Posted to Paradise: RAF Veterans remember Gan, part two

Part one of this series of recollections of RAF veterans stationed on Gan can be read here.

As I sit with a gin and tonic overlooking the blue lagoon at Equator Village, I try to imagine what Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II must have been thinking when in 1972 she visited what was then one of the most glamorous Royal Air Force base locations in the world – RAF Gan.

Back in the seventies well before the advent of resorts the Maldives was the scene for the ‘real jet set’ – the RAF Far East Air Force pilots who used the former RAF base as a layover location long before the advent of tourism to the region.

Enviably located south of the equator RAF Gan in Addu, was a staging post during the Second World War and continued to be a base for thousands of air force personnel through the cold war. It was handed back to the Maldivian government on March 29, 1976.

During its operational days, famous visitors landed at RAF Gan including the Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. As well as attending to business, they were drawn to the perfect islands fringed by glorious azure blue lagoons and white sands.

They would stay at the Blue Lagoon Transit hotel on the base, and VIP/Officers’ accommodation known as Dhoogas, which has now the opened as a resort in its own right called Gan Island Club, located next door to the Equator Village resort (the former Sergeant’s mess).

Like many of the tourists today who visit the Equator Village resort, even the Queen must have been mesmerised by the perfect islands with lush tropical vegetation fringed with pure white beaches and an infinity view of an azure blue lagoon that is home to beautiful coral gardens teeming with tropical fish and baby reef sharks.

Terry Joint, an officer stationed at the airbase, recalls meeting Princess Anne who was “quite a beauty”. The pair chatted about spearfishing and he described her as charming and friendly: “Princess Anne said would have liked to have come out on a spearfishing trip with us but unfortunately she had to catch a plane back,” he reminisced.

Nowadays the island of Gan is home to two resort developments, the quintessentially English Equator Village resort and the Gan Island club (the officer’s mess).

Equator Village has resisted the urge to conform to the sleek lines of most resort chains, remaining a historic landmark.

Those in search of historical references can still find them among the station grounds. These remain almost unchanged, save a lick of paint from its service days. From the wicker furniture to the uniform blue doors, this three star resort has all the markings of the RAF Marham officers’ mess, with a better view and weather. I should know because I have also stayed there too.

An RAF legacy remains in former buildings and relics, bringing back military tourists – veterans who served here to visit the RAF memorial and reminisce about days gone by. There is a former NAAFI (commissary) and the Astra Cinema. The former RAF vehicle maintenance workshop is now maintained by the State Trading Organisation (STO) for its fleet of trucks.
The resort located near Gan airport, the former airfield, now used for VIP flight, Island Aviation transfers to the resort and international flights from Hong Kong and Gatwick.

In its service days there was a church on the base, which is now of course a mosque as Islam is the only religion allowed to be practiced in the Maldives by law.

Adduan’s grew up around the service personnel and some even became servicemen themselves. One Adduan recalls visiting the base as an 11-year old boy: “I used to visit the church to have tea and coffee with a relative who worked there. That was very unusual because as Muslims we were told we shouldn’t even look what’s was inside!” he recalled. “Upon visiting the resort recently, I was most surprised to see that the place is a mosque. I didn’t know it was facing Mecca.”

Back in the seventies the RAF provided a rich source for jobs in the area and at one time locals and airmen used to live side by side, employed as room boys, chefs, maintenance, and some were even trained to learn a trade. As such Adduans are broadly thankful to the RAF.

Hassan Najmy trained in the photographic department of the RAF and like many Adduans who worked closely with the Royal Air Force and quickly picked up the English language and qualifications.

“We will always be grateful to the RAF who gave us jobs and treated us like their own brothers,” said Hassan. “I spent many happy years with them and learned all I know today.”

Hassan joined the photographic section, not long after the Queen’s visit to the Maldives and RAF Gan in 1972.

“I joined photographic section when I was 18 and learned the trade, I really enjoyed the dark room training and studied for my Cambridge CSE certificate at the RAF Education Centre in Gan,” he said.

“I still remember buying my first Pentax SLR camera from the NAAFI store, a discounted store where you could get anything.”

Hassan was eyewitness to many historic events which make up the Maldives’ military history. As the president of the time’s official photographer, he captured the images of royal visitors to the base and impressed the president so much that he became the presidential palace’s official photographer.

According to the military personnel who served here, the island remains much the same as today as it did back then. Unlike their cousins in the north, Adduans are proud of the British influences.

At Equator Village hens run freely between the tropical foliage and rose gardens and the beach. There is also traditional afternoon tea and scones at 4:00pm, another relic from its service days as the sergeant’s mess. Equator Village feels like a home away from home.

Many industrious Adduans in fact helped to found the tourism industry in the capital of Male region following the RAFs departure. In 1972 the first resort in the Maldives, Kurumba, was founded by Mohamed Umar Maniku, and still runs today under Universal Enterprises.

Some Adduans say that some of the original furniture from the RAF was taken to Kurumba and remains in the resort’s presidential suite. Some original furniture still remaining includes the billiard table and darts board at the Equator resort for guests to enjoy.

Original framed photographs from the time, including of the Queen’s visit, are on display at the next door Gan Island Club, formerly the Dhoogas guest house, and the Blue Lagoon where Prince Charles frequented.

The RAF’s main mission was to install radio transmitters on the island of Hithadhoo to listen in and intercept intelligence from the East during the cold war.

Hithadhoo was first discovered by the Royal Navy and the fleet air arm in the 1940s. In those days supplies were ferried between the islands and nearby Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it was known then) by boat.

When it was handed it over to the RAF in the fifties, they established their base on the island of Gan and built a causeway linking all six islands, establishing a precedent in this geographically challenged country consisting of 99 per cent ocean – bases which became known as RAF Gan and RAF Hithadhoo respectively.

The RAF’s presence came to an end as the Cold War ended. In fact some say that RAF Gan’s cards were marked as soon as the “Royal Far East Air Force” (RFEAF) was disbanded in 1971.

The British decamped further south to Diego Garcia and then leased the land to the US, who still have a base there today. RAF Gan was handed back to the Maldivian government on March 29, 1976.

Hassan recalls it was a very sad day when the RAF left Maldives. Many “wept” as they saw off the servicemen who become friends as well as colleagues over the years. That bond remains today through social media pages on Facebook remembering life at Gan.

Hassan has recorded many historic events which make up the Maldives’ military history during his service, including profiling historical figures and royal visitors to the base. Some of his work can be viewed on a page maintained by veterans who served at Gan and Hithadhoo: RAF Gan Remembered.