One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of all time, but little is known of this South African in his homeland.

Meet the all time highest scoring British and Commonwealth forces WW2 fighter ACE, a South African named  – Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle DFC & Bar

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 Western Allied Forces fighter ace of WW2, this South African stands heads and shoulders above other British, British Commonwealth and American fighter aces of the war, however he remains a rather unsung hero. Precious little is known of him by many of his countrymen today, no significant war memorials exist in South Africa that even bear his name – but he is indeed one of South Africa’s greatest sons and one of the greatest heroes of WW2.

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 4 aerial victories but had been shot down once himself.

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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.

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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 3 were German. Pattle claimed 5 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.

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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 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.

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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 Johannesburg.  However little other recognition is given to him in South Africa.  Pat Pattle, like so many other great South Africans of WW2 serving in the Royal Air Force – Roger Bushell, Sailor Malan, Zulu Lewis, JJ Le Roux, Stapme Stapleton, Geoffrey Haysom, Dutch Hugo, John Nettleton VC and many more, suffered from the incoming race politics of the Nationalists in 1948, their memory ridiculed and branded as ‘traitors’ for siding with the British, their legacy subject to systematic erosion during the years of Apartheid. To the extent that today, in the changed politics of South Africa, we find them almost completely forgotten.

To think that we have in our midst in South Africa, some of the greatest men of the war to liberate the world of Fascism and Nazism, we have so much to be proud about as a nation, we even hold the honour of having the greatest Western Allied fighter pilot of the war … and nobody knows.

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Pilots of No. 33 Squadron RAF, at Larissa, Greece, with Hawker Hurricane Mark I, V7419, in background. from left to right, Pat Pattle stands at the centre.


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

6 thoughts on “One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of all time, but little is known of this South African in his homeland.

  1. Pingback: South Africa’s greatest WW2 fighter ACE – Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle DFC and Bar | The Observation Post

  2. I am so pleased and proud that my late father E C R Baker was able to highlight the feats of Pat Pattle in his biography of greatest fighter ace of the 2WW. Wayne Baker

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  3. I was delighted as a South African when visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC a few years ago, to see that they too acknowledge Pat Pattle as the top Commonwealth ace of the Second World War. He shot down 40 enemy aircraft, confirmed. As a son of an WW2 ex-SAAF fighter pilot, I learned to have a kill confirmed in the Commonwealth airforces, and I think also in the US Army Air Force, the kill had to be seen going down with no possible chance of it flying again by at least one other pilot. So, the 20 or more other possible or probable unconfirmed kills made by Pattle are just that, probables or possibles. Therefore Richard Bong of the USAAF was equal to Pattle with 40 confirmed kills. For various reasons the claims by many Luftwaffe pilots during the conflict have to be taken with a pinch of salt; perhaps even a shovel full of salt at times. Aircraft destroyed on the ground could be counted as a kill, something not allowed by the Commonwealth air forces. Furthermore, as the war turned against the Nazis, the surviving aces were hard pressed and had more opportunities to shoot down Allied aircraft as the air campaign over the Reich grew in ferocity and intensity. What’s more, a pilot’s claim was taken at face value, mainly it is believed, for propaganda purposes as much as for morale building. The Luftwffe did not require them to have another pilot confirm his comrade’s claims. For example, the much vaunted, and no doubt very brave and talented German fighter pilot, Joachim Marseille, claimed Desert Air Force aicraft destroyed in the Western Desert on days when no Allied aircraft were up at all. But, when one considers that to become an “ace” one had to shoot down five enemy aircraft, and that most fighter pilots never became aces despite their best efforts, to have as many as 5, 7, 10 or more to one’s name was a prodigious feat. We South Africans should be very proud of Pat Pattle and the other extraordinary fighter aces our country produced in both world wars. A monument to them should be raised at the Union Buildings or somewhere else much visited by the citizens and foreigners alike.

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  4. May I use this for our Shellhole Newsletter. We have the banner of the Nettleton VC Shellhole displayed at our Shellhhole – PIP ACK, Newlands Cape Town.

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