Sailor Malan – Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Group Captain Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (24 March 1910 – 17 September 1963), the South African World War 2 flying ace in conversation here with Flight Sergeant Vincent Bunting at Biggin Hill in 1943 on the left.

Vincent Bunting was one of a small group of ‘black’ British and Commonwealth pilots in full combat roles during the Second World War – he was born in Panama in June 1918 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He joined the RAF at No 1 Recruitment Centre, Uxbridge, on 26 July 1940. Selected for flying training he went on to become a fighter pilot mainly with RAF 611 Squadron.

The featured image of early racial recognition is testament to Sailor Malan as not only one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the war, but the future signs of Sailor Malan as a political fighter and champion for racial equality.

Sailor Malan left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. In the 1950’s 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 Cape Coloureds.

Inserted is a picture of a rare manifesto artefact of Torch Commando manifesto (freedom been the central theme) and Sailor Malan at a Torch Commando Rally in Cape Town with 10 thousand South African WW2 veterans on protest.

Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government at this rally of “depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

Wartime singing icon Perla Gibson also attended the Torch Commando anti apartheid rally in Cape Town and sang to the protesters in support. Perla was known as the ‘Lady in white” and sang to incoming and outgoing troops in Durban harbour during WW2 to beef up morale.

Insert – Kmdt Dolf de la Rey and Perla Gibson at the Cape Town Torch Rally

Of extreme interest was co-leader of the Torch Commando rally in Cape Town – Kmdt. Dolf de la Rey – he famously captured Winston Churchill during the Boer War fighting for the Boers and became an anti-apartheid activist after WW2, another one of the rich tapestry of Afrikaner war heroes in conflict with National Party politics and philosophy.

During the Cape Town “Torch” 50 000 civilians joined the 10 000 veterans when the protest moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen.

In a speech at a massive rally involving over 15 thousand war veterans outside City Hall of South African veterans 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 anti-apartheid legislation 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. DF Malan’s nationalist 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 – in the long-term the this pressure led to the gradual erosion of the organisation.

Also the National Party government, being extremely concerned about the influence this movement might have, especially under the leadership of the war hero tried to discredit the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of negative propaganda. For the rest of his life, Sailor would be completely ignored by the government. The National Party press caricatured him as “a flying poodle”, dressed in his leathers and flying goggles, in the service of Jan Smuts and the Jewish mine-bosses, who were referred to as the “Hochenheimers”.

Despite this, Sailor continued to fight against the violation of human rights in South Africa with the same passion and moral fibre that allowed him to fight so vigorously against fascism and racism during the Battle of Britain. His dream of a better, democratic life for all in South Africa not only urged and carried him forward, but also caused him to be shunned by and isolated from his white National Afrikaner countrymen who were blinded by the short-sighted racial discrimination of their government.

He would become known as a traitor and an outsider of “another kind” (DF Malan, during his term as Prime Minister, would refer to him as “an imported British officer”) and it was due to his own integrity that he would, towards the end of his life, turn his back on the oppression and immorality of the country he loved so much. His individual brilliance as the Spitfire fighter pilot during the heroic battle in the skies above London and the British Channel were not enough to bring victory in this struggle.

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 and died at the young age of 52. The funeral service was held at St. Cyprians Cathedral and he was laid to rest in his beloved Kimberley.

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 formatted 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 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 veterans organisations in South Africa – The Springbok Legion, the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats. The Torch Commando preceded the first ANC “Defiance Campaign” by a couple of years, an inconvenient truth for many now and very conveniently forgotten.

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 belovoured squadrons motto, and can say in all truth;

“I Fear No man”

A motto that holds true to him as one of the greatest ‘fighter pilots’ of the war, but equally so as a ‘freedom fighter’ standing up against a morally corrupt governement for human rights.

 

74-sqn-badge-via-raf-heraldry-trust

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