7 November 1960, two hundred and forty six people arrived at RAF Cardington
in Bedfordshire to commence their induction into the Royal Air Force. Of these,
123 were National Service conscripts - in fact the very last intake of the many
millions who had been conscripted since 1939. These last few of the many consisted
of a wide and varied cross-section of academic and social life. All of these
people had been deferred from National Service mainly for professional and educational
reasons but now their time had come. Scientists, engineers, teachers, musicians,
solicitor, pharmacist, vicar, meteorologist and a professional cyclist made
up the disconsolate group. From this group many firm and lasting friendships
were formed for it is true that you never have friends like the friends you
make in the Forces.
After ten days this group moved on to RAF Bridgnorth in Shropshire to commence
eight weeks of actual Basic Training and from there the 123 were split up
into different groups and posted to their respective Trade Training Units.
It is worth noting that between the arrival of this group in Bedfordshire
and up to their departure from Bridgnorth only three people joined the RAF
Focus now on our heroes Graham Barker (Welling, Kent) and Ken Hall (Stockton-on-Tees)
who had met at Cardington and were to spend the next eighteen months together
moving from Bridgnorth to the Number One Radio School at RAF Locking, near
Weston-super-Mare in Somerset and, following their training in Somerset, being
posted to RAF Gan - a small (very small) island in the Indian Ocean within
the Maldive islands chain.
The momentous journey to the Maldives was made even more significant by the
presence of a film crew immediately before take-off who were making a 'Look
At Life' film popular at the time as a filler between the B-movie and the
main feature film at cinemas of the day. This particular film was 'Look At
Life: Transport Command'. I never saw the film myself although my family all
went to see it at the local Odeon and my girlfriend saw it twice!
The flight to Gan was from RAF Lyneham in a Comet-2 making an overnight stop
at RAF El Adem in Libya. Sand, sand and more sand are the only memories of
El Adem. An opinion confirmed the next day when an almost scramble to take
off occurred in order to beat an approaching sand storm which, from the air,
could be seen continuing for hundreds of miles. Geography and maps were symbolic
and almost comical in that the flight ran down the western border of Egypt
and made a sharp, ninety degree left turn at 'Egyptian Corner' to make the
run across more desert, the Red Sea and into the Aden Protectorate landing
at RAF Khormaksar for a refuelling stop. After about a two hour stop, the
final leg of the journey was across the Indian Ocean for 2,142 miles before
landing at about ten o'clock in the evening at RAF Gan. If we had known at
the time just exactly how small the island was, then no doubt there would
have been a mass panic on the Comet. The question I still often ask myself
is not just how the hell did he (the pilot) find it but how did he get it
down in such a small space without getting the wheels wet at one end or the
Disembarking from the aircraft, the first impressions were fivefold. The heat
(still about 800F at that time of night), the humidity, the smell (rotting
vegetation), the noise (constant croaking of the frogs - everywhere) and the
inky-blackness of the night sky.
A meal in the transit lounge and a brief 'welcome to paradise island' message
before being directed to our 'homes' for the next twelve months. All I could
think of then was that it might look better in the morning. And so it did.
It still had the rotting vegetation smell everywhere, it was still hot even
at six-thirty in the morning but nothing can prepare you for the biggest bluest
skies in the world nor for the heat which would build as the day wore on,
The actual history of Gan is fairly well documented as far as the UK Forces
are concerned but from a day-to-day living point of view then everybody who
was resident on the island will have their own stories to tell. From a daily
standpoint, the constant round of work shifts and general duties were pretty
routine and it would have been easy to fall into a stupefied sense of boredom,
For a start, the island is just over a mile long -running into the sea at
both ends of the runway, less than half a mile wide at the widest points and
only four feet nine inches at the peak! It took one hour and ten minutes to
walk round the island with your feet in the water all the way! It got light
- very quickly (almost cartoonesque) - at six in the morning and it got dark
-just as quickly or so it seemed - at six in the evening. The benefit of living
'on' the equator. Two monsoon periods each year which brought rain like nobody
had ever seen before and in between the monsoons were the sunniest days of
your life - literally. The blessing was the fact that Gan is an island and
benefited from a sea breeze that helped to keep the temperature down though
it did nothing to diminish the constant glare of the sun despite the government-issue
So what sticks in the mind outside of the daily routine? There was the night
that all hell broke loose, Klaxon horns and flares alerted us to the 'MV Thomasso'
(not sure about the spelling now) which was an Italian registered ship trading
round the islands of the Indian ocean and which called at the Addu Atoll twice
a year for trading with the local population. It had mistaken the navigation
lights on top of the radio receiver masts on the western side of the island
for the navigation lights and buoys in the Gan Channel and run aground on
the outer reef It was stuck there for a couple of weeks until a group of army
engineers arrived from Singapore and set charges to blast the coral reef sufficiently
to let the ship float free without letting the sea in to swamp the island.
That ship traded with the natives all sorts of goods including electrical
goods such as radios (mains operated), electric sewing machines and other
similar items of consumer goods. What makes that remarkable is the fact that
the other islands where the local, Maldivian population lived did not have
any electrical supply. Sewing machines, for example, were regarded as status
symbols and merely adorned the walls of the locals' huts as seen and witnessed
when on the canoe trips (more of that later).
In 1962, the issue of a new £1 banknote made it necessary for the 'old'
banknote to be withdrawn and H.M. Forces were not excluded. In fact, due to
geography, it was essential that the older banknotes were collected en-masse
for return to the UK for disposal and so a deadline date was set. This was,
I think, around March time. All RAF personnel handed in their £1 notes
on the set date and had new notes in exchange. Simple. Personally, I drew
ten shillings (50p) each fortnight on pay-day and lived the 'life of Riley'
with it. Only 7d (3.5p) for a tin of Markovitch Black & White cigarettes
(25), a tin of 'Slops' (Allsops) beer 4d (1.666p} In fact the most 'costly'
item was the two shillings and sixpence (12.5p) paid to the room boy or dhobi
walla (very non-PC) every fortnight. For that princely sum he cleaned, polished,
washed, starched and ironed every day as much as he was given every day by
everybody in the block (living quarters). And each block had its own room
boy. These room boys lived on the adjacent islands in their own communities
and simply waded and walked or sailed to work every morning at around 7 am,
returning to their homes around 4 p.m. The room boy for Block 58 was 'Mussah'
who had been around simply forever. Spindly, bow-legged, five feet four inches
tall, forever grinning showing his betel-juice-stained teeth he would at regular
intervals ask for one of us to shop for him at the NAAFI (locals were not
allowed to buy anything from the NAAFI shop). On this particular day he asked
'you getting me cigaretty' and produced a £1 note to pay for the transaction.
Unfortunately for Mussab, he was asking some weeks after the old notes had
gone back to the UK. 'This money no good', I told him. Noooooo!' he said,
'good money, Queen's money.' 'No, this garbage money.' And so it went on,
trying to convince him that his £1 was just so much worthless paper.
The following morning, Mussah - a very subdued Mussah - arrived carrying
a large sized, expanding suitcase fully expanded and jam packed with the old
style £1 notes! There must have been a small fortune in that case. A
large fortune to a National Service man with the rank of SAC who only got
paid under £2 per week including overseas and other allowances.
The canoe? An inhabitant of Block 58, Jim Martin, decided to build a canoe.
There were some small sailing dinghies and canoes available but these belonged
to the sailing club and had to be booked out when you could get onto the list.
A Scot and obviously revelling in his Scots ship building heritage, Jim enlisted
the help of various other Block 58 inhabitants with the promise of an occasional
passage in the finished article. All of the necessary construction materials
were available on the island - and so they were. In the AMWD compound to be
exact! The Air Ministry Works Department had a compound with all sorts of
rich pickings. So rich that they were surrounded by a very high chain-link
fence topped with barbed wire. But the AMWD reckoned without Jim Martin. Under
cover of that previously mentioned inky black night, Jim and his little helper
'gained access' to the compound and liberated two wooden pallets from which
the ribs and spars were fashioned. The construction plan involved the use
of a hammer and pliers to remove the nails from the pallets to release the
timber for more essential use. Cutting and shaping the timber was by means
of a hacksaw, drilling and screwing by virtue of a Yankee screwdriver, the
most amazing tool available in those days. Jim's design was for a two-man
vessel with the added luxury of a foot-pedal operated rudder, which would
leave both sets of hands for paddling and speed. In retrospect, the ribs and
stringer assembly seemed to be the easiest part. How could it be made buoyant
and waterproof? The AMWD yard was to provide the two other essential components
for the fabrication of the canoe. Another clandestine visit to the yard produced
a tarpaulin, nice, new, unspoiled and some tins of red paint. The rest, as
they say, is history except to say that Jim had more 'friends' than he could
cope with as soon as the launch day had passed. Although 'off limits' to all
personnel, the canoe did make possible visits to the other islands on the
western side of the atoll from Fedu right up to Hittadu where the radio transmitter
unit was located at the northern tip. This is how the 'icons of status' were
viewed hanging from the walls of the local huts.
New aircraft were always a welcome sight. It created great excitement and
went a good way to relieve the potential boredom. All aircraft have specific
landing approaches and instructions for every airfield. When a new type of
aircraft is introduced then the relevant approach plans have to be researched,
tried out and tested before they become standard instructions. Approaching
Gan demonstrated many potential and actual problems for flight crews and conversations
with a number of crews clearly indicated that even experienced 'Gan-flyers'
had to take extra care on this approach. Flying-in over the Indian ocean with
the thermals coming off the surface of the sea are as nothing compared to
the thermal experience when the sea is now below-and-behind and what is below
now is white, very hot concrete. The sudden 'lift' causes all sorts of problems
especially with a runway which is relatively short anyway and does not leave
any room for errors. Many an afternoon's sport was obtained watching 'new'
aircraft or crews doing their thing trying to get it right. On one occasion
a squadron of Vulcan bombers en-route for Singapore circled for a long time
as their leader tried and tried and tried before getting it right to touch
down. After that, they started coming in until number four blew the starboard
tyres and careered down the runway on the wheel rims and getting closer and
closer to the edge of the concrete. Eventually, it had to go off and settled
down gently into the soft coral-earth with the right hand wheels but with
the port wing and tail sufficiently protruding over the runway to bother the
fifth and last man who had to continue circling until the beached Vulcan could
be dragged a little further out of line so that the last landing could take
One of the most exciting times connected with new aircraft was the arrival
of the first Comet-4C, Probably the most beautiful aircraft ever built, the
4C handled (according to its pilot at that time) easier and better than a
fighter plane. He was able to demonstrate these handling characteristics to
the delight of those personnel not indoors working the afternoon shift when
he carried out the most stunning display of low passes and tight turns over
the inner lagoon. The following day, there was a request for volunteer passengers
to make up weight for the Comet in order for payload characteristics to be
established on the landing approach and for take-offs. So great was the demand
for those free seats that a full afternoon was spent ferrying 'Erks' on several
great jaunts round and round the islands presenting great photo opportunities
to those that had actually thought about it!
The charisma of flying in the 4C certainly had the edge over a sixteen-hour
stint in the resident Shackleton aircraft stationed on Gan. It was possible
to get away for a day (!) by putting your name down for a flight with the
Search and Rescue duty squad. Spartan by nature, the Shackleton was a real
boneshaker with the luxury of 'deck-chair' seats. After take off, you were
committed for the duration of the exercise which typically would be
'searching` squares of ocean in a pattern to simulate a search mission for
whatever might be lost or in distress. The big plus was that on a day of 'circuits
and bumps' there were splendid opportunities for aerial pictures of the island
and its neighbours. Pictures now seen in travel brochures for the Maldives
are very evocative of those hot sunny days spent swanning around in the ageing,
rattling confines of the 'Shack'. It could be a boring day but it was a different
kind of boring day.
A friend who was a budding journalist with my home local paper caused a personal
embarrassment. He had met my mother in the local high street a few months
after I had left for Gan and had asked her how I liked it and what did I do
on the desert island to fill my time. She told him that as I was interested
in photography and that part of my work before starting National Service had
been industrial photography I had joined the camp photo club, which had all
the facilities for developing and processing. The first I knew about it was
upon entering the airman's mess one lunchtime to be greeted with howls of
ridicule and derision from the lads and to see a newspaper cutting pinned
up on the notice board. This article (copy attached) stated that I had solved
the problem of filling my leisure time by forming a photographic society!
A further example of not letting truth get in the way of a good story. One
thing I especially remember about the camp photo club was the cold! In the
interests of preserving the various chemicals and papers it was necessary
to maintain a steady temperature inside the building. An air-conditioning
unit had been installed which kept the temperature at 680F - a very welcome
figure to those people unfamiliar with tropical climate. The problem was,
that after being on the island for even a short time, the cold (!) air conditioned
rooms caused cramp to set in and a generally uncomfortable time was had by
almost everybody who used the facility.
Of all the aircraft to fly into Gan the most beautiful and stylish were the
Comet and the Valiant, both exquisite examples of British aviation expertise.
The most common aircraft was the Britannia turbo-prop or Whispering Giant
as it was more affectionately known. In troop movement configuration they
were not necessarily the most comfortable method of transport, seating about
(from memory) 112 people. In emergency situations this capacity could be increased
to 131 and several examples of this were evident during the Kuwait crisis
in early 1962 when flight after flight of Britannias came through from Singapore
en-route for Kuwait carrying the maximum capacity of army personnel, mostly
marines in full battle gear. A very tight fit indeed. One night a Britannia
on its way to Singapore made a fuel stop at Gan but was damaged while standing
on the apron by a fuel bowser which reversed into it. The following day, the
Britannia left to continue its journey but had to be re-routed round (not
over) Sumatra to maintain an altitude of not more than 9,000 feet. The aircraft
skin had been 'patched' with aluminium foil in order to get it to a full and
proper maintenance unit for the necessary repairs to be carried out.
Gan was a non-accompanied twelve-month posting. In the region of 500 RAF personnel
and a number (about l00) of Pakistani general labourers occupied Gan with
one woman who was from the WRVS (Women's Royal Voluntary Society). The second
such WRVS worker during my tour of duty was an absolute lady called Elizabeth
(no surname) who did a remarkable job of sorting out the mental stability
of those recipients of the `Dear John`
letters. Mostly these were posted on the mess notice board where anybody could
add their comments, and usually did, however, those who took their letters
seriously could always guarantee a sympathetic hearing. These days she would
be called a counsellor! One of the main motivations (apart from the obvious)
on Gan was the taking of leave which, for operational reasons was a one-off
affair. Typically, the leave would be taken after six months on the island.
However, for National Service personnel this ruling was usually extended to
nine months which gave the 'poor' time to save up for the big bash. Leave
was also usually taken in Singapore certainly by all the National Service
boys who were making the most of seeing the world at the expense of H.M. Government.
Singapore was everything it was claimed to be but that is an altogether different
story! Coming up to the end of my tour of duty, for personal reasons I decided
to ask for an extension of duty!!! My request was made verbally to my CO who
just looked at me and said 'go away and come back in three days if you still
want to do this.' At the end of three days I returned and made a further request
at which he said "I shall refer you to the MO for a psychiatric report!'
The MO simply asked why the hell would I want to stay on for extra time -
why would anyone want to stay on doing extra time. I gave my reasons and was
told that a report would be made and submitted to the Air Ministry for approval.
Two weeks later, my request for an extension of eight weeks was granted -
possibly the only such request ever made.
In June 1962, my long-time friend Graham Barker returned to the UK to complete
his National Service at High Wycombe and his letters to his 'lunatic friend'
still on the island made it clear he was glad to be back home in Blighty.
But eight weeks passes quickly enough and soon it was my turn to board a Britannia
for the 23-hour journey back to Lyneham in Wiltshire via refuelling stops
at Aden and El Adem.
The mile-hoard sign post outside the Gan transit lounge was the first thing
anybody saw when they disembarked the bus on arrival and obviously almost
the last thing seen before departure. On departure, though, it looked different
and there were certainly a lot of things to smile about while holding that
last glass of ice-cold beer in the company of friends and mates who still
had a stint to complete.
Thirty-eight years on and Graham and I and our wives and families are the
strongest and the best of friends. That close bond formed in the early days
of National Service and cemented together on the island of Gan is something
that will endure while memories of the island and its culture will remain
as warm as the island itself.