My Memories of RAF Gan - 1960
by Ken Hall

On 7 November 1960, two hundred and forty six people arrived at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire to commence their induction into the Royal Air Force. Of these, 123 were National Service conscripts - in fact the very last intake of the many millions who had been conscripted since 1939. These last few of the many consisted of a wide and varied cross-section of academic and social life. All of these people had been deferred from National Service mainly for professional and educational reasons but now their time had come. Scientists, engineers, teachers, musicians, solicitor, pharmacist, vicar, meteorologist and a professional cyclist made up the disconsolate group. From this group many firm and lasting friendships were formed for it is true that you never have friends like the friends you make in the Forces.

After ten days this group moved on to RAF Bridgnorth in Shropshire to commence eight weeks of actual Basic Training and from there the 123 were split up into different groups and posted to their respective Trade Training Units. It is worth noting that between the arrival of this group in Bedfordshire and up to their departure from Bridgnorth only three people joined the RAF as volunteers!

Focus now on our heroes Graham Barker (Welling, Kent) and Ken Hall (Stockton-on-Tees) who had met at Cardington and were to spend the next eighteen months together moving from Bridgnorth to the Number One Radio School at RAF Locking, near Weston-super-Mare in Somerset and, following their training in Somerset, being posted to RAF Gan - a small (very small) island in the Indian Ocean within the Maldive islands chain.

The momentous journey to the Maldives was made even more significant by the presence of a film crew immediately before take-off who were making a 'Look At Life' film popular at the time as a filler between the B-movie and the main feature film at cinemas of the day. This particular film was 'Look At Life: Transport Command'. I never saw the film myself although my family all went to see it at the local Odeon and my girlfriend saw it twice!

The flight to Gan was from RAF Lyneham in a Comet-2 making an overnight stop at RAF El Adem in Libya. Sand, sand and more sand are the only memories of El Adem. An opinion confirmed the next day when an almost scramble to take off occurred in order to beat an approaching sand storm which, from the air, could be seen continuing for hundreds of miles. Geography and maps were symbolic and almost comical in that the flight ran down the western border of Egypt and made a sharp, ninety degree left turn at 'Egyptian Corner' to make the run across more desert, the Red Sea and into the Aden Protectorate landing at RAF Khormaksar for a refuelling stop. After about a two hour stop, the final leg of the journey was across the Indian Ocean for 2,142 miles before landing at about ten o'clock in the evening at RAF Gan. If we had known at the time just exactly how small the island was, then no doubt there would have been a mass panic on the Comet. The question I still often ask myself is not just how the hell did he (the pilot) find it but how did he get it down in such a small space without getting the wheels wet at one end or the other.

Disembarking from the aircraft, the first impressions were fivefold. The heat (still about 800F at that time of night), the humidity, the smell (rotting vegetation), the noise (constant croaking of the frogs - everywhere) and the inky-blackness of the night sky.

A meal in the transit lounge and a brief 'welcome to paradise island' message before being directed to our 'homes' for the next twelve months. All I could think of then was that it might look better in the morning. And so it did. It still had the rotting vegetation smell everywhere, it was still hot even at six-thirty in the morning but nothing can prepare you for the biggest bluest skies in the world nor for the heat which would build as the day wore on,

The actual history of Gan is fairly well documented as far as the UK Forces are concerned but from a day-to-day living point of view then everybody who was resident on the island will have their own stories to tell. From a daily standpoint, the constant round of work shifts and general duties were pretty routine and it would have been easy to fall into a stupefied sense of boredom, For a start, the island is just over a mile long -running into the sea at both ends of the runway, less than half a mile wide at the widest points and only four feet nine inches at the peak! It took one hour and ten minutes to walk round the island with your feet in the water all the way! It got light - very quickly (almost cartoonesque) - at six in the morning and it got dark -just as quickly or so it seemed - at six in the evening. The benefit of living 'on' the equator. Two monsoon periods each year which brought rain like nobody had ever seen before and in between the monsoons were the sunniest days of your life - literally. The blessing was the fact that Gan is an island and benefited from a sea breeze that helped to keep the temperature down though it did nothing to diminish the constant glare of the sun despite the government-issue sunglasses.

So what sticks in the mind outside of the daily routine? There was the night that all hell broke loose, Klaxon horns and flares alerted us to the 'MV Thomasso' (not sure about the spelling now) which was an Italian registered ship trading round the islands of the Indian ocean and which called at the Addu Atoll twice a year for trading with the local population. It had mistaken the navigation lights on top of the radio receiver masts on the western side of the island for the navigation lights and buoys in the Gan Channel and run aground on the outer reef It was stuck there for a couple of weeks until a group of army engineers arrived from Singapore and set charges to blast the coral reef sufficiently to let the ship float free without letting the sea in to swamp the island. That ship traded with the natives all sorts of goods including electrical goods such as radios (mains operated), electric sewing machines and other similar items of consumer goods. What makes that remarkable is the fact that the other islands where the local, Maldivian population lived did not have any electrical supply. Sewing machines, for example, were regarded as status symbols and merely adorned the walls of the locals' huts as seen and witnessed when on the canoe trips (more of that later).

In 1962, the issue of a new £1 banknote made it necessary for the 'old' banknote to be withdrawn and H.M. Forces were not excluded. In fact, due to geography, it was essential that the older banknotes were collected en-masse for return to the UK for disposal and so a deadline date was set. This was, I think, around March time. All RAF personnel handed in their £1 notes on the set date and had new notes in exchange. Simple. Personally, I drew ten shillings (50p) each fortnight on pay-day and lived the 'life of Riley' with it. Only 7d (3.5p) for a tin of Markovitch Black & White cigarettes (25), a tin of 'Slops' (Allsops) beer 4d (1.666p} In fact the most 'costly' item was the two shillings and sixpence (12.5p) paid to the room boy or dhobi walla (very non-PC) every fortnight. For that princely sum he cleaned, polished, washed, starched and ironed every day as much as he was given every day by everybody in the block (living quarters). And each block had its own room boy. These room boys lived on the adjacent islands in their own communities and simply waded and walked or sailed to work every morning at around 7 am, returning to their homes around 4 p.m. The room boy for Block 58 was 'Mussah' who had been around simply forever. Spindly, bow-legged, five feet four inches tall, forever grinning showing his betel-juice-stained teeth he would at regular intervals ask for one of us to shop for him at the NAAFI (locals were not allowed to buy anything from the NAAFI shop). On this particular day he asked 'you getting me cigaretty' and produced a £1 note to pay for the transaction. Unfortunately for Mussab, he was asking some weeks after the old notes had gone back to the UK. 'This money no good', I told him. Noooooo!' he said, 'good money, Queen's money.' 'No, this garbage money.' And so it went on, trying to convince him that his £1 was just so much worthless paper.

The following morning, Mussah - a very subdued Mussah - arrived carrying a large sized, expanding suitcase fully expanded and jam packed with the old style £1 notes! There must have been a small fortune in that case. A large fortune to a National Service man with the rank of SAC who only got paid under £2 per week including overseas and other allowances.

The canoe? An inhabitant of Block 58, Jim Martin, decided to build a canoe. There were some small sailing dinghies and canoes available but these belonged to the sailing club and had to be booked out when you could get onto the list. A Scot and obviously revelling in his Scots ship building heritage, Jim enlisted the help of various other Block 58 inhabitants with the promise of an occasional passage in the finished article. All of the necessary construction materials were available on the island - and so they were. In the AMWD compound to be exact! The Air Ministry Works Department had a compound with all sorts of rich pickings. So rich that they were surrounded by a very high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. But the AMWD reckoned without Jim Martin. Under cover of that previously mentioned inky black night, Jim and his little helper 'gained access' to the compound and liberated two wooden pallets from which the ribs and spars were fashioned. The construction plan involved the use of a hammer and pliers to remove the nails from the pallets to release the timber for more essential use. Cutting and shaping the timber was by means of a hacksaw, drilling and screwing by virtue of a Yankee screwdriver, the most amazing tool available in those days. Jim's design was for a two-man vessel with the added luxury of a foot-pedal operated rudder, which would leave both sets of hands for paddling and speed. In retrospect, the ribs and stringer assembly seemed to be the easiest part. How could it be made buoyant and waterproof? The AMWD yard was to provide the two other essential components for the fabrication of the canoe. Another clandestine visit to the yard produced a tarpaulin, nice, new, unspoiled and some tins of red paint. The rest, as they say, is history except to say that Jim had more 'friends' than he could cope with as soon as the launch day had passed. Although 'off limits' to all personnel, the canoe did make possible visits to the other islands on the western side of the atoll from Fedu right up to Hittadu where the radio transmitter unit was located at the northern tip. This is how the 'icons of status' were viewed hanging from the walls of the local huts.

New aircraft were always a welcome sight. It created great excitement and went a good way to relieve the potential boredom. All aircraft have specific landing approaches and instructions for every airfield. When a new type of aircraft is introduced then the relevant approach plans have to be researched, tried out and tested before they become standard instructions. Approaching Gan demonstrated many potential and actual problems for flight crews and conversations with a number of crews clearly indicated that even experienced 'Gan-flyers' had to take extra care on this approach. Flying-in over the Indian ocean with the thermals coming off the surface of the sea are as nothing compared to the thermal experience when the sea is now below-and-behind and what is below now is white, very hot concrete. The sudden 'lift' causes all sorts of problems especially with a runway which is relatively short anyway and does not leave any room for errors. Many an afternoon's sport was obtained watching 'new' aircraft or crews doing their thing trying to get it right. On one occasion a squadron of Vulcan bombers en-route for Singapore circled for a long time as their leader tried and tried and tried before getting it right to touch down. After that, they started coming in until number four blew the starboard tyres and careered down the runway on the wheel rims and getting closer and closer to the edge of the concrete. Eventually, it had to go off and settled down gently into the soft coral-earth with the right hand wheels but with the port wing and tail sufficiently protruding over the runway to bother the fifth and last man who had to continue circling until the beached Vulcan could be dragged a little further out of line so that the last landing could take place.

One of the most exciting times connected with new aircraft was the arrival of the first Comet-4C, Probably the most beautiful aircraft ever built, the 4C handled (according to its pilot at that time) easier and better than a fighter plane. He was able to demonstrate these handling characteristics to the delight of those personnel not indoors working the afternoon shift when he carried out the most stunning display of low passes and tight turns over the inner lagoon. The following day, there was a request for volunteer passengers to make up weight for the Comet in order for payload characteristics to be established on the landing approach and for take-offs. So great was the demand for those free seats that a full afternoon was spent ferrying 'Erks' on several great jaunts round and round the islands presenting great photo opportunities to those that had actually thought about it!

The charisma of flying in the 4C certainly had the edge over a sixteen-hour stint in the resident Shackleton aircraft stationed on Gan. It was possible to get away for a day (!) by putting your name down for a flight with the Search and Rescue duty squad. Spartan by nature, the Shackleton was a real boneshaker with the luxury of 'deck-chair' seats. After take off, you were committed for the duration of the exercise which typically would be
'searching` squares of ocean in a pattern to simulate a search mission for whatever might be lost or in distress. The big plus was that on a day of 'circuits and bumps' there were splendid opportunities for aerial pictures of the island and its neighbours. Pictures now seen in travel brochures for the Maldives are very evocative of those hot sunny days spent swanning around in the ageing, rattling confines of the 'Shack'. It could be a boring day but it was a different kind of boring day.

A friend who was a budding journalist with my home local paper caused a personal embarrassment. He had met my mother in the local high street a few months after I had left for Gan and had asked her how I liked it and what did I do on the desert island to fill my time. She told him that as I was interested in photography and that part of my work before starting National Service had been industrial photography I had joined the camp photo club, which had all the facilities for developing and processing. The first I knew about it was upon entering the airman's mess one lunchtime to be greeted with howls of ridicule and derision from the lads and to see a newspaper cutting pinned up on the notice board. This article (copy attached) stated that I had solved the problem of filling my leisure time by forming a photographic society! A further example of not letting truth get in the way of a good story. One thing I especially remember about the camp photo club was the cold! In the interests of preserving the various chemicals and papers it was necessary to maintain a steady temperature inside the building. An air-conditioning unit had been installed which kept the temperature at 680F - a very welcome figure to those people unfamiliar with tropical climate. The problem was, that after being on the island for even a short time, the cold (!) air conditioned rooms caused cramp to set in and a generally uncomfortable time was had by almost everybody who used the facility.

Of all the aircraft to fly into Gan the most beautiful and stylish were the Comet and the Valiant, both exquisite examples of British aviation expertise. The most common aircraft was the Britannia turbo-prop or Whispering Giant as it was more affectionately known. In troop movement configuration they were not necessarily the most comfortable method of transport, seating about (from memory) 112 people. In emergency situations this capacity could be increased to 131 and several examples of this were evident during the Kuwait crisis in early 1962 when flight after flight of Britannias came through from Singapore en-route for Kuwait carrying the maximum capacity of army personnel, mostly marines in full battle gear. A very tight fit indeed. One night a Britannia on its way to Singapore made a fuel stop at Gan but was damaged while standing on the apron by a fuel bowser which reversed into it. The following day, the Britannia left to continue its journey but had to be re-routed round (not over) Sumatra to maintain an altitude of not more than 9,000 feet. The aircraft skin had been 'patched' with aluminium foil in order to get it to a full and proper maintenance unit for the necessary repairs to be carried out.
Gan was a non-accompanied twelve-month posting. In the region of 500 RAF personnel and a number (about l00) of Pakistani general labourers occupied Gan with one woman who was from the WRVS (Women's Royal Voluntary Society). The second such WRVS worker during my tour of duty was an absolute lady called Elizabeth (no surname) who did a remarkable job of sorting out the mental stability of those recipients of the `Dear John`
letters. Mostly these were posted on the mess notice board where anybody could add their comments, and usually did, however, those who took their letters seriously could always guarantee a sympathetic hearing. These days she would be called a counsellor! One of the main motivations (apart from the obvious) on Gan was the taking of leave which, for operational reasons was a one-off affair. Typically, the leave would be taken after six months on the island. However, for National Service personnel this ruling was usually extended to nine months which gave the 'poor' time to save up for the big bash. Leave was also usually taken in Singapore certainly by all the National Service boys who were making the most of seeing the world at the expense of H.M. Government. Singapore was everything it was claimed to be but that is an altogether different story! Coming up to the end of my tour of duty, for personal reasons I decided to ask for an extension of duty!!! My request was made verbally to my CO who just looked at me and said 'go away and come back in three days if you still want to do this.' At the end of three days I returned and made a further request at which he said "I shall refer you to the MO for a psychiatric report!' The MO simply asked why the hell would I want to stay on for extra time - why would anyone want to stay on doing extra time. I gave my reasons and was told that a report would be made and submitted to the Air Ministry for approval. Two weeks later, my request for an extension of eight weeks was granted - possibly the only such request ever made.

In June 1962, my long-time friend Graham Barker returned to the UK to complete his National Service at High Wycombe and his letters to his 'lunatic friend' still on the island made it clear he was glad to be back home in Blighty. But eight weeks passes quickly enough and soon it was my turn to board a Britannia for the 23-hour journey back to Lyneham in Wiltshire via refuelling stops at Aden and El Adem.

The mile-hoard sign post outside the Gan transit lounge was the first thing anybody saw when they disembarked the bus on arrival and obviously almost the last thing seen before departure. On departure, though, it looked different and there were certainly a lot of things to smile about while holding that last glass of ice-cold beer in the company of friends and mates who still had a stint to complete.

Thirty-eight years on and Graham and I and our wives and families are the strongest and the best of friends. That close bond formed in the early days of National Service and cemented together on the island of Gan is something that will endure while memories of the island and its culture will remain as warm as the island itself.

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