Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan was one of the outstanding leaders in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. ‘Sailor’ Malan commanded the highly important Fighter Command base at Biggin Hill and was suitably rewarded when he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his leadership and bravery.


Malan was born on October 3rd 1910 in South Africa. After a spell at sea, Malan joined the Royal Air Force in 1935 and was training to fly in 1936. In 1937, he was promoted to Flight Commander of No 74 Squadron based at Hornchurch.


When war was declared on September 3rd 1939, No 74 was equipped with Spitfires. Malan, along with many others in Fighter Command, fought over the beaches at Dunkirk in May 1940 in an effort to safeguard the men on the beaches from attacks by the Luftwaffe. However, with so many aircraft lost during the attack on Western Europe, Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, ordered that as many fighters as was feasible should be withdrawn to save further loss. It was during the evacuation that Malan gained his first ‘kill’ – a Ju88. During the period of the evacuation, Malan was credited with ten kills, shared kills or damaging enemy aircraft and on June 10th 1940 he was awarded the DFC.


In August 1940, Malan was given the command of No 74 Squadron. He was a highly respected if somewhat unorthodox leader. Traditionally, fighter pilots had been trained to attack in ‘3 aircraft Vic’ formation. Malan introduced a system whereby attacks were done by four fighters in-line. He also ordered that his men should get to 250 metres of their target and fire as opposed to the more conventional 400 metres. This, Malan, believed, gave a much greater chance of accuracy. He also produced his “Ten Commandments” for fighter pilots.


During the Battle of Britain, Malan continued with his success, destroying of sharing in the destruction of nine German aircraft.


In March 1941, Malan was given the command of Biggin Hill fighter base. This was probably Britain’s most important fighter base during the war and while at Biggin Hill, Malan increased his number of kills. Between March and August, he shot down or damaged fifteen Me-109’s. Malan was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) that he already held.


Air Commodore Alan Deere, DFC and DSO wrote of Malan:


“Sailor Malan was the best pilot of the war; a good tactician, an above average pilot and an excellent shot.”


From August 1941 to November 1943, Malan held a variety of posts and in October 1941, he even went to America to lecture with the US Army Air Corps.


On November 1st 1943, Malan was given the command of the 19 Fighter Wing (2nd TAF) and as commander of 145 Wing he escorted Horsa gliders in the opening hours of the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944.


Sailor Malan left the RAF in 1946 and returned to South Africa. Along with his DFC and Bar and DSO and Bar, he had also been awarded the Croix de Guerre from both Belgium and France along with the Czech Military Cross. In total, Malan destroyed 27 Luftwaffe planes and damaged or shared another 26.


Malan died on September 17th 1963 aged 52. 

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