Adolph “Sailor” Malan was born in Wellington, South Africa, in 1910 and joined the Union Castle Line of the Mercantile Marine at the age of 15, from which service he derived his nickname “Sailor”. He completed his initial seafaring training at the South African Merchant Navy Academy, and was one of the stars 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”.
When the danger signs from Nazi Germany were recognized, he joined the RAF in 1935 learned to fly on Tiger Moth aircraft at an elementary flying school near Bristol, England. He first took to the air on the 6th January 1936. From there he graduated to more advanced types of aircraft and learned the first steps of his new profession. He duly passed the course and received his pilot’s wings. On the 20th December 1936, he was posted to 74 (Fighter) Squadron. It was his first and only squadron, and was the Squadron’s most famous fighter of all time in the opinion of all those who served in it.
This 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.
In January 1937, Sailor was promoted to Pilot Officer and while in that comparatively humble rank, he was appointed in August 1937, as 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. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant just before the war began, and at ten minutes to three on the morning of the 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 fierce fighting over France on the 28th June 1940, Sailor was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. King George VI presented it, 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:
Distinguished Flying Cross – 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.”
His almost unbelievable calmness in action was demonstrated in the way with which he changed his reflector sight bulb, even though it was in the height of combat, his aeroplane was damaged and he was being attacked. His coolness, and complete confidence and efficiency were admired infinitely by the rest of his comrades. Bill Skinner, who won the Distinguished Flying Medal with 74 Squadron, says of Sailor with whom he flew so often:
“He was a born leader and natural pilot of the first order. Complete absence of balderdash. 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, and by the fact that he set such a high standard in his flying.”
Sailor was given command of 74 Squadron, with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader at the height of the Battle of Britain on the 8th August, 1940. Three days later the Squadron was again in battle and the day became, for ever, “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. 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.
On Christmas Eve, 1940, the London Gazette had recorded:
Distinguished Service Order – Acting Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert Malan, DFC (37604), Royal Air Force.
“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.”
And on the 22nd July, 1941: Bar to Distinguished Service Order – 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.
The Awards he received were as follows, with some from Allied Governments:
Distinguished Service Order and Bar
Distinguished Flying Cross
The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm
The Czecho -Slovakian Military Cross
The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer
The French Croix de Guerre
Sailor was the outstanding fighter pilot of the 1939-45 War, and by the end of 1941, was the top scorer with 32 kills, plus 2 unconfirmed – a record which he held for three years. But he was much more than an individual performer. He had assimilated the fierce and fanatical “tiger spirit”, and this spirit he inspired in others so that he carried the Squadron to great deeds with him.
Sailor’s “Ten Rules for Air Fighting” are the classic tenets for successful air fighting for as long as there are manned fighters. They were pinned up in their shortened form in many crew rooms, and those who followed them often lived. They are 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!
Sailor left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. In the 1950s, he formed 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 NP 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.
The Torch Commando fought the franchise battle for more than five years. At its height, the Commando had 250,000 members, making it one of the largest protest movements in South African history. The Government 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.
Sadly, Sailor Malan succumbed on the 17th September 1963, from the rare Parkinson’s Disease, about which little was known. It is a mark of the esteem in which his fellow countrymen hold him, that they set up a “Sailor Malan Memorial Fund” which raised R 20,000 to promote bursaries at the University of Witwatersrand for the study of this malady.
To those who served with 74 Squadron during anytime between 1936 and 1945, he 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 is 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.
John Mungo Park, who succeeded Sailor as Commanding Officer of 74 Squadron, said, before he was tragically lost in 1941:
“What I like about Sailor is his quiet, firm manner and his cold courage. He is gifted with uncanny eyesight and is a natural fighter pilot.”
To read Mungo’s words is almost to hear Sailor’s quiet strong tones calling:
“Let’s cut some cake. Let ’em have it!” as if the 60 years had not slipped away, and as if his mortal remains did not lie beneath the Kimberley sun, so far from the English skies in which he fought so well. He was a man who, more than any other, could quote the motto of 74 Squadron, and say in all truth: “I Fear No Man.”
Courtesy of RAF 74 Squadron
The Spitfire Association