the NAAFI in
London demanding that I pay an outstanding debt on my camera. As far as I
was concerned, there was no outstanding debt. I had paid a deposit, then,
thanks to a loan from a colleague, paid the remainder the following day and
collected the camera.
Quite annoyed by the letter, I went to the shop and showed the manager, a
particularly nasty, arrogant little man, my receipts. He pointed out that
the statement for the deposit was an invoice, not a receipt, and was no proof
of payment. He was adamant that I return the camera or pay up. I refused,
and reported the matter to my Flight Sergeant.
Within an hour, my Flight Sergeant came to me and said that the matter was
cleared up, and to forget it. I later heard that the NAAFI manager had been
told that if he bothered me again, he would be shipped back to the UK on the
first cargo boat. Shortly afterwards, a Sinhalese member of staff was sacked
The only other place of entertainment was the 'Astra.' The Astra, as on every
RAF station throughout the world, was of course, the cinema. The Astra on
Gan had the distinction of sharing a roof with the large electricity generators
that powered the island. It was partitioned off from the generators by a concrete
block wall with the projector house built in. The outside wall opposite supported
the screen on a frame. The wall was around three metres high, so in addition
to watching a film, one could see the stars. When it was windy, the screen
wobbled, and when it rained, waterproof clothing was essential.
The most picturesque building on Gan at the time was the Post Office. It
was a busy little place, handling the constant stream of letters to and from
the UK. One common gift sent home was a coconut, straight from the palm. The
home address was usually painted on and the awkwardly shaped 'parcel' sent
off, no doubt to be cursed by the poor postman delivering it in the UK.
Sick Quarters was situated just east of the kadjans, on the other side of
a monsoon ditch designed to drain water from the apron. It was a dark green
prefabricated building, and was run by two young medical officers, assisted
by two medical orderlies. Because of the nature of life on Gan, being unable
to work because of a hangover was not treated as a crime. Anyone with a hangover
need only report to sick quarters, where a thick white mixture made by the
medics would be offered in a small glass. It worked splendidly.
The main ailments on Gan were tinea, athletes' foot and prickly heat. Practically
everybody had a tin of Mycota powder and a tube of Aureomycin by their bed.
When it rained, a favourite activity of prickly heat sufferers was to lie
in the nearby monsoon ditch and let the rain water wash over them. It helped.
Less common, but the reason for some lads being repatriated, was an affliction
known as Gan ear. It was a very painful condition and common all over Southeast
Asia and the Far East, being named according to the geographical location
it was contracted.
As a precaution against malaria, which was common in the Maldives at the
time, we were encouraged to take a paladrin tablet every day. Salt tablets
were also freely available, but as we all spent a lot of time in the lagoon,
they were considered unnecessary and largely ignored.
During our first couple of weeks on the island, we picked up various tit-bits
of information about the political situation. But it didn't effect us directly
until 31st March, when at 3.15 am we were rudely awakened by banging on the
kadjan walls and yells of 'Everybody up!' Assuming the racket to be caused
by drunken colleagues, the language from the body of the kadjan was choice,
until it was realised that the commotion was being caused by our senior NCOs.
We were ordered to get dressed and board a truck, which whisked us off to
the guardroom. There we were given a short briefing about the proximity of
raiders from Male, issued with rifles and ammunition and told to load the
magazine, and, most alarming of all, to 'put one up the spout!' This meant
of course that there was a bullet in the breech and the weapon dangerous.
This was a mite perturbing, as we all knew that on Cyprus at the time, where
EOKA terrorists were active, the men guarding RAF stations carried unloaded
sten guns. It made us wonder what we were going to be up against. I remember
asking the warrant officer issuing the rifles if my safety catch was on or
off and he was quite perturbed. But we were, after all, technicians, not soldiers,
and had only fired a few rounds at basic training several months before.
With orders to protect only RAF property, and to ignore skirmishes between
locals and Male invaders, we spent the next few hours strolling round the
island in little groups. Nothing happened, and we were given the rest of the
day off. We were later addressed by our CO, who put us in the picture regarding
the situation. Well aware of our non-military background, he said of our overnight
adventure that we were more of a danger to ourselves than to anyone else,
and that we would all be given some training in weaponry as a matter of urgency.
True to his word, within a couple of days we were taken to the south side
of Gan, taught how to use a rifle, and given 25 rounds each to fire at a target.
But there was no immediate need to employ our newly acquired shooting skills.
Work went on as normal. In the control tower we ran miles of cable, installed
tons of equipment, and sweated gallons of liquid. There was no air conditioning
in the tower, and soldering thousands of connections in the control room consuls
was an onerous job, mostly down to me. I would work for about ten minutes,
then step out on to the roof to cool down in the breeze which mercifully seemed
to be a permanent feature there.
It was while on the roof one morning in July that I watched a Hastings approach
from the east. While still a few metres above the runway, the starboard wing
dipped and the aircraft dropped suddenly. The starboard wheel hit the ground
hard and, as the aircraft bounced, the undercarriage collapsed. The Hastings
hit the ground again, and slithered along the runway on one wheel and a wing
tip before slewing off into the rough coral and disappearing in a cloud of
coral dust. The dust hadn't settled when the passengers and crew leapt out
and ran. But it didn't catch fire and nobody was hurt. The Hastings, however,
was a write-off. The starboard wing tip was twisted, as were the propellers.
After useful parts were removed, it was blown up and dropped over the reef.
The accident brought to light a phenomenon regarding the runway. It was almost
pure white, and shimmered in the heat. Anyone looking along it at ground level
and seeing anyone else crossing it further along, would have the impression
that the other person was walking about five metres above the ground. To combat
this impression, a broken black line was drawn down the middle of the runway
from end to end.
Off duty, time did drag a bit at times, so I was delighted to be invited
to sick quarters on the occasion of one of the orderly's birthdays. The bloke
himself went off to collect roast chicken etc. prepared by the mess, while
we sat in the moonlight, supping cans of lager. Unfortunately, he was very
popular, and was waylaid and plied with drink in the NAAFI before being carried
back to sick quarters and put to bed. We had a good time without him, the
party degenerating into a fire-extinguisher battle between two factions, each
headed by a Medical Officer. In the morning, the dark green of the sick quarter's
walls was splattered with white streaks of foam, and empty extinguishers lay
all over the place.
The main contractor, Costain, had its own club, called the 'Legs of Gan.'
Above the door was a replica of the three-legged symbol of the Isle of Man.
The club had a bar and a casino and entry was by invitation only. One night,
I was invited there along with the medics. Before going, I was asked by one
of our corporals to bring back a glass of sherry, as this was not available
anywhere else. I agreed. I had a great night out, then, just before leaving,
I ordered a glass of sherry. As I left, the bartender told me that I had to
drink it or pour it out, as nobody was allowed to remove glasses from the
club. As I pleaded with him, promising to return the glass in the morning,
one of the MOs drove up behind me in his Landrover, skidded to a halt and
yelled for me to jump in. I did, of course, and we sped off, complete with
the glass of sherry. This was about 3am, and, strangely enough, the corporal
who had asked for it did not show much enthusiasm for it when I wakened him!
The only other visit I had to the Legs of Gan, was when Marconi invited eighty
of us to free drinks from 8pm to midnight. Many of the lads didn't make it
back to the kadjans, and were found in the morning sleeping on the beach,
on the oil pipes and even in the toilet blocks. Some hangovers lasted for
Next to snorkelling, my main leisure pursuit was sailing. The RAF had two
fourteen-foot dinghies, which I sailed regularly, but many of the lads built
their own boats and canoes. These were crude affairs made from the ubiquitous
crates. Many of the lovingly assembled craft never reached the water. Many
of those that did were found to be unstable. At least one of them came to
grief on the reef in Gan channel, prompting action stations for the rescue
One Sunday morning, I turned up at the sailing club to find my Pilot Officer
and six other officers standing on the shore. The Pilot Officer was the only
one of them who could helm. As I also was a helmsman, he asked if I would
take three of his friends out. Of course I agreed. He pointed out to the officers
that while in the boat, I was in charge, so off we went. When out on the lagoon,
one of the officers, a medic, said that it would be great to land on Wilingili.
One of the other officers reminded him that it was out of bounds, so I said
that the shrouds were a bit slack, and suggested we put into Wilingili as
an emergency to tighten them. This could easily have been done at sea had
it actually been necessary, but they didn't know that. As we approached the
reef, the medic leant over the bows to warn of hazards and we landed.
At that time, Wilingili was a prison island. Everyone on it was a convicted
criminal, working on the coconut plantation there. They had no means whatever
of getting off. As soon as we hit the shoreline, a crowd of them emerged from
the trees to greet us, delighted to have friendly visitors. They asked for
cigarettes, which my colleagues gave them. I didn't smoke. Young men shinned
up palm trees and threw down coconuts, cutting the tops off some of them for
us to drink, and throwing the rest in the boat. We spent a few minutes there,
then sailed off again.
On occasions when there were supply ships in the lagoon, my mates and I would
take a dinghy out and sail the length of the vessel, yelling, "Go home,
Eengleesh peegs!" The response was usually a shower of potatoes, which
we usually managed to dodge. On one of these occasions, I got too close to
the ship and was becalmed in its lee. As the current swept us along, the dinghy
came so dangerously close to the massive steel hull that all three of us aboard
had to sit on the port gunwale and lean outwards to prevent our mast coming
into contact with the overhanging bows of the ship. On this occasion, we were
not showered with potatoes, but got a cheer from the crew as we sailed into
Despite having access to the dinghies, I eventually teamed up with one of
the medical orderlies and set out to build a catamaran. But after finishing
one hull, we became bored with it and decided a second hull would be too much
work and substituted an out-rigger. To seal all the joints, we helped ourselves
to a partly used barrel of bitumen and melted it over a fire behind sick quarters.
Paint was obtained in the same way, and all the boats ended up being the same
colour as the oil pipes, which ran past the kadjans on route from the jetty
to the fuel storage tanks.
When the boat was finished, we looked around for a mast and sails. An old
flagpole seemed suitable, so after dark, we cut it down. Unfortunately, it
proved to be too short. In the end, the sails and mast were made from a tent
and its pole liberated one night from the stores compound. The heat of the
sun caused the hull to develop a warp, so we named her 'Twisted Liz.' We had
one short trip aboard 'Twisted Liz,' then she was washed away in an overnight
Life in the kadjans was noisy, but generally good-natured and a lot of fun.
We would play cards, the favourite game being canasta, put on slide-shows
of our latest pictures, and have the occasional party. One of our sergeants
started to teach some of us to play drums. We had drumsticks sent out from
home, and practised on a piece of polythene stretched over a small wooden
box. This was less than popular with our colleagues, and we knew it was time
to stop when occupants of neighbouring kadjans hurled rocks on to our roof.
One of the lads started to teach others the art of ju-jitsu in the square
of ground bounded by the kadjans. A practise mat was made from mattresses
laid on the ground and a tent flysheet stretched over the top. It was soft
to fall on, but there was always creases, which resulted in injuries such
as broken toes and fingers. It was decided that self-defence was too dangerous
and the mat was dismantled.
There was no place one could have a snack or a coffee at night, so we made
our own 'immersion heaters.' These consisted of a couple of six-inch nails
driven about 50mm apart through a short piece of wood. Electricity cable was
then fixed to the nail heads. The nails would be immersed in a mug of water,
a tin of soup, frankfurter sausages or whatever was available, so that the
wood rested on the top. The loose ends of the cable would then be eased into
a power socket and wedged with matches. Everybody would keep clear, and the
electricity would be switched on. Within seconds, the contents of the tin
would be hot and ready for consumption. The electricity would then be switched
off and the contraption removed.
Some of the electricians took this arrangement a bit further. As an experiment,
they filled an oil drum with water, made a large-scale replica of our heater,
using two thick copper rods and a plank of timber, and connected the heater
to a large fuse in the generator shed. It took a couple of minutes to get
the water hot, during which time all the lights on Gan dimmed!
As you will no doubt be aware, there is a great variety of insects to be
found on Gan - most of them find you first! It was quite common of an evening
for huge coconut beetles to fly into the kadjans, attracted by the light.
Some were so large and noisy that we likened them to wartime bombers.
One of my roommates started a collection of these and other large insects.
He made a shallow box for them and pinned them neatly inside. On the lid was
printed, 'Paul's Bug Box,' and he kept it on the locker by his bed. We were
due a CO's inspection one morning, so, for a bit of fun, we decided to give
the CO or any of his entourage who touched the box a fright.
We took a round piece of ply, about 40 mm in diameter, and drilled two holes
through it so that it resembled a button, a piece of wire and a rubber band.
The band was threaded through the holes in the ply and attached to the ends
of the wire, which had been bent into a U shape. The ply was then turned several
times so that if released it would spin back to its rest position. The contraption
was put into the bug box, held down with a ruler until the lid was down, and
left to await results.
As anticipated, the CO was curious about what might be in the box, so lifted
the lid. He let it drop sharply at the loud rattle as the button was released.
Fortunately, he had a good sense of humour. Our new Station Warrant Officer
didn't however. The day before the CO's inspection, he had visited the kadjans
and ordered us to remove all our girlie pin-up pictures before the CO's visit.
We were annoyed about this, but complied. The first thing the CO asked on
entering the kadjan was where the pin-ups had gone. When we told him, he immediately
told us to get them back up again, remarking that they were the only things
worth looking at in the kadjans.
In addition to pin-up pictures, the wall of almost every bed space sported
a 'chuff chart.' The chuff chart took various forms, but in every case had
a small square representing each day of the year we expected to be on Gan.
As each day passed, the corresponding square was crossed out, the idea being
that when all the squares had been crossed out, we would be on our way home
Crates of equipment kept arriving by the shipload. It was our job to unpack
them and install the contents in the various communications establishments.
One afternoon, while we were off duty and relaxing in our kadjan in civilian
clothes, a fresh young sergeant, recently out from the UK, stormed into our
kadjan and ordered us to board a truck. When we objected, he became even more
officious and said that a delivery of crates was lying out in the open and
had to be covered with tarpaulins as a squall was imminent. Despite our efforts
to convince him that the crates were all well protected against dampness,
we ended up at the three-meter high pile of crates.
As we struggled in the rising wind to throw the tarpaulins over the crates,
the sergeant climbed to the top of the heap and pulled them into position.
He then told us to throw stones up to anchor the tarpaulins. We couldn't believe
our luck. This naïve individual was effectively offering a bunch of angry
and disgruntled young men a means of revenge. With sudden enthusiasm we started
lobbing rocks up to him. Well, at him, actually. Hits, of course, were always
followed by apologies. He must have been covered with bruises at the end of
it, and he never bothered us again. In fact as time went by he became a very
For a few months we heard little or nothing about the political situation.
Then on 5th August, this time at 5am, we again found ourselves down at the
guardroom collecting rifles and ammunition. Apparently, a Maldivian Government
buggalo had been spotted off Hitaddu. This time, some of our lads had to board
the LCM (landing craft marine) which was normally used to transport equipment
and men to and from the transmitter station on Hitaddu. They were taken to
Hitaddu, where, in true marine style, the front of the craft dropped in the
shallows and the men were ordered to wade ashore.
One of my mates, a bit wiser than the rest, anticipated this, so stripped
naked, wrapped his clothes round his rifle and held the lot above his head
as he waded ashore. Once high and dry, he rubbed most of the water off himself
and put his clothes on again. For the rest of the night, while the rest suffered
the discomfort of wet clothes, he stayed warm and comfortable.
Two dhonies and 60 Male men were captured that night on Hitaddu. They admitted
to being a sort of fifth column, and were armed with nothing more sinister
than limes, which, we were told, were to be cut open and squirted in to the
eyes of sleeping Adduans in a sort of terror campaign.
We later learned that this had been part of an offensive that had seen the
recapture of Suvadiva and Fua Mulaku. Some of the rebels had been killed,
others flogged, some 500 deported and the ringleaders captured and jailed
in Male. In order to weaken Suvadiva Atoll, it was divided into two administration
districts and remains so today. Addu now stood alone, and The United Suvadiva
Islands reverted to its original status as the Adduan People's Republic.
Tackling Suvadiva and Fua Mulaku was one thing, but Addu quite another. The
Male 'heavies' would be no match for the RAF, which, although forbidden to
side with the rebels against a government which by treaty was under British
protection, could not be expected to stand idly by if RAF property was endangered.
The Maldivian Government announced that it would charter three armed steamboats.
Britain responded to this threat by sending the famous Royal Naval destroyer
HMS Cavalier, two armed Shackletons and a Dakota to Addu. Also drafted in
was a 90 strong detachment of the Cheshire Regiment. They arrived in the middle
of the night, and dossed down in the mess. It was something of a surprise
turning up for breakfast to find squaddies sleeping on the tables and the
floor. Their weapons, everything from rifles to bazookas, were stacked against
Their stay was short, however, as the Maldivian Government objected to foreign
troops 'invading' the Maldives. The Cheshires were replaced by the RAF Regiment.
Still troops, of course, but evidently more acceptable because of their RAF
uniforms. All civilian and RAF personnel on Gan were given blood tests.
Work continued apace. All over the island, things were taking shape - new
accommodation blocks, a new NAAFI, a new mess, a hospital to cater for Adduans
as well as RAF personnel, and the runway completed. Sadly, the Gan village
was destroyed and the locals transferred to brand new houses on the neighbouring
island of Fedu.
The arrival of the Cheshires, RAF Regiment and the Royal Navy, surprisingly
enough, caused no friction whatsoever. We all got on very well. The NAAFI,
already stretched regarding accommodation, was often bursting at the seams.
On occasion, sailors would miss their liberty boat and spend the night in
the kadjans. They could sleep anywhere, those lads. One spent the night on
our table, legs hanging off one end, head lolling back off the other. Others
slumped in chairs, others on the floor.
Once, in the middle of the night, the navy came ashore and painted in large,
black letters on the white runway, 'RAF GAN. UNDER CARE AND PROTECTION OF
HM ROYAL NAVY.' The insult must have been visible from the moon! My colleagues
decided to retaliate by borrowing dhonies and sneaking out in the dark to
paint funny faces along the side of the ship. I tried to talk them out of
it, as I felt sure the navy would be prepared. But they insisted. I stayed
on shore. They rowed out to the ship, armed with cans of paint and brushes,
but, just as they were closing in, the ship's floodlights came on, searchlights
combed the water, and my colleagues were treated to buckets of slops and well-aimed
water sprays. They returned to Gan soaked and defeated. I didn't dare say,
'I told you so.'
On another occasion, sailors came to the kadjans with an open invitation
to go aboard HMS Cavalier and see the 'crossing of the line ceremony.' Everybody
declined except one, who went like a lamb to slaughter. As everybody else
had suspected, he wasn't invited aboard the ship to see the ceremony, but
to be the victim of it.
We had no resident padre on Gan, so it fell to the Singapore based cleric
to visit Gan periodically. A colleague and I used to go for a chat with him,
which led to us being invited to attend a moral leadership course on the island
of Blakang Mati (now Sentosa) off Singapore.
We jumped at the chance and a week before the start of the course took off
for Singapore, with strict instructions to report to Air Movements at Changi
on arrival in order to book a return flight.
On arrival in Changi, we decided to 'forget' to report to Air Movements.
(Moral leaders?) We enjoyed a week in Singapore, then a week attending the
course on Blakang Mati. Only then did we report to Air Movements. When told
that we should have booked in when we arrived in Singapore, we simply stated
that we hadn't been aware of that. So we spent another week in Singapore awaiting
On 15th August, the first ever jet airliner landed on Gan. It was the same
Comet that had taken us from the UK to Ceylon earlier in the year.
On 26th September, we moved from the kadjans to newly built accommodation
blocks. The airmen's blocks were not ready, so we were given temporary use
of accommodation intended for Senior NCOs. We were allocated two to a room,
myself sharing room 2, block 23. Even these rooms were not finished. We had
a cooling fan and a wash-hand basin, but there was no mosquito netting on
the windows or doors. Still, it was much better than the kadjans. Individual
showers with hot water, and flush toilets, were situated in the centre of
each block. Sheer luxury. On 8th December, we moved to the new airmen's blocks,
six to a room, in block 53.
As a rebel republic, Addu had severed its trading links with Male and set
out to trade directly with Ceylon. Their efforts were thwarted, however, when
Male blockaded the route north. Adduan ships were attacked, and all efforts
to trade had to be abandoned. This lead to the mothballing of their buggalos.
These fine ships were drawn out of the water and stored under cover.
With no outlet for their dried fish, at the time a delicacy in Ceylon, it
had to be stored. There was of course no refrigeration and the stored fish
began to rot. Soon there was an infestation of rats, followed by an epidemic
of dysentery. Many RAF lads ended up in sick quarters and at least one of
them had no need to be there. He was perfectly healthy and only went to visit
a colleague, but, despite his protests, he was kept in overnight. Sick Quarters
had never been built to hold many patients, so the nearby kadjans, recently
vacated by us, were turned into hospital wards.
The toilet blocks mentioned earlier could not cope, so rows of chemical toilets
were lined along the beachhead beside sick quarters. It was quite funny really.
There would be lads sitting on the toilets wishing they could get off, and
lads sitting on the ground beside them, wishing they could get on. In the
end, the stocks of dried fish had to be burned.
During this period, the RAF Police did a tremendous job. They patrolled the
accommodation blocks through the night, and if they saw a light on, checked
to see why. If it was because someone was ill, they would immediately run
them to sick quarters. The police were, in fact, very popular on Gan. One
of the songs, or chants, voiced in the NAAFI when the police called at closing
time, was, 'I'll sing you a song and it wont take long - all coppers are bastards!'
Invariably the duty cop would join in the song.
When we were still staying in the kadjans, there was an occasion when an
airman punched a corporal. Those who witnessed the event reckoned the corporal
deserved it, but the airman was charged and taken before the CO. The punishment
handed down was fourteen days confined to camp. Well, we were on an island.
Everybody was confined to camp. But, as in the UK, when one was confined to
camp, one had to report morning and evening to the guardroom. The guardroom
was at the opposite end of the island from the kadjans, so to save the miscreant
a walk, the police picked him up in the morning, took him to the guardroom,
then dropped him off at the mess for breakfast. In the evening, they would
again pick him up at the kadjan, take him to the guardroom, then drop him
off at the NAAFI, cinema, or wherever he wanted to go. It was obvious where
everybody's sympathies lay.
The Police Commanding Officer was a Flight Lieutenant. He was a tall, well
built man and while friendly, not the man to mess about. One night, the NAAFI
barman, called Mary, had closed the bar early in a fit of pique. This caused
an uproar, which was heard by the Lieutenant as he was passing in his Landrover.
He came in, asked what was wrong and checked his watch. He hammered on the
plywood panel put up to close the bar and yelled for Mary to open up or he'd
smash it down. Mary opened it immediately. The officer then told him to put
a crate of beer on the bar, paid for it, told us to drink up and left.
Our hierarchy on Gan was well aware of the lack of facilities available,
and at one point, our corporals approached the CO and said that they wanted
to complain. The CO explained that a group complaint might be construed as
mutiny, so advised the corporals to elect one of their number to write a letter.
This was done, and the CO forwarded the letter to the Air Ministry in London.
Back came a very indignant reply, castigating the corporal for his unjustified
complaint and pointing out that we had a swimming pool, tennis courts, a squash
court, football pitch etc. Of course we had none of these things. They appeared
on the plans for the future, but were still a long way off. Such was the ignorance
of our Air Ministry.
In an effort to make life a bit more interesting, our Flight Sergeant posted
lists on the wall of our local store in the control tower. We were asked to
add our names to lists of those interested in going for a flight in one of
the Shackletons, the Dakota, or for a trip on HMS Cavalier. The idea was that
names would be taken in order and the pilots or ship's captains involved be
approached officially. Personally, I had no faith in this proposal. I shunned
the lists and successfully scrounged flights in a Shackleton, twice in a Dakota,
and cruises aboard both HMS Cavalier and its replacement ship, the frigate
HMS Crane. All I did was approach the pilots, or in the case of the Royal
Navy, watch out for a naval officer, and ask. I reckon I had more outings
than anyone else did and as far as I know, nobody on any of the lists had
any trips at all.
When the new mess opened it was a tremendous improvement. It was light and
airy and sparklingly clean. Everybody was happy, except one corporal. Up until
then, corporals had mixed quite happily with airmen at mealtimes, but this
particular corporal felt that part of the mess should be cordoned off for
corporals only. He put his complaint to the Catering Officer, and that evening,
at dinner, part of the mess was cordoned off with a rope. A notice on a post
by the entrance to this area bore the legend, 'Corporals Only.' Everyone was
taken aback, especially the corporals, who ignored the area and sat with the
airmen as usual. Except, of course, the one who wanted to be exclusive. He
was, that night. He sat alone in his little corner. The cordon never appeared
Early in December, the new NAAFI opened. Its opening was delayed for a day
because on the night before its scheduled opening, a group of the lads decided
to hold a party to celebrate the closing down of the old one. They finished
up wrecking the place, so the NAAFI manager refused to open the new place
until the old one was tidied up again. This was done, and there were no recriminations.
The new premises were a vast improvement. Clean, spacious, well furnished,
and best of all served good meals.
Rumours abounded on Gan. Most of them turned out to be rubbish. One of my
mates and I decided to start one and see how far it got. Some time during
November we put out the story that we would all be going home for Christmas.
It was even more successful than we could have imagined. A week or so after
we started the rumour, our CO gathered us together in the control tower. He
told us he had heard from a reliable source that we would all be going home
for Christmas. We didn't.
As Christmas approached, we started collecting cans of beer etc. and decorating
our rooms. A couple of rooms were converted into bars, their occupants crushing
into neighbouring rooms for the duration. On one occasion, some sailors were
on shore celebrating the season with us. For a bit of fun, they swapped uniforms
with RAF lads. This was all right until their ship received an SOS signal
from north of Addu. The liberty boat was sent to collect the drunken sailors
and get them back to the ship. Unfortunately, they collected anyone in naval
uniform, putting any protest down to the effects of alcohol. The error wasn't
noticed until, well out to sea, the command, 'Action Stations!' was given.
Of course every station wasn't manned, and there was a handful of sheepish
'sailors' completely baffled. A signal to the police on Gan resulted in a
similar number of bearded men in RAF uniform being picked up there. The SOS
turned out to be a false alarm, and, as it was Christmas, the whole affair
Christmas Dinner was, traditionally, served by the officers and NCOs. It
was a good meal, although on the menu, the printers had managed to spell Gan
One of the highlights of the Christmas celebrations was a dhoni race between
the different RAF and Signals units and the Adduans on Boxing Day. The Adduans
won by several lengths. This was despite the fact that they were physically
much smaller and not so muscular as the competition. They were much more experienced
oarsmen, of course, but they had an even bigger advantage. When challenged
a few weeks earlier, they had secretly taken a dhoni out of the water, let
it dry out, then greased it. This meant that on the race day, it was a great
deal lighter than the dhonis hired out to the competition.
My own team dressed up as Vikings. They were so far down the field that they
abandoned the race and instead rammed and boarded the Senior NCOs' dhoni.
I wasn't with them. They had delegated me to take pictures because I had access
to a dinghy. Unfortunately, on the day, the dinghies were not allowed out.
In December, 1959, the Maldivian Government offered Britain Gan free of all
charges for 15 years, on condition they were allowed to enter Addu and arrest
Afif Didi and end the rebellion. Britain declined to accept the offer. At
the same time, Afif Didi announced that Britain should no longer be negotiating
with the Male Government, but with the Adduan People's Republic. Britain refused
to recognise the rebel republic.
I left Gan for home on 7th January 1960, aboard a Bristol Freighter.
Early in 1960, Britain agreed to a down payment of £100,000 followed
by £150,000 per annum for five years, and offered to attempt to bring
about some reconciliation between the rival Maldivian factions. But the reconciliation
failed because the Maldivian Government would not provide safe conduct for
a delegation from the rebel islands. In the end, despite being guaranteed
freedom from prosecution, Afif Didi left Addu for the Seychelles with his
family in October 1963. He made a short return visit to Addu in 1989, after
suffering a stroke.
In 1968, following a public referendum, the sultanate was abolished and the
Maldives was declared a republic. Ibrahim Nasir, who had been Prime Minister
since 1959, was elected president.
The RAF remained on Gan until 1976. By then, aircraft with the capacity to
overfly the Indian Ocean had been developed and there was no further need
for the Gan staging post. Sadly, when the RAF pulled out, the people of Addu
lost their main source of income. Young men, who in the past would have learned
traditional skills, had during the RAF presence been employed on a variety
of duties no longer available to them. The RAF hospital, whose facilities
and medical skills had been freely given, had also gone. It was a disaster.
One thing learned by the young Adduans, however, turned out to be a lifeline.
They had learned English. In North Male Atoll, where revenue from the lease
of Gan led to the opening of the first of the island holiday resorts in the
early 1970s, there was a shortage of English speaking people to work in the
resort hotels. This problem was solved by the recruitment of English speaking
Adduans. These Adduans continue to work in the northern resorts, and have
undoubtedly played a large part in building the tourist industry.
When the RAF left Gan, they left behind a viable airfield, a hospital, restaurants
and adaptable living accommodation, to say nothing of an English speaking
population. It would have been a logical step to develop the area as a holiday
resort right away. Unfortunately, logic did not enter the equation. Revenge
certainly did. President Ibrahim Nasir had never forgiven the Adduans for
their rebellion in 1959 and he had sworn vengeance. He had the island stripped
of all useful items such as generators and hospital equipment.
It is doubtful if Nasir gave a thought to the fact that if he had been able
to oust the RAF in 1959 as he wished, it is unlikely that the Maldivian economy
would have been as buoyant as it is today. Perhaps his predecessor as Prime
Minister, Ibrahim Ali Didi, could see further ahead than he could.
But it was not only the Adduans who suffered as a result of Nasir's despotism.
When it became clear that profits from the holiday industry inaugurated in
the North Male Atoll were not benefiting the population at large, there were
several revolts and demonstrations against Nasir's rule. These came to a climax
in 1974, when he ordered the police to open fire on a large crowd of protesters
in Male. His position became untenable, and in 1978, fearing for his life,
he fled to Singapore, taking with him a substantial amount of public money.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom succeeded him as President, and is still in office.
Under his leadership the holiday industry has prospered enormously, and, most
importantly from the Adduan point of view, old rivalries appear to have been
set aside. The people of Addu are at last being given the opportunity to benefit
directly from the tourist industry. It has taken time, but Nasir's vandalism
could not be repaired overnight. And it is good to see that the descendants
of those who suffered as a result of the 1959 rebellion have a bright future.
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