The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 4 - December 1990


by Capt Dave Becker, SAAF Museum

Among the legendary few were 21 South African-born fighter pilots of whom nine lost their lives in action while defending Great Britain from invasion. There were many more with South African connections who took part in the battle, in the air or on the ground.

The most senior of these was Air Vice-Marshal Sir Christopher Quintin Brand who commanded 10 Group, Fighter Command, based at Box in Wiltshire. His station commander at St Eval in Cornwall was Group Captain L G Le B Croke who later became Air Officer Commanding 25 Group of the Joint Air Training Scheme in South Africa.

Jackie Sorour from Pretoria was the first woman to make a parachute jump in South Africa. She joined the WAAF in Britain as a radar operator, but by the latter half of 1940 was flying with the Air Transport Auxiliary delivering aircraft to RAE units.

Most famous of the fighter pilots in the battle was undoubtedly the lion-hearted South African 'Sailor' Malan, born on a farm near Wellington in the Cape. He changed his career from the sea to the air in 1936 and was posted to 74 'Tiger' Squadron after receiving his wings; by this time he had acquired the nickname 'Sailor' on account of his time with the Union Castle line.

Claiming his first two victories over Dunkirk on 21 May 1940, he had claimed five more by the time the battle started in earnest; Between 19 July and 22 October he shot down six invaders. His Ten Rules for Air Fighting were printed and pinned up in crew rooms all over Fighter Command.

Albert Lewis from Kimberley also opened his account with the Luftwaffe over France in May, shooting down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s in one action. He received his nickname 'Zulu' from the squadron commander Peter Townsend. Lewis scored ten in the battle, before being shot down on 27 September. Burned and blinded, he missed the rest of the battle and his recovery to flying fitness took at least three months. Later, he commanded 26 Squadron in Ceylon.

Another South African to hit six during the battle was Basil 'Hugh' Stapleton, with several probables to his credit, too. Also surviving a prang on 7 September, trying to stop the bombers getting through to London, he went on to become a flight commander with 257 'Burma' Squadron and, in 1944, commanded 247 Typhoon Squadron.

Percy Burton and his brother William were educated at Bishop's, Rondebosch; Percy eventually joined the RAF via the University Air Squadron at Oxford. Flying a Hurricane of his 249 Squadron on 27 September, he ran out of ammunition chasing a Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bomber and rammed it to make sure; both aircraft and flyers were destroyed. His brother, a Wellington bomber pilot, was killed during a raid on Cologne on 19 August 1941.

Then there was that great sergeant pilot Tom Wallace from Johannesburg credited with five victories in the battle, and became the first South African to be awarded the DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal). Commissioned in 1943, he later commanded 609 Squadron for two months when he was shot down and killed over France.

Also in 249 Squadron during August 1940 was P H V 'Pat' Wells, later to make his home in South Africa and become sales manager for Comair; Jimmy 'Ossie' Crossey who was born in Johannesburg; and Sgt G C C Palliser who is also believed to have had South African connections.

Mentioned in the aforegoing are but a few South Africans who flew with the few. Other gallant fighters from this country who paid the supreme sacrifice during the battle included Nathaniel Barry, Carl Davies (an American national born and educated in South Africa), Ivor Difford, George Drake (whose wrecked Hurricane was located only in May 1972), Claude Goldsmith, Richard Haviland, Caesar Hull DFC from Shangani, Rhodesia, and Johannes Oelofse. In addition, Sgt Denis Helcke (educated at KES Johannesburg) was killed when he baled out of his aircraft on a training flight over Kent on 17 September 1940.

David Haysom,'Dutch' Hugo, E J Morris, B van Mentz, A B Watkinson, Dennis Adams, M N Crossley, P R G Dexter, C P Green, J A A Gibson and A C Rabagliati all brought down enemy aircraft during the battle.

It is impossible in so short a space to do justice to the exploits of all the South Africans who participated in the battle, and this arbitrary choice in no way reflects on the great contributions rendered by those not mentioned.

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