Below is an article from the Illustrated London News which has been reproduced to look as much as it did [Some artistic licence has been used !] when published on December 26, 1970.
|Under the terms of an agreement with the Maldivian Government, the RAF has the use of GAN, a remote Indian Ocean island (below) as a staging post on the Far East run, until 1986. NICOLAS WRIGHT has just returned from the base --- described as "a cross between Devil's Island and a holiday camp". KEITH MORRIS took the pictures.||
It takes a mere 45
minutes to walk round Gan once one has become accustomed to the heat 40
miles south of the equator. Those who prefer an even faster pace take to
bicycles, the island's main mode of transport, while others work off
their energies--and emotions--on the football field or tennis court.
Gan, a cartographer's dot in the Indian Ocean 600 miles south-west of Ceylon, has been described as a cross between Devil's Island and a holiday camp, and certainly the men who inhabit this Royal Air Force outpost for up to 12 months unaccompanied service at a time, regard it as a blend of both.. The setting is idyllic, waving palms and white beaches touched by a warm sea, but this in no way compensates for the feeling of isolation, which is only aggravated by the constant flow of people in transit to the Far East and back to the UK.
Gan forms part of Addu Atoll, at the southernmost tip of the little-known group of Maldive Islands, 300 miles from the capital Male. A runway stretches its entire length, so that it is easily distinguishable from the surrounding islands and has, from the air, the appearance of some huge, green, misshapen aircraft carrier.
During the Second World War the British used Gan as a base, and in 1956 it was agreed that the existing runway should be extended to take the heaviest type of RAF aircraft in order to facilitate communications between Britain, the Far East,, and Australia, following the withdrawal of British forces from Ceylon. More than 11,000 palm trees were cleared
A VC 10 of Air Support Command
coming in to land at Gan.
to make way for the extensions and the local population was resettled at British expense on the nearby islands of Fedu and Maradu. Gan became fully operational in 1960 and five years later, when the Maldives were granted full independence, it was greed to restrict RAF personnel movements to Gan itself and a 110-acre communications site on the neighbouring island of Hitaddu.
This restriction is one which the people find serving on Gan find particularly irksome. Several of the islands in the atoll are tantalizingly close and would make a welcome respite from the daily round on Gan. "Most of us suffer a feeling of Claustrophobia" said an officer. "It's unavoidable. But we just have to put up with it. Two chaps once went beyond the boundary on Hitaddu--only a few yards---and it practically caused an international incident."
Despite the fact that 800 male Maldivians work on Gan the atoll chief seems determined that they shall not become too influenced by western culture and lifestyle. None of his people is allowed to remain on Gan overnight, except as patients in the RAF hospital, and their journey home, if the wind is against them, can take as long as four hours. They are not allowed outboard motors on their boats, known as dhonis, because, as the chief asks, who will supply the fuel, servicing, and spare parts once the RAF has left?
|In pursuit of this isolationist policy the chief also ordered the
destruction of a causeway built by the British between Gan and Fedu in
the war. Obviously this attitude cannot last forever. As
Gan's commanding officer Brian Gee, points out: "The standard of living
in Addu Atoll has most certainly risen since the arrival of the RAF.
We are the only employers of Maldivian labour in this particular area.
They have no real industry of their own. Fishing is their
W/Cdr Gee was posted to Gan about 12 weeks ago for a total period of 10½ months. He misses his family as much as anybody there. "no one really enjoys unaccompanied service," he said, "but bases like Gan have to be maintained if Britain is to fulfil her commitment. Of course, it would be impossible to provide facilities for families on such a small island anyway."
Providing the men with something to do during their off-duty hours is given prime importance. There is plenty of scope for sports and numerous clubs and societies. "However," said W/Cdr Gee, "I am a little disappointed in the lack of cultural amenities. I would like to see more interest taken in things like painting, pottery and classical music. We are definitely weak on this side. The trouble is that there is little or no demand and there is only a limited amount of money which can be spent catering for minority groups. Most of the men seem to prefer the various social clubs or the cinema."
This is a view which was endorsed by an airman. "Oh yes, everything revolves round the beer can all right. What else is there to do ?"
As well as the 600 RAF personnel there are about 50 UK civilians on Gan whose duties include running the weather station. Then there are the 800 Maldivians, 200 Pakistanis, and about 35 Sinhalese. The Sinhalese work entirely for the NAAFI.
The only woman on the island is Miss Rozelle Howard, appointed by the WRVS to serve on Gan for a year. "I've been here six months," said Miss Howard. "I run a club for the airmen called the 180 Club, It's somewhere they can relax. A lot of them tell me their problems. They like to have a woman to talk to. I like it here. Gan has a good atmosphere." Another person the airmen take their problems to is Squadron Leader Mike Hawes, the chaplain. "I find the thing which upsets people most," he said, "is mail not arriving on time. A letter from home means a great deal to lonely men on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. If a letter doesn't arrive they begin to imagine all kinds of things going wrong at home. For the man who is happily married this separation and he is naturally upset. However, some men volunteer for Gan in the hope that enforced separation will patch up a shaky marriage. This seldom works, though."
S/Ldr Hawes also runs Gan's classical music society. "I would like to see more airmen attending. At the moment it's mostly officers and civilians."
There is a hospital on Gan which was built primarily for the RAF, but in fact 90 to 95 percent of the work done there is for the benefit of the Maldivians. Every morning they crowd into the corridor which acts as a waiting room - waiting to see one or other of the two hard pressed doctors. The senior medical officer is Wing Commander S.A. Greenhalgh. "Every patient we keep in overnight or longer," he said, "has to have a helper, a Maldivian, who looks after his everyday needs. These helpers stay with their patient all the time and sometimes even sleep under their bed."
The surgeon is Flight Lieutenant Martin Ward, who said he had probably learnt more in six months work on Gan than he would have done in three years outside. "We see about 1,100 Maldivians a month and perform 40 to 50 operations, 80 per cent of which are on Maldivians. I suppose the RAF consultations run at about 300 a month.
|The CO, W/Cdr Brian Gee, is a little disappointed at the island's lack of cultural amenities||Miss Rozelle, of the WRVS, is the Island's only woman resident. She is there on a year's rota.||S/Ldr Mike Hawes, the chaplain, finds fishing most relaxing. He runs the classical music society.|
A corner of Gan. Idyllic setting, but an acute feeling of isolation. At anchor a supply ship from Singapore
the Maldivians can be difficult. Many of them have no idea how old
they are. they usually come to see us after first consulting the
local medicine man. Infant mortality is high. Some of the
children we deal with are in a state of gross dehydration."
The life expectancy of the Maldivians in Addu Atoll is around 40 years. Before the RAF arrived it was less. There is understandably a certain amount of resentment towards Adduans from people elsewhere in the Maldives because of this sort of benefit, but it is doubtful if they would repeat the move made ten years ago when Addu Atoll was attacked by a force from the capital because the sultan thought they were running their own affairs with too free a hand.
The attackers were driven back with sticks and stones but the leader of the Adduans, Abdullah Afif Didi, who had organised the atoll's first trade union, apparently fearing for his life, asked the British to take him to the Seychelles where he remains still.
The Maldives came under British rule in 1802 and were declared a British protectorate in 1887. They were given full independence in 1965. Little is known about the early history of the islands. The inhabitants were originally Buddhists but in 1153 an Arab monk converted them to Islam. The first detailed report on the Maldives was made by a fourteenth century Arab scholar, Ibn Battufa, who worked in the islands as a judge. He described the people as "pious and trustworthy", but noted that "they are physically weak and unused to fighting. Their weapon is prayer. On one occasion when I gave the order to sever a thief's hand, several of the onlookers fainted".
In 1930 the last sultan in a long hereditary line died, and an elective sultanate was introduced. This was followed by a republic proclaimed in 1953. The first president Amin Didi, a man of impressive energy, who acted as prime minister, minister of the interior, foreign minister, minister for justice, education, trade and commerce. He founded schools, sports and trade associations, and a fishing co-operative; commanded the army; wrote a book about the Maldive language and became president of the Association of Maldive Poets. He was also captain and trainer of the national football team and restored the practice of hand severing as a punishment for stealing. Amin Didi was assassinated after a year in office.
The Maldives' main export is dried fish, and there is a small market in copra, coir, rope, lacquer work, and shells. However, the value of these exports has decreased in relation to the imports necessary to maintain the existing standard of living. The Maldive, which has a population of around 100,000, is a member of the United Nations and has a permanent representative in New York.
Although none of the RAF personnel visits any of the other islands,
relations with the local population are generally good and there have
been no recent indications of civil unrest or anti-British activity.
The Maldivians see, on the whole, to be a friendly if rather dreamy
people, and much is done to explain their philosophy of life to men
arriving on Gan. "An order accompanied by a smile will achieve far
better results than a more belligerent approach," states the RAF Gan
handbook. "Physical violence is virtually unknown on the islands
and a show of bad temper will confuse since generally it is unknown in
the islanders' dealings with each other."
Gan has the reputation of being able to re-fuel and re-stock aircraft faster than any other RAF station in the world. Passengers in transit usually stay on Gan for bout an hour and a half, which gives the men serving on Gan a brief opportunity to see people from the outside world. "The men will tell you," said S/Ldr Hawes, "that they go up to the transit hotel to look at the girls. But in fact a lot of them go there merely to watch the children."
At present the single men have two weeks' leave in the Far East, and the married men go back to the UK during their 12 month tour. Next year the length of duty is being reduced to nine months, without any leave. Morale on the island seems remarkably high and there are no difficulties in maintaining discipline.
A television company once made a film about Gan and the commentator remarked on men begging to be locked in the guardroom before they did themselves an injury. This raised a chorus of catcalls and derisive laughter when it was shown to the men and they wanted to know who'd been "stringing the interviewer along". Things are obviously not as bad as the film would have had the public believe, but separation from family and friends does create emotional pressures which are sometimes difficult to repress.
|A dhoni crowded with Maldivians casting off from one of the neighbouring islands for Gan. The journey can take four hours.||