MALAN Adolf Gysbert – GROUP CAPTAIN – RAF NO. 37604 by Phil Scallan


Adolf Gysbert Malan was born in Wellington, South Africa, on October 3, 1910. He spent his early boyhood years on the family farm at Slent on the slopes of Paardeberg.  He was educated at Wellington Public school.

Adolph Gysbert Malan presented himself to the RAF with the same disability as Marmaduke Thornas Pattle: he did not like his given name.  Although his mother used to call him, Adolph, it was scarcely an ideal name for a candidate officer anxious to serve in a force belatedly rearming itself against the menace of an Adolf Hitler – against whom Malan cherished an implacable hatred.

Malan acquired his nickname, “Sailor” because after leaving Wellington Public School he became a cadet, Cadet number 168,  on the training ship General Botha. He was fifteen and a half years old and became an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Whilst undergoing his RNVR training Malan applied to for entry to the RAF’s short service commission scheme. He was just in time, for he was already 25, and it was only with the introduction of the scheme that the age limit for candidates was raised to this level. Instead of the merchant marine he joined the RAF in 1935. Jones once asked Malan whathad made him choose the R.A.F. He replied: “Captain Beauchamp-Proctor, V.C., is a South African.  He has always beenmy hero, and I’ve decided to emulate him.” Jones went on to offer the following comparison: “There is little to choose between the glorious records of Malan and Beauchamp-Proctor, either as leader or air fighter. On the counts of courage and efficiency in the air, Malan also deserved a Victoria Cross. Undoubtedly, he was the out­standing fighter pilot of World War II.  He was the top scorer of Fighter Command, with twenty-nine victories by June 30, 1941. He held the record for three years, until he was “grounded.” By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Group Captain.  He was the first air fighter of World War II to win the D.S.O. and bar and D.F.C. and bar.  As a squadron leader and wing commander (flying), he was a hard taskmaster, but a brilliant leader.  His pilots idolised him as much as the Luftwaffe feared him.”

He proved to be an exceptional pilot, according to his flying instructors. He became flight commander on 74 “Tiger” Squadron in 1938. He rapidly became the most well known pilot in Fighter Command by shooting down 2 Ju 88s, 2 He 111s, a Do 17 and a Bf 109 between May 21 and 27, earning a DFC on 11 June 1940, then shooting down two He 111s at night on June 18/19, for which a Bar was added to his decoration on 13 August 1940. He claimed 7 more during the Battle of Britain. By the end of 1941 he was credited with 32 kills and remained for some time the RAF’s top scorer, earning a DSO on 24 December 1940 and Bar on 22 July 1941, and becoming a Group Captain.

He was a man of burly build with an amiable smile that made the men who met him unready for the deep and clinical hatred he had for his German opponents. At thirty, he was older than most pilots were, but he became regarded as one of the greatest fighter leader and tacticians of the war. Malan claimed to believe it was better to send a German plane home crippled than to shoot it down: ‘… with a dead rear gunner, dead navigator, and the pilot coughing up his lungs as he lands… I think if you do that it has a better effect on their morale…’

By May 1940 Malan was a flight commander in 74 Squadron and became CO on 8 August 1940. Sq/Ldr ‘Henry’ Szczesny says he learnt a lot from Malan, including his 10 commandments. He illustrates it with the following anecdote: “I remember once in the middle of a battle watching hard to see if I got one, when Sailor came up in my ears and said, ‘Henry, don’t think numbers, kill!’ He was right.”

Sailor Malan and Al Deere believed that the 250 yard harmonisation and De Wilde bullets made the difference between damaging enemy aircraft and destroying them.


This is the one blemish on Malan’s record. Early in the War there were several instances of the “back cut-off” failing, with the result that quite innocuous domestic flights well inland were reported by the coastal radar as incoming raids. The Famous “Battle of Barking Creek” was sparked off by one such failure.

When war broke out on September 3, 1939, 74 Squadron was one of the most combat worthy in the RAF, and it was not long before it was called upon – though not in circumstances it would have chosen. On September 6 an error of 180° had crept into the readings on the early radar sets along the southeast coastline, and Hurricanes of 56 Squadron had been “scrambled” after a non-existent raider approaching from the east. (It was, in fact, an innocent RAF aircraft flying west!) The Hurricanes, in turn, appeared as an unidentified formation from the east, and as no other plot was to be seen, the controller decided he had lost 56 Squadron and 74 Squadron was ordered up to intercept. Malan ordered 74 Squadron to attack. Paddy Byrne and John Freeborn downed two RAF aircraft. The “Battle of Barking Creek”, as it became known in RAF history, was a sad mistake, but it did allow an important fault in the defensive chain to be put right. The pilot killed was Pilot Officer Halton-Harrop. At the subsequent courts-martial Malan denied responsibility for the attack. He testified that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken heed of vital communications. This prompted Freeborn’s counsel to call Malan a barefaced liar. Both pilots were acquitted.


Malan’s award of the Distinguished Flying Cross was promulgated in the London Gazette on 11 June 1940. The citation reads: “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.”

Malan also change the formation which 74 used during the Dunkirk period from the standard RAF ‘Vic’ format to the looser ‘finger-four’ formation similar to the four aircraft Schwarm the Luftwaffe had developed in the Spanish Civil War.


On June 18 1940, shortly before one o’clock in the morning Flight Lieutenant Malan, flying over Essex in Spitfire I K9953, saw a bomber caught in a searchlight at 8000 feet. He climbed towards the enemy, and, from fifty yards, fired a four-second burst. The bomber fell spinning to the earth. A few minutes later Malan destroyed another bomber the same way, this time at 12,000 feet.

The night was clear and a moon almost at full illuminated everything, when the enemy sent about thirty bombers at intervals up the Thames estuary. They began dropping their bombs and dozens of searchlights swept the skies and held them in their beams as the guns started to boom. The bombing continued and for some time the pilots on Malan’s station watched the searchlights picking up and holding the Germans. The pilots were dying to get up and have a bash at the bombers due to the ideal conditions, but permission was only granted for one plane, and, Malan was selected. Malan called for his fitter and rigger, who were asleep. They reported without waiting to dress, wearing their stripped pyjamas, and moved the aircraft and prepared it for start-up. Malan started-up and open the throttle to warm up the engine. At the same time, he looked up and tried to pick out a target ahead and saw a He III at 6000 feet being held in the searchlights. It was making a run directly across him. A second glance at the approaching bomber made him decide that discretion was the better part of valour and that the engine was quite capable of warming itself up. He leaped from the plane and made a dive for a little trench close at hand. The last time he had seen the trench it had been eighteen inches deep. In the interim, unbeknown to him, the trench was dug to a depth of about five feet. He landed face first in the mud.

When the Heinkel had passed over, Malan got in, took off and made straight for the same Heinkel, which was obviously blinded by the searchlights. He intercepted it as it was on a slow climb crossing the coast. The beams of the searchlight made things very deceptive. The first thing he knew was about fifty yards from it. One moment it looked like a moth in a candle flame, the next the wings suddenly took shape and he realised he was very close. He gave the signs to the guns to stop firing directly he was in a position to attack and they at once stopped firing – the whole thing worked like a charm – and in he went. He pressed the trigger, but after a three-second burst he had to jam his stick forward to avoid colliding with the bomber. In this short time his screen was covered with oil from the bomber, which spiralled out of the searchlight and soon crashed on the beach, half in and half out of the water. The Heinkel He IIIP belonged to 4./KG 4.

As Malan returned to base he looked back and saw another He III held by searchlights. Climbing in a spiral below the enemy he signalled the guns to hold off. Then he moved in to attack at 12 000 feet. This time he was a lot more cautious and determined not to overrun the enemy, so he opened fire at 200 yards and closed to 100 yards. As he passed, the Heinkel burst into flames, and a parachute became entangled near the tail. Then the enemy aircraft went down in a steep spiral well on fire. Malan saw it crash in a vicar’s garden near Chelmsford with a terrific sheet of flame that was seen all the way from Southend. The He III belonged to Stab./KG 4.

Malan described this combat in his report as follows: “During an air raid in the locality of Southend, various E/A (enemy aircraft) were observed and held by searchlight for prolonged periods. On request from Squadron I could take off with one Spitfire. I climbed towards E/A, which was making for the coast and held in searchlight beams at 8000 feet. I positioned myself astern and opened fire at 200 yards and closed to 50 yards with one burst. Observed bullets entering E/A and had my windscreen covered by oil. Broke off to the left and immediately below as E/A spiralled out to beam. Climbed to 12000 feet towards another E/A held by the searchlights on northerly course. Opened fire at 250 yards, taking good care not to overshoot this time. Gave five 2 second bursts and observed bullets entering all over E/A with slight deflection as he was turning to port. E/A emitted heavy smoke and I observed one parachute open very close. E/A went down in spiral dive. Searchlights and I followed him right down until he crashed in flames near Chelmsford.”

Malan was awarded the Bar to his DFC for shooting down these two bombers.


On 8 August 1940 Malan was promoted to the Leader of 74 Squadron. He would fly the first sortie and then hand the Squadron over to a subordinate while he stayed on the ground to do the paperwork. Despite frosty relations with John Freeborn, also an ace of note by this time, he would often give him command of the Squadron showing he could keep personal and professional life separate. He had a strict yardstick for awarding decorations: 6 victories for a DFC, twelve for the Bar and 18 for the DSO.

Malan, himself was awarded the DSO on 24 December 1940 and the Bar to the DSO on 10 March 1941.


On 10 March 1941 Malan was appointed one of the first Wing Leaders for the offensive operations that spring and summer, leading the Biggin Hill Wing until August, when he was rested from operations. Malan had 27 solo victories and 7 shared at that time.


On October 29, 1941, a small party of distinguished and highly decorated officers of the Royal Air Force disembarked at New York. Their visit to the United States was shrouded in secrecy, and all were dressed in civilian clothes. The USA was not yet at war but was deeply sympathetic to the Allied cause. Her mighty industries were churning out growing quantities of military hardware, including aircraft, tanks, guns and ships for the British and Russians. In return, Britain was feeding the “know-how” of operations back across the Atlantic. This party included Sailors old friend Bob Stanford Tuck.

Now three leading fighter pilots and three bomber pilots had been sent to give lectures to the pilots of the USAAF, and to take part in the 1941 “War Games” manoeuvres. Among the fighter pilots was Fighter Command’s then top-scorer, Wing Commander “Sailor” Malan, whose extraordinary career included the destruction of 32 German aircraft in little more than a year, and who was the leading fighter tactician of the RAF. Malan had to teach the eager young American Pilots. On one occasion in a P-39 Airacobra he “shot down” all 12 aircraft of a squadron in four minutes, 52 seconds with his camera gun.


With Malan as Station Commander and Al Deere as Wing Commander Biggin Hill’s score came closer and closer to the 1000th “kill” mark.  A £300 prize was on offer for the pilot who bagged the 1000th. On 15 May 1943 two pilots, Charles and Mouchotte bagged FW 190s at approximately the same time. Both graciously insisted the other should take the honour. Malan broke the deadlock by declaring them both winners and splitting the prize accordingly. Reporters wanting to interview the heroes besieged Biggin Hill. A party with over 1000 guests was thrown. The centrepiece on the table was three outsize lobsters christened “Hitler”, “Goebbels” and “Mussolini”. For “Sailor” Malan it was a double celebration. Only hours before the party began his wife Lynda had given birth to their second child, a sister to their son, Jonathan Winston, whose godfather was the Prime Minister. In order to get the pilots back and ready for “Rodeo” No. 221 over St Omer a called was placed out to the cabbies in Beaufort Club who rallied to the cause and ensured St Omer had guests. In return Malan invited 50 cabbies to visit Biggin Hill. After a glorious alcoholic evening they staggered out of the Mess onto the tarmac to serenade their host with a song composed by cabman Barney Dowling:

Here’s to the lads of Biggin Hill,
Who gave us many a thrill,
When things looked glum.
Now we’ve got them on the run,
When they fly from Biggin Hill,
Led by Sailor Malan and
His merry band …

In preparation for the invasion of Europe Malan was posted to 20 Fighter Wing. Malan was tasked with preparing the wing for its part in the tactical air force which would support the D-Day landings. The one advantage of the posting was Malan got to fly operations again. Unfortunately he did not refresh his acquaintance with the Luftwaffe. Malan in fact flew with the wing over the beaches of Normandy on D-Day: 6 June 1944.

Malan spent the rest of the war as commander of the Advanced Gunnery School at Catfoss. He resigned his commission in 1946 and returned to South Africa.


On 5 April 1946 Malan resigned his RAF commission, retaining the rank of Group Captain.


Speaking during a rally

The establishment of the Torch Commando, an ex-serviceman’s organisation greatly strengthened the United Party in South Africa in the constitutional crisis around the Coloured vote. In May 1951 a vast torchlight procession file through the streets of Johannesburg and A G ‘Sailor’ Malan, renowned fighter pilot and hero of the Battle of Britain, was invited to take the salute.  Later Malan addressed a mass meeting, playing on the emotions of the ex-soldiers and emphasising that the decisions of the Act of Union should be complied with in all respects The Johannesburg protest march was followed by similar demonstrations throughout the country, and culminated in a national congress in June 1951 at which Malan was elected first national president and leader of the movement.  The Torch Commando grew rapidly, and membership rose to approximately a quarter of a million. Strauss, Leader of the United Party, supported this group, and at the end of 1951 the United Party, the Torch Command and the Labourites formed the United Party, with the specific object of fighting the coming general election on a united basis.  Even before the election, however, it was already clear that the UP’s chances of defeating the National Party were slim.


What more was left for him to achieve?  To join the ranks of the air marshals in a peacetime force?  That would have been as humdrum as what he actually elected to do: he resigned his commission in February 1946 and returned to South Africa to become personal and political assistant to Harry Oppenheimer, head of the De Beers and Anglo American Corporation empires.  When he tired of the constraints of business life, he settled on the farm Benfontein near Kimberley, an area already familiar because of his work with De Beers.  But the years take their toll: the fighter pilot with the eagle eyes wore reading glasses at 48 and was then stricken with Parkinson’s Disease.  Although he sought treatment several times, overseas as well as in South Africa, the malady was irreversible: he died in Kimberley Hospital three weeks short of his 58th birthday. A request to the South African Government that he be accorded a military funeral was turned down. The SAAF also did not pay him any tribute.


Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas described his first encounter with Malan as follows: “Before going to tea we had watched the majority of 74 Squadron take off for Leconfield, led by a good-looking, square-jawed young Flight Lieutenant with straight fair hair and hard, unsmiling blue eyes. His name, we were told, was Adolph Malan. He was a South African and he was nicknamed ‘Sailor’ because he had at one time served as a merchant seaman. He was pretty hot stuff as a fighter pilot, his colleagues told us, and had just been awarded the DFC. Pretty hot stuff? Later, of course, Sailor Malan was to prove himself outstanding; among the half-dozen most brilliant fighter pilots of the war”.

He was a leader for whom the squadron comes before everything else. It is the squadron that counts, and the successes of the squadron that matter. The team spirit which he infused into pilots whom he led in the days of May 1940, served in time to turn Squadron No. 74 into a band of cool, resourceful and fearless pilots whose toll on the German Luftwaffe by the end of 1940 raised them to eminence in the Royal Airforce. He knew how to handle young men with the temperament of fighter pilots, how to inspire them, how to lead them and draw the best out of them. He instilled into them something of the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police. When they followed him into battle, each had the intention of getting his man. It was their duty to shoot down Germans without being shot down themselves, and if the enemy escaped one day they could bide their time and knock him down the next.

Lack of decision and incompetence are two of the human failings which he could not tolerate, which probably explains why Malan developed such a fine spirit in Squadron No. 74. Fearlessly he led his winged crusaders against the German hordes in the Battle of Britain and every enemy they sent down in flames was another Torch of Freedom lit in the skies to dispel darkness.

Blinkers describes Sailor as the greatest Battle of Britain pilot Britain had and Shores states that he was considered the leading fighter tactician of the RAF.

Mölders and Malan were mentioned by their peers as possibly the greatest fighter pilots of the war. However, Allen gives an interesting perspective of the two. He states: “But there are pilots and pilots, there is the natural fighter-pilot, and these were evident on both the British and German sides in 1940. I would hand the highest laurel on the British side, in those terms, to Sailor Malan, who was not only a natural fighter pilot but also a formidable squadron commander. He once out-fought Mölders, another natural fighter pilot on the German side; had his Spitfire been equipped with a battery of 0.5 inch Colts, he would of undoubtedly have killed Mölders. As it was, Mölders limped back to Wissant with several holes in his aircraft.”

S/Ldr ‘Henry’ Szczesny described Malan’s influence as follows: “Every day we were always fighting and flying and shooting but I couldn’t say whether we shot anything down. But Malan always seemed to do. He used to say, ‘Henry, keep my tail, don’t miss it’. So I flew on his tail all the time. I learnt so much from him. He was a very great fighter. He had good eyesight. If he saw somebody they were dead. He taught us many lessons’.

Richard Collier states that Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, late third officer of the Union Castle Line, (was) soon styled ‘The Greatest Fighter Ace of All Time’.

Al Deere served at Hornchurch with Tuck and Malan and in his opinion, Malan was the greatest fighter pilot of the war. He also felt he was the best fighter tactician and leader produced during WWII by the RAF. Lucas, when describing what makes a good shot in the air expressed himself as follows: “Like an exceptional game shot, an outstanding shot in the air usually started with an innate, natural advantage. Co-ordination of faculties counted for much. But the great shots of World War II – Broadhurst, Stanford-Tuck and Johnson of Britain, Pattle and Malan of South Africa, Beurling of Canada, Marseille of Germany, Gray of New Zealand, Bong of the United States, Caldwell of New Zealand, among the alumni, all owed something to thought, application and repetition. Stanford-Tuck expressed himself as follows: “I did my flying training at Grantham in 1935 in the company of my great friend, “Sailor” Malan, who turned out to be probably one of the greatest fighter leaders of the war. Like me, he had been a cadet in the Merchant Service, and it became obvious to both of us that if one was not flying accurately, it was no good pushing the firing button and hoping for the best. If you opened fire with your “bank and turn” indicator showing a bad skid either way your bullets would go nowhere near where you thought you were aiming as you looked through the graticule of your gunsight, just in front of your face. Hence, accurate flying was essential at the moment of opening fire.” Tuck’s biographer confirmed that their rivalry did not prevent them from becoming very close friends.

20 years later ‘Sailor” Malan looks at the blackout screen in “The White Heart”, Brasted which bears the name of many Biggin Hill Pilots. (John Topham)

Johnnie Johnson on passing Malan’s score had expressed himself as follows: “I tried to explain to correspondents that it was my job to see that the Canadians shot down the maximum number of enemy aircraft. In carrying out this job I had topped Sailor Malan’s score of thirty-two confirmed, but otherwise there was little similarity between our tasks. Malan had fought with great distinction when the odds were against him. He had matched his handful of Spitfires against greatly superior numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. He had been forced to fight a defensive battle over southern England and often had to launch his attacks at a tactical disadvantage when the top cover Messerschmitts were high in the sun. He had continued the fight until the outcome of the Battle of Britain was decided and had flown on operations well into 1941 until he was relieved for a well-earned rest. On the other hand, I explained, I had seen little or nothing of the defensive type of fighting. I had always fought on the offensive, and, after 1941, I had a squadron, a wing or sometimes two wings behind me. I never had to contend with the large formations encountered in Sailor’s heyday when he had been unable to select the best opportunity to strike. Generally, my tactics were to flush, to stalk, and to kill our opponents. It was a different type of fighting, and our only disadvantage, compared to the circumstances prevailing in his time, was that we invariably operated over enemy territory when a single bullet in a vulnerable part of our Spitfire could mean, at the best, a prison camp until the end of the war.

Speaking of Malan, ACM Sir Hugh Dowding commented, ‘I looked on him as one of the great assets of the Command – a fighter pilot who was not solely concerned with his own score, but as one whose first thoughts were for the efficiency of his squadron and the personal safety of his junior pilots who fought under his command.’

Malan’s abilities reached mythical proportions as illustrated by Allen: “He was so longsighted he could have seen a fly on the Great Wall of China at five mile!” Allen, however, also saw Malan as a crack shot, brilliant acrobatic pilot and above all utterly determined.

Stephen remembered Malan’s strict discipline, obviously inherited from his early Navy days. He was very forthright in his views and in the way he handled his flight and later the squadron. Strict discipline in the air was essential when flying with Malan; keeping his men tucked in close he would yell over the radio, “Get your machine tucked in and don’t bloody well move away.”


In addition to the DFC and Bar, the DSO and Bar, Malan was awarded the following decorations by Allied Governments: Belgian Croix de Guerre, Czechoslovakian Military Cross, French Croix de Guerre, with Palm and the French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer.


In the 1969 film the character played by Robert Shaw, Squadron Leader Skipper, was explicitly based on Sailor Malan. How do we know this? The film’s director, Guy Hamilton, in a documentary included in the 2004 Special Edition DVD release recounts this fact. At one point early on in the film Skipper gives some personal flying combat training to an inexperienced pilot, and angrily barks “Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area!”, which is, of course, Sailor’s rule number 7!!


Spitfires known to have been flown by Malan at 74 Squadron:

K9864; K9932; K9953 (night shoot down); P9306 (Museum in Chicago); R6757; R6773; X4068

This plane has “F” in its code –no conclusive evidence that it is ZA – F but looking at his face I am inclined to believe it is from 74 squadron days.

Spitfire P9306 that Malan flew in 74 Squadron that now in Science Museum in Chicago

I cannot locate any images of his Spitfire MKVs.


Published Sources

  1. Allen, H R 1975. Battle for Britain, Corgi Books, London.
  2. Allen, H R 1976.  Who won the Battle of Britain? , Panther Books, London.
  3. Arthur, Max 1993. There shall be Wings, Coronet Books, London.
  4. Birkby, Carel 1982. Dancing in the skies. Howard Timms, Cape Town.
  5. Blickers, Richard Townshend 1990. Battle of Britain, Salamander Books Limited, London.
  6. Cameron, Trewhella ed. and Spies, S B 1986. An illustrated history of South Africa, Johnathan Ball, Johnannesburg.
  7. Collier, Richard 1968. Eagle Day, Pan Books, London.
  8. Deere, Alan C 1974. Nine Lives. Coronet, London.
  9. Deighton, Len 1980. Battle of Britain. Jonathan Cape, London.
  10. Deighton, Len 1990. Fighter. Grafton, London.
  11. Dundas, Hugh 1990. Flying Start, Penguin Books, London.
  12. Forrester, Larry 1979. Fly for your Life, Mayflower, London.
  13. Franks, Norman 1980. Sky Tiger; The Story of Sailor Malan. William Kimber.
  14. Johnson, Johnnie 1990.Wing Leader. Goodall Publications Ltd, London & St Albans.
  15. Jones, Ira 1954. Tiger Squadron. W. H. Allen, London.
  16. Lucas, Laddie, Editor, 1986. Wings of War – Airmen of all Nations Tell Their Stories 1939-1945, Grafton Books, London.
  17. Mason, Francis K 1990. Battle Over Britain. Aston Publications, Bourne End.
  18. Masters, David 1941. “So Few” The Immortal Record of the Royal Airforce. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London.
  19. Price, Dr Alfred 1996. Spitfire Mark I/II Aces 1939-1941 – Osprey Aircraft of the Aces – 12, Osprey Aerospace, London
  20. Shores, Christopher 1980. “Sailor” Malan, Fighter Command’s Number One. Readers Digest Illustrated Story of World War II – Volume 1: The Allies retreat no more. Reader’s Digest Association South Africa (Pty.) Limited, Cape Town Pp91-95.
  21. Sims, Edward H 1973. Fighter Exploits. Corgi Books, London.
  22. Tidy, Douglas 1972. I fear no man – the history of no. 74 Squadron Royal Air Force. Macdonald, London.
  23. Wallace, Graham 1958. R.A.F. Biggin Hill. Four Square Books, London.


  1. retrieved January 2001.