RAF 100 Group Build: Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1. Sailor Malan, No. 74 Sqn. Airfix 1/48. Where was the RAF at Dunkirk? (Part Three).
This article is part of a series:
- RAF 100 Group Build: Westland Lysander. No 4 Sqn, Eduard (Gavia) 1/48. Where was the RAF at Dunkirk? (Part One).
- RAF 100 Group Build: Hawker Hurricane Mk 1. Willie McKnight, No. 242 Sqn. Airfix 1/48. Where was the RAF at Dunkirk? (Part Two).
- RAF 100 Group Build: Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1. Sailor Malan, No. 74 Sqn. Airfix 1/48. Where was the RAF at Dunkirk? (Part Three).
When the German army moved into Belgium and Holland in early May 1940, avoiding the static French defences along the Maginot line, all leave for No. 74 Sqn was cancelled. Sailor Malan, a competent airman albeit one with no combat experience was ‘A’ Flight Commander, and the legendary Tiger Squadron fresh from having won RAF flying competitions, had trained relentlessly and were ready to meet the enemy. Malan, a consummate professional, known for leading from the front, was a crack shot, and having studied strategy had developed a clear vision for the way he wanted his pilots to fly.
After what seemed like a very long wait, as the fighter strength of the RAF was preserved after heavy initial losses in France, the Spitfires of 74 found themselves over Ostend, flying in a line-astern formation.
Malan’s first contact with the enemy was everything he had worked for and showed his skill in training translated seamlessly into combat. At 19:20hrs enemy bombers were sighted. After an initial overshoot in his first attack, Malan shot up a Heinkel 111 with his incendiaries. As it fell away his wingmen attacked another bomber. Spotting more aircraft 5 miles off, Malan using hand signals since radio contact had been sketchy, moved off with his 2 wingmen to attack again. Emerging from cloud he attacked his first Junkers 88, blew up its port engine and watched its tail burst into flames. A matter of minutes later Malan saw another Ju88 and again shot with precision hitting the starboard wing-root. It disappeared into cloud trailing smoke.
One Ju88 destroyed; one Heinkel 111 probably destroyed; and one Ju88 probably damaged. The effectiveness with which Malan carried out his first contact with the enemy was a measure of how much of an inspiration to others he would become as the conflict went on.
He said of his first experience against the enemy:
“I’d tasted blood at last. The release from tension was terrific, the thrill enormous. I’d been wondering for so long – too long, how I’d react in my first show, Now I knew. Everything I had learned had come right.”
At the time of this action Malan was a few months off his thirtieth birthday, he was not one of the archetypal young braves who fought in spitfires. He was a teacher and a strategist (anyone who has seen the ‘Battle of Britain’ will know his character through Robert Shaw’s ‘Skipper’). He continued to inspire throughout the days of Dunkirk and was relentless throughout the Battle of Britain and beyond as the RAF took the fight full-circle back to France in 1941.
His story in combat is huge as detailed in Norman Franks’ ‘Sky Tiger’. His rules for fighter pilots have become the stuff of legend.
Malan lead the tigers without rest and eventually burned out. By July 1941 he was ‘rested’ permanently. When all the counts were in, he was credited with 34 kills.
He continued as a teacher in gunnery school and it is hard to believe you could find a greater expert. While at RAF Catfoss he developed strategies and techniques having spent time sharing wisdom with Stanislaw Skalski, Pierre Clostermann, Jack Charles, George Beurling and Dick Bong, among others.
So, where was the RAF at Dunkirk? In the case of Sailor Malan, fighting hard and innovating to improve tactics, techniques and strategies. Malan became good friends with Al Deere and Bob Stanford Tuck (among others) during this period. They each had their own styles and worked to shape new approaches to fighting. The three-man section was changed over to four (easily split down to pairs), and the harmonization of guns was carefully perfected. These men, as thinkers and leaders would have a huge influence on the RAF, and impact on air combat.
Sailor Malan, Jack Charles and Al Deere (Biggin Hill 1943)
The Luftwaffe had learned in Spain and in their march across Europe having trialed the Bf109 in combat. What the RAF took from Dunkirk, under the stewardship of Malan and his peers prepared them for the fight over Britain that followed and inflicted the first loss of the second world war upon Hitler.
Malan was awarded the DFC and Bar for his action over Dunkirk, with specific reference to his ‘magnificent leadership’; The DSO for his command of 74 Sqn through the Battle of Britain (18 personal kills and 84 for the Sqn); and the bar to the DSO for his ‘cool judgement’ and ‘exceptional determination’ in operations so over Northern France in 1941. Allied Governments awarded him The Belgian Croix de Guerre; The Czechoslovakian Military Cross; The French Legion of Honour and the French Croix de Guerre (with Palm).