The British Royal Air Force (RAF) operated in the Addu Atoll of the Maldives during the Second World War and as an RAF base from 1957-1976. The British first opened an airfield in Gan in Addu Atoll in 1940, as a secret base to launch its aircrafts for the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), one of five fighting arms of the British Royal Navy, and was simply known as Port T. This article is a short history on RAF Gan and Port T and only gathers small fragments of the nearly two decades of RAF Gan and Port T’s story.
During the Second World War, the British built an airstrip on the island of Gan with crushed coral sand and few operating blocks in the island of Hithadhoo. The most common type of aircraft to come into Port T during the Second World War was the RAF Short Sunderland, named after the town of Sunderland in North East England where they were made, and PBY Catalina, which was made in the United States. Both of these were seaplanes with combat capabilities and were widely used by the RAF during the 1930s and 1940s. The personnel working in Port T came from RAF China Bay in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and they were tasked with service and return of these aircrafts. Port T was protected by anti-torpedo nets at the four channels of the atoll.
Port T did not see much combat action during the war, except for a German U-Boat that attacked an oil storage hulk called British Loyalty, while it was anchored off the island of Villingili in Addu Atoll. It was recorded that at 0900hrs on March 9th 1944, German U-boat U-183 fired a torpedo between a gap in the anti-torpedo net at British Loyalty across the Gan Channel, (the channel between the islands of Gan and Villingili in Addu Atoll) hitting the vessel on the starboard side. The torpedo destroyed the engine room and flooded 3 of its tanks. Port T personnel managed to save the vessel by counter-flooding and used it after repairs till 1946 when Port T was closed. British Loyalty was scuttled and laid to rest in the Addu Atoll and is near Hithadhoo at 00°38’12”S, 73°07’24”E.
After the war, Port T was closed and all the installations destroyed or removed until 1957 when the British got Gan under a 100-year lease from the Maldivian government to open an RAF staging post in Addu. A new base was necessary for the British in the Indian Ocean to compensate for the closure of RAF Katunayake in Ceylon. Locals of Gan were relocated to Hithadhoo and other islands and the building work commenced in 1957. The British brought hundreds of Pakistani labourers to build the runway and the supporting buildings to Gan to work on their new base. RAF personnel lived in tents and temporary basic accommodations with thatched roofs until the buildings they needed were constructed. A new 2650 meters long concrete runway was built from east to west across the island with an air apron, fuel storage facilities and other necessary support buildings and the base were operational by May 1958. RAF Gan was used by refuelling aircrafts in their crossing of the Indian Ocean from East to West and was not limited to only British planes. Occasionally other aircrafts including American aircrafts landed at the base too.
During the course of its history, RAF Gan was not untouched by air accidents and mishaps. One such flight, TG579, from Katunayake to Gan crashed on approach just short of the runway in bad weather on the night of 1st March 1960. Miraculously everyone onboard survived, despite the loss of the four-engine Hastings aircraft. Another Hastings aircraft was also involved in a crash landing accident in RAF Gan in July 1959, without any fatalities. However, an Avro Shackleton aircraft crashed into the ocean in November 1967 en route from Gan to Changi in Singapore, killing 8 out 11 on-board. Other than these incidents operations at RAF Gan was smooth.
RAF Gan was dubbed as the RAF’s loneliest base by The Illustrated London News in its December 1970’s issue, citing the remoteness of the island. Nevertheless there were many options for the airmen to indulge in, once in RAF Gan. These included an open-air cinema, picnics to nearby Villingili, an immature radio station run by the RAF Gan servicemen, a music band, a football team and various sports facilities.
RAF Gan closed on 1st April 1976 as the importance of the base declined with the waned British Empire. However, the British manage to have some presence in the Indian Ocean through its access to the American base in the Chagos Islands. The people who worked and lived in RAF Gan hosts occasional reunions including visits to Gan in 2010 and 2016, where they share their stories of the base with locals and each other, and revisit the sites of the base in what is today’s Gan International Airport in Addu. Through its veterans, the era of RAF Gan is one of the most well documented and well recorded periods in Addu and Gan’s history, if not the most well preserved period.