"Dear Mum" Chapter 13
23rd. February. 1962. RAF. Gan.
Dear Mum, Do you know how to cook rice? Not rice pudding but just rice, because they have it here and I love it. They fry it and mix in onions, bits of bacon, pork, shrimps mushroom etc. etc. etc. In fact I’m not quite sure what goes in it, but it is very tasty, I though they used a lot of wonderful spices in Singapore, but this is the Mess. Also, they do boiled rice with curried beef stew. Very nice.
Unlike a lot of RAF Stations, Gan was firstly an operational place, with no place for the spit and polish that is normally associated with the RAF of that time. Changi was very bad, being the Headquarters of the Far East Air Force. There were so many Group Captains about that there was a Parade organised every week it seemed to keep them all out of mischief. I did not appreciate this sort of thing and I must admit to a policy of silent non co-operation, when it came to Parades and Bullshit. I could not and cannot see the practical advantage of coal being painted black or grass being painted green. "If it moves salute it, if it doesn't move, paint it white". There was an AOC's inspection of Gan once while I was there.
An AOC (Air Officer Commanding) is an incredibly important person, whose role in life is to go and Inspect Things. He has even more scrambled egg on his hat than a Group Captain. This means that he is pretty near God in the Hierarchy. It also means that when he is standing under an umbrella, protected by this, from whatever element happens to be happening at the time, lesser mortals like myself, have to prove that we have not completely forgotten all the silly things we learned in 8 weeks of basic training, when we first joined the RAF.
I expect that RAF records would show who the particular OAC was during the time about which I write. It may even be possible to find out who the poor Wing Commander was, who was in charge of Gan and whose responsibility it was to organise an AOC's Parade. If I can recall correctly we only had one rehearsal. I have never seen anything like it. No one had any uniform even remotely smart except one or two of the "Shinies" in the HQ. ("Shinies" develop shiny seats on their trousers from not actually doing anything. " Moonies" were Airmen recently arrived from the UK, so called because of their shining moon-like complexion. I was more of an "Oily" named for fairly obvious reasons - so were most of the Airmen on Gan.) We were there to work and not to play soldiers. There was a feeble attempt at getting the assembled rabble to even march up and down the "Parade Ground". I carved "Left” and "Right", on the appropriate toes of my sandals in a vain attempt to get it right, but it was a lost cause from the word go. One problem was that the RAF issue tropical kit was not very practical. The sandals were the one exception. They were good, (except that there was no indication as to which was left and which right, it was not that the sandals would go on either foot, it was that I always turned right when someone said “Left Turn”.) The long sleeved shirts and long legged shorts were, as soon as they were issued, shortened.
It was a common sight to see the long practical pockets of the shorts dangling far lower that the bottom of the shorts. As Gan was virtually an all male preserve, at least where we all worked, it was not at all uncommon to see other things dangling below this level too. It was all just too much to take for the Station Warrant Officer. To give him credit he tried. There was talk of all those who had shortened their shorts having to purchase new ones at their own expense. There was a lot of talk - as there always was, but in the end we did not have a parade. We just ignored it all and in the end it went away.
On the beach in RAF Gan dress and the aforementioned sandles.
24th March 1962. RAF. Gan.
Dear Mum, I haven’t had anything wrong with my Shackletons for about a fortnight now, perhaps more. I have never read so much before, as there is practically nothing to do. In fact I would like a nice juicy snag to crop up, as I will be getting out of practice. Talking of Shackletons, my old squadron, - 210 came through a week or so ago, going on detachment to Penang and Singapore. I knew practically everyone. I wish I were going back with them.
We tried to ignore the fact that the NAAFI boat had broken down in Aden with a burst boiler. This was the rumour anyway. The fact was, it did not turn up. This was a refrigerated boat, which brought all our supplies every so often. We never really knew when it came, because this was the concern of other people and as long as we had plenty to eat and more importantly to drink, we did not think of such things.
The bars ran out of beer. This was a disaster. Hardened beer drinkers who were used to consuming their limit every night suddenly found that they had to drink something else. This was a big shock to even the hardest constitution. I went back on to hard drinks and instead of enjoying about 4 hours of drinking with my mates every night. I found that I was keeling over after about 1 hour of pouring Gin and Tonic down my throat like beer. Others were similarly affected. The only meat available was Veal. Now I like veal, but the poor unfortunates in the mess were faced with the prospect of serving it for every meal - for weeks. We had roast veal, boiled veal, veal curry, veal in white sauce, fried veal, stewed veal, Veal a la Mode du Caen. You name it we had it. When the NAAFI boat finally arrived there were few who could truthfully say that they had enjoyed the experience.
17th April 1962. RAF. Gan.
Dear Mum, We have had quite an interesting few days here, lately. The inhabitants of the Atoll (Addu Atoll) are supposed to be under the control of the Government of the Maldives in Male (pronounced Marlay) another bigger Atoll, I think, north of here, but they don’t recognise this and although the RAF pays Male rent for Gan, all the other work is done by, and consequently the money goes to, the Addu Atoll mob. Male want their cut apparently and want the RAF to pay them and then they pay the locals here. This is what I think is what has happened (that sounds Irish!) Anyway, Male sent 6 officials down to sort it all out, but the locals almost lynched them and if it were not for the Fire Section I imagine that they would have done, the first night they were here, (The Male Men) about 30 Dhonies (small rowing boats about 10 -15 men in each, lined up at the Jetty and there they sat, or rather stood, shouting and screaming and gesticulating, practically all night. They really got worked up and tried to land several times. It was funny really, as they are very small little blokes - nearly all under 5 feet.
The Male Men left the next day and that is the last we have heard of it, but it would not surprise me to see a few hundred Male Men rowing up in Dhonies to start a war. The RAF is in a peculiar position as officially it recognises the Maldivian Government, but unofficially everyone’s sympathies are with the locals. Well, we’ll see what happens.
Since my childhood, growing up in a poor family during and after the War in Suffolk, I have always been a bit of a hoarder. When I left school, my first job was in a scrap yard. I was dismantling all sorts of things to harvest the component elements like copper and lead. The scrap yard that I worked in took in all things from combine harvesters, to electric kettles and I had the job of sorting out everything for resale. Most things we would just chop up and throw the bits into the appropriate bin. Electric motors would yield a stack of copper from the windings and mild steel from the armature and stator etc. Cars have a multitude of parts, a lot, - like the seats and tyres were of no use and were burned, but I spent a very happy week removing and doing a quick overhaul job on a combine harvester engine. I set it up on a base and got it running. The Boss sold it soon afterwards and was very pleased with me.
Every Friday I would be paid, but such was my desire for many of the things that came into the yard that I often ended up paying him more than I got paid myself. It was the time of many Military Depots shutting down and fantastic machinery and electrical components could be picked up at scrap price. I still have some of the things I acquired at this time. I am sure they will come in handy one day.
On Gan, - there being no organised scrap business, all the superfluous technical equipment that is a by product of any RAF Station, ended up by being disposed of. This meant that someone would be given the job of categorising, listing and assembling all the materials, which would be carefully labelled and stored under lock and key, before being tipped in the sea. There were two ILS (Instrument Landings Systems) lorries, which had got about 30 miles on the clocks and were full of transmitter equipment, which were taken out of service. They had been on Gan for many years and the lorries had been parked at the end of the island and had no doubt performed Sterling Service, for which they were rewarded by being regularly oiled and adjusted at every ten thousand miles or 6 months, whichever occurred first. As a dedicated scrounger, it broke my heart to see these lorries and their contents disappear over the edge of the reef. Once in the sea of course, there was not much of any electronic value left. However, I realised that lead was lead and even a dunking in salt water would not do anything to its scrap value.
Everyone who went abroad in the RAF was given a Deep-Sea Box. This was meant to contain all the personal effects that normal people accumulate in a foreign country and would - as its name suggests, be sent home by sea at the end of a tour of duty. There was no weight limit, but it was about 4 feet by 3 by 3. This is a fair sized space and I saw a way to profit by having it. I did not have much in the way of souvenirs. A few Cowry shells, and a bamboo umbrella from Singapore. So I had over a cubic yard of space, which was to be transported to Merry England at the end of my tour. As there were no shipping facilities on Gan everything went out by air.
Every afternoon, for about two weeks, I went out to the edge of the reef and dived down and retrieved at the end, some dozen batteries out of various vehicles and scattered about, where all the rubbish was sent to a watery grave. Even underwater, they were heavy, but I was young, strong and bored, so I did it. I drained what was left of any seawater and sulphuric acid out, and left them in the sun to dry. My Deep Sea Box was finally delivered to my Block at RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall, which was my next posting. I had to ferry them, one at a time, to the nearest scrap yard on the back of my motor bike, but I got two pounds each for them.