Human Rights Activist & War Hero

Adolph Gysbert ‘Sailor’ Malan was a leader of the largely white South African protest movement in the first few years of the 1950s known as the ‘Torch Commando’. The group was formed by the Springbok Legion and elements within the United Party through forming a non-partisan committee called the War Veterans Action Committee (WVAC). The agreement between the left leaders of the Springbok Legion, Cecil Williams and Jack Hodgson, and the United Party, was brokered by a Springbok Legion man in the United Party, Vic Clapham.

These initiators agreed to put together a WVAC team made up of Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan as president, Louis Kane- Berman, Ralph Parrott, Major Pretorius and Doreen Dunning. They were chosen because of their leadership role as soldiers, and because they professed non-partisanship in political party politics. This was not entirely true as some did have a role in the United Party, but this was outweighed by their military credentials. Springbok Legion personalities included many United Party members, such as Harry Schwartz who continued to play a major background organisational role in the Torch Commando.

For his leadership role and for the things that he publicly said in defence of democracy, constitutionalism, justice, anti-racism and standing up for the poor and people of colour in particular, Sailor Malan was isolated and purged from historical memory. He was a Battle of Britain spitfire fighter pilot and war hero. As he was strongly anti-Nazi, he was dismayed at seeing it on the rise in his homeland. This is how he should be remembered – as a war hero and an opponent of the rise of the South African answer to the Third Reich in Germany.

The Wellington farm-boy, with an Afrikaans father and British mother, was born in 1910. He was Christened Adolph Gysbert Malan. At the age of 52 in September 1963 he was one of the great South Africans of the 20th century. He had in his life embraced the very motto of his squadron -“I Fear No Man”.

I Will Rejoice

But despite his achievements, his opposition to the Apartheid Regime and his contribution to fighting the twin threats of Nazism and Fascism, was forgotten after his death. His gravestone read – “In the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.”

When he hung up his pilot’s wings his life’s end was tragically dominated by Parkinson’s disease. He found comfort in his relationship with his loving family, wife Lynda, and his son and daughter Jonathan, and Valerie as well as his dog.

Once ‘Sailor Malan’ had dominated the skies over London, in the air warfare known as the “Battle for Britain” in 1940. He was a Wing Commander in Spitfire Squadron 74 and he is noted for being one of two greatest airmen accredited with the highest rate of shooting down enemy aircraft from his cockpit. He shot down 34 enemy aircraft in the ‘official count’.

Malan was a farm boy from Wellington whose first shots were fired from a “kettie” (self-made catapult) progressing to being adept with a shotgun. By the tender age of 13, he left school and joined General Louis Botha Maritime College, a school of hard knocks. Like many a young man, he was motivated by wanting to see the world, as a merchant seaman.

At the age of 15 he was working as a seaman on the Union Castle Shipping Line and carried on as a seaman for the next decade. He was attracted by those magnificent flying machines, this time to get a bird’s eye of the world. Adolph Malan also trained with the Royal Naval Reserve with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant. It was his switch over from Naval Service to become an airman that earned him the nickname “Sailor”. It would seem that both his forenames were neither favoured by him nor by Lynda, the woman he married, who called him John. But it was his more than a decade at sea that led to everyone calling him “Sailor”.

But it was not just an adventurous spirit and inquisitiveness to see the world that drove Sailor Malan. Many young women and men around the world, including in South Africa, were watching the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Spain, Italy, and Germany and they were alarmed about what was happening. Some young South Africans like the writer Uys Krige, answered the global call to join the International Brigades to defend the Spanish democratically elected left government and Republic. Sailor Malan saw the clouds of war developing and his generation felt the impacts of the World War I that reverberated globally. He was also aware of the strong Nationalist Socialist under-currents in South African politics.

A Farm Boy At Heart

Though coming from the farmlands of the Cape, he had a broadly progressive international outlook. A recurring theme expressed throughout his life is that he did not suffer fools gladly. He had a disdain for loud-mouthed politicians and people not prepared to roll back poverty and walk the political talk. His focus was that ideological scrapping did not put food in mouths, roofs over people’s heads and provide jobs to earn a living. To Sailor Malan, leaders like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco were rabble rousing psychopaths and little-men that led the world to misery and slaughter, and they needed to be stopped. He saw protecting democratic values and institutions and defending humanity against the tyranny of the Nazis and the Axis as being a priority in his life. He did not take to soldiering lightly and he was not a conscript, but a professional airman driven by conviction.

Sailor knew already from the World War I lessons that both sea and air warfare would dominate in a new war, and that speed, nerves of steel and accuracy would overtake the type of clumsy warfare of a decade earlier. This was the background that led him to take up flying lessons on the Tiger Moths at a Bristol aviation school in January 1936. By the end of the year he had graduated to more advanced flying and aircraft and joined Fighter Squadron 74 known as the Tiger Squadron.

By August 1937 he became an Acting Flight Commander of “A” Flight and was noted for being a crack marksman. It was at this time that he developed his famous leadership skills and in 1939 he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant. At the beginning of September 1939 saw him leading the led Red Section of “A” Flight flying Spitfire K9864 in his first wartime patrol.

By June 1940 he was a regular in the air and faced fierce fighting over France. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In August 1940 as commander of 74 Squadron, Sailor took leadership in the skies of the Battle of Britain when the Squadron downed 38 enemy aircraft. Within the following weeks they downed 84 aircraft and dealt a huge rain of damage to the Nazi German Airforce. Sailor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on Christmas Eve 1940. This was followed in July 1941 by a Distinguished Service Order award.

The citation said:

“This officer has displayed the greatest courage and disdain of the enemy whilst leading his Wing on numerous recent operations over Northern France. His cool judgement, exceptional determination and ability have enabled him to increase his confirmed victories over enemy aircraft from 19 to 28, in addition to a further 20 damaged and probably destroyed. His record and behaviour have earned for him the greatest admiration and devotion of his comrades in the Wing. During the past fortnight the Wing has scored heavily against the enemy with 42 hostile aircraft destroyed, a further 15 probably destroyed and 11 damaged.”

Highest Scoring Pilot

In 1941 Sailor Malan was noted to have 27 enemy aircraft personally shot down, 7 shared destroyed and 2 unconfirmed. There were also a further 3 probable enemy aircraft destroyed and 16 more damaged. At that time he was the RAF leading ace airman. He was noted as one of the highest scoring pilots to have served with Fighter Command during World War II. He was transferred to the reserve as a squadron leader on 6 January 1942 and as part of his service he also toured the USA. In 1943 he became station commander at Biggin Hill, and promoted to substantive wing commander on 1 July 1943. In October 1943 he became officer commanding 19 Fighter Wing, RAF Second Tactical Air Force, then commander of the 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing.

At the height of the air war, volunteers of colour from the United States and Canada, the British colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and India, who had initially been brought into the war literally as servants, began to fight within the armed forces as equals. They were given opportunities to be professional and equal soldiers and the opportunity to excel. A less known story is how the RAF experienced a desperate need for airmen, and were forced to open up to people of colour from the Caribbean Islands, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Malaysia and India. Sailor engaged and interacted with people of colour in a way he had never experienced in South Africa. Comradeship manifested itself. As a commanding officer he shared not only in the airmen’s triumphs but also their tears. Both in deeply personal sharing of grief, and in terms of shared humble background. Sailor Malan was deeply affected by personal loss in the war, when his younger brother, Francis ‘George’ Malan, from RAF Squadron 72, also as a Spitfire pilot in Tunisia, died on 26 April 1943.

Like many of the pilot ‘family’ the brothers Malan came from humble homes. They had gone out to work as kids and could share stories of how they survived. The ace airman could even relate how he received a naval lashing as an initiate. His pilot comrades of colour were as fascinated with him being from Africa and being a seaman, before an airman. Malan in turn became conscious that the people of colour in South Africa were being treated badly. The camaraderie developed in battle could not just fade into insignificance.

Flight Sergeant James Hyde from Trinidad, Flight Lieutenant Vincent Bunting from Kingston, Jamaica and, Flight Officer Mahinder Singh Puji from India and so many others were his ‘family’ in the skies. This bond would be meaningless if it did not go on forever and if they did not get the same justice that they had fought for, back in their homelands. In later years long after the war, Caribbean Airmen fondly remembered and gave tribute to their comrade and leader, whilst Malan was derided and his memory driven underground by white racists in his homeland.

By the end of 1941 he was credited with 34 aircraft shot down and was by far the most distinguished allied airman of the World War II. He also developed the earliest creditworthy textbook for air fighting – ‘Sailor Malan’s ten rules for Air Fighting’. These rules reflected his entire approach to life that preceded the war years and it served him well in navigating the South African situation post the war. It was short, sharp sentences, exactly to the point and designed for survival and victory. Like all great leaders in war, Malan without any disrespect intended, saw it as being more important to live to fight another day, than to romanticise dying for the cause. Sailor Malan was also awarded – The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm; The Czecho-Slovakian Military Cross; The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer of the French Croix de Guerre.

After the war Sailor Malan returned to South Africa in 1946. He had become a legend and was regarded as a most popular war hero. But to many in the National Party, these war heroes were mocked as ‘soutpiele’ and considered traitors for defeating the Axis country allies of the Nationalists many of whom were interned during the war as Nazi sympathisers. Ex-servicemen of Malan’s calibre and throughout the ranks were alarmed by how closely the National Party and their ideology resembled the Nazis’ and in various groups across the country and in home towns were they were pilloried by the nationalist extremists. They began to ask what they could do to try to stop this rise of the South African Reich. This is the backdrop to the formation of the veterans’ protest movement – The Torch Commando.

For three years, 1951 – 1954, there was a very brief period when a protest movement emerged primarily made up of demobilised white ex-servicemen who fought in the World War II, and came to be informally called the Torch Commando, in protest against the erosion of constitutionalism, and against the removal of the ‘Coloured’ vote and the introduction of Apartheid policies.

At least this was its initial focus, but it soon adopted a much narrower focus, aligned with one faction within the United Party. These were those who sought to call an early general election to attempt to thwart the Gerrymandering being set in place by the National Party through manipulation of voter numbers in defined constituencies sympathetic to their cause.

Dramatic Night Protests

The Torch Commando’s dramatic night time protest marches drew spectacular disciplined crowds of protestors numbering 25,000 – 30,000 on a number of occasions across South Africa. The only large super-rally drawing between 75,000 and 150,000 protesters, made up of both ex-servicemen and huge numbers of UP supporters, were still highly emotive about defending the legacy of Jan Smuts. But certainly by any standard of protest this was a huge turn-out and was conducted with military discipline.

The original rallies had a clearer anti-Apartheid and championing of constitutionalism focus whereas the superrally had jumped the tracks and was very much about internal politics of the white establishment. What followed was confusion, a decline of the Torch Commando movement, and its disappearance. Many of those protestors even went on to swell the ranks of the National Party.

The term ‘Torch Commando’ was derived from one of the North African campaigns against the Nazi Army, known as the Torch Campaign in Algeria and Morocco in 1942. It also came about because the protestors carried torches high in their marches at night, bringing light to darkness.

Those who founded the Torch Commando was the Springbok Legion with its strong left leadership component as well as elements within the United Party. During the war Smuts and his United National Party had begrudging but cordial, relations with the Springbok Legion despite its left leadership. In later years there were lots of false stories and propaganda about how the Torch Commando came about. The true story was suppressed as was the role of Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan who became the President of the Torch Commando.

The Springbok Legion had been open to all soldiers regardless of colour and had a ‘Soldiers Manifesto’. The organisation arose from among soldiers of the 9th Recce Battalion of the South African Tank Corps, the Soldiers Interests Committee formed by members of the First South African Brigade in Addis Ababa, and the Union of Soldiers formed by the same brigade in Egypt. They strongly represented soldiers’ welfare interests but it was also a huge anti-Nazi ideology driven organisation.

The Springbok Legion had a strong communist left component in its leadership at various levels, and this was both a strength and weakness. After the conclusion of the War the organisation went into fairly fast decline, during anti-leftist campaigns in South Africa and Mc McCarthyism in the USA. By 1950 an organisation which once had 65,000 members had shrunk to a few hundred participants. Left leaders at this time still included John Morley, Cecil Williams, Jack Hodgson, Joe Podbury, Joe Slovo, John o’Meara, Rusty Bernstein, Jock Izakowitz, Wolfie Kodesh, and Fred Carneson. Two of these, Cecil Williams and Jack Hodgson, were mandated to enter into talks with former Springbok Legion members of the United Party, and Vic Clapham became the broker or facilitator of talks with the United Party.

The Only Man for the Job

As a result of pragmatic and honest talks the group of predominantly left leaders from the Springbok Legion agreed to allow a new non-partisan committee to be established – the Action Committee for War Veterans (ACWV), as per agreement of the Springbok Legion initiators and United Party to take the process forward.

In the discussions on who would lead the committee, Sailor Malan stood out as the only man for the job. He had already publicly made it known that he stood against the political injustices suffered by people of colour in South Africa, the anti-constitutionalism and the drift towards a local brand of Nazism. Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan accepted the leadership role as long as these principles were adhered to in the way forward. All public demands were to keep to the original principles.

Sailor Malan resisted attempts from the United Party, the Liberal Party formed in 1953, verligte elements of the National Party, the Oppenheimers and other business interests, to have him align himself with specific political and economic interests of power groups of the day. All would subsequently claim that he was their man, except for the National Party, who trashed Sailor Malan as fronting for the communist left. The reality is that the Communist Party of South Africa had been already banned in 1950 and many of its former members were listed as enemies of the state and under banning orders.

By 1952 the Apartheid state had hounded the Springbok Legion out of existence too. Sailor Malan was not a communist. He was just a principled war hero who took a strong stand for constitutionalism, justice, non-racialism and against poverty and lack of hope. In later years, an isolated Sailor Malan stood by those principles until his death.

The Death Blow

When the Apartheid Regime raided the Springbok Legion offices in 1952 it was dealt a death blow. Neither its former members, nor any of the United Party and Torch Commando came to its defence at this crucial phase and indeed when the CPSA was outlawed there was hardly a murmur from this constituency. When Apartheid laws were finally passed there was also hardly a murmur. Many of the named Springbok Legion leaders became founding members of Umkhonto we Sizwe – the Spear of the Nation, military wing of the liberation movement, and of the Congress of Democrats, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party and its successor parties.

As a result of his acceptance of this non-partisan leadership role of what became known as the Torch Commando, and the talk doing the rounds about those who had tried to make him their man, the National party used these stories to project Sailor Malan as “a flying poodle” fronting for Jan Smuts, and as a British imported war hero and the mouthpiece of “rich Jews” like the Oppenheimers. This did not faze the man whose personal motto was that of his Squadron 74 – “I fear no man”. He kept focus on his dream for a South Africa that offered democracy, justice and a better life for all. This was a white South African man ahead of his time and also way ahead even of the Torch Commando which after 1952 began to be manipulated as an election machine for the United Party.

The reality of what the Torch Commando became is a lot more nuanced, notwithstanding the very real bravery and principled stand of some of its leaders, most notably Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan. Underpinning these protests was a struggle between the left initiators and their Anti-Apartheid stand and the right usurpers of the initiative championing a return to the Smuts Era through a victory in the 1953 election for the United Party. Effectively it became the ‘Custer’s last stand of the UP, and then alongside the left-right tussle is how the NP finally won over the hearts and minds of the majority of the protestors.

National Party Gerrymandering

The first meeting held by the organisation to launch themselves as the WVAC was a wreath laying ceremony at the Johannesburg Cenotaph, where they placed a coffin bearing the words “THE CONSTITUTION”. Two meetings were held in May 1951 each drawing an estimated 25,000 people and the popular name “Torch Commando” came into usage. The crowds were much broader than the Veterans constituency, as UP supporters and a broad range of citizens who supported the actions came on board. By the end of the year however 130,000 veterans had signed up for membership of the WVAC, but that also proved to be the ceiling. Many were former members lost to the Springbok Legion for having too much of a close relationship to communists.

By late 1952, membership of the WVAC had considerably declined. Its biggest gathering of an estimated 150,000 including many ‘coloured’ protestors has often been exaggerated to being twice this number. Constitutionalism and opposition to National Party gerrymandering had become much more amplified than the defence of the ‘coloured’ franchise or being Anti-Apartheid. The strongest motivation was by some in the United Party to get an early general election to prevent the NP from gerrymandering themselves into a permanent political victory. There were many military, police and civil service people who were deeply worried about their jobs due to National Party purges and replacement by staunch nationalists with republican aims and objectives. There was even a notion projected that the NP was destroying true white civilisation. We should not allow this confused mass outpouring of fear for their own fortunes by whites, to water down the original objectives of Sailor Malan, the Springbok Legion and indeed the early founders of the Torch Commando and their principles.

Torch Commando Aims

There were many contradictions within the ‘Torch Commando’ and one can only judge the organisation properly by its formal stand, and demands, rather that the fabrications of latter propagandist views. To its credit it did highlight its protest at the removal of the ‘Coloured’ vote, but these were their formal stated intentions, rather than expressly Anti-Apartheid aims and objectives.

“We ex-servicemen and women and other citizens assembled here protest in the strongest possible terms against the action of the present Government in proposing to violate the spirit of the Constitution.

“We solemnly pledge ourselves to take every constitutional step in the interests of our country to enforce an immediate General election.

“We call on other ex-servicemen and women, ex-service organisations and democratic South Africans to pledge themselves to this cause.

“We resolve that the foregoing resolutions be forwarded to the Prime-Minister and the leaders of the other political parties.”

A most useful and academic, non-partisan account of that time can be found in an African Studies Seminar paper by Michael Fridjon – “The Torch Commando & The Politics of White Opposition. South Africa 1951-1953.” For an excellent and detailed account of Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan as an airman and personality, there is nothing better than the account of Bill Nasson. From these excellent studies and analysis one is able to get a much less biased appraisal than the adding of further insult and injury to Sailor Malan through embellished and highly inaccurate post-Apartheid stories about the Torch and Stael Commando’s protests.

Sailor Malan set aside political partisanship and scrapping over mundane issues and amplified values and united to stand up for those values. He amplified that whites and people of colour should stand together in saying an injury to one is an injury to all. He saw the Apartheid policies and the political thuggery and emergence of an aberration that he had fought in the skies of Europe.

Let us not lose the man and the values he stood for by associating his memory only with a brand. Cape Town and its surrounds have given us some amazing sons and daughter who stand out as a beacon in both the national and international arena. In the shadow of Sailor Malan’s wings we too can rejoice. It should always be remembered, in the words of Sailor Malan himself at the initial Johannesburg rally of the WVAC:

“The strength of this gathering is evidence that the men and women who fought in the War for freedom still
cherish what they fought for. We are determined not to be denied the fruits of that victory”.


  • Michael Fridjon; The Torch Commando and the politics of white opposition – South Africa 1951-1953; University of Witwatersrand – African Studies Seminar; (1976)
  • Bill Nasson; A flying Springbok of wartime British skies: A.G. ʻSailorʼ Malan; University of Stellenbosch (2008); also UCT Extra-Mural Studies Department Summer School; Africa and Comparative History Seminar in the UCT – Department of Historical Studies
  • Joshua N Lazerson; Against the tide; Whites in the Struggle against Apartheid; Westview Press; Oxford; and Mayibuye Press; UWC; (1994)
  • Norman LR Franks; Sky Tiger – The Story of Sailor Malan; Crecy Publishing, Ltd; UK (2012) Philip Kaplan; ‘Sailor’ Malan: BattleOf Britain Legend – Adolph G. Malan; Pen & Sword Aviation; Pen & Sword Books Ltd; South Yorkshire; (2012)

Points of Interest

• The Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschhoek has an exhibition.
• There are many YouTube Clips of Sailor Malan and also of the Torch Commando Protests