There are great South Africans, and then there are ones who stand on the shoulders of great men, and this man is one of them. Arguably the best Allied fighter ace of WW2, this South African stands heads and shoulders above other Allied fighter aces and this rather unsung hero is indeed one of South Africa’s greatest sons.
Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” Pattle DFC & Bar (3 July 1914—20 April 1941) was a South African-born Second World War fighter pilot and flying ace— believed to be the most successful Western Allied fighter pilot of the war.
Pat Pattle was born in Butterworth, Cape Province, South Africa, on 3 July 1914, the son of South African-born parents of English descent, Sergeant-Major Cecil William John “Jack” Pattle (b. 5 September 1884) and Edith Brailsford (1881–1962). Marmaduke was named after his maternal grandfather, Captain Thomas Marmaduke Pattle, who resigned his commission in the Royal Horse Artillery and emigrated to South Africa from England in 1875.
Pattle was academically intelligent. He considered a degree and career in Mining engineering before developing an interest in aviation. He travelled to the United Kingdom and joined the RAF in 1936 on a Short Service Commission (SSC). Pattle negotiated the training programs with ease and qualified as a pilot in the spring, 1937.
Assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF, he was sent to Egypt before the war in 1938. He remained there upon the outbreak of war in September 1939. In June 1940 Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis Powers and he began combat operations against the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) gaining his first successes during the Italian invasion of Egypt. By November 1940 had gained four aerial victories but had been shot down once himself.
In November 1940 his Squadron was redeployed to Greece after the Italian invasion. Pattle achieved most of his success in the campaign. In subsequent operations he claimed around 20 Italian aircraft shot down. In April 1941 he faced German opposition after their intervention.
Here is a Messerschmitt Bf 109E of III/JG 77 which crash-landed on the airfield at Larrissa, Greece, possibly one of two claimed shot down by the South African Squadron Leader “Pat” Pattle, the Officer Commanding No. 33 Squadron RAF on 20 April 1941.
During the 14 days of operations against the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) Pattle claimed his 24—50th aerial victories; all but three were German. Pattle claimed five or more aircraft destroyed in one day on three occasions, which qualified him for “Ace in a day” status. Pattle achieved his greatest success on 19 April 1941, claiming six air victories.
Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St John “Pat” Pattle, Officer Commanding No. 33 Squadron RAF (left) , and the Squadron Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant George Rumsey (right), standing by a Hawker Hurricane at Larissa, Thessaly, Greece.
The very next day, having claimed more aerial victories than any other Western Allied pilot, he took off against orders, and suffering from a high temperature to engage German aircraft near the Greek capital Athens. He was last seen battling Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters. His fighter crashed into the sea during this dogfight, killing Pattle.
Pattle’s death was equally heroic as he had dived down to rescue a fellow pilot who had a Bf-110 on his tail, Pattle managed to save him but at the loss of his own life, as he was also been attacked by Bf-110’s during the rescue – and he chose to ignore them to save his buddy.
Pattle was a fighter ace with a very high score, and is sometimes noted as being the highest-scoring British and Commonwealth pilot of the war. If all claims made for him were in fact correct, his total could be in excess of 51. It can be stated with confidence that his final total was at least 40 and could exceed this value. Log-books and semi-official records suggest this figure while personnel attached to his Squadron suspect the figure to be closer to 60. A total of 26 of Pattle’s victims were Italian; 15 were downed with Gloster Gladiators, the rest with Hawker Hurricanes. He is considered to be the highest-scoring ace on both Gladiator (15 victories) and Hurricane (35 victories) fighters.
Pattle is however regarded as the ‘unofficial’ Highest scoring Western Allied Fighter pilot for WWII. Unfortunately the squadron war dairy and his log books were lost in the retreat from Greece.
Pattle’s medals are on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Saxonworld Johannesburg.
Pilots of No. 33 Squadron RAF, at Larissa, Greece, with Hawker Hurricane Mark I, V7419, in background. They are (left to right); Pilot Officer P R W Wickham, Flying Officers D T Moir, and V C “Woody” Woodward, Flight Lieutenant J M “Pop” Littler, Flying Officers E H “Dixie” Dean, F Holman (k.i.a. 20 April 41), and E F “Timber” Woods (k.i.a. 17 June 1941), Pilot Officer C A C Chetham (k.i.a. 15 April 1941), Flight Lieutenant A M Young, Squadron Leader M St.J “Pat” Pattle (Squadron Commanding Officer, k.i.a. 20 April 1941), Flying Officer H J Starrett (died of burns 22 1941); Flight Lieutenant G Rumsey (Squadron Adjutant), Pilot Officers A R Butcher (p.o.w. 22 May 1941), W Winsland, and R Dunscombe (p.o.w. 22 May 1941).
Thank you to Tinus Le Roux for the use of this rather rare feature photo of Pat Pattle, copyright and use to Tinus Le Roux. Content thanks to Wikipedia and Sandy Evan Hanes. Insert photographs – copyright Imperial War Museum