Gan Memories From the A.M.W.D.
by Ray Halfacre

This piece written by Ray Halfacre gives a fascinating look at how it was for the `civvies` who were sent to Gan to supervise the construction of the staging post in 1957.
It is an extract of a `book` Ray wrote for his families consumption only, and I am indebted to him for allowing me to use it.
Some of you later Gannites think you had it rudimentary. Read on for the meaning of the word!

"Well, I'm here so lets find out a little about the place. I have discovered that it is one mile and a half long, three quarters of a mile wide. The highest point is six feet above sea level. It is one of thirteen islands forming Addu Atoll, the most southern of the Maldivian chain. The lagoon formed by the thirteen islands, is about seven miles across and deep in places. It makes a perfect natural harbour and was used by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. There was also an army detachment here during that time for defence purposes. There are two entrances into the lagoon, the Gan channel which is the main one and the other one called Wilingili channel. The only signs of that time are one or two gun emplacements and the remains of the causeway that linked Gan with the adjoining island Fedu.
The island was covered with quite dense vegetation with a native village at one end housing some 800 Maldivians. They grew bananas, breadfruit and of course there was an abundance of coconuts. Other forms of life were snakes, some poisonous, over twenty species of birds, the most common being the little white tern, fruit bats more like flying foxes and rats, estimated to be in their thousands. They were considered to be such a hazard, that two professors, both rat experts were brought out to study the rats habits and life style. They set up a huge marquee with rows of cages and benches with all sorts of equipment. They engaged about half a dozen locals to catch rats for them and soon established that the rats formed no health threat like those found in 'civilized' countries where they inhabited sewers and lived off rubbish. (Gan rats were very clean and lived in coconut trees. Fruit bats would bore holes through the husks and shells of the coconuts growing on the trees to reach the flesh of the nut, when finished, the rats climbed up the trees and nested in the empty shells. Having examined literally hundreds of rats, the professors announced that the rats were disease free. All of this appeared to us laymen to have been a terrible waste of money it being known from the outset that the coconut trees would all be removed to build the airfield No trees, no rats! Mind you, plans to clear all the vegetation had to be quickly revised The highest point on the island being only six feet above sea level, given the situation where high tides coincided with severe tropical storms, serious erosion would occur so, wherever possible vegetation was left and was supplemented with fast growing grass obtained from Canada.
Before construction of the base could commence, two things had to happen. First a temporary landing strip had to be built to allow normal aircraft to be used because the Sunderlands were being phased out of service and secondly, the village and all its inhabitants, had to be moved to the adjoining island of Fedu. We had obtained the permission of the Maldivian Government to do this.
Hence my first job was to carry out a survey of all the inhabitants, the size of each family, details of each house, size etc. did they have a well, how many coconut trees, bread fruit trees and banana palms did each family have. It was most interesting and what friendly people they were despite the fact that they were going to be uprooted and moved to the next island Their lives were run on a communal system. Each day all the men would gather in the village square where the headman would allocate them their jobs for the day. Some to go fishing, others coconut picking, others collecting bananas etc. and all would be brought back to the village square and distributed to each family.
The 'village square' was just an open space leading from the beach, bordered on the land side by two large buildings used for Storage and meetings.
As a race, they appear to be a mixture of Polynesian, Indian, and Arab, which indicates that over the centuries many of the nations were engaged in travel. The Maldivians will vehemently deny it, but there are also traces of Portuguese in their ancestry and many bear Portuguese sounding names. One evening there was a big celebration in the village square and I was told this was commemorating the time when they had repulsed the Portuguese who had tried to land on their islands. In view of the names held by lots of the Maldivians, it is quite apparent that many Portuguese must have gotten ashore! In fact the census I carried out revealed that practically every family had at least one member with a Portuguese sounding name.
My first impressions were of a contented people never appearing to seek more than their neighbours had and when we first arrived, if you offered one a cigarette, he would immediately break it in half and hand a friend the other half.
The only trade they conducted - again organized through the headman was with dried fish and copra that they transported in quite large sailing boats to Ceylon in return for tools such as machetes, knives etc. and material. The women made their dresses from the material, the tops of which were beautifully embroidered. Such wealth as they could accumulate was made into ornate gold necklaces and worn by selected young girls in the village. Presumably the headman decided which girls would wear the necklaces and for how long. I never saw any worn by girls over the age of about sixteen Mind you, lots of the girls would be getting married at that age and would have to pass on the necklace.
When the villagers were made aware of their intended removal to the next island, it was anticipated there would be some protests, but no, they all accepted the upheaval with absolutely no signs of hostility towards us. The houses they were to occupy were designed and built in the UK, prefabricated wooden buildings with corrugated roofs and from what I could gather, there had been little or no discussion with the Maldivians themselves. As a consequence, when the houses were erected on the adjoining island, hardly any of them were used as living accommodation, the locals preferred to build their own homes to their own liking and design and which would be far cooler to inhabit than those with corrugated roofs.
Healthwise, generally speaking they appeared to be quite healthy although elephantitus was one ailment not uncommon. Anyone who suffered with it was banished to another island called Bushy, where they had to remain. They were kept supplied with the necessities of life, but anyone afflicted with the disease was not a pleasant sight The ones we saw on Bushy had different parts of their bodies affected and one in particular I remember was a poor chap whose testicles were so large he was only mobile by carrying them in a sort of wheelbarrow. Others it was arms, legs, faces even and presented a pitiful sight. Not an island to visit.
Our own domestic arrangements in those early days could be described in one word - 'basic'. We slept in two man tents, our camp beds had to be raised off the ground some two or three feet to avoid not only the rats and snakes, but also the flood water because during some of the tropical storms, flash floods would occur and the water would stream through the tents in a matter of minutes. I had only been there a couple of days when I was awoken during the night by a sudden storm and saw shoes floating out through the tent opening like model boats.
Ablutions were a bit of a giggle. Attach a small drum with holes in the bottom to a coconut tree, hand pump water into it and 'voila!' one shower later modernised by the attachment of a real shower rose fixed to the drum. One of the amazing things about the island was that you could dig down four or five feet virtually anywhere on the island and you would find fresh water. I recall one hole being dug only feet from the beach and the water in it was not brackish so fresh water on the island was not going to present a problem, or so we thought.
Toilets were three buckets in a coconut frond shelter in a clearing. One was well advised to use them during daylight hours because should an urgent visit be necessary during the night and you were able to find them, you could never be sure who or what you would sharing them with, snakes were regular 'squatters'.
We Air Ministry civilians did not have our own mess at first. So some of us joined forces with about half a dozen RAF sergeants and organized the building of a mess just off the beach. It transpired that later, for a while, this became the official sergeants' mess and it was on record subsequently carried forward to the permanent mess when it was completed that the first two members of that mess were R.R.Halfacre and L. M. Chalk. The original building consisted of a bar and 'dining hall'. The construction was a timber frame of coconut tree trunks, the roof was layers of coconut palm fronds, the walls constructed of plaited fronds were only about four feet high, the remaining space to the roof was left open for coolness. Quite rustic and comfortable 'til hit by horizontal rain during tropical storms.
In those early days when we were totally reliant on the aircraft getting through with the food supplies - and there were times when it couldn't - it was then necessary to supplement our diet with fish caught in the lagoon. This was mainly tuna. We would go out in an RAF launch and were nearly always successful in landing a tuna up to three feet long. Fried tuna steaks were quite palatable on those occasions according to the majority, I do not find tuna attractive now but at that time, it was 'When needs must' I suppose.
This is probably a good time to pen a picture of the planning, organisation, manning etc. that was to go into the construction of the staging post
The whole job was intended to cost £4,700,000 - doesn't that sound a paltry amount now and is, compared with the one hundred million plus for the Millenium Dome. The main contractor was Costains. We - the Air Ministry (AMWD) - were to supply the plant, vehicles and equipment necessary to complete the work and to that end, all the lorries were specially designed and built by Thomeycroft to cope with the exacting conditions of the work and were all four-wheel drive with special gearboxes. There would also be articulated lorries, vans and Land Rovers. All of this would have to be shipped out from the U.K. and would be off-loaded on to landing craft and brought ashore through a channel blasted through the coral reef. More about the off-loading operation later.
The person in overall charge of the work was Alex Smith, Senior Resident Engineer, Air Ministry Works Directorate. In his team were Air Ministry civilians, consisting of civil engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, surveyors, architects, draughtsmen, us stores and accounts types, clerk of works, station engineers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and power station engineers.
Messrs. Costains team would be made up of much the same professions and trades as ours, but their main work force would be some 2000 Pakistanis, recruited in Pakistan and flown direct to Gan. They would be plant operators, drivers, carpenters, plumbers, labourers, cooks and bearers.
There had to be a small contingent of RAF personnel including aircraft maintenance, marine craft section to man the air-sea rescue launch and crew the landing craft. There was a medical officer and orderly, the MO. He was a gynaecologist would you believe. There was also a couple of RAF police. In charge of the RAF. contingent was a squadron leader, he had no jurisdiction over anyone else but did consider himself as Lord of the Island. He really enjoyed the early days, preferring to live in his tent like a true pioneer. Spent all his days careering around the island in his land rover, trying to order everyone about until Alex Smith put him in his place and then he just careered around the island ignored by everyone and the high-spot of his day was when an aircraft was making the flight from Ceylon and he had to make his weather prognosis.
So, we have an island a mile and a half long by three quarters of a mile wide which is to be transformed into a staging post with a runway extending the whole length of the island, living quarters, messes, hospital, cinema, tennis courts, aircraft maintenance section with huge fuel tanks, a fuel jetty to allow tankers to tie up and discharge their cargo of aviation fuel, a complete communication section on an adjoining island and various other ancillary projects connected with the staging post. But before any of this can be started, temporary camps would have to be erected to house Costains, the RAF contingent, the Pakistanis and us. The island was to become somewhat crowded.
I have no intention of giving a blow by blow description of the job as it progressed, merely some of the happenings which I hope may be of interest and perhaps amusing. The temporary runway was constructed at virtually right angles to what would eventually be the permanent runway. It was planned this way in order to minimise interference with the construction work of the main runway Built of compacted coral sand, the temporary runway was soon in use and the number of flights increased, each one bringing in more of the key personnel. A freighter arrived bringing with it the landing craft secured to its upper deck the channel through the reef was blasted out and the concrete ramp leading from it was completed.
I have deliberately steered clear of talking about the reef because later when things had settled down a bit, it was to play a large part in out leisure activities and deserves a chapter to itself
More ships arrived carrying the plant but there was one small snag, there were no qualified drivers on the island, the Pakistanis who had been recruited to do the driving were still in Pakistan due to delays with aircraft to fly them here. So my mate Les Chalk and me, not at this stage being overworked with the costing and accounting of the project, asked the 'Boss Man' Alex Smith if we could do the driving and having assured him we knew what we were doing, he agreed.
First to be unloaded into the landing craft were the bulldozers, only one per landing craft as they were huge. Les and I quickly 'genned' up on the rudiments of getting them moving forwards and backwards and raising the blade, - the book made it sound simple - but our attempt to drive the first ones off caused much hilarity to the assembled onlookers which soon ceased as the monsters, when given a bit of 'wellie' roared an erratic path up the ramp and the spectators fled. Once clear of the ramp, there was nothing to worry about because everything we pointed the 'dozer' at simply disappeared beneath it. The power of those machines was unbelievable and once we had all - I think it was ten of them -ashore and parked up some distance away, we had prepared a perfect track along which to drive everything else we brought ashore. Graders, earthmovers, cranes on tracks, cranes on wheels, lorries including articulated ones, vans, we drove the lot and had the time of our lives. What we found a little bit difficult at first was reversing the 'artics' through the coconut trees and back down the ramp on to the landing craft and taken back alongside the ships to be loaded up with more stores to come ashore. This was simpler than off-loading the stores into the landing craft and then having to manhandle them ashore.
Among the first items we brought off were the prefabricated buildings that were to be our living quarters, kitchen and mess buildings of which there were three. One for the senior staff, one for us non-industrials and the other for the industrials. My quarter was to be one of four in a block which would be sited right on the edge of the beach with the veranda facing out over the lagoon. These buildings had also been specially designed for Gan - far superior to those for the locals - mosquito proofed and the roofs highly polished to reflect the sun rather than absorb it and it was most successful, our quarters were always cool.
During the early months I became an honorary crew member of the air sea rescue launch, courtesy of F/Lt. Stone the marine craft section officer. It meant I had several long runs way out to sea because we would go out and meet every ship when due and escort it through the channel into the lagoon. I was often able to take the wheel when at high speed and that was really something. I remember the little wooden assault craft we had acquired when I was on the rocket craft. That one was capable of about 35 knots and was a bone-jerking ride but the air sea rescue launch was a much more substantial craft and apart from very rough weather was quite a smooth ride at 30+ knots.
As Christmas 1957 approached, things were beginning to get a bit organised. The NAAFI was operating from a shack made of coconut trunks and palm fronds, so our bar in the sergeants' mess generally speaking was quite well stocked.
Our new civilian messes were all but ready to use, but the Pakistani cooks and bearers had not arrived - the tradesmen took priority over the domestics when it came to flying them down from Pakistan. We moved into our quarters anyway, absolute heaven after the tents.
One incident that springs to mind when talking about Christmas 1957 was that during the early part of December, Les Chalk, George Povah and me occupied three of the four quarters. In our block we became rather fed up with the food being served in the sergeants' mess so we decided to' go it alone'. This did not present too much of a problem for us because quite a few things were available from the NAAFI and we could obtain eggs and chicken from the Maldivians. Cooking food was no problem at all, we had the brand new kitchen with its cookers, fridges etc. standing there idle so we used it.
A few days before Christmas, the NAAFI manager approached us saying he was having some fresh turkeys flown in for Christmas and could we possibly keep them in one of our fridges until required. We told him this presented no problems and very soon after we had three or four huge turkeys hanging in the fridge. Christmas Eve he came and removed all bar one of them to distribute to the various messes. After a few days. Les Chalk -who never missed a trick - went over to the NA.FI and told the manager that unfortunately the remaining turkey had gone bad and did he wish to have it back or should we dispose of it. With apologies for not having taken it away, the manager asked if we would mind disposing of it "No trouble at all" says Les and promptly came over to the kitchen, switched on an oven, and roasted what looked more like an ostrich than a turkey. It was huge and the three of us lived off it for days, breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, it was lovely and absolutely FREE!
The main runway was to be constructed of compacted ground coral, six inches of lean mix concrete and topped with four inches of pavement quality concrete. Supplies of coral were readily available but one day while carrying out test explosions on the reef to everyone's amazement rock was discovered which meant that contrary to popular belief the island was not formed entirely of coral and we now had an abundance of real hardcore to use in the runway construction. With the massive batching plant working virtually non-stop the runway noticeably grew day by day as did the huge apron. It all had to be cut at regular intervals and the joints filled with a special compound to allow for expansion and contraction according to the temperature. It was this compound that initiated the problems with our water supply in that rain washed the chemicals into the ground and contaminated all the water on or in the island Scientists proclaimed it was not harmful to drink and certainly no-one was taken ill from it but it made beverages like tea and coffee and the NAAFI's locally produced lemonade taste foul. Consumption of beer increased tremendously. Fortunately with the tropical storms unleashing torrential rains the problem eventually solved itself.
One day, a large beautiful yacht sailed into the lagoon and dropped anchor. Her name was Zarifa and belonged to Hans Haas, famous at the time for his underwater films of marine life currently being shown on television in the U.K. He was here to make a film about sharks in the Indian Ocean. His wife Lottie a very beautiful woman was not with him alas, she was in Ceylon expecting a baby and did not rejoin the Zarifa until long after the yacht had left Gan.
During the two or three weeks Hans Haas stayed in Gan, I had the opportunity of having several conversations with him about his life making underwater films. Some of us were invited aboard the Zarifa to watch him and his crew at work filming. We sat and watched it all on closed circuit television as he and a cameraman filmed sharks in the lagoon. At times they would swim righ tup to him and he would casually brush them aside with his hand. He said they would never be a danger to humans in the lagoon, because there was plenty of food for them but there was always the chance of an old or injured shark not fast enough to catch a meal might turn to easier prey such as a human if there happened to be one about. Of course since then, many studies have been made of sharks and their habits and the danger is not so great as was thought in those days. I still wouldn't give them the chance though. What we did have in the lagoon from time to time were huge Manta rays that came there to breed.
Another visitor one day unfortunately ended up staying. I was driving on the far side of the island, had a couple of Maldivians with me, when we came across a turtle on the beach. The Maldivians became quite excited and asked me to take it back to the village because it was quite a delicacy to them. We walked down the beach to collect it and it was only then that I realised how big it was. We managed to turn it over onto its back and drag it up to the land rover and manoeuvre it aboard. To give you some idea of its size, its shell would only just fit into the back of the land rover. I drove back to the village - this was before we moved them to the next island - where they hacked the poor thing to death and made a kind of stew with it and certainly enjoyed eating it. I was offered some but declined. Sadly I have no idea what happened to the shell but in any case it was far too big to bring home.
The months were passing by, we were using our own messes and kitchen staffed with the Pakistani cooks and waiters and life was not too bad. A committee had been formed with members from each of the three messes, to run the kitchen. They arranged the meals, supervision of the Pakistani staff, maintained the accounts and issued the food bills to all members.
Each mess had its own elected officers the most important being Bar Officer, a position every member had to hold because it really was hard work. Construction of the airfield continued virtually day and night so there were always some members calling in the mess at all hours, generally looking for a drink. It was not easy for the Bar Officer to carry out his normal duties and make certain that drinks were always available. From early evening to very late, he never left the bar.
As living conditions improved, it was amazing how the number of official VIP's increased The A.O.C. Far East, The Earl of Bandon was a regular visitor from Singapore and had his own personal aircraft. Much of his time on the island was spent, not with the 'Robinson Crusoe' squadron leader but going round meeting and chatting with everyone in their own messes. A very approachable chap. Another group of occasional visitors was members of the Maldivian Government in Male, the capital in the northernmost atoll of the chain. A special aircraft was laid on for those occasions. We didn't mind that but there were occasions when some Under Secretary of State decided to visit and that meant some essential stores, foodstuffs etc. would have to be left behind in Ceylon to make room for him and his entourage. The other annoying thing about those visits was having to wear a shirt!
I haven't mentioned that from the time we arrived we did employ some of the Maldivians. Initially it was as cleaners and dhobi boys and they became very jealous of their jobs. Later it was possible to employ some of them on other jobs and after we transferred them to the other island to live, it was quite a sight early in the morning to see them all arriving for work m their boats. It had been agreed with the Maldivian government that we paid the workers not with money - that was of no use to them - but with rice. I can't remember the formulae we used, but each week I would have to tot up the hours each man worked, translate that into pounds of rice, hand the rice to the headman who would distribute it to the men. This system worked very well to everyone's satisfaction until the headman was replaced by a Maldivian government official who started cheating the men out of their rice ration and we literally had a war on our hands. Another instance where education brings with it the opportunity to cheat your own people. Clearly demonstrated in the various countries of Afnca.
This was our first experience of angry Maldivians. These normally placid, happy people became a very dangerous mob with one intent, to catch the government representative who had swindled them and kill him. Of that I am sure they were quite capable and much as he deserved it, Alex Smith decided to defuse the situation. We took a load of extra rice to where the crowd were in the village square and gave it to them, reinstated the headman and let it be known to the crowd that all rice would in future be given to him, never to a government official. They had created quite a bit of damage in the village searching for the government official and even afier our assurances, they still wanted his head. He was secreted away under the protection of the RAF police and hidden until an aircraft could be sent to fly him out. Things were a bit 'dodgy' for a while, the British government considered the situation serious enough to despatch a destroyer to Gan for our protection. It swept into the lagoon all closed up at action stations and a little surprised to finds things had settled down. I have a feeling the gun crews were a little disappointed the opportunity to loose off a few rounds had disappeared The name of that first destroyer escapes me but it was relieved by another destroyer HMS Cavalier who stayed in the lagoon for about two weeks.
We were invited aboard to visit the Chiefs and P.O.'s messes on two or three occasions during the two weeks the ship was there, they made us very welcome and in an effort to repay them, we invited about ten of them ashore to our mess for an evening. We left all the catering arrangement to Bill Fairclough, a man approaching six feet in height. How Bill managed to lay on such a spread remains a mystery. He must have bribed aircrews to fly in some of the things. On the night, the Navy lads couldn't believe it, neither for that matter could we! It belied all the stories of the poor chaps on the island roughing it There was fresh cold turkey, ham, beef, there was a whole crayfish per person and a wonderful variety of salad. It turned out to be a superb evening. As usual, the peculiar properties in the beer had the effect of reverting men to their ape ancestry, convincing them they could climb trees again. Several attempts were made on the coconut trees outside the mess, the best attempt was to the height of about twelve feet but all ended up the same way with each 'Tarzan' sliding gently back to earth, arms enveloping the trunk of the tree like some ardent lover. Result, ripped shirts and grazed chests. I have thought many times since that had it all been videoed, it might have helped some professor with his studies of man, or then again, it might have made him change his occupation. There were also attempts from time to time to ride bicycles up trees and on one notorious occasion the 'bossman' Alex Smith tried it with a Land Rover. That didn't work either - neither did the Land Rover! Yet the local natives would shin up the coconut trees, no effort at all and retrieve coconuts - so much for us superior chaps.
Some of us were also made very welcome on the merchant ships and treated to some lovely meals. The senior officers on most of these ships, Captain, 1st Officer, Chief Engineer etc. were allowed to bring their wives which was very nice for them because these trips were virtually around the world and took eight or nine months They had come to Gan from the U.K. via the Suez Canal and when they had off-loaded in Gan, would proceed to Ceylon, then eastwards to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and across the Pacific to America, through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic and home, picking up and dropping cargo en-route.
Time was passing, the island was taking on the appearance of a huge slab of concrete with buildings beginning to sprout up. A pier was being constructed out over the reef so that there would be clear water for tankers to berth against and discharge their cargo of aviation fuel direct by pipe to the huge storage tanks to be assembled at one end of the island.
Time for U.K. leave was fast approaching. It had been agreed we would have two U.K. leaves during the two years construction period and believe me, the 'powers that be' were not being over generous. Living on that island despite the lighter moments was hard going. Films of tropical islands portray them as being so idyllic but Gan could evaporate those visions very quickly. We hung suits in wardrobes and three months later all that remained were a few buttons on the floor having rotted completely away. Within days, any clothing left banging would be covered in green mould. Walk on coral sand for a few weeks in leather shoes and all that would be left was the uppers. The slightest graze or cut would immediately turn septic if coral sand got anywhere near it I mentioned earlier that we were all supposed to be Al fit but that the Power Station Engineer sent out there had an artificial leg. Every three or four days he would have to take to his bed feeling absolutely rotten. The RAF doctor examined him regularly but could find nothing wrong him. One day I was talking to Hans Haas and happened to mention how every few days this chap was laid low with some peculiar complaint. Hans Haas asked if it would possible for his physician to examine him, which he duly did. When he had finished his examination he asked if he could take the artificial leg bock aboard the Zarifa to shorten it ever so slightly. When he brought it back and it was fitted back on, the chap never had another day's illness. According to the physician, the motion created by walking on the coral sand with his artificial leg was making him 'seasick' and the slight adjustment to the leg completely cured it. We were impressed!

Back on Gan, my four weeks leave in U.K had taken eight weeks to accomplish and the progress made was quite noticeable as the island became transformed.
I must comment on the state of the plant and vehicles that Les Chalk and I had driven ashore brand new, less than twelve months ago. At times the operating capacity of the bulldozers was reduced to about 50%. The Pakistani drivers had taken them over and inside a few weeks one 'dozer had been driven off the edge of the reef and lost in hundreds of feet of water - the driver had managed to jump clear -, two other 'dozers had to be cannibalised because the drivers inflicted so much damage with their bad driving that sufficient spares could not be supplied from the U.K in time to keep them all running.
Local conditions played havoc with the vehicles Without exception, all the Bedford vans were off the road, their bodies completely rusted through with the coral sand and salt The articulated lorries had aged far beyond their year of life but could still transport supplies. The Land Rovers stood up to the conditions best of all and kept running without too much attention. The specially designed four wheel drive Thorneycroft lorries had suffered mainly due to the appalling driving of the Pakistanis. Many of the gearboxes had been completely stripped and but for the expertise of Costain's M.T. engineer, very few of the lorries would have been working. Despite all of this, the job was proceeding to schedule
Earlier I mentioned what a major part the reef played in our leisure activities. Each island had it own coral reef which is a living thing growing all the time. From the beach outside our quarters, the reef extended out into the lagoon some thirty yards before dropping sheer away to a depth of several hundred feet At low tide a lot of the reef was exposed and it was fascinating to walk on it watching the multi-coloured fish and to examine the variety of corals. Quite early on we discovered a weird looking fish which we sent to the British Museum and they identified it as a rare species of stone fish. You had to be wary of Moray eels, they could give you a very nasty bite. We built a raft which we could pull out to the edge of the reef and sit there fishing and watching all the marine life, it was marvellous. There was also an abundance of shells on the reef, all sizes and shapes and as1 discovered later, some were quite rare and worth quite a lot of money. It was also confirmed that a lot of the shells had only previously been found on The Great Barrier Reef off the East Coast of Australia One unfortunate thing was that the beautifully coloured coral soon lost its colour when brought out of the water and dried It was necessary to be very careful when walking on the reef, one tiny scratch from the coral turned septic in a very short time. But many happy hours were spent on the reef.
This atoll was full of surprises. Occasionally we would take a boat to other of the islands and on one of them was a house with a mosaic floor very similar to Roman ones I have seen in say Italy or Malta. Never did find out how it came to be there or how old it was.
I know mention has constantly been made of the NAAFI, but it was the major supplier for most of our needs, beer, cigarettes etc. Selling these items in our messes, we could charge what we liked for them providing we did not sell cheaper than the NAAFI canteen charged. After some months, our mess had accumulated quite a large amount of funds so we decided that all drinks dispensed on a Monday would be free. The only effect that had was that in the main, members did not drink on a Monday and what was consumed did little to reduce the funds so that arrangement was dropped. The way we did eventually reduce funds was to order additional 'goodies' from Ceylon for special dinners and we also provided each member with a silver tankard suitably engraved with the members' names. We obtained the tankards from Singapore.
A regular visitor to our mess was the RAF adjutant, he couldn't get on with the Robinson Crusoe Squadron Leader and asked if he could possibly on occasions join us for a drink. Incidentally it was he and his wife I was sitting with in the Officers Mess in Singapore when I was waiting for the mystery civilian VIPs to arrive. Anyway, one night in our mess on Gan who should appear but the adjutant. He had obviously had a few drinks but we refused him admission because he was not wearing a tie. He disappeared but after a few minutes was back without a stitch of clothing on other than a tie tied around his waist adjusted to present a modicum of decency. He was immediately allowed in and there remained for the rest of the evening having conformed with the rules of the mess, which stated "After 1800 hrs ties will be worn".
Our second Christmas on the island was almost on us and with much improved food and with good accommodation, the festive season promised to be a good one. The job was going well, relations between Costains and us (Air Ministry) had improved a lot. Inter mess visits over the holiday took on a far more convivial atmosphere.
On Boxing Day, Costains invited us to their mess for lunch and treated us most royally. I found myself at the top end of the table next to Costains senior agent - whose name escapes me. A marvellous meal was laid on with fine wines, no expense spared. Over coffee, the agent asked me what I would like to drink saying he was going to have a Remy Martin. Yes this was a mysterious introduction to what I consider to be the best cognac in as much that on this occasion it came in the shape of a full bottle, not a glass for my enjoyment. The agent also had a bottle to himself as did George Povah sitting opposite me. The party continued for quite a while, thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. But there was a sequel. A few weeks later I was checking the details of an interim payment request from Costains for work done and stores purchased and lo and behold carefully hidden among all the items was one covering the whole cost of food and drink for the party they had laid on for us on Boxing Day amounting to several hundred pounds. Some of the friendly accord evaporated when Boss Man Alex Smith returned the account to them with an instruction to pay it themselves, it would not be met from public funds.

"Now Costains gave us a wonderful time
And at Christmas asked us to wine and dine.
It didn't even cost a bob
For they booked it down as part of the job."

Occasionally we received visits from foreign warships that came to around in the lagoon but none were allowed to drop anchor or stay. Also had a couple of private yachts call in for water but they were not made too welcome and prolong their visit.
Sometime in the second year, the 'powers that be' decided we should cease paying the Maldivians rice for their labour and instead, they should receive wages paid in Sterling like any other employed person. I acknowledge that not having to freight it in from Ceylon made more space for more important stores and of course it was far simpler to calculate their 'dues' To avoid bringing them all over to Gan for payment, I took the money over to the other islands by means of a little fibre glass dinghy with an out-board. Made pleasant little excursions. But paying them in cash I thought a very unwise move because having seen us go into the NAAFI to purchase gramophone records for the mess, they would buy similar things with nothing to play them on. They bought other electrical items but they had no electricity supply to use them and it caused a lot of upset among the families
For some time past I had had another little job to keep me occupied. Boss man Alex Smith was not happy with the Pakistani labour force. He was convinced there was a lot of work dodging going on in the Pakistani camp particularly among the kitchen staff resulting in the main labour force turning up late for work blaming the cooks for not having meals ready early enough. There being over 2000 Pakistanis, it meant the kitchen staff having to work shifts throughout the 24 hours of each day in order to meet the demand.
I made my first visit to the camp kitchen between one and two o'clock in the morning and immediately had a roll call of all staff who should be working that shift There were several absentees and when I enquired as to their whereabouts it was "Oh Sahib, men gone mosque praying". I had little doubt they were in their chaipoys so I told the head chap in the kitchen that in future all praying would be done when not shift working and when I visited again if there was anyone missing, I would stop a day's pay from everyone. Naturally there were loud protests but it worked because any future visits I made it was always "All men present Sahib" - and they were.

"The Pakistanis have great renown
For working hard at laying down
But if you ask them what they're at,
They're saying their prayers without a mat."

In the kitchen were huge vats some filled with lamb curry, others with boiled rice and huge piles of freshly baked chapaths. We had a Pakistani clerk working in our office, he invited a couple of us over to the camp for a meal, it was delicious.
My second U.K. leave was in March 1958. Again it was Ceylon to Singapore by Hastings but this time it was by RA.F. Comet from Singapore to the U.K. there were no mix ups or delays involved with the return flight to Gan, the difference with the flight was that I flew Comet to Karachi and then Hastings to Ceylon.
When I arrived at Gan, there was a letter dated l7th.March 1959 waiting for me, advising me that a provisional booking had been made for my passage home at the end of the tour. I would be travelling on the P&O Strathaird, berth 49, sailing from Ceylon on 4th October 1959. Les Chalk was also booked on this ship.
Several of us had decided some months earlier that rather than fly home, it would be nice to round off the 'Gan Experience' with a leisurely trip home by sea. In the event and partially due to the disintegration of clothing on Gan - described earlier - we later cancelled the sea trip and settled for air travel.
On the subject of aircraft, an incident occurred one day that forced the authorities into providing an aircraft permanently based on the island on stand-by duties. It so happened one day that a tailboard on a lorry dropped on the head of a Pakistani labourer causing quite serious injuries. It was immediately obvious that our
primitive medical facilities on the island could not deal with the injury and the man would have to be urgently evacuated to a hospital in Ceylon. There was considerable delay before an aircraft could be sent and the man's life hung in the balance for some hours, which must have seemed like days to our gynaecologist medical officer who worked wonders to keep him alive. Eventually he was airlifted to a hospital in Ceylon where he recovered but his mental state was so impaired that he could not work again and was flown home to Pakistan. We had been extremely lucky up to that stage that no serious accidents had occurred, but now we were to have an aircraft on permanent standby - thankfully only one horse had bolted before the stable door was closed, metaphorically speaking.
We were advised that an aircraft had left U.K. with a crew of two, pilot and navigator but then it went U.S. in Egypt. Spares were flown out from U.K. and it must have been about two weeks later when it lobbed into Gan. Good, relief all round, we were now covered for emergencies - or were we?
The aircraft could carry enough fuel to reach Ceylon with TWO persons aboard, pilot and navigator, but if it had to carry a third - injured - person, it could not reach Ceylon which meant it would have to leave the navigator behind and the pilot would have to do his own navigation with absolutely no navigational aids on the 500 mile trip across the ocean.
By June/July 1959 the transformation of the island was well on the way to completion. The service messes, quarters. NAAFI. Club, church, administration block, technical buildings, hospital, in fact everything necessary for the staging post to operate were well on schedule, the communications section and navigational aids were still waiting for a lot of equipment. More R.A.F. personnel were beginning to arrive.
Must mention the huge safe that arrived by ship one day destined for the administration block, there were no keys with it. No problem for Les Chalk, he opened it in seconds much to the concern of the RAF.
With the new runway available, we started to see other types of aircraft flying stores in, the Beverly Box Car became a regular visitor. It appeared huge when standing alongside it, the twin tail planes were the size of double decker busses. The old faithful Hastings made many trips until one day, one came in carrying mail and a couple of passengers and as it touched down, the starboard side undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft ended up a sorry looking heap on the edge of the runway - a write off.

"They told us Hastings would do the trick,
And get our mail here twice as quick,
One came in the other day,
And by the look of the wreck, its here to stay!"

That is a verse from a ballad composed by one of our charge hands, Gordon Wright, to the tune of 'Island in the Sun'. Practically every incident that happened on the island, earned a verse in the ballad and on most occasions was being sung the day the incident occurred. Unfortunately not all are suitable to be reproduced here, but you will already have noticed a couple of verses I have included.
A Comet lV was expected one day on a proving flight from U.K. A big day this so practically everyone turned out to see its arrival and landing on the new runway. It came sweeping in, touched down and two tyres burst in a cloud of smoke from burning rubber. It could have been a real disaster but for the pilot managing to hold the aircraft on the runway until it came to a halt, leaving two long scores in the runway behind it A big RAF enquiry followed and the conclusion reached - 'The accident was due to an unsatisfactory runway surface causing the tyres to burst' or words to that effect. Boss man Alex Smith was furious that the RAF were using 'his' runway as the reason for the accident, refused to accept the findings and demanded a further enquiry at which he or a representative be present. The Air Ministry backed him and pressure was brought to bear and a further hearing took place. What came out at this hearing was that the aircraft had descended from maximum height much too quickly and that the wheel hydraulics were still frozen solid and on touch down, the wheels were unable to spin. I saw those tyres and they looked as if someone had taken a large knife to them and sliced a huge chunk out of each. The runway was exonerated and Boss man Alex Smith was happy again.
Pleased to say there were no more accidents although more and more aircraft were being used to fly in supplies. The island couldn't yet be used as a staging post for regular passenger flights because all the required navigational aids were not operable, neither was adequate available accommodation and facilities should a stop over be necessary.
The time for me to leave Gan was getting near and thoughts turned to the events on the island during the last two years and how it has affected the local people. My lasting memory is the absolute friendliness of the Maldivians in the early days, I am not a communist but the communal living of these people certainly evoked an attitude of share and share alike and help thy neighbour. Now, two years later how are they? Their island is wrecked for ever - although as a staging post it had soon outlived. its usefulness due to more modern and longer ranged aircraft - they were displaced to another island, provided with houses quite unfitted to their way of life and which they didn't use, changed their attitudes to one another to the extent they took what they could for themselves, not for each other, much more 'What's mine is mine`, the fall out from our western ways, does that sound
cynical? No, it is what seems to happen all over the world in the name of progress. I have no idea what is happening on Gan now, maybe it is a holiday resort and as such can I suppose provide something for the islanders.
There was one final little twist before I left I received notification that a booking had been made for Les Chalk and me on a flight leaving Katunayake, Ceylon on 22nd September 1959. Unfortunately Boss man Alex Smith had, over the past few weeks, due to the pressure of the job, become rather difficult to deal with and one night after he had had a few drinks, I was talking to him about my leaving the island in time to catch the flight from Ceylon on 22nd September 1959. He thought about for a few minutes then said "You are not tour ex until 241h, September and you are not leaving the island before that date."
The next day he wrote a letter to RAF Movements pointing out that he "had requested a booking be made for Mr.R.Halfacre departing Gan on 24th September or, first available aircraft thereafter and the booking made for Mr.R.Halfacre on 22nd September from Ceylon was unacceptable." He went on "To save him considerable embarrassment in the future, please make arrangements in accordance with my instructions. " Despite all that fuss Les and I left Gan in time to catch the flight on 22nd September - but we didn't make it! As I will explain later.
Les and I had our farewell party in the mess, said our farewells and were carried aboard a D.C.3 (Dakota) which fortunately had a couple of beds as well as seats. The pilot did a low circuit of the island for our benefit before heading for Ceylon and Gan, that slab of concrete, gradually vanished in the heat haze……

So finally I arrived at Milford on Sea, surprising everyone because no one had any idea where I was. After a few days we returned to Launceston to await knowledge of where I was to be posted next. Not long to wait, I reported for duty at EQ Coastal Command on 5 .October 1959 to work for the Chief Engineer. That didn't last very long because on 30t1~November 1959 I was transferred to No. 10 Works Area at RNF.Station Ruislip but only until February 1960 when I was transferred to No.6 Works Area, Exeter there to remain until 1963. No more overseas postings despite requests for tours of duty on different Pacific Ocean islands such as Gilbert and Ellis, but no luck.
I would like to finish with just one more verse from the ballad 'Desert Island they call Gan'.

"When I return to my motherland,
And leave behind all the sweat and sand.
I'll wish the clowns who on Gan are stuck
The very best of British luck!"


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