Gan - A Short History
by Alistair Currah (courtesy of Doug Herbertson)

With great sadness I have to report the death of Doug Herbertson on 1st March 2001 after a long illness. When I first started this project, I really didn't know how much enthusiasm there would be for it, but upon meeting fellows like Doug, I knew it would be worthwhile. He remembered his time on Gan with great fondness, and the long typewritten tale he did for me about his time on Gan and Hittadu, and about his ramblings in the G.I.P, were so descriptive and colourful I knew that a website would be a worthwhile project. Thank you Doug for infecting me with your enthusiasm. Rest In Peace.
'Alistair Currah'
On Gan of the Maldives. Some time ago, I met a chap called Doug Herbertson at his home in Warminster, Wilts. He was an ex Gannite, ex Hittadu Hermit to be precise, and he wished to lend me his slides and a couple of Gan Island Posts to help with my project. He also gave me a many worded, detailed essay of his time on Hittadu. Excellent stuff! The most intriguing thing he gave me however was a dog eared book. This book, completely anonymous on the outside, was called "In The East My Pleasure" and was by J. Alan Thompson. It was published in 1949 and the publisher was Andrew Dakars of London. Now I have to say here that the writing style was virtually unintelligible, and I cannot say that I have read the whole book. But Doug pointed out a few pages that were of interest. They relate to a British soldier posted to Addu during WW11 and here are one or two passages:

"...... The guarding islands burst from the clutching waves with names to be branded upon our empty tongues, lovely and evil names, the names of serpents. Gan, Willingilli, Hittadu, Maradu, Midu, Fedu, Heratera. Scene for an episode of sweat, disease and dismal dying. Sleek cocoon for the waiting typhus born of the angered rats brought to earth from the crashing jungle palms. There are no crosses, no romantic helmets resting on the soggy cross-piece. The sea, the anatomist, dissected with blunt knives our canvas covered comrades. The red equator cut across the atoll water. Figures without shadows, sexual Peter Pans. Our anchor trailed the depth of the atoll......"

"...... On Gan of the Maldives we fought the jungle and the sweeping rain for space and breath. The white tents hugged the shore, bound by the lifting glare from the brilliant coral sand. The trees dipped. Husks of coconuts bred our death. Our leather became a brown, pulpy paste. The locks rotted and fell from our mouldering baggage. The coral sand launched a cankering invasion of the human ear. No animal lived, no crop breathed, the fish swam deep. Only the coconut thrived....."

"..... Tinned salmon, bully beef, tea. For months. Appetizing, nourishing, sustaining. Cold and tepid. Covered with our breeding flies. Seething and copulating on the open tin. Rags and handkerchiefs salt with sweat, the crutch cold and damp, the blistered armpits, forehead a-rash with ceaseless itch. Prickly heat marching round the body in thickening red columns. Tinned salmon, bully beef, tea. And no mail......"

And so the book rambled on. Addu atoll in 1942 was a far different kettle of fish to what it became later. The atoll, together with Kelaa in the north of the Maldive chain, was a major refuelling point for allied shipping during the War. Addu, a top secret base known as Port "T", was heavily defended. Nearly all the islands had gun emplacements and were linked, apparently, by a light railway built on causeways. Cruisers, troopships, battleships and aircraft carriers were frequent visitors. Radar and Radio were installed. Catalinas and Sunderlands constantly flew missions from the lagoon.
Plans were drawn up for airfields on Gan and Midu in the latter part of 1942 for the Fleet Air Arm. For unknown reasons, one was never built on Midu, but on Gan 3 runways were constructed from crushed coral. These rudimentary runways handled a lot of traffic, mainly search and rescue Walruses, and Dakotas. Submarine hunting in the mid Indian Ocean was also a major activity, using Liberators and Catalinas.
One fellow, Jack Burgess, recalls going after German U boat U/862. After the success of ENIGMA in the Atlantic, many of these craft were sent elsewhere to seek new targets. The Indian Ocean proved to be a happy hunting ground for them. Jack, in a 160 Sqn Liberator, was sent with two others to Addu to try to intercept U/862 before it reached its destination, Penang. The three Lib crews were warned that Gan had very short runways, leaving absolutely no room for error. Two of the Libs landed OK, but the other hit a navigation light on coming in to land, and ripped its bomb bay doors off, rendering it unserviceable. Unfortunately U/862 got away, There was just too much ocean and only two Libs to cover it, an impossible task. After eight days at Addu, Sqn Ldr Stacey and Jack stayed behind to patch up the u/s aircraft, which was achieved using corrugated sheeting! Upon returning to their base at Ratmalana, Ceylon, the Liberator was found to be more seriously damaged than at first thought, and was declared a write-off. Liberators were also regularly flown from Gan on Meteorological flights.
The atoll luckily escaped major attack during the War, the only real casualty being the "British Loyalty", a ship that had called in for fuel and was subsequently torpedoed .A high flying aircraft had been spotted over the lagoon a week previously, and although searches were made by aircraft from Gan, it wasn't found. But days later, a Japanese submarine spotted a gap in the anti torpedo nets and firing diagonally, hit the ship. The attack, at night, woke the entire atoll with the explosion. Luckily no one was killed, but the ship was badly damaged. It remained at anchor until after the war, when it was towed south-east of Hittadu and scuttled. Today the ship is a diving attraction.
The Maldivians, for their part, found the whole thing very exciting. Normally very much a backwater as far as world affairs were concerned, the horrors of a World War would seem very distant to them. For most of the time, their idea of WW11 were of men with fantastic gleaming noisy machines roaring out of the sky, and huge ships steaming constantly in and out of the lagoon. The dreadful inhumanities of the European and Far East war was to them, virtually non existent. It could be assumed that they were very unwilling to be drawn into a war that didn't concern them. But it must be remembered that the Maldive Islands were a British Protectorate at the time, and they felt very loyal to Britain. Whatever they could do to help, they willingly did.
British Forces straddled the Maldives, having bases not only in Addu in the South, Kelaa in the North, but also a refuelling point for seaplanes at Male, the capital. To the British serviceman however, Addu was a hateful place. Re-supplies were always late and mail virtually non existent. Most of the War passed Addu by, and those based there spent most of the time bored rigid, struggling to keep dry and above all, disease free in the steamy tropical jungle. Amenities were virtually nil. The RAF, when they came back in `57, realized that to post servicemen there, there had to at least be something to occupy the mind, so sports and pastimes were introduced. These were expanded as the years went on. Hardly any such thing existed for the poor wretches sent there during the war. It was a thoroughly disliked, unremembered posting, and deservedly so.
Gan was closed in March `45 although American B-25`s used it occasionally, without British permission, for a few more months. By the end of the year there was no Western presence anywhere in Add atoll, and the Adduans were left again to their peaceful existence, far from the world's gaze. The peace didn't last long though.......
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