“I looked at 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 who’s first thoughts were for the efficiency of his squadron and the personal safety of his junior pilots who fought under his command.” – Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, commander of RAF Fighter Command.
There is no doubt that Adolph Gysbert Malan was one of the greatest and most influential air combat tacticians of the Second World War. However, let us first look at the man that became the legend. Malan was born in Wellington in South Africa’s Western Cape Province in 1910. As a teenager, he joined the Union Castle Line of the Mercantile Marines and received seafaring training from the South African Merchant Navy Academy. Perhaps it is there, where Malan developed his strong leadership qualities, which would later become evident during his combat career. In 1936, Adolph Malan joined the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he received initial training on Tiger Moths and later Hawker Demons and Gloster Gauntlets. ‘Sailor’, as Malan had by then been nicknamed, proved to be a natural pilot who could control an aircraft with notable precision. He was an excellent shot and an outstanding leader, which led to him being promoted to the position of Flight Commander of No. 74 Squadron, just before the start of the war.
The Battle of Britain
Even before the Battle of Britain, Sailor Malan had already established a reputation of being an expert at deflection shooting. Whilst fighting over France, Malan shot down three Axis aircraft, damaged three others and was credited with two more ‘shared’ kills. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for displaying great skill, courage and relentless determination in his attacks upon the enemy.
On one occasion, whilst engaged in heavy fighting against thirty He 111 bombers and their Me-109 and Me-110 fighter escorts, Malan’s Spitfire was damaged by an anti-aircraft fire. Shrapnel had damaged electrical cables near his seat, causing his reflector sight to cease working. Two enemy fighters were on Malan’s tail, so he performed a number of tight turns into the sun. Once Malan had rid himself of his pursuers, he replaced the light bulb for his reflector sight. The reflector sight still failed to work as the wiring had been cut, but the act of replacing a light bulb in the height of combat further manifested Malan’s solid composure and fearlessness.
By August 1940, Sailor Malan was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader. Under Malan’s leadership, 74 Squadron became a highly successful squadron during the Battle of Britain. Sailor was disciplined and dedicated, and therefore expected nothing less from those who served under his command. Bill Skinner, a member of 74 Squadron, described Malan as a natural leader who inspired his pilots with his dynamic personality and high standard of flying. Skinner commented that “as far as Malan was concerned, you either did your job properly, or you were on your way”.
During those days, it was normal to divide a twelve aircraft squadron into four groups of three. Sailor Malan changed that strategy by dividing his squadron into three groups of four. This was much more effective because a group of four aircraft could divide into smaller groups of two, increasing the safety of all of the squadron’s pilots. The three section leaders flew in a loose V-shaped formation, with their respective wingmen maintaining a ‘line astern’ formation. This type of formation was easier to fly, allowing pilots to focus on finding enemy aircraft. The many advantages of the Malan’s combat formation were recognised and applied in all other RAF fighter squadrons.
In an effort to help inexperienced fighter pilots, Sailor Malan wrote the ‘Ten rules of air combat’. The rules consisted of practical, essential advice in surviving and succeeding in air combat. Many of these rules, which were distributed throughout Fighter Command, are still applicable in modern air combat.
Sailor Malan’s ‘ten rules for air fighting:
1. Wait until you see the whites of the enemy pilot’s 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!
According to the Battle of Britain ace, Allen Deere, Malan made his pilots live like “Boer farmers in their wagons”. Even making sure they went to bed by 10:00 at night. Sailor was a strict martinet and it paid off operationally. Regarding the famous duel between Malan and Werner Molders, Allen Deere said, “He even won a dogfight against the German Ace, Molders. If Malan had decent armament instead of the puny battery of eight .303 Brownings with which our planes were armed, Molders would never have got back to his base…”
Life after The battle of Britain
After fighting in the Battle of Britain, Sailor Malan went to the USA for a short period of time, to share military intelligence and instruct pilots of the US Army Air Corps. Once he had returned to England, he helped train newly qualified pilots to use the Spitfire as a gun platform. He was quoted as saying, “Your Spitfire is nothing but a gun with a couple of wings and an engine to keep it in the air. Your job is to use it as a gun and fly it as a part of you with your attention outside of it, until you have something in your sights, when your whole concentration is along the sight and on the target.”
Sailor Malan was probably more important as a teacher, than as a fighter ace. However, he did fly more combat missions towards the end of the war. He flew his final operational sorties as Wing Commander in 1944, eventually leaving the RAF in 1946 with the rank of Group Captain. By that time, Malan had shot down twenty seven enemy aircraft, with seven shared destroyed, sixteen damaged and three probably destroyed. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, along with several other international medals of honour.
Sailor Malan died from Parkinson’s disease in South Africa in 1962.
In memory of Sailor Malan, and in honour of his service, 28 contemporary pilots presented a ceremonial sword to 74 Squadron in 1966, at Fighter Command Headquarters in England.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine - www.africanpilot.co.za