Adolph Gysbert Malan DSO & Bar DFC
(24 March 1910 – 17 September 1963), better known as Sailor Malan
, was a famed World War II RAF
fighter pilot who led No. 74 Squadron RAF
during the height of the Battle of Britain
. Under his leadership the 74 became one of the RAF's best units. Malan was scored 27 kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged.
Malan was born in Wellington
, Cape Province
, South Africa
. He joined the South African Training Ship "General Botha" in 1924 and 1925 as a cadet at the age of 15, (cadet number 168), after which he joined the Union-Castle Line
of the International Mercantile Marine Co.
which later earned him the nickname of "Sailor" amongst his pilot colleagues.
Royal Air Force
In 1935 the RAF started the rapid expansion of its pilot corps, and Malan was one of the people who joined up. He learned to fly in the Tiger Moth
at an elementary flying school near Bristol
, flying for the first time on 6 January 1936. He completed training by the end of the year, and was sent to join 74 Squadron on 20 December 1936. He was promoted to Pilot Officer
in January 1937, and was appointed to acting Flight Commander of "A" Flight, flying Spitfires, in August. He received another promotion to Flight Lieutenant
just before the opening of the war.
The Second World War
The Battle of Barking Creek
No. 74 Squadron saw its first action only 15 hours after war was declared, sent to intercept a bomber raid that turned out to be returning RAF planes. On 6 September 1939 "A" Flight was scrambled to intercept a suspected enemy radar track and ran into the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron RAF
. Believing 56 to be the enemy Malan ordered an attack, and in the subsequent tragic battle pilots Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn
downed two RAF aircraft, killing one officer, Montague Hulton-Harrop. This friendly fire
incident became known as the Battle of Barking Creek
. At the subsequent courts martial
, the court accepted that the entire incident was an unfortunate error.
Events soon overtook the squadron. After fierce fighting over Dunkrik during the evacuation of Dunkirk
on 28 June 1940, Sailor Malan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
having achieved five 'kill' claims. During this battle he first exhibited 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. During the night of 19/20 June Malan flew a night sortie in bright moonlight and shot down two Heinkel He-111
bombers, a then unique feat for which a bar to his DFC was awarded.
Malan and his senior pilots also decided to abandon the "vic" formation used by the RAF, and turned to a looser formation based on the "finger four" that the Luftwaffe had developed just before the war started. Legend has it that on 28 July he met Werner Mölders in combat, damaging his plane and wounding him, but failing to bring him down. Recent research has suggested however that Mölders was wounded in a fight with No. 41 Squadron RAF.
Squadron Leader – 74 Squadron
On 8 August, Malan was given command of 74 Squadron and promoted to Acting Squadron Leader
. This was at the height of the Battle of Britain
. Three days later, on 11 August, action started at 7 am when 74 was sent to intercept a raid near Dover
, but this was followed by another three raids, lasting all day. At the end of the day, 74 had claimed to have shot down 38 aircraft, and was known from then on as "Sailor's August the Eleventh". Malan himself simply commented, "thus ended a very successful morning of combat
On the ground, Malan was remembered as an inveterate gambler and often owed his subordinates money. Malan was older than most of his charges and although sociable and relaxed off-duty, he spent most of his time with his wife and family living near Biggin Hill. He would soon develop a routine of flying the first sortie of the day and then handing the squadron to a subordinate while he stayed on the ground to do paperwork. Despite frosty relations after the Battle of Barking Creek he would often give command of the squadron to John Freeborn (himself an ace of note), showing Malan's ability to keep the personal and professional separate. Malan commanded 74 Squadron with strict discipline and did not suffer fools gladly, and could be high-handed with sergeant pilots (many non-commissioned pilots were joining the RAF at this time). He could also be reluctant to hand out decorations, and he had a strict yardstick by which he would make recommendations for medals: six kills confirmed for a DFC, twelve for a bar to the DFC; eighteen for a DSO.
Wing Commander – Biggin Hill
On 24 December, Malan received the Distinguished Service Order
, and on 22 July 1941, Bars to the Order. On 10 March 1941 he was appointed as one of the first Wing Leaders
for the offensive operations that spring and summer, leading the Biggin Hill Wing until mid August, when he was rested from operations.
He finished his active fighter career in 1941 with 27 kills destroyed, 7 shared destroyed and 2 unconfirmed, 3 probables and 16 damaged, at the time the RAF's leading ace, and the one of the highest scoring pilots to have served wholly with Fighter Command during WW2.
After tours to the USA and the Central Gunnery School, Malan was promoted to Group Captain
in 1941 and became Station Commander at Biggin Hill
. Malan remained keen to fly on operations, often ignoring standing orders for Station Commanders not to risk getting shot down. In October 1943 he became OC 19 Fighter Wing, 2nd TAF
, then commander of the 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing in time for D-day, leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the late afternoon.
Rules of Air Fighting
Although not an instinctive, gifted pilot Malan was an exceptional shot and a very aggressive air fighter, and above all a superb tactician who instilled the methods and techniques he had honed in 1940 into successive generations of young fighter pilots who followed him.
Malan developed a set of simple rules for fighter pilots, to be disseminated throughout RAF Fighter Command, which eventually could be found tacked to the wall of most airbases:
TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING
- Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely "ON".
- Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.
- Always keep a sharp lookout. "Keep your finger out".
- Height gives you the initiative.
- Always turn and face the attack.
- Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
- Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
- When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.
- INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.
- Go in quickly - Punch hard - Get out!
In 1946 Malan left the RAF and returned to South Africa where he joined the 'Torch Commando' a joint project of the anti-fascist ex-servicemen's organisation, the Springbok Legion
and the War Veterans Action committee. 'Sailor' Malan became the president of the 'Torch Commando'. In the words of ‘Sailor’ Malan, it 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.
Amongst the leading members of the Springbok Legion were many ex-servicemen who would later join the African National Congress and Umkhonto we Sizwe under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Amongst these were Joe Slovo, Jack Hodgson, Wolfie Kodesh, Brian Bunting and Fred Carneson. After the National Party came to power and began to implement its neo-fascist policies, many found the Springbok Legion, founded in 1941, (see Torch commando) to be too left orientated and too radical. In 1950 members of the Springbok Legion began to work with other more liberal organisations and even the United Party official opposition, to find new ways to mobilise protest support against a string of draconian Apartheid laws. A more broad based organisation was required and thus the 'Torch commando' was formed.
In 1951 the Springbok Legion, formed a protest group together with the War Veterans Action Committee, to appeal to a broader base of ex-servicemen, which they called the Torch Commando, as a tactic to fight the National Party's plans to remove Cape's "coloured" voters from the roll. The Torch Commando fought a battle for more than five years, and at its height had 250,000 members. The government was alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation that a new law was passed to ban anyone in public service or the military from joining. The National Party ensured that the memory of the Springbok Legion, Torch Commando and of 'Sailor' Malan was purged from history because there was a fear particularly that young Afrikaners may want to emulate Malan.
At its largest Torch Commando protest rally the Springbok Legion attracted 75 000 people. In a speech at a rally outside City Hall in Johannesburg,'Sailor' Malan made reference to the ideals for which the Second World War was fought: “The strength of this gathering is evidence that the men and women who fought in the war for freedom still cherish what they fought for. We are determined not to be denied the fruits of that victory.”
Malan died in 1963 from Parkinson's Disease, at the time a rare and essentially mysterious malady. A considerable sum of money was raised in his name to further study the disease, a fund that continues to this day.
He was survived by his wife, Lynda, son Jonathan, and daughter Valerie.
In the 1969 war film Battle of Britain, the Robert Shaw character 'Squadron Leader Skipper' was explicitly based on Malan, as recounted by director Guy Hamilton in the documentary 'A Film for the Few', which was included with the 2004 Special Edition DVD release.
- Price, Dr Alfred. (1997). Spitfire Mark V Aces 1941-45. Osprey Publishing, London. ISBN 978-1-85532-635-4