By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In August 1941, the netlayer HMS Guardian landed
Royal Navy construction crews on Addu Atoll in the Maldives
Islands to begin work on a secret naval base for Britain’s
Eastern Fleet. Though in public British leaders continued
to point to Singapore as the lynchpin of the Far Eastern defenses,
already they had grown concerned that the “Malay Barrier”
of Malaya, Sumatra and Java could not be held in the event
of a Japanese attack.
The British Eastern Fleet had left most of its base facilities in Singapore,
including drydocks and repair sheds. In the event of Singapore’s
loss, it was to fall back on Trincomalee on Ceylon’s
eastern coast. But Admiral James Somerville, the fleet commander,
found the port inadequate and doubted that it could be defended
from determined attack. He wanted an alternative base somewhere
in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which became known as “Port
T.” Not openly stated, but understood, was that such
a secret island base would also be secure from the prying
eyes of Indian nationalists, all of whom were suspected of
being in league with the Japanese during the paranoid days
of late 1941.
Addu Atoll. Central Intelligence Agency map.
Addu Atoll, also known as Seenu, is the southernmost island
group in the Maldives. It consists of several large islands
ringing a deep lagoon. There are several channels leading
into the lagoon, with the best of these at the southern end
of the atoll. The Royal Navy selected the southernmost island,
Gan (pronounced “Yahn”) for their airbase and
began construction of three crushed-coral airstrips for the
Fleet Air Arm. This was turned over to the Royal Air Force
in 1957 and became “RAF Gan,” a base that would
be used intermittently until 1971. The FAA base on Gan in
theory could handle all aircraft in the British inventory,
but had short runways and larger bombers often crashed on
While troops hacked down the jungle on Gan and prepared
the airstrips, Catalina and Sunderland flying boats began
operating from the jetties on the north shore of Gan. The
base’s most important facilities were the big oil tanks
built on Gan and on Hitaddu Island on the western edge of
the atoll. These would by necessity be visible from far out
at sea, but the islands’ low elevation made this inevitable
no matter where they were placed.
The 1st Royal Marine Coast Defense Regiment
provided the garrison troops, manning shore batteries and
anti-aircraft guns on all six of the atoll’s major islands.
To facilitate the defense, the important islands on the western
edge of the atoll would be linked by a light railway across
causeways built up between the the islands. This was not operational
until much later in the war. Except for the Gan Channel, the
other openings were permanently closed by anti-submarine nets.
A pair of Australian refrigerator ships were requisitioned
in Syndey, loaded with canned foods, several tons of American-made
cigarettes and 5,200 gallons of rum, and stationed in the
lagoon to re-supply British warships. These had Chinese crews
and Australian civilian officers, and most of the work was
handled by Maldivians hired from the local population.
A hardship post. Right.
Addu Atoll has since become a major tourist destination,
but British personnel assigned there in 1942 despised the
post. Morale appears to have been very low among the garrison,
and ships’ crews considered it a hardship post. Forty
miles north of the equator, the islands are very hot and extremely
humid. Gan had no recreational facilities, and the local women
were strictly off-limits.
The Japanese were not aware of the base’s existence
during the April 1942 carrier raids in the Indian Ocean, and
Somerville’s fleet used it extensively. Later in the
war submarine reconnaissance established the base’s
existence, but by this point the Imperial Navy had no designs
for a large-scale offensive in the Indian Ocean. The German
submarine U-183 did torpedo the tanker British Loyalty in March 1944, making an impressive long-range shot from
outside the atoll through a gap in the anti-torpedo nets.
In our game Eastern
Fleet, we gave Addu Atoll no special secret
abilities: The Japanese player knows the British have a base
there. The game system doesn’t lend itself to “secret”
bases, since the opposing player is going to figure out that
a task force probably isn’t going to halt in mid-ocean
for several turns. Optional rules make it harder to detect, but unlike Chuichi Nagumo the Axis player already knows it’s there and therefore knows to look for it.
Learn the secrets
of Addu Atoll yourself: Order Eastern Fleet today!
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.