Brocklebank and the Gan Island Base
by Jim Pottinger

During the course of RAF Gan`s existence, a lot of the island supplies came by ship and these visits were generally a cause of much excitement among the airmen and contractors, and a ship unloading usually signified that soon the NAAFI would be once again be restocked with whatever it had run out of!
One of the famous old lines that supplied Gan in the early days during its reconstruction were Brocklebanks of Liverpool. Here an ex Brocklebank seaman, Jim Pottinger, recalls those days...

In Brocklebank's we usually stuck to our well trodden route of UK out to Ceylon and India, often calling at Red Sea ports en route, and sometimes back home via southern States of America so there was a welcome break in the monotony when the added call at Gan Island was introduced in 1957.

This small island lies at the southernmost end of the Addu Atoll about 40 miles south of the Equator in the Maldives group, the atoll consisting of a circular chain of twenty five named islands surrounding a lagoon which is approx. ten miles east to west and six miles north and south, the islands themselves were almost pure coral and rose barely six feet above sea level, Gan Island being adjacent to the main deep water entry to the lagoon.
At that time we had little realisation that this in the future would be favoured as a rather exotic holiday destination

The origins of this unusual port of call lay in the decision by the Chiefs of Staff to provide an alternative staging post be made available for the Hastings, Britannia and Comet aircraft flying between Bahrain, Aden and Singapore as it was thought that the political unrest following the granting of independence to India in 1946/7 and Burma in 1948 could possibly cause delays and possible political manipulation, although the nations concerned had not in fact made any objections to over flying.

Whilst Gan was one of the smaller islands, measuring barely 1.75 by .75 miles, it was decided that here would be built an air strip, there was in fact an abandoned strip dating back to 1942 which had been intended for use by FAA Squadrons and an advanced facility for the Royal Navy. To put things in motion the Bangor Class minesweeping sloop HMS Bridlington left UK in October 1955 with the surveying equipment and personnel, with no piers or jetties available rafts had to be constructed and utilised .
Initially all stores and victuals had to be ferried from Colombo, 415 miles away, and entailed a five day excursion which meant that the ship had to maintain a pretty hectic schedule, but later Sunderland flying boats took over this duty.
HMS Bridlington completed her work and arrived back at Plymouth on 26th April 1956.

The construction firm of Richard Costain were awarded the contract to build a runway the full length of the island and provide facilities for 500 personnel, and an advance party arrived on the island on 30th January 1957, the Modified Black Swan class HMS Modeste landing others in February 1957.
The contract took two years and at its height nearly eighteen hundred workers were employed, and as far as I can find out the Brocklebank ship Maskeliya brought out the first cargo, arriving in May 1957, LCM 7215 being an important addition among general cargo.
Among the thirty nine ship visits between this date and June 1958 Brocklebank ships made no less than twenty calls with a variety of heavy goods and stores, these being:-
Maskeliya May 57; Mandagala (the chartered Furness Withy British Prince) July 57;Maidan Sept 57; Manipur Sept 57;Maskeliya Nov 57; Martand Nov 57; Mahronda Jan 58; Malancha Jan58; Maipura Jan 58; Markhor Jan 68; Malakand Feb 58; Maihar Feb 58; Madulsima (the chartered Johnston Warren Rowanmore) Feb 58; Matheran Mar 58; Mahanada Mar 58; Mandagala April 58; Mathura April 58; Magdapur April 58; Manipur May 58; Manaar June 58.
Initial cargoes consisted of tents and hutting, various plant items such as tractors and scrapers etc following, cement formed a considerable part of the tonnage

My first visit was on the Maihar in February 1958, arriving on the 18th and leaving again on the 23rd, the Madulsima and Malakand both arriving before our departure.
My other visits were on the Manipur on 8th January 1959 and on same ship again on 10th August of same year.
As the coral atoll rises direct from the depths of the Indian Ocean the lagoon is consequentially very deep, and it was not possible to just drop the anchor anywhere, consequently I recall the Maihar steaming around for a while until we found sufficiently suitable shallow part to anchor.
An appropriate analogy would be to try and drop anchor in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
On the trip out on the Maihar we had a number of long heavy reinforced concrete beams for the construction of a pier stowed on the aft deck, during bad weather in the Bay of Biscay we had to heave to in order to secure some that had broken loose during the heavy rolling.
These were unloaded at Gan into one of the two LCM's, either 7215 or 7120, Mark 7's I think, which had been brought out by the Maskeylia and the Manipur earlier, cargo operations were handled by the Marine Branch, who were often called upon to improvise as no docking facilities were available.

I note that the Ben Line Benwyvis brought out a tug and some lighters in March 1958 so that would make cargo unloading and transfer somewhat easier.
Regular R & R for the base staff was provided by flying the personnel to Colombo, although the single status the shore facilities were very good, duty free prices applied, and I recall some of our ship's officers often celebrated well, but not wisely, ashore. Recreational facilities were available for a variety of sports, swimming in clear blue water was within a barrier, although it was disconcerting to see sharks lazily circling a few feet away just outside!

The Maihar, bless her heart of 1917 vintage, had a proper swimming pool set into the boat deck, this was fitted during a comprehensive refit at Stephens at Glasgow whilst new ships were being built , and was not the customary canvas rigged affair on deck.
Our pool took the place of a former coal bunker hatch not required with the recent conversion to oil fuel burning. This was unique in the fleet, and led to the provision of purpose built pools on the newer ships in the fleet.
This pool was about 30ft. long and 8ft.wide and 6ft. deep so was not a small puddle. Since we filled it after leaving Suez and steaming down the Red Sea the 5th Engineer Officer and 2nd radio Officer and myself had competed to see how many lengths we could swim underwater, naturally turning at both ends, our progress was assisted or hindered by the roll of the ship as appropriate. We called it at quits as three lengths, and were naturally keen to try out our prowess ashore in the warm lagoons.
It was only when swimming ashore with snorkels inside the so called protection of the rocky barrier that we realised that the ominous shadows reflecting above us over the rocks were the dreaded sharks!

There was a small motor launch which ferried personnel around, I remember asking the cox what he did in civvy street, he replied that his family had a launch hire business on Loch Lomond!

Flight operations peaked with the transit of between 6-7000 passengers per month, and we often noted the large cloud of dust heralding the arrival of a large plane, among these were "V" bombers, Canberras, Shackletons, the jet Comets in particular were graceful aircraft.

The Defence White Paper of 1975 announced the closure of the base as from 1st April 1976, the reason given that the scaling down of movement of troops between UK and Singapore subsequent to the closure of that base rendered Gan surplus to requirements.
After twenty years of service a large amount of heavy equipment and vehicles had been amassed, and arrangements were then made for disposal, the first three months of 1976 being particularly busy, no doubt Brocklebank ships were again utilised to carry much of the equipment to its next destination, however I was not around by then to see.

Cargoes to Gan Island were a welcome break in the otherwise routine passage out east, the climate was often hot and humid, but being anchored off in a lagoon gave the benefit of cooler clean sea breezes, an added attraction was the novelty for Brocklebanker's of the base being just south of the Equator, luckily I had met King Neptune previously so was spared the usual ceremony, it was surprising just how many of the officers were in fact eligible for initiation, as except for the diversion around the Cape during the Suez conflict most had had no opportunity to move into the southern hemisphere.

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