The Secret Naval Base in the Jungle
We have heard it all before!
It’s the dramatic story of how the Royal Marines hacked a base in a tropical Maldivian jungle. This secret naval base with full defences was code named ‘Port T’ and was a vital link on the convoy route to Australia and for certain operations in the Indian Ocean. Similar to Pluto, Fido, Mulberry or Neptune, ‘Port T’ was built by the Royal Marines attached to the first Mobile Naval Base Defence brigade. I created this photo essay based on Peter Doling’s account of the life and times of Port T and RAF Gan.
In September 1941, long after the Maldives became a British protectorate in 1888, a detachment of Royal Marines and a team from the RAF Airfield Construction Squadron led by Flight lieutenant George McNeil came ashore on Addu Atoll, Maldives, primarily to establish a military base so they could keep a check on Japanese incursions into the Indian Ocean. The Second World War was raging. Britain and Allied Powers were aware that the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had already overrun the Malay Peninsula and parts of Borneo. Singapore — the bastion of British power in the Far East, was the next target.
In a letter addressed to Sultan Hassan Noordheen II on behalf of the British Government, Governor of Ceylon Andrew Caldecott, thus sought permission of the Maldivian Government to station Commonwealth and British military forces in Addu Atoll.
The British visitors were captivated by the pristine sandy beaches, backed by gently swaying palm trees. They were awed by the swell of the great Indian Ocean breaking in a perpetual surf on the coral reef. They enjoyed dipping in the sea. They made friends with the meandering fishermen. They relaxed under the large tree canopies.
But now it was time to get the job done.
The Marines began by clearing the wild uninhabited landscape of virgin jungle to build the camps. The timid natives were immensely helpful when stripping vegetation from the sites. Then the coral had to be blasted away to improve the landing sites. Roadways had to be cut through the scrub to the battery sites to transport heavy guns and equipment before gun-mounting could begin.
The marines waded thigh-deep in the black, foul-smelling mud to lay foundations with palm leaves all knotted into bundles of ten. The four-mile roadway from the landing-place to the battery site in Hithadhoo had to be laid across a swamp infested by giant land crabs. The natives roared with laughter at the sight of the marines wading in the muddy waters or any mishaps of the struggling foreign men.
Artillery guns had to be mounted in different locations of the atoll within six weeks!
A prefabricated running surface destined to carry 13-ton wheeled loads was built using crushed coral — held together with the trunks of palm trees. In Meidhoo, it took just two months for a corporal and six Marines to complete a crushed coral surface — using cord as the hard core, with a top dressing of earth and sand. In Hithadhoo, an access road was built from Gaukendi in the south all the way to Kotte in the north of the island. Herātera and Meedhoo were also linked by road through Hulhudhoo. A tabular bridge was built between the islands of Meidhoo and Hera while Gan was linked to Feydhoo and Maradhoo by wood and steel plank causeways.
Addu Atoll was swept at regular intervals by torrential storms that washed away the road surfaces and flooded clearings and gunsites. Unloading ships could only take place at certain stages of the tide thus the marines worked day and night — two six-hour shifts per day.
(All this was going on while the Japs were still planning their attack on Pearl Harbour).
By and by, the marines discovered the many disadvantages of this blissfully deceptive island ‘paradise’. The men lacked the most primitive amenities. Practically every drop of water had to be shipped to the atoll and supplies were seldom sufficient for washing. Flies, mosquitoes and rats were plentiful and every small scratch turned septic and developed into an ulcer that refused to yield treatment. The hot and damp climate favoured the growth of microorganisms that literally ate the skin off the flesh. The diet of dry or tinned food with no green vegetables or fresh fruit reduced their natural resistance to these infections.
Soon a form of scrub typhus, born of the rats and their parasites, broke out. The marines would suddenly fall unconscious during work, without any prior symptoms of illness. A violent fever followed for two weeks, leaving the victim weak and debilitated. The rapid deterioration of canned food caused food poisoning. Malaria also appeared in malignant form, but never became a serious menace owing to the stringent anti-malarial precautions. In Villingili, a channel was squeezed between the sea and a mosquito-breeding lake, so that the brackish water became tidal and the mosquito larvae were destroyed.
The marines paid a heavy price. In the first three months, over 20% of the workforce were evacuated to the hospital ship Vita as the chaps were too ill to be of further service.
An anxious quartermaster nevertheless pushed on with relentless speed. Working against time and tropical disease, the British forces established coastal batteries, searchlights, signal towers, roads, camps, and jetties in Gan, Hithadhoo, Meidhoo and Villingili. Night landing facilities and safe anchorage for visiting flying boats were fixed at Farukolhufushi. The main marine vessels repair and maintenance facilities, including an important communication centre was located at “Boduge” in Maradhoo Venbolhufushi.
The entire transformation of Addu Atoll was kept top secret.
Besides the British technical teams, there were over 1000 foreign workers who helped expedite the work. At the peak of the construction work, the foreign workforce was over 3000 — mostly imported from India, Ceylon and Pakistan. Over and above this, there were Maldivians who commuted daily in their ‘Dhonis’to Gan from their islands for work.
Despite all hardships, the anchorage was in a state of defence by December 8. Only camouflaging, administrative installations and the completion of the war signal station remained to be done. By the time Japan declared war, Port T was ready.
Due to the unavailability of telegraphic links in the Maldives, it took three weeks for the news of the ravaging war to reach Male’ via Ceylon. Two Marconi valve radio sets were imported and placed at Mulee-aage palace so that the English-speaking elite of Male’ could be in touch with world news updates during the war.
The book ‘Maldives under the War Clouds’ written by the first Maldivian president Mohamed Ameen Didi, (originally written in Dhivehi language) and first published on 28th April 1949 gives a detailed account of the adverse effects of the war in the Maldives region. The book addresses the Maldives food crisis and malnutrition due to lack of sea-transport from Ceylon to the Maldives during the war and how the Maldives administration mitigated this situation via the cordial relationship with the British Governor of Ceylon at the time. ‘
On January 3, 1942, the marines of the original team returned to Addu atoll accompanied by the Royal Marine Coast Regiment and the ‘Landing and Maintenance Company of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (MNBDO). The convoy included engineers who were assigned to build the Gan aerodrome under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Wilfred Boyd Fellowes Lukis (later Major-General Lukis, C.B.E.) reached Addu Atoll. It was a most exhilarating sight for the marines when they witnessed the Queen Mary (carrying Australian troops from the Middle East), steaming into the anchorage that they built!
RAF Flying boats and RN warships and submarines began reconnaissance missions in the Indian ocean surrounding the Maldives in search of German and Japanese vessels. The RAF Sunderland and PBY Catalina — based in China Bay and Koggala, Ceylon, were engaged in ferrying troops and supplies between Ceylon and Addu Atoll. These flying boats were moored along the north shoreline of Gan and in the deep areas (vilu) of Hithadhoo lagoon. Both types were fitted with .50 calibre machine guns.
When the Royal Navy engineers completed the crushed coral airstrip at Gan, the runway surface was capable of absorbing the landing of a fully loaded Liberator.
In late December 1942 Commander (A) (P) H. L. McCulloch was appointed commanding officer RNAS Gan.
As the war raged relentlessly in South East Asia, Singapore was captured by the highly motivated and heavily armed Japanese forces in February 1942. Admiral Nagumo of the IJN had a combined strength of over 28 naval vessels including cruisers and destroyers, five submarines, auxiliary support ships and five aircraft carriers with over 350 aircraft.
The fall of Singapore — which housed the British military’s Eastern headquarters and the largest Royal Naval Fleet -was the greatest disaster in British military history. Prior to the fall of Singapore however, the Royal Navy shifted its Eastern Fleet to distant Mombasa Harbour, East Africa. Other naval assets were diverted to safe anchorages in Ceylon, Diego Garcia and Port ‘T’.
With Singapore and Malaya under their full control, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began encroaching the waters of Ceylon and the Maldives. On 5th April 1942 the Japanese aircraft carrier-based bombers carried out massive raids over Ceylon, destroying military facilities, air bases and Harbour installations in Colombo and Trincomalee. RNS aircraft carrier HMS Hermes — which was heading towards the Maldives for safety, was also attacked. Although Male’ and Addu Atoll were safe from the 1942 IJN raids, some Maldivian citizens suffered attacks by the IJN and German forces thereafter.
Subsequently the second runway was completed at Gan. It was 3000 feet long and 150 feet wide, running NE/SW. Construction of the third runway was held up due to lack of rollers and by July 1943 had been cancelled. The partially completed strip was used as a taxi track. In March 1943 an emergency landing strip was built of consolidated earth, running 2400 feet long and 150 feet wide aligned North/South on Bender — an island on the E. side of the atoll, 6 miles NE of the airfield. This was completed by July 1943.
In February 1943, the British Supermarine Walrus — a purpose built, single engine, amphibious reconnaissance biplane — was the first aircraft to land in the newly built Gan aerodrome. The Walrus was catapulted from HMS Gambia.
The nebulous complement of Commander (A) (P) H. L. McCulloch, Lt. Commander (A) (P) L. Gilbert RNVR and Flying and Sub- Lieutenant (A) J. G. Wetherspoon RNVR were on site to witness the event. This was the first recorded landing of an aircraft in the Maldives.
Other types of reconnaissance aircraft that frequented the Gan aerodrome were the Consolidated B-24 Liberator — the largest aircraft to fly into Gan during WWII. The first Liberator of the RAF 160 squadron arrived in Gan from RAF Ratmalana, Ceylon in July 1943. The Liberators — carrying heavy loads of depth charge explosives — operated into Gan (during day-light hours only) on anti-ship and anti-submarine patrol missions
In 1944 the cargo vessel ‘Yaahunbaraas’ while on its annual trading voyage to Ceylon with 39 passengers and crew was hit by the IJN. One crew member died of bullet wounds. The Captain, Abbeyyage Ibrahim Didi and another crew member, Sikkage Mohamed Manikfan, was taken prisoner. The remaining thirty-six persons were tied on top of the vessel, to be drowned when the submarine dived. According to survivors, the submarine surfaced and rammed across the centre of the vessel causing its hull to badly list on one side. The two prisoners remained under incarceration in Singapore until Singapore was liberated by the British and allied forces in September 1945. They were repatriated to Colombo at the end of hostilities.
World War 2 formally ended with the signing of the official Instrument of Surrender by the representatives of the Imperial Government of Japan and the Allied Powers on 02 September 1945 on the deck of the United States Navy battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in Japan. The Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed on behalf of the Emperor of Japan while the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Asia Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur of the United States Army signed on behalf of the Allied Powers.
British and the Commonwealth Forces left Addu Atoll in early 1946 at the end of WWII. Prior to departure, they dumped heavy machinery, vehicles and other equipment into the outer perimeters of the atoll. A few permanent facilities were left intact. Some usable equipment was transported to Male. Original inhabitants of Gan were repatriated from their temporary settlements. Port ‘T’ which once accommodated over 4000 troops was left redundant. Gan, the first aerodrome in the Maldives, was abandoned. The aerodrome area was used for housing and agricultural crops for the returning natives of Gan.
But Addu Atoll had forever changed.
From Port T to RAF Gan : Peter Doling
The War Illustrated, Volume 9, №214, August 31, 1945
Aviation in the Maldives by Ahmed Mohamed