Sailor Malan’s life was one of various stages and diverse roles. He was the typical “plaasseun” in Wellington, Western Cape, and had already learned to ride a horse, drive his Father’s car around the family farm and shoot a bird in flight by the age of 10. These early lessons would prove to be a good foundation for his time as a fighter pilot with the Spitfire 74 Squadron during the “Battle of Britain” in 1940 when he became a cool and calculating hunter of the enemy German aircraft. Sailor and his friend and colleague, Johnny Johnson, would go on to bring down the most enemy aircraft during this time, his personal total being 34, though there were probably more that weren’t taken into account at that time. During the war years, and especially in 1941, Sailor Malan’s leadership and achievements would – together with Johnson – cause them to go down in history as two of the greatest fighter pilots of the 2nd World War.
When he was almost 14 years old, Adolph Gysbert Malan traded his school days for training at the Maritime College on board the General Botha, where today’s training, in comparison, might look more like a tea party. His years with the merchant fleet would also give him his famous nickname: “Sailor.”
Sailor Malan’s participation on the British side during World War II stemmed not only from a moral decision on his part, but from his choice of career. The protection of democracy and humanity against the tyranny of the Nazis and their allies was his first priority. Sailor would become known as “the King’s favourite Afrikander” as a result of the passionate and singular way in which he tackled the massive and brutal German onslaught over South-East England during the summer of 1940.
Around 1940 the RAF found themselves to be in dire need of pilots, not only for the Spitfires, but other aircraft as well. It was therefore decided to open up the positions to all races of the British Empire and recruits were taken in from (amongst others) the Caribbean Islands, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Malaysia. This example of racial equality inspired Sailor’s own inherent moral and liberal outlook on humanity and not only spurred him on to make his mark during World War II, but also to take up the fight against the political injustices suffered by his coloured or black fellow South Africans in later years. To him, pilots such as Flight Sergeant James Hyde from Trinidad and Flight Officer Mahinder Singh Puji from India (who insisted that he fly his Hurricane wearing his Sikh turban), were equal comrades in arms having achieved their positions on merit and not skin colour.
During his stay in London after the war, Sailor Malan befriended Sir Ernest Oppenheimer and his son, Harry, whom he met via his acquaintance with H. N. Abrahams, head of the Diamond Trading Company which handled De Beer’s diamond sales in London. When he returned to South Africa in 1946 he was offered a position with Anglo American in Johannesburg. Sailor, Sir Ernest (who held the Kimberley seat for the SAP and later the VP between 1924 and 1938) and Harry Oppenheimer shared a vision for all of the people of South Africa – the same kind of vision for which, during the 2nd World War, they had been prepared to offer up their lives, Harry having also served during the war in the 4th Tank Regiment in North Africa.
When the NP government took over in 1948 with D. F. Malan as its leader, the dark clouds of racist Afrikaner Nationalism descended on South Africa and would disgrace South Africa in the eyes of the international community for almost 50 years. By 1951 the NP government already suggested that all non-white people be stricken from the voter lists, though this would only become law 5 years later, in 1956, after D. F. Malan’s NP government managed to change the constitution via immoral and unethical means to realise their political goals.
In 1951, the Springbok Legion and the Action Committee for War Veterans founded the “Torch Commando” as a means to combat the government’s plans to withhold the vote from non-white South Africans. As a founding member, together with later politicians such as Harry Schwartz and Louis Kane-Berman, Sailor would become deeply involved in a movement which would fight for basic human rights and oppose political oppression – something that had always been very important to him and for which he risked his life during the 2nd World War. When the Liberal Party offered him a place in their ranks, he let them know, in no uncertain terms, that this struggle was above and beyond the political arena. While Sailor Malan had no problem with an eventual non-white government in South Africa, this seemed less important to him than economic evolution. Solving the problems of the impoverished non-white communities, such as: lack of food, housing and utilities, was more urgent to him than promising to do so politically as a means of gaining and keeping control.
Sailor Malan and the Torch Commando fought against the government’s racial policies for more than 5 years and, at their peak, had a following of 250,000 members. D. F. Malan’s government, being extremely concerned about the influence this movement might have, especially under the leadership of the war hero, Sailor Malan, tried to discredit the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of negative propaganda. For the rest of his life, Sailorwould be completely ignored by the government. The National Party press caricaturised 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”.
Despite this, Sailor continued to fight against the violation of human rights in his homeland 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. During a speech in Johannesburg in 1954, Sailor stressed that the men and women who fought so valiantly for freedom during the war, still valued the reasons for their fight and he was adamant that the fruits of their victory would not be taken away from them.
The distance between Sailor Malan and the racist Afrikaner Nationalists only grew in the 17 years after his return from Britain in 1946, and up to his death in 1963. 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.
The well known German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, once said that every great idea (man) goes through 3 phases: First, it is ridiculed; then it is vigorously denied, and finally, it is accepted as fact. Sailor Malan endured the first 2 phases in his struggle to introduce a democratic way of life for all of his fellow South Africans. His part in the final achievement of a just and democratic South Africa can therefore not be overlooked and his name must be remembered alongside the countless other freedom fighters who fought so selflessly. Today the greatness of Adolph Gysbert Malan is accepted as phase 3 of the above statement by Schopenhauer.
On 17 September last year a memorial service was held just outside of Kimberley on the farm Benfontein to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Sailor Malan and to honour one of South Africa’s greatest sons.
In 1963, Sailor Malan, one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of the RAF, 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. The then government forbade any civil servant in uniform to attend the funeral.
Owen Coetzer wrote an article about Sailor’s funeral which appeared in the Weekend Argus of 19/20 September 1992:
It was the swallows. On that gloomy September 1963 day, they seemed like purposeful, miniature, Spitfires of another fateful September, 23 years earlier.
The summer of 1940.
The Battle of Britain.
In the gathering dusk, the swallows whirled and wove complicated patterns against the cemetery’s tall Cypress trees, oblivious to the lone piper’s lament. “Flowers of the Forest”. Skirled to the sky. Then the “Last Post”.
A fitful breeze tugged at the wreaths that enveloped the simple grave in Kimberley’s West End cemetery. Finally, the last figure turned, snapped a salute, and walked slowly away. The swallows flew on.
A.G. “Sailor” Malan – South Africa’s RAF Battle of Britain air ace had gone home. A neat grave, his last resting place.
The epitaph on the headstone reads: “In the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.”
The Spitfire Heritage Trust, together with the Imperial War Museum, are planning to honour this brilliant South African along with his fellow South African fighter pilots at a 75th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Britain. A memorial service will also be held in Kimberley in honour of Sailor Malan and other Battle of Britain fighter pilots. In the meantime, a Spitfire Trust Fund was registered with one of its aims to support various social and educational projects such as supporting farm children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome in the Wellington area where Sailor was born. For more information on this and should anyone have any information regarding South African fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, please email firstname.lastname@example.org