Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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Sailor Malan

The featured image shows 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, and it says a lot about Sailor Malan.

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.

An integrated Air Force

During the Battle of Britain, the British relied on pilots from the Commonwealth to make up a critical pilot shortage, Sailor Malan was one of these pilots and with him came pilots from all over the world, of all colours and of all cultures (there was no such thing as a ‘colour bar’ in the Royal Air Force) – from commonwealth countries like India, Burma, Rhodesia, Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, as well as pilots from Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and the USA.  They made up almost one-third of the RAF pilots involved in the Battle of Britain (to believe the image so often created of these men as a bunch of tea drinking ‘tally-ho’ young white English gentlemen is to completely misunderstand the Battle of Britain).

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Jamaican Pilots during  the Battle of Britain

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.

Fighter Ace

Much has been written on Sailor Malan as a Fighter Ace, his rules for combat and his command of 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain which played such a pivot role in winning the Battle (see ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan) .  His combat record, promotions and decorations alone are simply astonishing.

He first took part in evacuation of Dunkirk.  During this battle he first exhibited his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. To demonstrate his nature, in one incident he was able to coolly change the light bulb in his gunsight while in combat and then quickly return to the fray.

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Sailor Malan’s gun camera showing the destruction of German Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk

When the Battle of Britain begun, 74 Squadron (known as ‘The Tigers’) was to take the full heat of the battle in what was known as ‘hell’s corner’ over Kent, the squadron was eventually based at the now famous ‘Biggin Hill’ aerodrome in the thick of the battle.

Sailor Malan 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, 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 seperate 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 Malan 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.

Sailor Malan also worked on public relations to keep the British morale high.  Here is a rare radio interview (follow Observation post link Sailor Malan – “in his own words”)

By D Day (i.e. Operation Overlord, the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe), Sailor Malan was in command of 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing and was himself leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the landings in Normandy.

In all Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.  The Citations for the DSO’s and DFC’s say everything about his combat prowess:

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

DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

DFCLGFlight 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.”

On Christmas Eve, 1940, the London Gazette had recorded:

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctActing 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.”

And on 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.”

Also awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In addition, “Sailor” was awarded the following decorations by Allied Governments:

The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm, The Czecho-Slovakian Military Cross, The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer and The French Croix de Guerre.

Bill Skinner DFC, with whom Sailor often flew, summed up Sailor Malan very well as to his leadership:

“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.”

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Sailor Malan (centre) with pilots of 72 Squadron

He was the outstanding British Fighter Command fighter pilot of the 1939-45 war, and by the end of 1941 was the top scorer – 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.

Freedom Fighter 

The Battle of Britain and D Day moulded Sailor Malan as a champion for freedom, he simply held the view that shooting down Nazi aircraft was good for humanity, and this translated into his personal politics.  Not much is known of Sailor’s political career post war, and it’s an equally fascinating to see him in the context of a ‘Freedom Fighter’ in addition to his fighter ace accolade.

Sailor Malan left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. In the 1950’s he formed a mass protest group of ex-servicemen called the ” Torch Commando” to fight the National Party’s plans to implement Apartheid and call for an early election to remove what they regarded as ‘fascist’ government from power.

In Sailor Malan’s own words, The Torch Commando was: “established to oppose the police state, abuse of state power, censorship, racism, the removal of the coloured vote and other oppressive manifestations of the creeping fascism of the National Party regime”.

To understand why the returning war veterans felt this way about the National Party, consider that during the war the National Party had aligned itself with pro Nazi movements inside South Africa as well as taking a neutral stance on the Smuts’ declaration of war.  To understand the men now in power and the prevailing political mood of war veterans in 1950 follow these links to related Observation Posts:

“Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

South Africa’s Nazi Spy or “Struggle Hero”? – Robey Leibbrand

South African Pro Nazi movements – Oswald Pirow’s New Order

Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”

The Torch Commando can best be described as a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and in its manifesto it called for Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Liberty from Tyranny and Freedom of Religion. Sailor Malan’s personal politics (which he brought into the Torch) revolved around universal franchise and addressing poverty in the black community and economic empowerment as a priority to political reform. Funnily, Sailor Malan was years ahead of time in this regard, as it is only now that politics in South Africa is focusing on economic emancipation ahead of political emancipation.

The key objective underpinning the Torch was to remove the National Party from power by calling for an early election, the 1948 ‘win’ by The National Party was not a ‘majority’ win, but a constitutional one, and the Torch wanted a groundswell to swing the ‘service’ vote (200 000 in a voting population of a 1 000 000).  The Torch at its core was absolutely against The National Party’s Apartheid ideology and viewed their government as  ‘unconstitutional’ when they started implementing policy.

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Torch Commando protest – note the slogans ‘this government must go’ and ‘they plan a fascist republic’.

Other issues also sat at the core of the Torch, one issue was the Nationalist’s headstrong policy to make South Africa a Republic, whereas the ‘servicemen’ had fought alongside the British commonwealth and the ‘Allies’ (mainly Britain, United States and Russia) in the Second World War – and they wanted South Africa to retain its Dominion status, remain a ‘Union’ and remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

As a pro-democracy’ movement it regarded the National Party’s policies as ‘anti-democratic’.  The Cape Coloured franchise removal was the first action of the National Party to implement the edicts of Apartheid, so it stood to reason that this was the first issue to protest against.

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 10 000 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 (left) and Perla Gibson (right) 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.

Follow the below two links to view film footage of The Torch Commando in action:

The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

‘New’ rare footage of The Torch Commando in action, the first mass protests against Apartheid by WW2 veterans.

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 75 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, lest they loose their jobs – 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”.

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Torch Pin

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.

An inconvenient truth

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 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 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 beloved squadrons motto, and can say in all truth;

19437652_1982409038654751_1420497074088337846_n“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 government for human rights.

Concluding video

To conclude Sailor Malan, visuals often better reflect words, and this is a landmark video on Sailor Malan which balances his fighting and political deeds.  This time Sailor’s legacy has been carried forward by “Inherit South Africa” in this excellent short biography narrated and produced by Michael Charton as one of his Friday Stories – this one titled FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.


Story for The Observation Post, written and researched by Peter Dickens

References Wikipedia. South African History On-Line (SAHO), South African History Association, Wikipedia ,Neil Roos: Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961.  Kimberley Calls and Recalls. Life Magazine, 25 June 1951.  Video footage, Associated Press – source Youtube.  Images – Imperial War Museum copyright and Associated Press copyright.  Friday Story video copyright Inherit South Africa – Michael Charton.

6 thoughts on “Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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  2. Pingback: FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend. | The Observation Post

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  4. Pingback: “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag | The Observation Post

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