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Adolph Gysbert Malan DFC

Famous South African pilot in World War 2 - Known as "Sailor Malan" Distinguished Flying Cross

(1910 to 1963)

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

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."

Adolph "Sailor Malan" was born in Wellington, Cape Province, 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". His initial seafaring training he received 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 learned to fly on Tiger Moth aircraft at an elementary flying school near Bristol, England, and he first took to the air on 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 20th December, 1936, he was posted to No. 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 Hornschuch. 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 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 which established him as a first-class shot and a fine leader.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant just before the war began, and at ten minutes to three on the morning of 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 the fierce fighting over France on 28th June 1940, Sailor was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. King George VI presented Sailor with his DFC, 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".‍‍


By Al J Venter who has lived in down for almost a decade and a half and loves it. At 84, he is now rated as the oldest, still-active war correspondent in the world.

Just up the road from where I live, in the green byways and hills of Kent sits Biggin Hill, a small town with a singular claim to fame: Royal Air Force (RAF) Station Biggin Hill was the nation’s frontline air base against the Luftwaffe during those trying times.
Probably because Biggin Hill is almost directly south of London, it was chosen early on in the war as one of the principal air force bases to defend the capital, a prescient move. Squadrons operating from there shot down more German fighter planes and bombers than any other air base in Britain: over 1,000 enemy aircraft destroyed.
Somebody else who lived in this area - for a start on the road that links Biggin Hill with Downe - which meant that he was a regular in one of our pubs, was a quiet-spoken, self-effacing young South African. He had to struggle with the fact that his parents had given him the first name of someone who, not long after he arrived in the United Kingdom in the mid-1930s, he’d committed his life to destroy.
It was not surprising then that Adolph Gysbert Malan was given the name ‘Sailor’ by his chums, in large part because he had spent several years in the merchant navy. His wife, an English girl, arbitrarily settled the matter by calling him John.
As with several other aviators who served in the Royal Air Force during the war, Biggin Hill honoured this young fellow who originally hailed from Kimberley in the Cape by naming a street after him: Malan Close. He is in very good company because others who have been commemorated in this town include a few of the great Second World War figures like Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief, RAF Fighter Command; Marshal of the RAF, Sir Arthur Tedder and the celebrated Sir Douglas Bader who continued to fly combat after losing both legs, as well as several others that made history.
It will probably be be recalled by very few old timers that shortly after the Battle of Britain was initiated by the German Air Force, the South African aviator – he had been given command of No 74 Fighter Squadron with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader – published his “Ten Rules of Air Combat” which was quickly circulated throughout the Royal Air Force.
It’s worth looking at because it must have had an effect on newcomers to the battling “Fighting Elite”, as can seen from this photo of the original.
Grup Captain Malan influenced another change as well, in effect he radically changing the RAF approach to aerial warfare.
After a series of confrontations with his superiors, he maintained that guns onboard fighter aircraft such as Spitfires and Hurricanes should be “harmonized” at 250 yards - and not the 500 yards ahead of the plane that was standard procedure at the start of the war. This had been an issue for some time, as the South African strongly believed that in aerial combat, “the closer you are to the enemy the more chance you have of bagging him.”
New Zealand born Air Commodore Alan Deere DSO, OBE and DFC and Bar (he took part in operations during the critical Dunkirk evacuation phase as well as the Battle of Britain) also ended in Biggin Hill with Malan and had a couple of things to say about his colleague: “He was the first fighter pilot in the war to hit enemy planes at night: a magnificent feat by a great fighter pilot,” which was a huge step forward for somebody always considered to be extremely modest.
In fact, Malan is not thought to have been a particularly skillful or gifted pilot. But he did possess a few other talents that led to success when commanding his fighter unit. His particular strengths were his superior use of tactics, an exceptional ability to shoot straight and an aggressive fighting style, as demonstrated during the historic battle.
It would seem that the use of these skills and the subsequent passing on of this knowledge was a recipe for victory.
This was adequately summed up by another of his combat pals, John Mungo Park (who succeeded Malan as commanding officer of 74 Squadron) when he declared before he was 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.”
The biggest Biggin Hill event of the time was when that airport bagged its thousandth “kill”.
As Alan Deere tells us in his book Nine Lives: Witness to War, which deals at length with his posting to RAF Biggin Hill: “When the final downing of the thousandth German plane came about it was shared by two pilots – a Canadian and a Frenchman – while a South African station commander and a New Zealand wing leader looked on … ’
That highlight was celebrated by almost all of London. A huge bash was laid on at the Dorchester Hotel opposite Hyde Park – with many of Britain’s prominent names present. Scores of cabbies drove through to Biggin Hill in convoy to proudly fetch “Sailor and his boys” and then take them home again in the early hours of the next morning.
“No charge,” the cabbies declared, “they did what they did for us …”

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