Adolph Malan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Adolph Gysbert (Sailor) Malan
Group Captain A G Malan WWII IWM CH 12661.jpg
Group Captain Sailor Malan c. 1945
Nickname(s) Sailor
Born (1910-03-24)24 March 1910
Wellington, Cape Colony
Died 17 September 1963(1963-09-17) (aged 53)
Allegiance United Kingdom/British Empire
Service/branch Royal Navy
Royal Air Force
Years of service 1932–1946
Rank Sub-Lieutenant (RNR)
Group Captain (RAF)
Commands held No. 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing
No. 19 Wing RAF
No. 74 Squadron RAF

Second World War

Awards Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Croix de guerre (Belgium)
War Cross (Czechoslovakia)
Legion of Honour (France)
Croix de guerre (France)

Adolph Gysbert Malan, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (24 March 1910 – 17 September 1963), better known as Sailor Malan, was a South African World War 2 fighter pilot and flying ace in the Royal Air Force who led No. 74 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain.[1]

Early life[edit]

Malan was born in 24 March 1910 to an Afrikaner family in Wellington, Western Cape, then part of the Cape Colony. He joined the South African Training Ship General Botha in 1924 or 1925 as a naval cadet (cadet number 168) at the age of 14, and on 5 January 1928 engaged as an officer cadet (seaman's discharge number R42512) aboard the Landsdown Castle[2] of the Union-Castle Line of the International Mercantile Marine Co. which later earned him the nickname of "Sailor" amongst his pilot colleagues. On 19 February 1932, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve as an acting sub-lieutenant, and was commissioned a sub-lieutenant on 18 June 1935.[3]

Royal Air Force[edit]

In 1935 the RAF started the rapid expansion of its pilot corps, for which Malan volunteered. He learned to fly in the Tiger Moth at an elementary flying school near Bristol, flying for the first time on 6 January 1936. Commissioned an acting pilot officer on 2 March,[4] he completed training by the end of the year, and was sent to join 74 Squadron on 20 December 1936. He was confirmed as a pilot officer on 6 January 1937,[5] and was appointed to acting flight commander of "A" Flight, flying Spitfires, in August. He was promoted to acting flying officer on 20 May 1938[6] and promoted to substantive flying officer on 6 July.[7] He received another promotion to acting flight lieutenant on 2 March 1939,[8] six months before the outbreak of war.

Second World War[edit]

Battle of Barking Creek[edit]

No. 74 Squadron saw its first action only 15 hours after war was declared, sent to intercept a bomber raid that turned out to be returning RAF planes. On 6 September 1939, "A" Flight was scrambled to intercept a suspected enemy radar track and ran into the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron RAF. Believing 56 to be the enemy, Malan ordered an attack. Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn downed two RAF aircraft, killing one officer, Montague Hulton-Harrop, in this friendly fire incident, which became known as the Battle of Barking Creek. At the subsequent courts-martial, Malan denied responsibility for the attack.[9] He testified for the prosecution against his own pilots stating that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken proper heed of vital communications.[9] This prompted Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings to call Malan a bare-faced liar.[10] Hastings was assisted in defending the pilots by Roger Bushell, the London barrister and RAF Auxiliary pilot who later led the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. The court ruled the entire incident was an unfortunate error and acquitted both pilots.[11]


After fierce fighting over Dunkirk during the evacuation of Dunkirk on 28 May 1940, Malan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross having achieved five 'kills'. During this battle he first exhibited his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. 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. During the night of 19/20 June Malan flew a night sortie in bright moonlight and shot down two Heinkel He-111 bombers, a then unique feat for which a bar to his DFC was awarded. On 6 July, he was promoted to the substantive rank of flight lieutenant.[12]

Malan and his senior pilots also decided to abandon the "vic" formation used by the RAF, and turned to a looser formation (the "finger-four") similar to the four aircraft Schwarm the Luftwaffe had developed during the Spanish Civil War. Legend has it that on 28 July he met Werner Mölders in combat, damaging his plane and wounding him, but failing to bring him down. Recent research has suggested however that Mölders was wounded in a fight with No. 41 Squadron RAF.[citation needed]

Squadron leader of No. 74 Squadron[edit]

On 8 August, Malan was given command of 74 Squadron and promoted to acting squadron leader. This was at the height of the Battle of Britain. Three days later, on 11 August, action started at 7 am when 74 was sent to intercept a raid near Dover, but this was followed by another three raids, lasting all day. At the end of the day, 74 had claimed to have shot down 38 aircraft, and was known from then on as "Sailor's August the Eleventh". Malan himself simply commented, "thus ended a very successful morning of combat." He received a bar to his DFC on 13 August.[13]

On the ground, Malan earned a reputation as an inveterate gambler whom often owed his subordinates money. Malan was older than most of his charges and although sociable and relaxed off-duty, he spent most of his time with his wife and family living near Biggin Hill. He would soon developed a flying routine of leading the first sortie of the day, and then handing the squadron to a subordinate while he stayed on the ground to perform the Squadron commander's administration. Despite frosty relations after the Battle of Barking Creek he would often give command of the squadron to John Freeborn (himself an ace), showing Malan's ability to keep the personal and professional separate.

Malan commanded 74 Squadron with strict discipline and did not suffer fools gladly, and could be high-handed with sergeant pilots (many non-commissioned pilots were joining the RAF at this time). He could also be reluctant to hand out decorations, and he had a hard-and-fast yardstick via which he would make recommendations for medals: six kills confirmed for a Distinguished Flying Cross, twelve for a bar to the D.F.C.; eighteen for a Distinguished Service Order.

Sailor Malan, colour oil painting by Cuthbert Orde

On 29 December 1941 Malan was added to the select list of airmen who had sat for one of Cuthbert Orde's iconic R.A.F. charcoal portraits. He also had the rarer honour of having Orde paint a full colour painting.[14]

Wing commander – Biggin Hill[edit]

On 24 December, Malan received the Distinguished Service Order, and on 22 July 1941, a bar to the Order. On 10 March 1941 he was appointed as one of the first wing leaders for the offensive operations that spring and summer, leading the Biggin Hill Wing until mid August, when he was rested from operations. He finished his active fighter career in 1941 with 27 kills destroyed, 7 shared destroyed and 2 unconfirmed, 3 probables and 16 damaged, at the time the RAF's leading ace, and one of the highest scoring pilots to have served wholly with Fighter Command during World War II. He was transferred to the reserve as a squadron leader on 6 January 1942.[15]

After tours to the USA and the Central Gunnery School, Malan was promoted to temporary wing commander on 1 September 1942[16] and became station commander at Biggin Hill, receiving a promotion to war substantive wing commander on 1 July 1943.[17] Malan remained keen to fly on operations, often ignoring standing orders for station commanders not to risk getting shot down. In October 1943 he became officer commanding 19 Fighter Wing, RAF Second Tactical Air Force, then commander of the 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing in time for D-day, leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the late afternoon.

Malan and RAF officers on D-Day

Rules of air fighting[edit]

Although not an instinctive pilot Malan was an exceptional shot and a highly aggressive fighter-pilot, and above all a superb tactician who instilled the methods and techniques he had honed in 1940, which would cast an influence on successive generations of R.A.F. fighter pilots who followed after him. He developed a set of clear rules for fighter-pilots, which was disseminated throughout RAF Fighter Command, which during the latter part of the war could be found tacked to the wall of most airfield's Orderly Rooms:


  1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely "ON".
  2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.
  3. Always keep a sharp lookout. "Keep your finger out".
  4. Height gives you the initiative.
  5. Always turn and face the attack.
  6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
  7. Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
  8. When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.
  9. INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAMWORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.
  10. Go in quickly – Punch hard – Get out!

Later life[edit]

After the victorious conclusion of World War 2 Malan resigned his commission with the Royal Air Force in April 1946, retaining the rank of Group Captain,[18] and returned home to South Africa, where he commenced a career in sheep farming.[19] In the early 1950's he became involved in the increasingly febrile South African domestic political scene, with its radical polarizing atmosphere and racially and culturally divided societal tensions. After the National Party was voted into Government in the late 1940's South Africa's domestic governance moved to a position of National Conservatism, and commenced the introduction of the Apartheid governing system for communal segregation of the nation along racial lines, which Malan objected to the development of. In the early 1950's in response Malan joined a Liberal politically organized protest movement opposed to the introduction of the Apartheid System styling itself as the "Torch Commando", which - with his public recognition acquired from his glamourous war career - he was elected to the Presidency of. Through the early 1950's he involved himself in political opposition to what he perceived was the increasing authoritarianism of the National Party in Government, which he felt threatened to become fascistic in nature. At one point the "Torch Commando" (so-called for its predilection for staging night-time rallies outside government buildings with the protestors bearing flaming torches for dramatic illumination) movement had 250,000 members, and staged well-attended rallies across South Africa, which Malan often publicly addressed.[20] By the late 1950's however the movement lost momentum as some of the factions that constituted it increasingly moved from a hitherto public Liberal position to one of World Communism, and splintered away to join the newly insurgent African National Congress, which Malan was not in sympathy with.[21] The rise of the A.N.C. with its ideological radical agenda in turn discouraged the majority of the "Torch Commando's" membership from continuing with their campaign against the Apartheid State laws, with Malan leaving the disintegrating organization and retiring from politics and public life, leaving the National Party to governmentally rule South Africa exclusively for the next four decades.[22]


Malan died at the age of 53 on 17 September 1963 from Parkinson's Disease, at that time a rare and little understood medical condition. A considerable sum of money was raised in his name to further study the disease. A funeral service was held for his body at St. Cyprian's Cathedral,[23] after which it was buried in a grave at 'West End Cemetery' in Kimberley, Northern Cape Province.[24]

Personal life[edit]

Malan married Lynda, the marriage producing a son, Jonathan, and daughter, Valerie.

Cinematic portrayals[edit]

In the 1969 cinema film Battle of Britain, the character of Squadron Leader Skipper played by Robert Shaw was based on Malan.[25].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Price, Alfred (1997). Spitfire Mark V aces, 1941–45. London: Osprey Aerospace. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-85532-635-4. 
  2. ^ CR1 record card, R42512, record group BT348, The National Archives (London)
  3. ^ "No. 34173". The London Gazette. 21 June 1935. p. 4009. 
  4. ^ "No. 34265". The London Gazette. 17 March 1936. p. 1742. 
  5. ^ "No. 34380". The London Gazette. 16 March 1937. p. 1750. 
  6. ^ "No. 34544". The London Gazette. 23 August 1938. p. 5418. 
  7. ^ "No. 34542". The London Gazette. 16 August 1938. p. 5293. 
  8. ^ "No. 34611". The London Gazette. 2 March 1939. p. 2097. 
  9. ^ a b Nasson, Bill (2009). "A flying Springbok of wartime British skies: A.G. ʻSailorʼ Malan" (PDF). Kronos. University of Western Cape (35): 71–97. Retrieved 26 August 2010. 
  10. ^ Cossey, Bob (2002). A Tiger's Tale: The Story of Battle of Britain Fighter Ace Wg. Cdr. John Connell Freeborn. J & KH Publishing. pp. 64–66. ISBN 978-1-900511-64-3. 
  11. ^ Bungay, Stephen (2001). The Most Dangerous Enemy: A history of the Battle of Britain. Aurum Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-1-84513-481-5. 
  12. ^ "No. 34915". The London Gazette. 6 August 1940. p. 4811. 
  13. ^ "No. 34920". The London Gazette. 13 August 1940. p. 4939. 
  14. ^ RAF Museum, Battle of Britain, retrieved 4 November 2010 
  15. ^ "No. 36524". The London Gazette (Supplement). 23 May 1944. p. 2339. 
  16. ^ "No. 35725". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 October 1942. p. 4258. 
  17. ^ "No. 36157". The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 September 1943. p. 3927. 
  18. ^ "No. 37526". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 April 1946. p. 1795. 
  19. ^ 'A Flying Springbok of Wartime British Skies: A.G. Sailor Malan', Kronos Magazine, November 2009.
  20. ^ Newsreel footage of "Torch Commando" campaigning in 1953. Associated Press Archive newsreel from 1953 on 'British Movietone' Youtube channel.
  21. ^ 'The Torch Commando', article on its history on the 'Observation Post - South African Contemporary Military History' website. 10 November 2017.
  22. ^ 'Sailor Malan - Freedom Fighter', South African Legion (United Kingdom & Europe) website.
  23. ^ 'Sailor Malan - Forgotten Hero of Democracy', 3 March 2015, The Spitfire Society Trust website.
  24. ^ Photo of Malan's grave, 'The Spitfire Society Trust' website.
  25. ^ Interview with director Guy Hamilton in the documentary 'A Film for the Few', which was included with the 2004 Special Edition DVD release of the film


  • Franks, Norman L.R. Sky Tiger The Story of Sailor Malan. Crecy, Manchester, UK. 1994. ISBN 978-0-907579-83-0.
  • Walker, Oliver Sailor Malan. Casssell & Co Ltd. 1953.
  • Price, Dr. Alfred. Spitfire Mark V Aces, 1941–45. Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1997. ISBN 978-1-85532-635-4.

External links[edit]