South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 519
September 2019

Contact: Charles Whiteing
Telephone: 031 764 7270
Mobile: 082 555 4689


The 8th August meeting was held at Natal Mounted Rifles H.Q. and the attendance from members and visitors was prodigious. After welcoming all, the Chairman Charles Whiteing, introduced the DDH speaker, Brian Thomas whose subject was “Pattle DFC and Bar – South African fighter Ace”.

Thomas Marmaduke St John Pattle

Last year I told you the story of Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, the South African World War One fighter ace with the 54 aerial victories, the sixth highest in the empire. Tonight I will give you the story of Squadron Leader Thomas Pattle DFC & bar, the top scoring South African fighter ace of World War 2, with what some say was probably 60 aerial victories. Interestingly, both these men scored all their aerial victories in a very short period of time: Proctor in nine months, and Pattle in eight months.

A fighter pilot ace is one who destroys in air to air combat at least 5 aircraft, or who shares with others in the destruction of such a number of aircraft, as the sum of his share totals five or more. It was a risky business becoming a fighter ace, as almost 30 per cent of the approximate 1000 Commonwealth aces of WW2, were dead by the end of the war.

1st PATTLE Marmaduke St John DFC and bar 41 Squadron Leader
3rd MALAN Adolf Gysbert DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar 38 Group Captain
19th Le ROUX Johannes Jacobus DSO, DFC and two Bars 23.5 Squadron Leader
27th HUGO Petrus Hendrik DFC and two Bars 22 Group Captain

At this stage it is worthwhile looking at the record of the top four South African aces of World War 2.
It is interesting to note, there is one English speaking South African, and three Afrikaners
Their ranking within the 1000 commonwealth aces of world war 2, is given in the first column, and the number of their aerial victories in the second column.

Within those first 27 places there were two New Zealanders, one Canadian and one Australian, with the rest all British.

Many of you will have heard of Sailor Malan, but probably not the last two names. Pattle’s final total was at least 41, and could exceed this number. Log-books and semi-official records suggest this figure, while personnel attached to his squadron suspect the figure to be closer to 60, which I will explain later.  

As all Pattle’s aerial victories except for five were recorded in Greece, we should look at where it all happened.

Greece Map

The attack on Greece came through the three countries at the top of the photograph. Italy attacked through Albania, Germany through Macedonia, and the Bulgarians across their own border. For the greater part of this six month war, the R.A.F. operated out of Iannian and Larissa, seen half up the map on the left and right, and finished up flying out [of] Eleusis, the port near Athens.

Thomas Marmaduke St.John Pattle to give him his full name, but known during the war just as Pat, was born in Butterworth on 3 July 1914, the second son of south african born parents of English descent, a Sergeant-Major Cecil William St.John Pattle, known as “Jack” and Edith Brailsford.

Pat was named after his paternal grandfather, Captain Thomas Marmaduke Pattle, the son of a Lieutenant-General in the British Army, who had resigned his commission in the Royal Horse Artillery and emigrated to South Africa in 1875, to become the first military magistrate of Butterworth.

Jack Pattle followed his father into the army, and served in the Boer War 1899-1902, and in the Natal Rebellion 1906, with the Tembuland Light Horse. He was a member of the South African contingent to the coronation of George V in 1911, as a Sergeant with the Cape Light Horse. Soon thereafter he left the army to study law, and set up as an attorney at Willowvale, not far from Butterworth.

Jack and Edith married at Butterworth in 1912, and had two sons Cecil and Marmaduke. Jack served in GSWA and in GEA during WWI and in WW2 was a Sgt-Maj in the Eastern Province battalion of the 1st Reserve Brigade When the kaiser finally surrendered Jack Pattle was offered a commission in the newly formed police force in South West Africa, settling in Keetmanshoof. In 1921 Jack relinquished his commission in the police force and took on the job of assistant town clerk of Keetmanshoof.

His son Pat was academically gifted, a keen boxer and long distance swimmer, with above average intelligence. His schooling up to junior certificate, which he passed first class, was all completed in Keetmanshoop. Thereafter he was a boarder at Victoria Boy’s High School (later Graeme College) in Grahamstown, where he matriculated in 1931, during the middle of the world depression.

During his youth he did a lot of hunting and proved that he had exceptional eyesight, a factor of great importance later as a pilot. His ambition was to fly, but he had four years to kill before achieving his goal. From 1932 to early 1936 Pat had a number of jobs but he still longed to fly.

In march 1933 Pat was interviewed to join the S.A.A.F. but was rejected. Only three out of the thirty three candidates were accepted, and all three had over 20 hours solo flying experience. Towards the end of 1933 he was employed in the assay office of the Sheba goldmine in Barberton. At the beginning of 1936 he became a cadet in the Special Service Battalion, hoping that this might lead to entry into the SAAF.

In March of that year, he read in the Johannesburg 'Star' of a recruitment campaign being launched by the R.A.F. and he applied immediately. On 30 April 1936 he boarded the Llandovery Castle at East London travelling to London for an interview to join the R.A.F. for a short service career of four years.

He commenced flying training in a Tiger Moth at the civil flying school at Prestwick in June 1936. It was here that he introduced himself as Tom in place [of] Marmaduke so as to avoid leg pulling, but said that friends called him Pat, and that was to stick throughout his short career in the R.A.F. He flew solo for the first time in four days after only 6½ hours dual instruction, the second shortest time recorded among the 28 trainees. He came top of the class with 99% for gunnery and bombing, and 91% for airmanship. His eyesight was adjudged to be exceptional as previously recorded. The official report at the end of his course read "he is a fine aerobatist, his air sense is highly cultivated, this coupled with an exceptional use of the controls, should make him an exceptional service pilot".

Pat joined No.80 Fighter Squadron equiped with Gloster Gladiator aircraft, the newest and fastest fighter in squadron service at that time, and the last of the biplane fighters. It had a maximum speed of 414 kph, an absolute ceiling of 33 500 feet, and it could climb to 10 000 feet in four and half minutes, and had a range of 714 kms. It had four 7.7mm machine guns, two of which fired through the propellers. Sadly, by 1938 it would become outdated by the new monoplanes, the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

In April 1938 80 squadron sailed for Egypt to defend the Suez Canal, with an aircraft strength of 42 Gloster Gladiators. Italy entered the war on 10th June 1940. It was on 19th June that 80 Squadron scored its first victories in shooting down three Fiat C.R. 42’s for the loss of one Gladiator. The Fiat had a top speed 30 kph above that of the Gladiator.

It was 4 August 1941 before Pat was to score the first of his aerial victories - 40km inside the border his B flight engaged a force of 6 Italian Breda BA.65 aircraft and six Fiat CR 42’s. The Breda was a monoplane, and the Fiat a biplane like the Gladiator. Pat had destroyed one aircraft of each group, when his four guns began jamming leaving him without any form of defence. Pat’s rudder controls were shot away, so he climbed to 400 feet and baled out. After walking for 24 hours towards friendly lines, he was rescued by the 11th Hussars - a spectacular start on his path in becoming a fighter ace.

Between this date, 4 August 1940 in the western desert, and 20 April 1941 in Greece, when Pat scored his last two victories and was himself killed, in a little over eight months he scored a calculated 60 aerial victories, making him the top scoring fighter ace of the RAF and commonwealth Air Forces even at that early stage of the war, which was not surpassed even by the end of the war.

Johnny Johnson of the RAF was credited with 38 victories over a longer period between June 1941 and September 1944, and was initially recognised as the top scoring ace of WW2, but in the book “Aces High” Pattle is credited with 41 victories, whilst some who flew with him thought that his score would be more like 61.

Here you can see a summary of Pat’s victories as given in Baker’s biography entitled “Ace of Aces M St J Pattle” in the 1960’s the author was able to consult with the adjutants of both 33 and 80 squadrons, and with the fitter on Pat's aircraft. The result of these discussions was to raise Pat's score from 41 to over 61 victories

Pat was to destroy a total of only three enemy aircraft, and damage another in the desert, before 80 squadron landed in Greece on 16 November 1940, to resist the Italian invasion of that country, which had begun on 28 October 1940. The war in Greece was very short, just six months from 28 October 1940 to 29 April 1941. Britain's part was mainly in the air. The British land forces only landed on 2 March 1941, just 60 days before this war ended

In the London Gazette of 11 February 1941 Pat was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The citation describes Pat’s first aerial victories on 4 August 1940, and in total his thirteen victories between that date and 4 december 1940 four months later read:




Flight Lieutenant Marmaduke St John Pattle.
(39029), No 80 Squadron

On 4th August, 1940, this officer was attacked by a
superior number of enemy aircraft on three separate
occasions. He fought his way back towards the frontier
and destroyed at least two aircraft before being shot
down. After 24 hours in the desert he managed to cross
into friendly territory where he made contact with our
ground force. In all his engagements he has been
absolutely fearless, and undeterred by superior numbers
of the enemy. He has destroyed at least 13 enemy air-
craft, of which 3 were shot down in one day.

In the next three months Pat increased his victories from 13 to 23, and on 18 March 1941 he was awarded a bar to his DFC, which is worn on the ribbon: the citation read
On 4 March 1941, during an engagement over Himara, Flight Lieutenant Pattle shot down three enemy fighters. This courageous and skilful fighter pilot has now destroyed at least 23 enemy aircraft."

This action was Pat’s final with 80 Squadron, where his aerial victories totaled 24 destroyed, plus a share in three more, 2 probably destroyed and 5 damaged, nearly all flying in the Gloster Gladiator biplane.

By February 1941 80 Squadron had been equipped with the much faster Hurricane.
The Hurricane had eight machine guns, double the four of the Gladiator, and double the rate of firepower. so Pat would not need to keep the enemy plane in his sights for so long in order to create the same amount of damage neither would he have to wait to get in so close to the target for the cone of fire of the eight guns did not converge as tightly as the Brownings of the Gladiator; however Pat missed the quick loops and tight turns of the Gladiator.

28th february was a significant day for 80 Squadron, for on that day Pat claimed two Fiat B.R.20’s and two Fiat C.R.42’s; this was the second of five occasions when he destroyed three or more aircraft in a single day.
It was the greatest loss to be suffered by the Regia Aeronautica in a single battle in the war, with 27 machines destroyed and damaged by 33 and 80 Squadrons. Eight others [were] so seriously [damaged] that most likely they were unable to return to their base.

On 12 March 1941 Pat was transferred to 33 Squadron and promoted to acting Squadron Leader. This is what he said to the men “you must be aggressive in the air, but not to the extent of recklessness. Always be ready to take the initiative, but only when you have the enemy aircraft at a disadvantage. You must be ready to act instinctively in any situation, and you can only do this when you are alert both physically and mentally. Good eyes and perfect co-ordination of hands and feet are essential. Flying an aeroplane in combat should be automatic. The mind must be free to think what to do; it must never be clouded with any thought of how it should be done”

Pat first led his 13 Hurricanes of 33 Squadron on an operational mission on 23 March 1941. I recognize this date as my wife's second birthday. By the time of his death 38 days later, he had destroyed another 27 enemy aircraft and probably destroyed 3 more with 33 Squadron flying the Hurricane.

These victories included 16 German Luftwaffe aircraft, 8 Messerschmitt 109’s and 8 J U 88s.

Only 7 days after Pattle’s death, the men of 33 Squadron were withdrawn from Greece and moved to Crete. The few remaining aircraft of the two Squadrons were destroyed on the ground by the German Luftwaffe, and all the Squadron records were destroyed.
Nine days after Pat’s death, the war in mainland Greece ended on 30 April 1941, and then continued on in the Greek island of Crete, lasting only from 20 may to 1 June.

After this the remnants of 33 Squadron were reformed in Egypt in time to participate in the battle of El Alemein.
Pattle is commemorated on the memorial at El Alamein together with 3,000 other commonwealth airmen who lost their lives in the Middle Eastern, African and Madagascan theatres during the second world war, and who have no known grave.

In case I have confused you with too many facts, here is a time line of Pat’s war service
2831 proctor
2279 Pattle

* * * * *

After a refuel break where many members visited the Officers Mess for “milk shakes”, the meeting resumed with the Chairman introducing the guest Main Speaker, Dr. Ann Samson with her address entitled “Natal at War 1914 – 1918”.

South Africa, because of its position within the British Commonwealth, was automatically drawn into the First World War and the Prime Minister, Louis Botha, officially announcedSouth Africa’s position to the population on 15th April 1914. The agreement with Britain was that the Union of South Africa would take responsibility for wresting German South West Africa from German control with the emphasis on the radio stations at Luderitz and Swakopmund.

The Union Defence Force was mobilised and all Active Citizen Force Units in the Durban area were sent to the beachfront and the harbour to guard against possible invasion. The rumour mill was rife with stories of spies, warships off the coast and Fifth Column attacks. Many rallies were held by public organisations pledging support for King and Country.

The German light cruiser SMS Konigsberg was in the Indian Ocean at the time war was declared and she was given the task to keep Allied units busy chasing her. After protracted chases she sank a merchantman, City of Winchester, and extreme effort was put into tracking her. Eventually she was cornered in the Rufiji River Delta and even in this position tied up all of the units of the South Atlantic British Fleet.

In order to find her in the maze of mangroves in the delta an aircraft was acquired together with its owner/pilot, Denis Cutler of Durban, South Africa, was commissioned into the Royal Marines and persuaded to make his private Curtiss seaplane  available for the British Empire. Despite many set backs other aircraft were pressed into service and the Konigsberg was located and a plan to destroy her with the use of monitors was hatched. In the interim a South African big game hunter P.J. Pretorious was commissioned into the South African Army and set off across land with helpers to reconnoitre the position of the ship.

With the assistance of these two brave South Africans the demise of the Konigsberg was enabled. Back in South Africa the South West African campaign was nearing its end and there was a need to begin a campaign in East Africa to eliminate the threat posed by Von Lettow-Vorbeck, his askari and German forces.

The British sent a hero of the Anglo-Boer War to Cape Town, General Horace Smith-Dorien to formulate the plan but unfortunately he developed pneumonia during the voyage to South Africa and was unable to take command. In 1916 General Jan Smuts was given the task of defeating Lettow-Vorbeck. He gave this task to Major General Jacob van Deventer, who began operations in July 1917. After being led a merry dance around Northern Rhodesia and Mozambique, Van Deventer’s force of 13 000 South Africans and other Commonwealth Troops finally cornered the German forces in Abercorn where they surrendered on 25th November 2018. During this period the war in Europe raged on.

Unfortunately time was against the speaker and she ended with the the information that Vic Clapham had survived the trenches of the European Front and returned home to institute a road marathon that has stood the test of time, the Comrades Marathon, which began on 24th May 1921 in honour of all who had taken part in the “War to End all Wars”

A spirited question and answer session followed and Dr. Samson promised to return with more enthralling stories of the First World War.

The Chairman then closed the meeting with the announcements of the talks for September 2019

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