South African Tribute Spitfire

Adolph Gysbert "Sailor" Malan - 24th March 1910 - 17th September 1963

Adolph "Sailor" Malan was born in Wellington, Cape Province, South Africa in 1910. At the age of 15 he joined the Union Castle Line of the Mercantile Marine, This is where his nickname "Sailor" was derived many years later. His initial seafaring training he received at the South African Merchant Navy Academy, "General Botha", and was thus one of the many famous "Botha Boys" produced by that fine training ground for quiet heroes. His wife Lynda always called him John, and it was by this name that he was known to a few of his closest friends, but to his Squadron as a whole, and to the world, he was, and always will be, "Sailor".

He learned to fly on Tiger Moth aircraft at an Elementary flying Training School at Filton, near Bristol, in England, where he first took to the air on 6th January, 1936. From there he graduated to No.3 Service Flying Training School at Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he flew more advanced types of aircraft and learned the first steps of his new profession. While at Grantham he left the ranks and was commissioned as an Acting Pilot Officer, the commission dating back to the beginning of his service in January 1936. He duly passed the course and received his pilot's wings, and on 20th December 1936,  was posted to No. 74 (Fighter) Squadron, then stationed at Hornchurch, in Essex. It was his first and only squadron, and was the most famous fighter Squadron of all time in the opinion of all those who served in it.

No. 74 Squadron was the great Tiger Squadron (so called because of its fierce fighting record and its badge (a tiger's face surmounting the motto "I Fear No Man") which the young Malan heard about when he reached Hornchurch. Few dreamed then that under his leadership the Squadron would achieve even greater fame in the desperate years to come. 

On 6th 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. Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn downed two RAF aircraft, killing one officer, Montague Hulton-Harrop, in this friendly fire incident, which became known as the Battle of Barking Creek. At the subsequent court-martial, Malan denied responsibility for the attack. He testified for the prosecution against his own pilots stating that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken proper heed of vital communications. This prompted Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings to call Malan a bare-faced liar. Hastings was assisted in defending the pilots by Roger Bushell, the London barrister and RAF Auxiliary pilot who later led the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. The court ruled the entire incident was an unfortunate error and acquitted both pilots

In December 1936 when "Sailor" (as he was beginning to be known) arrived at the Squadron, it had been reduced to about one third of its normal strength, owing to the drain on existing squadrons to meet the formation of many new ones. He was one of about a dozen of the new "expansion" intakes who arrived at the end of 1936 and early in 1937. They were all straight from their training schools untried, but magnificent raw material, as events were to prove in the years following 1939.

In January 1937, the RAF could see something in this newly promoted Pilot Officer, so in August 1937 Sailor was appointed acting Flight Commander of "A" Flight. He quickly showed that he was an outstanding marksman in air firing practices and, as a Flight Commander, soon developed qualities of leadership which established him as a first class shot and a fine leader.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant just before the war began, and at ten minutes to three on the morning of 4th September, 1939, fifteen hours after war had been declared he led Red Section of "A" Flight into the dawn sky. He was flying Spitfire K9864, and was ordered to patrol to intercept an enemy raid approaching the British coast from Holland. The "raid" was later identified as some friendly bombers returning to Britain and the frustrated "Sailor" landed just after four in the morning. However, 74 Squadron had been into the air with attacking intent for the first time since 1918; they were at war once again. After the fierce fighting over France on 28th June 1940, Sailor was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). King George VI presented Sailor with his DFC, and Sailor commented:

"The first letter of congratulation that I received came from an insurance company, a firm whose correspondence used to frighten me because the only time they ever wrote me was when I was behind with my premiums. This time they never mentioned a word about any money owing".

The London Gazette of the 11th June 1940, read:

Flight Lieutenant Adolph Gysbert Malan. (37604), Royal Air Force.

"During May 1940, this officer has led his flight, and on certain occasions his squadron, on ten offensive patrols in Northern France. He has personally shot down two enemy aircraft and, probably, three others. Flight Lieutenant Malan has displayed great skill, courage and relentless determination in his attacks upon the enemy."

The bitter struggle over Dunkirk left all R.A.F. pilots in a state of near collapse from fatigue. When Sailor landed for the last time for the day on 27th May, 1940 his eyes were so tired that the airfield was in a sort of haze and he just threw his Spitfire on to the ground. He said afterwards that he did not know why he had not crashed.

His almost unbelievable calmness in action was demonstrated in his laconic report of his shooting down of a Heinkel 111 three days before: "I was leading four aircraft of Yellow Section on offensive patrol, Dunkirk - Calais - Boulogne. Spotted anti-aircraft fire at 12,000 feet over Dunkirk when at 500 feet off the coast, west of Dunkirk. Climbed in line astern to investigate and saw three vics (approx. 9-12-9). (That is to say that the bombers were flying in vee-shaped formations of 9, 12 and 9) Intercepted second vic at 12,000 feet and passed through very heavy and accurate anti-aircraft barrage. Attacked starboard flank in echelon port from astern as Me 109s and Me 110s were observed above and into the sun, turning on to our flank for attack. Observed about eight of these, although probably more were about. Delivered three one-second bursts at both engine and fuselage of He 111 from starboard flank, 250 yards to 150 yards. I was then hit on starboard mainplane and through fuselage by anti-aircraft fire, which severed electrical leads near my seat and extinguished reflector sight. As I broke off I observed one Me 110 coming up on the starboard quarter and one Me 109 astern. I executed some very steep turns into the sun and lost sight of the two fighters. I changed bulb in reflector sight, but as it failed to function I concluded that the wiring had been cut. By this time the battle had gone out of sight and I hadn't enough petrol to give chase. Whilst climbing into the sun I observed crew of He 111 I had shot take to parachute and aircraft gradually lose height on zigzag course. Whilst climbing up to the attack I observed one bomber badly hit (presumably by AA) with port engine stopped and left wing well down and dropping out of formation .

The calm care with which he changed his reflector sight bulb, even in the height of combat, damaged and attacked as he was, was typical of his whole professional approach. His coolness, and complete confidence and efficiency were admired infinitely by the rest of his comrades.

On 18th June 1940 he took off at twenty minutes after midnight at his own request in Spitfire K9953. His combat report for that night tells what happened far more vividly than any words of mine. "During an air raid in the locality of Southend various E/A (enemy aircraft) were observed and held by searchlights for prolonged periods. On request from Squadron I was allowed to take off with one Spitfire. I climbed towards E/A which was making for coast and held in searchlight beams at 8,000 feet. I positioned myself astern and opened fire at 200 yards and closed to 50 yards with one burst. Observed bullets entering enemy aircraft and had my windscreen covered in oil. Broke off to the left and immediately below as E/A spiralled out of beam. Climbed to 12,000 feet towards another E/A held by the searchlights on northerly course. Opened fire at 250 yards, taking good care not to overshoot this time. Gave five two-second bursts and observed bullets entering all over E/A with slight deflection as he was turning to port. E/A emitted heavy smoke and I observed one parachute open very close. E/A went down in spiral dive. Searchlights and I followed him right down until he crashed in flames near Chelmsford. As I approached target in each case, I flashed succession of dots on downward recognition light before moving in to attack. I did not notice AA fire after I had done this. When following second E/A down, I switched on navigation lights for short time to help establish identity. Gave letter of period only once when returning at 3,000 feet from Chelmsford, when one searchlight searched for me. Cine camera gun in action .

Blenheim aircraft got five more that night. As soon as Sailor got down he telephoned a nursing home in Westcliff-on-Sea to see how Lynda and his new son Jonathan had fared. They had slept through it all.

He was given command of 74 Squadron, with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August, 1940. Three days later the Squadron was in battle. The day became, forever, "Sailor's August the Eleventh".

The order was received at twenty minutes past seven to intercept a hostile raid approaching Dover. Little did the squadron know that they would participate in four separate air battles that day. Sailor later said "11th August 1940 was a Sunday, if my memory serves me correctly, and it dawned fair and became cloudy later. 74 Squadron was operating from the forward base at Manston in Kent, and at twenty minutes past seven the order was received to intercept a hostile raid approaching Dover".

Sailor later reported: "I climbed on an east north east course to 20,000 feet into the sun and then turned down sun towards Dover. I ordered the Squadron to attack. Some of the enemy adopted the usual German fighter evasive tactics, i.e. quick half roll and dive. On this occasion, as the air seemed clear of German aircraft above us, I followed one down and overtook him after he had dived 2,000 feet, opening fire during the dive at 200 yards range with deflection. He levelled out at about 12,000 feet, when I gave him two two second bursts at 100 yards range. He was in a quick half roll and dived towards the French coast. I closed again to 100 yards range and gave him another two or three two-second bursts, when he suddenly burst into flames and was obscured by heavy smoke. This was at 4,000 feet, one mile north west of Cap Gris Nez. I did not watch him go in, but flew back as fast as I could. I did not see the engagements of the rest of the Squadron. N.B. Normally I have strongly advised all pilots in the Squadron not to follow 109s on the half roll and dive because in most cases we are outnumbered, and generally at least one layer of enemy fighters is some thousands of feet above. It was found that even at high altitudes there was no difficulty in overtaking E/A on diving apart from the physical strain imposed on the body when pulling out".

His second air battle he recorded:

"I climbed on a north-easterly course to 24,000 feet and did a sweep to the right, approaching Dover from the sea. I saw a number of small groups of Me 109s in mid-Channel at about 24,000 feet, and as we approached most of them dived towards the French coast. I intercepted two Me 109s and dived on to their tails with Red Section. I delivered two, two second bursts at 150 yards, but as I was overshooting I went off and the remainder of the section continued the attack. I immediately climbed back towards the spot where Blue and Green Sections were waiting above and tried to attract their attention, but owing to R/T difficulties did not manage to get them to form up on me. I proceeded towards Dover by myself. I attacked two Me 109s at 25,000 feet about mid-Channel, delivered two, two second bursts with deflection at the rearmost one and saw my bullets entering the fuselage with about 15 degrees deflection. He immediately flicked off to the left, and I delivered two long bursts at the leading one. He poured out quite a quantity of white vapour. Eight Me 109s, which had previously escaped my attention, dived towards me and I climbed in right hand spirals, and they made no attempt to follow me. I proceeded towards Dover on the climb and saw ten Me 109s at 27,000 feet in line astern with one straggler, which I tried to pick off, but was unable to close the range without being turned on to by the leader of the formation. I circled in a wide sweep with them for about ten minutes whilst I attempted to notify the remainder of the Squadron by R/T. This proved to be impossible owing to heavy atmospherics and in the end I gave up and returned to Manston".

The third combat of the day started at 1145 when 11 aircraft took off to patrol a convoy about 12 miles east of Clacton. About 40 Messerschmitt 110s were sighted approaching the convoy from the east in close formation, just below cloud base. They formed a defensive circle but the Squadron followed Johnny Freeborn in a dive into the middle of the circle. This attack was very successful and resulted in 11 E/A being destroyed and 5 damaged.

The Squadron took off for a fourth time just before two o'clock, with eight aircraft, to patrol Hawkinge at 15,000 feet, and subsequently north east of Margate where enemy raids were reported. He climbed through 10/10 cloud (thickest cloud - it was measured in tenths from 1 to 10) with the eight Spitfires in two sections of four. On emerging from the cloud he spotted about 30 Junkers 87 aircraft in long lines of small vic formation, and about 15 Me 109s about 2,000 feet above and half a mile astern. He reported: "On sighting us, the bombers dived towards a gap in the clouds whilst the Me 109s closed their range with the bombers. I ordered Freeborn's Blue Section to attack the bombers whilst I attacked the fighters with Red Section. I closed the range with the fighters and attacked an Me 109 as he dived through a gap. I opened up at 30 degrees deflection at 200 yards and closed to 100 yards dead astern. After the third two second burst he burst into flames and went into the sea approximately off Margate. I immediately climbed towards the cloud and then dived towards another group of four Me 109s and delivered 30 degree deflection bursts of about three seconds at about 200 yards. I saw no results. As my ammunition was now expended, I returned to Manston."

When the Squadron, weary, sweaty and oily, finally returned to base after the fourth sortie, they had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.

Sailor said later, in one of his masterly understatements: "Thus ended a very successful morning of combat". For the first day of action under his command it was successful even by 74 Squadron standards. 

He relinquished command only when promoted to Wing Commander on the 10th March, 1941, to become Wing Leader of the Fighter Wing in which 74 Squadron flew.

The London Gazette on Christmas Eve 1940 read :


Acting Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert Malan, DFC (37604), Royal Air Force, No.74 Squadron.

"This officer has commanded his squadron with outstanding success over an intensive period of air operations and, by his brilliant leadership, skill and determination has contributed to the success obtained. Since early in August 1940, the squadron has destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more. Squadron Leader Malan has himself destroyed at least eighteen hostile aircraft and possibly another six.

On 22nd July 1941, came:


Acting Wing Commander Adolph Gysbert Malan, DSO, DFC (37604) Royal Air Force.

"This officer has displayed the greatest courage and disdain of the enemy whilst leading his Wing on numerous recent operations over Northern France. His cool judgement, exceptional determination and ability have enabled him to increase his confirmed victories over enemy aircraft from 19 to 28, in addition to a further 20 damaged and probably destroyed. His record and behaviour have earned for him the greatest admiration and devotion of his comrades in the Wing. During the past fortnight the Wing has scored heavily against the enemy with 42 hostile aircraft destroyed, a further 15 probably destroyed and 11 damaged."

In addition, he  was awarded the following decorations by Allied Governments:

The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm

The Czechoslovakian Military Cross

The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer

The French Croix de Guerre


He was the outstanding fighter pilot of World War 2, and by the end of June, 1941, was the top scorer with 27 enemy aircraft destroyed, a record which he held for three years. But he was much more than an individual performer. He had assimilated, with others of that fine first batch of "expansion" pilots the fierce and fanatical "tiger spirit" handed down from the great days of  World War I, and this spirit he inspired in others so that he carried the Squadron to great deeds with him.

He finished his flying career with No. 74 squadron in early 1941 with 27 enemy aircraft destroyed, 7 shared destroyed, 2 unconfirmed, 3 probable's and 16 damaged, at the time the RAF's leading ace, and one of the highest scoring pilots to have served wholly with Fighter Command during World War II.

After returning from a trip to America, partly technical, partly propaganda, Sailor was sent to the Central Gunnery School, Sutton Bridge, where, he would demonstrate to new pilots the fatal art of making a gun platform out of a Spitfire flying at 400 m.p.h. . . . 'The German fighter' he told pilots, 'pays a lot of attention to tactics. That's a good fault. But unfortunately for Hitler he seems to lack initiative and guts. His fighting is very stereotyped, and he's easily bluffed. Part of his reluctance to stay around and mix it is, of course, due to the fact that his aircraft is less manoeuvrable. As for tactics he insists on using the same old tricks without any imagination. For instance, one gag is to detach a pair of decoys which dive past in front of a British formation, hoping someone will be fool enough to follow them, and they can do a surprise pounce on the rest. Despite warnings, some of our pilots, I'm sorry to say, have been caught by this. The old saying from the First World War: 'Beware of the Hun in the sun' is truer today than ever before.

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 was transferred to the reserve as a squadron leader on 6th January 1942.

Malan was promoted to temporary wing commander on 1st September 1942 and became station commander at Biggin Hill, receiving a promotion to war substantive wing commander on 1st July 1943. He remained keen to fly on operations, often ignoring standing orders for station commanders not to risk getting shot down. In October 1943 he became officer commanding 19 Fighter Wing, RAF Second Tactical Air Force, then commander of the 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing in time for D-day, leading a section of the wing over the beaches .

Sailor's "Ten Rules for Air Fighting" are the classic tenets for successful air fighting for as long as there are manned fighters, and still used today. They were pinned up in their shortened form in many crew rooms, and those who followed them often lived. This short version, so well known to all who ever spent any time in the crew rooms of Fighter Command in 1941-42 was as follows:


1.     Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely "ON"

2.     Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.

3.     Always keep a sharp lookout. "Keep your finger out".

4.     Height gives you the initiative.

5.     Always turn and face the attack.

6.     Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.

7.     Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.

8.     When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.

9.     INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.

10.    Go in quickly - Punch hard - Get out!

Group Captain Adolph Gysbert "Sailor" Malan resigned from the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946 to work for Anglo-American, and later moved to Kimberly (in the Northern Cape). where he commenced a career in sheep farming. He was asked to run for political office, but refused. He didn't have the patience for party politics and to him it was about the values at stake - values for he which fought for during WWII - and not ideology.

In the early 1950's he became involved in the increasingly febrile South African domestic political scene, with its radical polarising atmosphere, and racially, and culturally divided societal tensions. After the National Party was voted into Government in the 1948 South Africa's domestic governance moved to a position of National Conservatism, and commenced the introduction of the Apartheid governing system for communal segregation of the nation along racial lines, which Malan objected to the development of. In the 1950's sailor joined a protest group of ex-servicemen called the "Torch Commando" to fight the National Party's plans to remove Cape coloured voters from the common roll. The Cape coloured franchise was protected in the Union Act of 1910 by an entrenched clause stating there could be no change without a two thirds majority of both houses of Parliament sitting together. The Nationalist government, with unparalleled cynicism, passed the High Court of Parliament Act, effectively removing the autonomy of the judiciary, packing the Senate with National Party sympathisers and thus disenfranchising the coloureds. 

In a speech at a rally outside City Hall in Johannesburg, war hero 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." He was soon elected to President. Through the early 1950's he involved himself in political opposition to what he perceived was the increasing authoritarianism of the National Party in Government, which he felt threatened to become fascistic in nature. At one point the "Torch Commando" (so-called for its predilection for staging night time rallies outside government buildings with the protestors bearing flaming torches for dramatic illumination) movement had 250,000 members, and staged well attended rallies across South Africa, which Malan often publicly addressed. DF Malan, who was Prime Minister of South Africa, and no relation to Sailor, was so alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation that those within the public service or military were prohibited from enlisting. 

By the late 1950's however the movement lost momentum as some of the factions that constituted it increasingly moved from a hitherto public Liberal position to one of World Communism, and splintered away to join the newly insurgent African National Congress, which Malan was not in sympathy with. The rise of the A.N.C. with its ideological radical agenda in turn discouraged the majority of the "Torch Commando's" membership from continuing with their campaign against the Apartheid State laws, with Malan leaving the disintegrating organization and retiring from politics and public life, leaving the National Party to governmentally rule South Africa exclusively for the next four decades.  

In 1963, Sailor Malan, one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of the Royal Air Force, lost his fight against Parkinson’s Disease, at that time a rare and little understood medical condition, he died at the young age of 52. His funeral service was held at St. Cyprians Cathedral and he was laid to rest in his beloved Kimberley, Northern Cape Province. A considerable sum of money was raised in his name to further study the disease.

He was pre-deceased by his wife Lynda, son, Jonathan, and daughter, Valerie.

It is to the embarrassment now as to his treatment as a South African military hero that all enlisted South African military personnel who attended his funeral were instructed not to wear their uniforms by the newly formed SADF (the government did not want a Afrikaaner, as Malan was, idealised in death in the fear that he would become a role model to future Afrikaaner youth).

All requests to give him a full military funeral were turned down and even the South African Air Force were instructed not to give him any tribute. Ironically this action now stands as testimony to just how fearful the government had become of him as a political fighter.


In the national obituary issued to all newspapers by the government, no mention was made of his role as President of the Torch Commando and his very strong anti -apartheid views.

This systematic removal of Sailor Malan’s legacy by the National Party and the education curriculum is also tragic in that Sailor’s role in the anti-apartheid movement is now lost to the current South African government.

It would be an inconvenient truth to know that the first really large mass action against Apartheid did not come from the ANC and the Black population of South Africa – it came from a ‘white’ Afrikaner and a mainly ‘white’ war veterans movement, which drew it members from the primary veteran organisations in South Africa – The Springbok Legion, The South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats.

The simple truth – the Torch Commando preceded the first ANC “Defiance Campaign” by a couple of years, an inconvenient truth for many now and very conveniently forgotten.

From the beginning of 1948 the South African Legion’s relations with the Nationalists were starting to strain because of the actions of The Torch Commando and South African Legion members joining it, but a major clash was to come when the South African Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

Another confrontation occurred when the South African Legion requested the Nationalist government to waive pass laws for Black military veterans who had served South Africa, and therefore should be treated differently, however this request unfortunately worked for a limited time and the juggernaut of Apartheid law and policy implementation eventually simply over ran it.

The South African Legion was again at loggerheads with the National Party government over the lack of parity with regard to pensions paid out to Black and Coloured veterans. The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a very long battle for the South African Legion.

The World War 2 veterans, and even those still serving,  were again at serious loggerheads with the newly formatted SADF and the Nationalists – when in a very sinister move the government decreed that all their highest bravery decorations (military cross, DSO etc) along with campaign medals and Stars – all won in the Second World War were for a ‘foreign’ country in their estimation (Britain – and not South Africa) and therefore these decorations and medals had to take the junior position after even the most lowly SADF service medal on their medal groups.

To add insult to injury, amongst many other changes to remove ‘British’ and ‘English’ heritage, they also went about introducing German styled NCO rank insignia and reformatting many of their infantry and regiment formations which resulted in new insignia, and hard earned Battle honours laid up, and new colours initiated instead.

The net result of all of this was a ‘them and us’ mentality, where the old veterans looked at the SADF in disdain, refusing to alter their medal groups. The Nationalists,and many Afrikaners in the SADF officer class, also began to brand The South African Legion and The Memorable Order of Tin Hats, as ‘British’ and ‘unpatriotic ‘ whilst they maintained their ‘British’ links, insignia and heritage.

The government also started to gradually turn off the taps of the supply of veterans to the South African Legion and the MOTH from the newly formed South African Defence Force (SADF), when SADF personnel completed their service.  Whereas under the old South African Union’ Defence Force (UDF) such a transition when demobilising was the norm.

To those who served with the Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron anytime between 1936 and 1945 Sailor Malan was the greatest leader of them all. As a small token of their esteem, 28 of those remaining presented a ceremonial sword to the Squadron in July, 1966, at Headquarters Fighter Command, in proud memory of Sailor and in honour of his exceptional service to the Squadron.

It was intended that this Sword should serve as an inspiration to those coming after, so that his high standards of courage, determination and leadership shall live on.

To remember Sailor’s calm and heroic line going into battle “Let’s cut some cake. Let ’em have it!” is to remember a man of remarkable courage.  A man who in all honestly lived by  his beloved squadrons motto, and can say in all truth;

“I Fear No man”