ADDU ATOLL, 1959
Some background information on the island of Gan,
with anecdotes of life there in 1959.
Ian (Jock) Morrison, 8RFP, Gan, March 1959 - January 1960.
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
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
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
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 republic.
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
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 furniture.
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
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 for fraud.
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
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
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
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 two days.
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 boat.
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 safety.
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 and 'chuffed.'
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 popular bloke.
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 the walls.
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
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 our flight.
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
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
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 again.
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 as Gam!
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
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
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