"Dear Mum" Chapter 12
20th. December 1961 RAF Changi.
Dear Mum, I got your Christmas parcel a few days ago. I haven’t opened it yet, but everything appears OK It’s not squashed or dented.
My Posting that I told you about in my last letter is now official. It came out in Station Orders about two days ago, so, on the 6th. of January, I shall start clearing from here and on the 8th. I will go to Gan - then, 8 months there and back to Blighty. I will lose 25/- a week, as the overseas allowance is lower, but there is nothing to spend one’s money on and I am going to try and live on one pound a week which will leave 25 quid a month for the POSB.
The RAF’s Tropical Paradise
The 8th. January 1962 was a good day. An early breakfast at Changi and a flight by Hastings to RAF Butterworth, flying up the coast of Malaya and in to the beautiful island of Penang. Not that I remember very much about it, I had enjoyed a send-off party the night before and the hangover I had accumulated didn't really wear off until half way to the Maldives.
When I was told I had been chosen to represent the Radar contingent of the permanent 205 Sqn. detachment on Gan, my first thought was that it would shorten my tour. We did two and a half years in Singapore and only a year in Gan. It was a characteristic of Airmen, at least the "erks" like me that we always looked on a posting as a punishment, most peoples lockers were adorned by Chuff Factor Graphs. These were quite simple - the ratio of days done, divided by days to do, plotted along an X time axis. Starting off very slowly the graph would reach 1 at the half way mark but would shoot off to infinity when the days done on tour, were divided by zero days to do. The other things on lockers of course, were Pin Ups, things inside were at best unmentionable.
9th. January 1962. RAF Gan.
Dear Mum, Well I’m here as you can see from the address. The climate is hotter, but not so damp as Changi. From what I have seen of the place, it will be far easier, as far as discipline goes, than Changi. The sea is wonderful, - crystal clear with coral on the bottom. I left Changi at about 8.15 (I had to be up at 6.00. and I didn’t go to bed until 2.00. am Sunday.) I went to Penang first, - to a RAAF camp at Butterworth to take some blokes up there and then took off at about 11.30. for Gan. There were some wonderful clouds to be seen on the way. The sun was just setting when we landed at 8.30. pm. Singapore time. 6.00. pm. local. I am across the Equator now so the Air Force has taken me inside the Arctic Circle and into the Southern Hemisphere. I should have some good photos.
There is not an Aircraft every day to Gan from UK and so there is likely to be erratic delays in letters etc. I’ve got lots to write so I’ll write and tell you about it in a day or so.
There were tears in my eyes when I took off from Changi, that day in January. It wasn't just the hangover. I discovered that I really didn't want to go. I had grown to love the place and still go back at every opportunity.
Flying over the Indian Ocean for what seemed several years, made me realise that this Gan place, (of which, I had heard people speak, - in hushed tones, - a reverence brought on by the rumour that this is where the men could really drink), was an awful long way away from anywhere. There were very few distractions, I had been told. There was one WVS lady who must have found it strange to live on an island of some several hundred men, with only the few wives staging through from Aden to the Far East for company. I never had anything to do with her, but as she was the only woman on the island, she was the subject of much interest. Maldivian women were not allowed on the island, but Fedhu was only about 400 yards from Gan across a small channel. Much speculation was expended on their nature, appearance, availability, morality etc. etc. No, there was certainly plenty of time to catch up on one's drinking.
One of the "Dhonies" a Maldivian fishing boat, they were not very stable and had outriggers to keep them upright. The locals used to go all over the Indian Ocean in them, better them than me!
Let me describe the Maldives. I never saw anything of the Maldives at that time, except Addu Atoll. But I did see a few maps and I did fly over it all from Male to Gan in 1996. Gan is in the Southernmost atoll, (Addu Atoll) in a string of over a thousand islands, mostly un-inhabited, stretching from level with Southern India (just to the bottom left of India actually), all the way down to the most Southerly island of all, which is Gan. From the air these atolls look like wreaths of flowers cast onto the sea. It is all very beautiful and most of the islands are covered by dense vegetation. Gan had been cleared when the runway had been built (by Costains) and apart from a few coconut palms, mangoes, etc. had mainly coarse grass cover. The offices, accommodation, hangers, workshops, etc. were all on the northern side of the runway and the larger South side was mainly open grassland. There was an 18 hole Golf course. It now takes about two hours to fly from Male, in the north, to Gan, by Island Hopper. It was said that the sea bed in the middle of the Indian Ocean is sinking and that the Maldives have kept their collective heads above water by continually growing upwards by means of the coral reefs. I have noticed personally that coral grows pretty slowly. This means that the seabed must have sunk very slowly to allow the coral to keep pace with its fall. There is no doubt at all that the sea on the outside of the Atoll drops off into deep water very steeply. It was said that the Atoll was like a mushroom with a several mile stalk. When a heavily loaded Britannia landed, the whole Atoll was rumoured to shake with the impact, but I must admit that I never experienced this.
Gan Island, a bit hazy, I am afraid, but the shape and layout can be seen, even if the detail is lost. The south side is the right hand side of the picture and the accommodation is all on the North West tip.
18th. January 1962 RAF Gan.
Dear Mum, I have just about established my pattern of living now after 10 days. From 7. to 1. I am at work doing practically the same as I was at Ballykelly - only less and I am my own boss and in the afternoons I go swimming. I have just joined the Aqualung Club and now I am a qualified Schnorkel Diver. Next I go on to aqualung training. I wish I could show you the marvellous fish and coral formations we get round the reef, but when the coral is removed from the sea it turns white.
I have never felt healthier in my life, it must be the hot dry weather.
As I only had mainly two old Shackletons to look after, I soon found time dragged a bit. I joined the Go-Cart Club. I learned to Dive. I walked round the Island most afternoons. I found an old Bulldozer, which must have broken down out by the breakers out on the far side of the South East coast and spent long hours wading out to it, avoiding sea urchins, moray eels and loads of detritus, - left by Costains, which probably would have been pushed over the edge of the reef, if the bulldozer had not broken down. I had never had a real bulldozer to play with before and it was very enjoyable to sit in the somewhat rusty seat and go Brrmm. Brrmm. At high tide the breakers would break all round it and I couldn't see it lasting there for many years.
22nd. January 1962. RAF Gan.
Dear Mum, I am enclosing some photos of the Xmas party at Changi. You can see I was still rather pale. You should see me now. I very seldom wear uniform here, only on the way down to work and back, - just a pair of shorts during the rest of the morning. My hair is starting to bleach as well. Time flies, I have got an interesting job, a good section and every afternoon off.
Work was agreeable. As I had to go down to the ASF. (Aircraft Servicing Flight), whenever there was a pre-flight or after-flight inspection to do, or if there were any problems with my Radar, I was given a bicycle. This identified me as someone to be reckoned with. I was a key person. Of course the C.O. had a Landrover, but my bike was OK. A bike would put up with all sorts of abuse that a motorised vehicle never would. A major part of life on Gan was taken up by Competitive Drinking. This was practised by a fair percentage of the population most nights. The object was to stay drinking longer than anyone else in your group. The last one to leave the table after drinking continuously for about 4 or 5 hours was the winner. Even drinking to and through nausea was quite acceptable, the main thing was to drink at the same pace as the others - and to drink more. When the hard core of drinkers finally decided it was time to go, it was looked on as a Good Thing to race on bikes, down the walls of the Main Jetty. (The walls were about 3 feet across and extended down the sides of the main Jetty for the whole of it's length of some 100 yards, I suppose.) One rider on one wall and another on the other would race to the end. It did not seem to matter too much if it was impossible to stop because the sensation of flying through the air to land in the warm Indian Ocean was not such a bad one. Reaching the end first was the object, so if you slowed down at all - you lost. The bicycles would have to be retrieved the next day, and hosed down and it would be a walk to work the next morning, You couldn’t do that more than once in a Land Rover.
The aforementioned Jetty.
28th January. 1962. RAF. Gan.
Well it’s almost February and I now have 29 weeks to do, just think last April I had 30 months! I got a bit sunburned yesterday, so I’m trying to keep out of the sun today. The sun here is really strong and I’m getting a lovely suntan. It’s a pity it’s not like this in England. I went for a walk round the island yesterday and it really is a beautiful place. The sand on the beaches is all broken coral and is almost pure white, the sea is deep blue and clear, you can see down 30 - 40 feet and look at the fish below if you’ve got a mask. There is no oil on the beaches and the big rollers break on the outside reef. There are palm trees along the edge of the beach, with coconuts on. The best beach is the north one and the worst is the Southeast. That is where they dumped all the rubbish when they cleared the island, I would imagine, and there are tree trunks and lorries and all sorts of bits and pieces in and out of the water. The whole area is infested with crabs. They are horrible things about 6” across, black and when they see you coming they scuttle away with a dry rattling sound, just like huge wooden spiders. Some of the big ones just stand and look at you really maliciously.
I’ve got a bit of a hangover this morning. I went to a birthday party last night and had 12 gin and limes and a lager. I didn’t know him but he is in Tech Wing and so anyone who gets his hands dirty is “one of the boys”. All the rest are Fairies, Shinies, or GDs (for General Duties). It’s the same as the Squadron Spirit at Ballykelly.
Another favourite venue for the hard drinkers was the RAFA. Club. It was way down the end of the Island beyond ASF and the Power Station. It had a huge old Gas Fridge with the imprints of countless cans moulded into the ice, which never completely melted from its cavernous interior. The Orderly Sergeant closed the Club down regularly every night and then rode away on his bike, knowing that, as soon as he had gone, the place would be swinging again within minutes. The Fire Section Landrover used to make a run down to the end of the Island about 2.00 am and pick up any stragglers who couldn't make it back to their billets. Anyone, who wandered off the road and was not noticed, invariably woke up with their hangover compounded by millions of Mosquito bites. Drink was very cheap. I remember Gin being about sixpence a tot. Everyone drank doubles. We used English currency - pre-decimalisation so this would be two and one half pence now. I ended up drinking "pink" Gin. A glass of Gin with two drops of Angostura Bitters. This, I consumed in ever increasing quantities, until one day, at work, I actually had to practice the finer art of miniature soldering. My hand was shaking so badly that I could not do it. I made a resolution there and then to drink only beer, where the sheer volume of the stuff was enough to limit consumption to "reasonable" levels.
I was very skinny and fit at that time, so were most people, - it was that sort of place. You would not think we were putting away so much beer. I am the tall one.
4th. February. 1962. RAF Gan.
Dear Mum, I still haven’t painted the name and address on the coconut but I’ll try and do it tomorrow and send it off. I drink gin and lemon now. I have gone off gin and lime 5d. a tot, 10d. a double and Carlsburg is 1/1 a can.
No one ever objected to these simple pastimes. The night I was promoted to Corporal, it rained cats and dogs, so we took a few cases of Charlies and Slopps and DDs, (Carlsberg, Allsopps and Double Diamond Beer) out to the middle of the runway and drank ourselves silly again. The next day I woke up to a horrible sinking feeling coupled with a hangover, when I remembered that we had showered the centre of the runway with glasses and cans. We never had any flights in before midday and as I went to work, there was a mechanical sweeper going up and down. I don't know how they knew, but they did. No one ever mentioned it, but I was quite worried for a few days about that.
10th. February. 1962. RAF. Gan.
Dear Mum, Life here goes on the same. I have never done so much swimming, in all my life and I can free dive down to 50 feet now. So little happens out of the ordinary that there is not really much to write about. I still haven’t sent off that perishing coconut.
I also used to look after the SARAH, (Search And Rescue And Homing) beacons. These were part of the air-crew kit and if they ended up in the sea, they had to pull a Bakelite cap off the transmitter unit and a long aerial like a metal tape measure, shot up about 3 feet and the thing started to transmit. This was picked up by either the Shackleton’s SARAH receiver or the SARAH on the two Target Towing Launches, which were used for Search and Rescue. These wooden, launches were about 50 feet long, - sleek and powerful and could reach 50 knots. Like the Shackleton they were powered by the Rolls Royce Griffon, but the two engines that sent these remarkable craft along like rockets, were “marinised”. This meant that they were designed for marine use, believe it or not. They had water cooled manifolds and were started by explosive cartridges and not the more conventional electric starter motors.
Every so often we used to test the SARAH beacons and the Receivers by abandoning a poor little SARAH beacon in a dinghy, - miles from anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Then, pretending that we did not know where it was, one Shackleton and TTL used to go off and find it again. As I was supposed to be able to fix these things if they did not work, I used to go along too, sometimes in the "kite" and sometimes in the boat. As flying about in Shackletons was by then a bit boring, I preferred to go out in the TTL. It was wonderful. There would be a muffled explosion and then the indescribable burbling rumble of the first V12. Then the other would add to the effect and soon that throbbing power would launch the boat out over the sea. They were beautiful boats and I would dearly love to own one. I dare say that some 4000, gallons of Aviation Fuel would be a bit hard to come by. However if anyone knows where there is one going cheap! I was and am, a great admirer of engines in general and of all things Rolls Royce, in particular. To anyone of a mechanical leaning there is a feeling of satisfaction, when listening to, or watching, or even working on these machines, that this is the way that things are supposed to be. I bought an old Bentley many years later and I still feel the same way about that. I should have been a Mechanical Engineer, instead of messing about with all these electronics and computers. Mind you, when you have to change the hard disk on a computer, you don't normally have to stand out on scaffolding in a howling gale and torrential icy rain, with numb fingers, like I have sometimes done when helping the Engine Fitters, in Ballykelly.
205 Squadron Kilo. One of my charges. Sitting on the ASF Pan in the blazing sun they used to get very hot inside. This was a problem for the rubber insulated wiring and also a problem for the poor old Radar Fitter who has to get inside the radar dish assembly under the nose. There was a little drain hole in the bottom and the way to tell if anyone was in there was to look for the trickle of sweat dripping from it.