Commander Leon Steyn, Simon’s Town
Adolf Malan became one of the most recognisable figures in aerial combat against the German Luftwaffe during the early days of World War II in the Battle of Britain.
After the war, he victoriously returned to the country of his birth and opposed the system of apartheid.
The decorated Royal Air Force fighter ace and human rights activist was better known by his nickname “Sailor”, as a result of his earlier training at the South African Training Ship (SATS) General Botha in Simon’s Town and a career at sea in the merchant marine.
Today this maritime heritage is carried forward by the SATS General Botha Old Boys Society who maintain an important historic exhibition at the South African Naval Museum in Simon’s Town.
On Sunday December 3, the South African Naval Museum hosted a memorial lecture, organised by the SATS General Botha Old Boys Society in honour of “Sailor” Malan. This year marked the 50th anniversary of his untimely death due to Parkinson’s disease on September 17, 1963.
The guest speaker was Dr Yvonne Malan who had for years fervently advocated the recognition of Malan in his own country.
Another family member, Riël Malan, then interviewed Dr Crispian Trace, a friend of “Sailor” Malan.
One of the most poignant comments came from former chief of the air force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, who lamented the lack of historic attention given to other South African fighter pilots such as “Dutch” Hugo, Jack Frost, Pat Pattle and Chris le Roux.
Like Malan, they had simply been forgotten (not to mention another former “Botha Boy” and Victoria Cross recipient, Lancaster bomber pilot John Nettleton).
To conclude the memorial lecture, a temporary exhibition was unveiled in honour of “Sailor” Malan inside the SATS General Botha display area.
Three days later, on Wednesday December 6, at an official ceremony held in the city council chambers, the City bestowed civic honours on “Sailor” Malan – posthumously. Dr Yvonne Malan was there to receive the award from mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis. Apart from Malan, the event saw 12 other exceptional Capetonians honoured for significant contributions to society in Cape Town and throughout the world.
“Sailor” Malan signed up for the RAF’s pilot corps in 1935. His fighter pilot career included being given command of 74 Squadron in August 1940 and leading them at the height of the Battle of Britain.
On August 11, the squadron completed four raids and reportedly shot down 38 aircraft. The day became known as “Sailors’ August 11th ”. Malan ended his career as one of the highest scoring pilots in the RAF.
Upon his return to South Africa, he was dismayed at the newly elected National Party’s introduction of apartheid. In the early 1950s, he joined a liberal anti-apartheid protest movement called the Torch Commando, borne out of a group of like-minded war veterans called the Springbok Legion and was elected as president.
Founded in defence of coloured people’s voting rights, the Torch Commando staged torch light marches, the largest of which brought together 75 000 protesters.