When a Sqn/Ldr at Upavon told me that I had been ‘selected’ to be a Transport Aircraft Servicing Specialist I immediately smelt a rat. I had neither wished to be posted nor had I volunteered for this role but this was the RAF and it seemed they needed me. A few minutes later, when I was told there were only four postings – Changi, Luqa, Akrotiri and Gan – I knew exactly where I would be hanging my hat because my last posting was Kenya. So, in January 1967, when England were still the holders of the World Cup, I boarded a Comet 4c at Lyneham and blasted off for a year on the noble resort of Addu Attol.
No surprises when we landed in the bright morning sun to find I would be spending the next twelve months of my life working at SASF, doing shifts – twelve hours on and 24 hours off. I was newly-promoted, deathly white and about to learn all the secrets of a jewel in the Indian Ocean, E73° 09’ S00° 42’ (the coordinates forever seared into my brain because I had to set them on the Shack GPI every pre-flight inspection). C/Tech. Bill Bloomfield was our shift boss and I soon got to meet my new colleagues, one of whom was Sgt. Dick Terry whose popularity with ‘management’ was at an all-time-high because only a week or so before, he had driven the SASF tractor across a mozzie drain and knackered its brand new engine.
Such vivid memories are rarely dimmed by time and mine are no exception. I recall Saturday nights in the Sgt’s Mess which was the gala night of the week. Bingo on the lawn, with Tom Lythe taking time off from Radio Gan, calling the numbers. Calls like ‘NAAFI Sandwich” (full lines top and bottom but nothing in the middle) and ‘Wilson’s Den” (just to show how long ago it was). Then a film from a single 16mm projector with welcomed reel changes timed just right to move to the bar – the ‘It’s Inn’ – and grab a tiger or a green charlie. One night was really special when the POs & CPOs of HMS Penelope, (who were stranded in the lagoon waiting for the RAF to bring them a vital spare part on a speedy Britannia which itself had gone US in Akrotiri), entertained the entire bar. What a night! They even supplied a pianist and song sheets so that we could join in the rudest of songs.
Watching our antics all the time was the mess’s pet parrot – Jasper – who had his aviary on the lawn. Jasper had the foulest vocabulary of any member of the bird family and was everyone’s favourite. On one occasion someone felt a bit sorry for him and decided to let him out to fly around. Jasper obliged and immediately shot upwards like the space shuttle and then alarmingly, headed out to sea. He’d gone only a few yards though before he ran out of puff and ‘parked’ his wings. Tumbling into the sea, the small group watched in horror and waded in at high speed to rescue him. They did, and apart from, a few soggy feathers and some salty water in his lungs, he survived and happily returned to the safety of his cage. Rumour had it that he never went near the door again.
SASF were always getting gold stars for their efficiency and professionalism from visiting aircrews. We were, we were told, the slickest on the route and we knew why. The aircraft were always full of nurses and wives who were on their way to join husbands and we were desperately short of such comforts. It did not take a rocket scientist to work out that if we were quick with the power, cooler and the steps, we could all see the gorgeous ladies as they tumbled down the ladders. We never tired of this – we just got faster. The ‘Changi Slip’ VC10, on its way back to the UK, passed through Gan in the very early hours of the morning. One night, who should disembark but the great Harry Secombe. He was clearly up for a bit of fun and before he got on the bus to the Blue Lagoon, walked around the aircraft checking the tyres and making typical goonish noises. We had a lot of laughs that night but, sadly, he was just passing through and not scheduled to do any shows for us. Years later, while listening to Sarah Kennedy’s Radio 2 one morning, she mentioned Gan. She too had passed though on her was back from Singapore where she was a presenter on BFBS. She was apparently very wary of stepping down onto the tarmac because she had been told that the island was full of sexually-charged males who had not seen a woman for years. Speaking of island entertainment, I do not recall many CSE shows in 1967 except Stan Stennet – perhaps someone could elaborate here?
Some other events I recall. We awoke one morning to see the French ketch ‘Vadura’ moored in the lagoon. She was a teak beauty and was clearly owned by some wealthy person. We raced to the sailing club and launched our GP14s to get a closer look but could not see any crew. Rumours flourished like a forest fire about her background. Some were sure that it was owned by a film company and had, only a few days ago, disembarked Brigitte Bardot and a collection of similar beauties. Others were certain it was gun-running or some other sinister task. Such were the dreams of our fertile minds but, of course, it was nothing of the sort. I found out later that none of the stories were remotely true – she had suffered some damage at sea and requested a short stay in the lagoon to make repairs. It seemed that the Vadura ran into more trouble after she left Gan where she was boarded by some islanders in the Maldive group and the ship’s dog was killed.
I was there when the OC SASF had the sparkling idea to stage a dummy incident that would entail using the famous ‘Drag Off’ net. A Hastings had flown in for its last flight and this was the chosen victim. We were to simulate a ‘wheels-up’ landing and then try to drag away the wreck using the said equipment. It was towed to the corner of the pan and Sgt. Reggie Mott (a rigger who volunteered to perform this dodgy task) climbed inside to select the gear up. It didn’t work, so hawsers were connected to the geometric locks and to the tugs in order to ‘break’ them. That did the trick alright and the hapless machine crashed down onto the concrete, bending the props and smashing the engine oil sumps. Our master had achieved near-realism just as he planned. Within minutes thick black oil was spreading all over the gleaming white pan as we struggled to ‘lasso’ the stricken beast with the heavy net. All did not go too well but it was eventually secured and the tugs tried to drag it away. Some progress was made but I think the overall result of the exercise was not good because the net ended up buried in the wing root and, for some time, I think we were without a disaster facility. It was still there when I left the island but one prop ended up in the Marine Bar and my name appeared on one blade along with the rest of the team of wreckers.
Other memories like the NAAFI Manager’s mini registration number – MR 10 PC (Mr. 10%), the riotous nights in the Marine Bar, the Christmas bars, the Tour De Gan bike race, Letters from Home on Radio Gan (hosted by Roddy the WVS lady), and the wireless-for-the-blind Christmas auctions. This latter activity was in full swing in 1967 when the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition flew in on their way to Australia to attend a memorial service for Prime Minister Holt (who had unfortunately drowned some days before). Prince Charles was whisked away somewhere with Mr Wilson but Mr Heath, I believe, took a dip during his short stay. On the radio, the whacky auctions to raise money went on and there was at least one generous pledge providing they could throw the PM off the pier.
There were the balmy Sundays when we would load up our GP14s & Ospreys with iced beer and sandwiches from the mess and sail over to Hittadu to visit the hermits. Sailing to the beach and pulling our boats up the sand. Sitting under the palms enjoying the food and drink before embarking on a drunken race around the bay. On one such visit, on the way back, we became becalmed and were towed home in a long line behind one of the MCS landing craft. Other days we would go to Bushey and try to find the mythical nurse’s home but we never did.
Perhaps the saddest incident during my stay was the loss of Shackleton ‘Echo’. She was waved off one morning to return to Changi – her replacement was already in place, having flown in earlier. Much later, we heard on the tannoy that she had sent out a mayday and then we were told she had ditched. Afterwards, we learned that she had come down some 500 miles from her destination and that HMS Ajax was on her way to find survivors. She had a full crew, plus two passengers from Gan (one was Flt/Sgt Charlie Gaze from Sick Quarters I believe) and I think that four of the crew were lost but the passengers survived. It was a such a bad day because we had attended the crew’s leaving do only the night before.
There was however one joyful incident when I was called by tannoy to go to SSQ. Once there I was reminded that I had offered myself as a blood donor (like many on the island had done) and a young girl had just arrived who was having complications giving birth to her baby. Apparently, she was from another attol some miles away and had been in a dhoni for over 24hours travelling to Gan. She needed blood urgently and I was the right group and they took it there and then. I believe that the girl survived but I never knew if the baby was saved too.
Gan changed the life of everyone who lived there. The rich stories proliferate like the stars in the glorious night skies we stared at from the Sgts Mess beach. The Southern Cross, low on the horizon, and the ‘moving stars’ (which were probably satellites). Then the sudden sight of a distant winking light that meant the expected VC10 was not very far away. Soon her blinding landing lights swung down, as she prepared for the final approach. This was our signal to climb on our bikes and pedal like mad to the pan and meet the ‘shiny ten’. One and a half hours later, we were back on the beach as she made her way back to the UK where we would be one day.
After four pairs of flip flops, four Orderly Sgts, one disastrous day on the golf course and countless nights where I sang myself hoarse, that day did come and I boarded the gleaming lifeboat. Not to the UK as I had often dreamed, but to Changi where I was to spend another blissful eighteen months in the far east – working, believe it or not, on 205 Sqn. I did set foot on Gan again of course, on my way home, but it was not the same. Would I like to go back? It sounds nostalgic but it seems a long way and a significant expense just to rekindle memories. I read the recent visits and look at the photos. That does it for me.
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