There was applause as a slightly built man with erect, military bearing walked into the library at the St James Retirement Hotel, a row of medals pinned on his crisp blue blazer.
“The man of the moment!” someone said as Denis Scott took his seat of honour at a special gathering of the Spitfire Society Trust ZA, hotel residents and ex-pilots on Thursday May 26.
That someone was John Mackenzie, a Fish Hoek resident and aviation enthusiast, especially World War II and the Battle of Britain.
The event was to hand over a medallion and included a passionate – and much appreciated – talk by Mr Mackenzie about the 25 South African pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Battle of Britain, defending Britain against the intense bombardment by the German airforce as it targeted Britain’s airbases, military posts and its civilian population.
Two thousand, nine hundred and seventeen RAF pilots flew during Germany’s attempt to invade Britain in 1940, between July 10 and October 31, and 544 pilots were killed during those months, most of them barely out of their teens. After losing 1 733 aircraft, the Germans turned their attention to Russia.
One of the famous South African pilots was Adolf Gysbert Malan, known to all as Sailor Malan.
“He was so highly thought of that several books have been written about him,” said Mr Mackenzie. “He was known as the best fighter pilot the RAF has ever had.”
Group Captain Sailor Malan’s daughter, Valerie, listened as a St James Hotel resident, Bill Dame- rell, who was a cadet on the SA Training Ship General Botha and a seaman during the war, said that Sailor Malan had got his nickname from having been in the navy before becoming a pilot, also training on the SATS General Botha.
Mr Damerell recounted the tale of the first Sunday church parade. The Royal Navy officer in his “clipped accent”, difficult enough for the English-speaking South Africans to understand, was organising the troops according to their churches.
He called up the Catholics and still Sailor Malan didn’t move.
“What are you, boy!” said the officer. “Dutch Reformed Church,” replied sailor.
“Never heard of them! Fall in with the Catholics!” the officer ordered.
Captain Scott, in his brief talk, also had the audience riveted when he described some of his exploits. Captain Scott was born in 1920 and joined the South African Airforce as a trainee pilot at the outbreak of World War II. He applied for secondment to the RAF and had two tours of duty – one flying Wellington bombers in attacks on German shipping in the Benghazi region, based in North Africa, and his second with RAF 38 Squadron, flying sorties in Wellingtons to mine harbours in Greek islands.
In between, he was trained as a flying instructor in Palestine.
He said that they always flew at night, using the light of the full moon. In one of the operations from Benghazi, across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Kythira in a Wellington bomber, they went in low and noticed bright mounted lights.
“My tail gunner Tommy said, ‘My God, Denis, navigation lights.’” It was two enemy night fighters which quickly switched off their lights.
“I said to my gunner, ‘Tommy, did you shoot him!’
“‘No!’ he said, ‘The silly bugger just flew into the sea!’”
To a wave of appreciative laughter, he said, “Sailor Malan shot down 34 aircraft – do you think I can claim one?” And one of those listening responded, “Yes!”
With the change of government in 1948 to the Nationalist Party, Captain Scott resigned from the air force and joined SAA.
In 1959 Sailor Malan, then suffering from Parkinson’s disease, went to Britain for treatment and was flown back by Captain Scott on a Douglas D7 C1, the last of the piston aircrafts, said Captain Scott. His special passenger sat next to him in the cockpit.
Captain Scott requested that he be allowed to take a low flypast over London.
At first the air traffic controllers were horrified, but when Captain Scott said, “The Sailor wishes to see his London,” permission was granted and he was allowed to do a circuit of London under the control of London Radar at 2000 feet.
The circuit included Biggin Hill, an RAF base which played a central part in the Battle of Britain, in which Sailor Malan played such a big part.
As they passed Biggin Hill, said Captain Scott, “I turned around and I saw two tears coming down his cheeks.”
There were quite a few moist eyes among those listening to the story too.
At the request of the British Spitfire Trust, Captain Scott was presented with a silver medallion celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, honouring his wartime duties.
Mr Mackenzie, of the Spitfire Society Trust ZA, and Spitfire trust trustee Chris de Wit, author of Politics, Personalities and Perspectives The Battle of Britain, The Role of Sailor Malan and other South Afri- cans, jointly handed over the medallion.