THE sun still never quite sets on the British Empire, though it
is sinking ever lower on the horizon. Apart from Hong Kong,
which remains a Gurkha-garrisoned crown colony, Britain is
rapidly withdrawing its historic military presence from the Far
The huge naval yard and three airbases in Singapore are being
turned over to the local government; the Persian Gulf bases of
Bahrain and Sharjah will be closed down well before the end of
next year; and Aden has become a port of call for the Russian
navy and a barracks for wayward Arab guerrillas.
withdrawal from the Far East represents a reluctant political
retreat for the Tory government of Prime Minister Edward Heath.
He promised to re-study, if not reverse, the pullout east of
Suez that was pledged by Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1968. But the
harsh imperatives of economics have forced Heath to adopt
Wilson's policy—with one important change. A loosely knit,
five-power "consultative defence arrangement" with Malaysia,
Singapore, Australia and New Zealand is scheduled to come into
effect by Jan. 1.
will also keep three communications and refuelling bases in the
Indian Ocean, partly to keep watch over what Heath sees as a
growing Russian threat in the Indian Ocean. They are among the
loneliest, most remote spots on earth, and the loneliest of all
is Gan, a dot of coral only 1¾ miles long in the Maldives, 700
miles southwest of Ceylon, 42 miles below the equator, and 2,200
miles east of Africa.
For a view of that farthest-flung outpost of a vanishing empire,
TIME Correspondent John Blashill recently visited Gan. Prince
Philip, who passed through just before Easter, sized up the
"Obviously, you've all given up something for Lent."
There are 650 men on Gan, but only one female, an Irish matron
sent out by the Women's Royal Volunteer Service "to give the
lads someone to tell their problems to." They would burn her
ears off if they did.
In Royal Air Force parlance, Gan is an "unaccompanied post"—the
only one in the R.A.F.—and that means unaccompanied by wives or
girl friends, because there is no room for them on the island.
The Maldivians from other islands who work on Gan understand;
they call the base the "island of not having." The frustrations
take many forms.
"I haven’t sowed me oats in nine months. I'm 22 years old, and
at my age I need me oats," says one angry veteran of Gan. "I'll
be married three months after I get off this island. I'm ripe
for picking by the first bird that comes along." Others haunt
the airport lounge in the hope that the next load of passengers
in transit will include a girl they can talk to—or even just
Most flights passing through carry the R.A.F. equivalent of a
stewardess, known technically as a loadmaster or quartermaster
and to the men on Gan as "quartermattress" or, simply "Q." Proof
of conquest is almost impossible; the only man to provide it was
a now legendary corporal who came down with gonorrhoea and was
carried in triumph to the base doctor on the shoulders of his
Middle of no
Part of the problem is that under the terms of Britain's lease,
the men are restricted to Gan. The arrangement protects the
Maldivians on other islands from the shenanigans of off-duty
airmen and shields London from charges of interference in local
governmental affairs. More than 800 Maldivians work at the base,
thereby earning a fifth of the country's total foreign exchange,
but they cannot live there. Instead, they commute to work by
Those from distant islands sail across the lagoon in
dhow-like craft called buggalows, a trip that can take four
hours when the wind is wrong and the current strong. Most come
from Fedu, a sliver of an island barely 200 yards to the west,
rowing back and forth in small, sail-less Dhonies.
not even an afterthought of empire, but rather, a by-product of
the empire's collapse. Its first military use was as a secret
Royal Navy supply base (code-named Port T) during World War II.
Abandoned after the war, it was resurrected in 1957 as a
substitute for an R.A.F. staging base in Ceylon, which had come
under political attack.
It is a supposedly vital relay station in Britain's
high-frequency military radio link, and is zeroed in on the
Skynet military communications satellite. But Gan does not have
attack capability. Its only missiles are small weather rockets,
and the only plane usually on the island is an old Shackleton
bomber standing by for search and rescue missions. For defence,
Gan has a token supply of rifles and a few machine guns. As for
the Russians, if they are anywhere around, Gan has never seen
them, perhaps because it has no reconnaissance planes.
communications and weather station and a refuelling base for
R.A.F. planes on the London-Singapore run, Gan is little more
than a runway in the middle of nowhere. It is so far out and so
tiny it literally bristles with radio navigation aids to keep
airplanes from missing it entirely.
Gan is not entirely without diversions. Its clear waters boil
with bright tropical fish. Tuna can be caught from the pier, and
fishing for shark and barracuda is superb. The island has a
soccer field, golf course, assorted tennis and volleyball courts
and no fewer than 21 bars. The specialty of the island is the "gozomie,"
a marathon blast that is thrown when anyone reaches the end of
his nine-month tour and goes home. Over the five-day Christmas
holiday, the men consumed 500 quarts of liquor, 12,500 bottles
of beer, and 2,000 pints of draft beer.
is surprisingly high, says the base's Commanding Officer,
42-year-old Wing Commander Bryan Gee: "Nobody's got special
privileges here. We're all in the same boat." Even so, Gan is a
post where service can be endured, but never prolonged.
As Flight Lieut. Edward Ratnaraja, the island's accounting
officer, says of the island of not having: "I will be happy only
when what I am not having is Gan. That should be two months, 17
days, six hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds from right now."