It is usually Addu at the southern tip of the Maldives that is renown for the British presence. Most people overlook the fact that the British also had a base in the northern tip of the Maldives, even if it was fleeting. In 1945, the British established a staging post in Kelaa until the end of World War II as a complimentary northern base to the southern base in GAN.
According to Abdulla Waheed, a former island chief, the RAF base in Kelaa was used as a refueling station for war planes. To this day, it is possible to see two concrete anchor columns built by the British in the lagoon for this purpose. They used a carrier boat to transfer their army from seaplanes to land. This same boat now lies in ruins in the lagoon, dubbed boatu gandu by the locals.
Vaijeheyge, a house at the current Rahvehige location was used for all formal meetings between RAF and Maldivian government officials. The British did not do any formal communications with the Kelaa island office, instead bypassing them to talk to the central government. Mohamed Shihab was among those who visited as government officials to discuss maters with the RAF. From a local standpoint, Ismail Katheebu was the one charged with escorting the government officials to the meetings.
IDEAS had the fortune of meeting Ismail Katheebu and listening to his memories of the time. According to him, during the time of Mohamed Amin Didi, five Britons came to Kelaa to do an initial survey of the area.
A Mr Iren was the leader of the team, and Ismail Katheebu remembers him always carrying his pistol with him. Mr. Iren would sleep in a hut (holhuashige which is still there) at the beach on Odiban Magu (the name given because a boat was built there). The rest of the team stayed at the Avashuge (a house build by the island office as an accommodation block for government officials from Male’ near the football ground).
After the survey, a cargo ship delivered all the materials for the construction of the RAF base at the thundi. Locals guided the ship safely through the atoll to the channel between Kelaa and Dhapparu, the closest point to the Kelaa Thundi. The cargo was unloaded to the island by local fishing boats.
Ismail Katheebu recalls that four workers came from each island in Haa Alif, Haa Dhaal, Shaviyani, Noonu and Lhaviyani. He does not recall any workers from Raa or Baa Atoll. According to him, around 400 people moved to Kelaa as workers. They came bearing gifts of toddy and fish for the British in the RAF base. In return, they got clothes, juice, milk, curry powder, biscuits, basmati rice and even kerosene.
The British are remembered as having been generous to the workers. At the time, the people who worked for them were usually the more well off people. However, most of the locals were afraid of the RAF base and rarely ventured to the area. If a local beside the workers wanted to visit the base, a special permission from vaijeheyge had to be obtained to enter the area. At the same time, RAF soldiers did not enter the local areas either. They only ventured out of the base area to attend official meetings at Vaijeheyge.
An accommodation block called Boduvalhu was built near fili park for all the workers. All the food for the workers and for the base was stored at bandahage near fili park. The food was supplied by Bodu Istoaru (Mega Store) opened by Amin Didi during the Second World War to supply food to all the islands. The supply was managed by the island chief.
The workers helped build 40 houses as barracks for the RAF. Most of these buildings were timber framed structures with thatch roofs and timber flooring built on a concrete base. Around 100 RAF soldiers were stationed at the base at a time, most of whom were pilots. In addition to these barracks, a small jetty was built near the area for the army vessels. Since all the buildings were built near the beach, a windbreaker wall was also constructed along the beach using timber boxes.
According to Abdulla Waheed, the army barracks were prefab buildings. They casted a concreted foundation for each building of which the ruins still remain. Following the end of World War II, locals removed most of the concrete and prefab parts and repurposed them to build wells.
During its glory days, the RAF base also had a badi ge (armory) for storing weapons. The walls of the armory are still standing, and conservation works are ongoing by the island council and local NGOs. The base also had an open drainage system similar to the one at the Addu base, but most of the drainage system in Kelaa has now been buried by soil over the years. The famous Bunbaa Valhu was used to supply fresh water to all the barracks.
Ismail Katheebu’s memories of the incidents that took place at the Kelaa RAF base are still very vivid. He describes a night when a plane caught on fire and had to do an emergency landing. The two pilots onboard died and one was buried at Kelaa thundi. The other was buried at kuda rah, an uninhabited island near Kelaa. The plane sank into the lagoon and later on the aluminium from the plane was claimed by nearby islanders, especially from Kulhudhuffushi. It is possible to see the frame of one of the wings of the plane. According to locals, the cockpit is still in the deep regions of the lagoon.
But the memory that left his eyes crinkling in mirth was of the day the British held an urgent and serious meeting with the island chief concerning some marks around their buildings. The markings looked like Japanese characters and the British were worried that it might have been a message from the Japanese, when they found out from laughing locals that these were marks left by the baraveli, hermit crabs!
The British stayed in the base at Kelaa for 11 months. Once the war ended, they left leaving all their material behind. All of it was then taken to Male’ by the government.
List of officials who visited from Maldivian government
As recalled by Ismail Katheebu
Ibrahim Hassan Manik
Hassan Afeef (grandson of Salahuddin)
Hoarafushi Mudhim Thakurufaanu
Workers at the RAF base
As recalled by Ismail Katheebu
Ako Aadhanu – Laundry
Dhonbe Ali – dishroom washer
Tholhey Thuthu – general worker
Ismail Katheebu – focal point from island office
Ingireysi Moosa – unkown