Operation Concubine
by Alistair Currah

In the aftermath of W.W.II, world politics were in turmoil. New countries emerged, others disappeared, borders realigned, and allegiances changed, sometimes forcefully. Great Britain had proved during the War that her military resources were far too thinly stretched to adequately protect her overseas interests. This was dramatically shown at Singapore. Also, the country was in a bad economic state, the war having exhausted all reserves.
But what remained of her Empire still needed protecting. Troopships were giving way to air trooping and the benefits of this system were obvious. Large expensive overseas garrisons could be greatly cut back, to be reinforced very quickly if necessary by flying in troops and their equipment from the UK or elsewhere. The cost savings were enormous.
The route to the Far East needed various staging posts en route for refuelling and servicing as Post war transport aircraft were not particularly long ranging or reliable by modern day standards. The staging posts in the Mediterranean and Middle East were generally on "safe" soil, the countries concerned being by and large pro British, but further east it was a slightly different story. Britain used facilities in Pakistan and Ceylon for the final step to the Far East, and although these countries never questioned British intentions in the East, a time may come when one or both of these countries would refuse staging facilities if they disagreed with British intentions in the East.
This possibility was obviously unacceptable so in 1952, the UK government tasked the Air Ministry with the organisation of an expedition with the purpose of surveying possible island staging posts in the Indian Ocean region, sufficiently far removed from the Asian landmass to avoid political influence from that quarter. The code name for the expedition was "Operation Concubine", and it was scheduled to begin in September/October 1952. The proposal was to cover sites at Addu Atoll in the Maldive Islands, The Seychelles, and Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago.
The start of the survey, led by Sqn Ldr Eames, was delayed by bad weather conditions. The supply vessel, originally intended to deposit fuel at Addu, was held up for many days due to bad weather, so it was decided that this ship, instead of calling at Addu, would now sail direct to Male. The Sunderland, and crew stood by at China Bay until 28th September, then returned to Seletar, arriving back at China Bay on 7th October, when it was confirmed that the fuel ship had now reached Male. On the 8th, the aircraft finally left China Bay and flew the relatively short distance to Male. There, in squally, overcast weather and with a 2 foot swell running in Male harbour, the aircraft set down at midday.
There was little improvement in weather conditions on the following day, but in view of the delays already experienced, it was decided to go ahead with refuelling despite conditions which were less than ideal.
On the morning of the 10th, the aircraft lumbered into the sky and set course for Port Victoria, Seychelles. After an uneventful 10-hour flight, the flying boat touched down at 15.45, local time. A sea-lane had been prepared in the harbour, together with a sheltered mooring. On the 14th, accompanied by Mr. Thomlin of the Public Works Dept, a ground inspection of Port Victoria was carried out. This was followed on the 15th by air inspections of Praslin, Port Victoria and Coëtivy respectively. A ground survey was undertaken at Praslin on the 17th and 18th, and a similar operation was conducted at Coëtivy on the 19th and 20th. The Governor, who in the event had been unable to attend either of the surveys, held a conference with the party on the 21st.
Of the sites surveyed, Port Victoria, near the capital Mahé, and Praslin were soon discounted; in addition to various construction difficulties, the approaches were considered too dangerous in I.F.R. or night flying conditions. However, the island Coëtivy was found to be flat and undeveloped and it was considered that constructing a base there would throw up far fewer problems than those posed at the other sites, although prevailing wind conditions would require careful consideration. Whilst the optimum bearing of 325º/145º to minimise the effect of this would allow for a runway with a maximum length of 1900yds, a more north/south orientation would give the specified 2000yds, albeit at the expense of greater exposure to cross- winds. Due consideration of the types of aircraft likely to use the airstrip led to a conclusion that this latter option would be preferable to the shorter runway, despite the increased cross wind potential.
Having completed the Seychelles phase of the survey, the party returned to Male on the 23rd October. After spending the night on "RAF Island" (Dunidu island, the home of the British Representative), the crew returned to the aircraft, refuelled and took off for China Bay. Phase one was accomplished.
For the next two days, whilst the aircraft was serviced, cleaned and a new pump installed, Sqdn Ldr. Eames, had various meetings with Command Officials, the Air Ministry and others to discuss progress so far. As a result, it was decided to survey Addu next, rather than Diego Garcia. With this revised plan arranged, the crew set off for Addu on the 26th, and touched down in the lagoon to the east of Hittadu in the early afternoon.
A start was made early on the morning of the 27th, when the team were taken by boat to Gan to conduct a ground survey. Torrential rain set in soon after their arrival and surveying was carried out in these unpleasant conditions all day.
The survey of Gan took three days, as it was considered the most likely spot in the atoll for a future airfield. The presence of three overgrown and derelict runways, together with a number of derelict buildings remaining from WW II was taken as good evidence of the practicality of re-establishing a base on the island. On the 30th, the party looked at Hittadu, where the remains of the wartime radio masts still stood. Finally on the 31st, the team were taken by boat to Midu in the north east of the atoll, where they spent a day surveying the island As part of the exercise, the Sunderland was flown at various heights over the lagoon to take aerial photographs.
During their stay on the atoll, the survey party were impressed by the degree of friendly cooperation exhibited by the local population, who did all in their power to assist; the Government representative from Male spoke some English, and proved very helpful, accompanying the team throughout their stay on the islands. As will be read later, however, the attitude of the Maldivian Government changed considerably subsequently, whilst the airfield was being constructed.
On November 1st, the party prepared to set off for Diego Garcia at 08.00 hrs. With all equipment re-stored, the Sunderland set out for the "runway" of painted petrol tins arranged in two parallel lines in the lagoon, head into the wind, and finally left the water at 14.00 hrs.
The aircraft arrived at Diego Garcia at 17.20 hrs. In view of the terrain encountered by the team, the northwest corner of the island, at Eclipse Point, was considered to be the only potentially suitable site to survey; even then, the crew were warned that the going would be difficult, with heavy thick scrub and jungle to deal with. Once at Eclipse Point, they set to work cutting a line for a NW/SE runway measurement. The task was indeed arduous, but by 14.00 hrs the work was done and a line of 1800 yds had been slashed through the growth. The next day a line with a NE/SW orientation was started but soon abandoned after the ground was found to be too swampy.
The survey was finally complete, and arrangements were made to fly back to Addu for refuelling on the 7th November. However, the troublesome No 1 engine played up, and refused to start. A "bump" start was attempted, and with the aircraft fast taxiing at 50 knots on the other three engines, No 1 spluttered into life. Although the original intention had been to fly to Addu, the crew now decided to go direct to Male instead. A low pass was made over Addu, and a note was dropped to the Maldivian Representative explaining the situation, and allowing him to return to Male. The message thus received, the Representative gave the crew an affirmative wave and was soon on his way back to the capital.
The Sunderland touched down at Male at midday, and a meeting was arranged with the Maldive Prime Minister. After a very cordial discussion, the crew prepared the aircraft for the return to China Bay the next day. But the next morning, No 1 engine refused to start yet again, and the `plane was left in the hands of the engineers whilst the majority of the crew sailed to "RAF Island" to await developments. By 16.45, the engine had been fixed, and the flight crew returned to prepare the aircraft for the flight to China Bay the following day where, with no further engine trouble, they arrived at midday. Here, S/Ldr Eames made his report to Air HQ, Ceylon, and after settling final details, returned to the aircraft for the final leg to Seletar, where they arrived at 15.00 hrs on 10th November after a flight of 9½ hours.
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