VICTOR TANKER TALES CH 5.

By Ed Duke.Airframes.


My arrival at Marham, and my integration into 57 Sqn, passed without any drama and coincided with the start of an era with a record number of overseas detachments. A high proportion of these detachments were to demonstrate our ability to support friends and allies in faraway places; it is also likely that, during that era, a record number of RAF aircraft became refuelling customers, both at home and abroad, for the tanker fleet. Crew Chiefs were not only required to fly with each Victor involved in a detachment but were also allocated to any ground crew support party. Who went where was totally in the hands of the Senior Crew Chief and, in the best of military tradition, his decisions were not a matter open to discussion.

For some, no doubt good reason the OC 57 Sqn was, at this phase of its history, always a Wg Cdr navigator. Not long after our arrival a new OC, Wg Cdr Farmer, took over; his previous post had been as OC RAF Gan, situated on Addu Atoll, the most southerly of the chain of islands, running north to south in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that make up the Maldives. These Islands are currently holiday destinations for the fairly well off. Another handy fact, when you are hunting on your atlas, is that the Equator is only a well thrown cricket ball away from the end of the runway, or so Gan folk law has it. I am sure that most of the people reading this will know of the island and will probably have passed through it during their Service days, so I will stick to some things you may not know about this 'Island Paradise', or dreaded unaccompanied tour . . . depends upon your own circumstances! I have borrowed a historic map of Addu Atoll, showing Gan and its runway, which you can find at the end of this tale; you will note that to either undershoot or overshoot it in an aircraft could become an aquatic event. This adds extra spice when arriving or leaving Gan during the stormy monsoon season! Also shown on this map are the other islands which make up Addu Atoll - Hitaddu, the biggest centre of population, Maradu, Fedu, Hulumidu and the only one that anyone remembers, for some strange reason, Willingilli, which once served as a prison island. My first taste of Gan came in 1964 on one of several detachments to Singapore with 51 Sqn; I always enjoyed the occasional slow turn rounds at Gan in the early years of the Britannia but one, best forgotten, return from Changi took ten days, with a week in Gan involving endless prop and engine changes. It did give us a chance to get to know the place and enjoy a lot of swimming and fishing; it also taught us never to doze off on a beach near the Equator wearing the then new-fangled nylon shirts - as one hapless soul found out when he woke up to find his shirt had become a part of him and he needed to be flown back to the UK where he spent several weeks in a saline bath. Such painful events were very rare and most stays involved happy hours of tide-controlling on the beach behind the Sgts' Mess and watching the spectacular tropical sunsets. Mr Darwin really would have fallen for Gan and the stunning amount of wildlife found there. A range of lizards, both aquatic and arboreal, flocks of unreal fruit bats, experts in crash landing, and everyone's favourite, the stoic Storks, or Heron-like local waders, that manned the entrance to every cookhouse and were always so polite when accepting any proffered titbits.

An army of native labour, all from the other inhabited islands in the atoll, landed on Gan every day and they provided the workforce which made life there comfortable for us Europeans. However the Maldivian Government, in agreeing to the use of Gan as a military base, laid down very specific conditions designed to protect the totally Muslim population from too close a contact, or to mingling, with a resident all male foreign military population. To this end the native work force had to leave Gan every late afternoon and return the next day. The reverse side of the coin decreed that only with the specific agreement of the islands' Chief could any service personnel be allowed to set foot on any of the other islands. The fate of any trespassers, if they escaped the irate Maldivians, was to be flown home for a Courts Martial and dismissal from the armed forces. With the exception of one WRVS (Woman's Royal Voluntary Service) lady stationed on Gan no female members of the UK military were allowed, unless in transit.

Addu Atoll, it was whispered, had a long history of disputes with the Maldivian Government as it alone was generating real finance and it wanted Independence. There are tales of an armada of war canoes descending on the atoll a long time ago only to find that Gan had been reinforced with troops from Singapore in numbers sufficient to deter their slings and arrows, which all sounds quite outrageous. (But not to us there at that time in 1959- see my earlier 'In Paradise' articles. Brian.)

That's enough of my potted, and very personal, jottings about Gan - just one of the fascinating and beautiful places that we, at that time, were lucky enough to visit and get to know so well.

So you will understand how delighted I was when told that I was allocated to crew chief the Victor that Wg Cdr Farmer was flying in on a detachment to RAAF Butterworth, in Malaya, via Cyprus, Massira and Gan. The first two legs were without incident then, when approaching Gan, we were advised that the islands' Chief had invited the Wg Cdr, and his crew, to a feast in order to celebrate the return of the man who had done so much for his people and who would always be remembered for the help he had given to the islands, particularly the expansion of the Station Sick Quarters that had allowed medical help, and antenatal treatment, to be available to his people. The latter allowed the islands' native populations to rocket, much to the delight of the seekers of independence. We duly attended the feast, which really was just that and quite delightful, even with no form of meat to be seen, but a stunning range of fish and vegetable dishes prepared in every way possible. Alas we were advised that photography of the Chief, or of the grand feast, would be considered as impolite, however the sea of healthy, happy and simply delightful children that swarmed around us afterwards was very good evidence of just how real the islanders' delight was in being able to thank this very modest man. We were given the grand tour of the busy, happy and hard working population and were all quite stunned at the size of that population and the range of their industry. The drive back to the jetty and the short crossing to Gan came far too soon.

We did a few Gan/Gan sorties over the next few days and were then instructed to head home; one of the disadvantages of having a boss on board is that sometimes he cannot be out of his office for too long. The Victor, XH 621 if I remember correctly, gave virtually no trouble over the whole detachment; a rare but welcome event.