27 December 2021

'Sailor' Malan, Freedom Fighter - Dilip Sarkar

As I continue to try to save ABR's 2021 from being the 'year of lowest number of posts since inception', I've again turned to a guest reviewer. Guest reviewers have contributed half of the content this year and I am eternally grateful to them. This time around, it's Adrian Roberts, a First World War aviation specialist who maintains a solid interest in all things maritime and in the Second World War. A retired nurse practitioner who has spent a fair bit of time at the controls of a glider, Adrian is an honest and constructive reviewer. Andy Wright.

Group Captain Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO* DFC* was probably the greatest British Empire fighter pilot of the Second World War; even ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who had a slightly higher victory score, held that opinion. To be a great ace it is necessary to also be a great fighter leader and inspirational commander, which both men were. In his later life, Malan showed moral as well as physical courage in his struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa and his debilitating final illness. 

On the whole, this book gives a good account of Malan’s life, but it could be better. Pen & Sword have produced some very poor-quality books recently by amateur historians: erroneous and quoting Wikipedia in their research. However, Dilip Sarkar is a respected historian specialising in the Battle of Britain. The section in this book on that period is detailed and comprehensive, as is the account of Malan’s influence on air fighting; Sarkar has clearly done the primary research. He gives a balanced account of the Barking Creek incident in which two Hurricanes were mistakenly shot down by Malan’s flight; the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Malan insisted he gave an order to abandon the attack and the pilots concerned insisted he did not. The section on the post-war anti-apartheid ‘Torch Commando’ is good. There is an index and a comprehensive bibliography. 

Unfortunately, there are no references for the quotes (other than those in the foreword), and no footnotes or endnotes. This is a bad decision, whether made by the author or the publisher. A book without references is entertainment at best; it cannot be a research tool. For instance, there is a quote from an Air Ministry Order of 1944 prohibiting racial discrimination in the RAF; it is important future researchers can verify the source of this. When Malan is quoted directly, it is not clear whether it is from a report from the time of the incident or something he was remembering years later. When Johnson is quoted as criticising Bader, was it in public or in private, and was it after Bader’s death? 

The author is not so good when he is outside of his area of expertise. Malan’s career in the Merchant Navy took up ten years of his life, but it is dismissed in two pages. There is no attempt to list the ships on which he served or their history; some readers are interested in maritime history as well as aviation history. We are not told anything about his wife, her family or how they met. A professional historian should have been able and willing to research these aspects. Sarkar states that Dowding had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, which derives from a single line in Wikipedia. In fact, he only flew reconnaissance aircraft until late 1916 and subsequently only had desk jobs. There is also a considerable amount of padding and background information, but this is probably necessary when writing about a single individual. 

Generally, however, this is still a book worth reading. Malan comes across as an officer who did not suffer fools gladly but who cared about his men and gained the respect of all who knew him, except possibly those involved in the Barking Creek episode, and his later life showed him to be a liberal humanist thinker ahead of his time.

ISBN  978-1-52679-5-267


  1. Surely, the idea is to make history accessible, not bore people to death? This is not an academic textbook, and primarily written for a specific market - Spitfire and Battle of Britain enthusiasts who aren't the slightest interested in, for example, what merchant ships he served on! A wider biography would be no commercial proposition - ask Desmond Naidoo, who has been struggling for nearly 15 years to get a documentary made. The reviewer's conclusion regarding Barking Creek suggests he hasn't actually read the book at all: the chapter forensically deconstructs the incident and introduces new research regarding the TR9 radio set which could have caused the problem. Reviews like this, a skim through and criticising just to be smart, happen all the time, I guess, and I feel sorry for the authors who have to endure this frustration. The foreword so commended, as I understand it, was, well, not a foreword at all - the re-print, I also understand, has a foreword by Valerie Malan, daughter of Sailor, who loved the book, totally got it - but had never heard of the individual who wrote the foreword, nor, indeed, had Sailor's sadly now late son, Jonathan. The book also includes unique interviews recorded in SA, which the reviewer fails to mention. An inadequate review of a great contribution to accessible history.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment on the review. Firstly, however, please understand I do not publish reviews from guest reviewers unless the book has been read cover to cover. Also, the above review makes no reference to the foreword, either the one written by the 'mystery' person or Dr Valerie Malan. That leads me to think you are not referring to the review published above. The criticisms included in the review above are valid. This is a biography of a leading pilot of the Battle of Britain, a man who led an interesting life before the war and a socially important one after. It can still be accessible with the inclusion of notes and references as to where quotes were sourced. This is basic history writing – support your argument/narrative. Thankfully, there is a 'comprehensive biography' to circumvent that shortfall a little. As to talking about the ships Malan served on, a nice bit of context like that can add depth to the work he did as a seaman. All that aside, my reviewer, who mentions the post-war South African period as 'good' without mentioning the 'unique interviews' (most likely not attributed/dated given the lack of notes) still said the book is worth reading. Finally, if you want proof such biographies can be accessible, see Helen Doe's 'Stanford Tuck' as a recent example.