25 Battle of Britain pilots hailed from South Africa. The most famous of them all was Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, an excellent fighter pilot, a brilliant tactician, a respected leader, and an inspirational protester against Apartheid.
He was called ‘Sailor’ as he had been in the South African Merchant Navy Academy before joining the RAF in 1936. He was posted to No. 74 Squadron, which was the only squadron he was to serve on. They flew Gloster Gauntlet biplanes until converting to the brand new Supermarine Spitfire in February 1939.
The Squadron’s first operational sortie ended in utter disaster. On 6 September 1939, only hours into the Second World War, the Squadron intercepted what was believed to be an enemy formation.
Two aircraft were shot down before it was realised these were Hawker Hurricanes from No. 56 Squadron. The ‘Battle of Barking Creek’ incident exposed the inadequacies of RAF radar and identification procedures, leading to their being greatly improved by the time of the Battle of Britain.
The Squadron first saw combat in May 1940 during the evacuation from Dunkirk during which Malan started to exhibit his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. In one incident he was able to coolly change the light bulb in his gunsight while in combat and then quickly return to the fray. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross having achieved five 'kills'.
11 August 1940 became known as ‘Sailor's August the Eleventh’. No. 74 Squadron was sent out to intercept a German raid near Dover, followed by another three raids, lasting all day. By the end of it, Malan’s Squadron had claimed to have shot down 38 aircraft. Malan himself brought down two Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighters.
He was a superb shot but what made him stand out was his understanding and application of fighter tactics, instead of simply referring to the old rule books. During the early phases of the Battle of Britain German bombers, escorted by fighters, were met by RAF fighters flying tight formations which provided little scope for manoeuvre when battle was joined. The German Luftwaffe fighters used a looser formation allowing a great flexibility in combat. Malan and his senior pilots decided to abandon the ‘vic’ formation used by the RAF, and turned to a four in line astern formation. He also ordered that his men train their deflection shooting, and that they should get to 250 metres of their target and fire as opposed to the more conventional 400 metres. He probably did more than anyone else to bring RAF fighter tactics up to date.
The hard-won lessons of the Battle of Britain allowed him to produce a set of methods and techniques which were eventually passed round to all RAF Fighter Command Stations. The ‘Ten Rules For Air Fighting’ would cast an influence on successive generations of RAF fighter pilots who followed after him. Most still hold true today!
He possessed an extremely strong character, which gave him great leadership potential. That said, he did not suffer fools gladly. He had a very high standard when flying and expected his fellow pilots to achieve the same. As far as he was concerned, you either did your job properly, or you were on your way. He inspired his air crews by his dynamic and forceful personality.
He finished his fighter career with 27 destroyed and 7 shared destroyed, being one of the RAF's leading aces. He was awarded a DFC with bar, as well as the Distinguished Service Order with bar. His importance to the Battle of Britain is also evident from the 1969 cinema film Battle of Britain, in which the character of Squadron Leader Skipper (the one with the white roll neck sweater) played by Robert Shaw was based on Malan.
He moved back to South Africa after the war and formed a mass protest group of ex-servicemen called the ‘Torch Commando’ to fight the National Party’s plans to implement Apartheid. In Sailor Malan’s own words, The Torch Commando was ‘established to oppose the police state, abuse of state power, censorship, racism, the removal of the coloured vote and other oppressive manifestations of the creeping fascism of the National Party regime’.
The latter element referred to the fact that during the war the National Party had aligned itself with pro-Nazi movements inside South Africa. This did not go down well with the man who had put his life on the line in the fight against Nazism.
For his efforts in the fight against apartheid, the National Party, on the death of Sailor Malan at the age of 53 on 17 September 1963 from Parkinson's disease, did not allow that Sailor be buried with full or in fact any honours. It is also believed that any serving SAAF member that wished to attend his funeral at the time would have to do so without uniform and at his own expense, thus nullifying his illustrious career in both the military and political arenas.
A funeral service was held for his body at St. Cyprian's Cathedral in Kimberley, after which it was buried in a grave at 'West End Cemetery' in Kimberley, Northern Cape Province.
Many great pilots hailed from South Africa. Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle was the highest-scoring pilot of the RAF during the Second World War. Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis shot down five enemy aircraft in a single day. Roger Bushell, Big X, masterminded the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III in 1944. Bob Kershaw rescued a downed pilot ‘Jack’ Frost, another Afrikaner, landed his Spitfire next to him, took him on his lap, and took off again, together handling the controls of the Spitfire. Petrus ‘Dutch’ Hugo was one of the very few to have been awarded two bars to his DFC. Thomas Wallace who was court-martialled for being absent without leave, responded by claiming seven victories in three weeks during the Battle of Britain. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the German forces in Normandy, fell victim to the guns of South African JJ Le Roux when he strafed Rommel’s car.
It was with all of this in mind that the staff and volunteers of SAAF Museum PE made the decision to build a Spitfire replica and that this replica would be that of Sailor Malan. The project was started in 2007 by the then Officer in Charge, Lt Col T. Janse van Rensburg. He soon retired from service and the project ran until completion in 2018 under the skilful hands of Volunteer, Mr Rob Triblehorn. The project was in part funded by the Royal Air Force Officer’s Club in Johannesburg without whom it would have taken significantly longer to complete.
For more info on the SAAF Museum replica please see below: