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All Posts, Aviation, Military History

Author Guest Post: Dilip Sarkar MBE

Sailor’ Malan: Freedom Fighter – New Edition!

2. Freedom Flyer: Sailor Malan whilst commanding 74 Squadron in early 1941 (colorised by Renee Chan).

The legendary Group Captain Adolph Gysbert Malan, universally known as ‘Sailor’, is rightly remembered as possibly the RAF’s most outstanding fighter pilot and leader of the Second World War. He was, though, so much more than that. Deeply opposed to injustice and benefiting from a worldview, upon return to his country of birth he became heavily involved with anti-apartheid activism, a true freedom fighter and amongst the most outstanding South Africans of the Twentieth Century – but died prematurely, of Parkinson’s disease, aged just fifty-two. The astonishing thing, however, is that until recently, in his country of birth this incredible man’s story was little-known…

A decade ago, South African film-maker Desmond Naidoo visited me here in the UK to enlist my help in producing a documentary about Sailor Malan for South African TV. Having first read of Malan’s legendary exploits when still in short trousers, it surprised and appalled me to learn that in South Africa he had been erased from the historical record. It was, as they say, ‘complicated’. Desmond had more recently learned of the story and became entirely committed to raising awareness of the inspirational Sailor Malan through producing a documentary for mainstream South African TV. Little did we know what a long and hard road that would be back then.

3. During the war, Malan served alongside men of all races, impressing upon him and already global outlook – and why he found apartheid so abhorrent. (Colorised by Renee Chan).

This new edition of my ‘Sailor’ Malan – Freedom Fighter has an excellent new foreword by the great man’s daughter, Valerie Crankshaw (née Malan), who explains why her father was marginalised: –

As Dilip says, it is a pity that he is not regarded as a hero in the country of his birth as, during his life and the fact that he was a Malan, he was regarded as a traitor to the Afrikaaner people who were very anti South Africa being an ally of colonial Britain. The convenient excuse given for not allowing him a military funeral was because he flew for the RAF and was not a South African Air Force fighter pilot. It would appear that he falls between two stools as today in South Africa he is not honoured because he was not part of the “Struggle”. Such pettiness would not have bothered my father at all. He never regarded himself as a hero, and, indeed, was somewhat embarrassed by “all the fuss”. He was, after all, just doing his job and was most grateful to be alive at the end of the war and able to have a happy and peaceful life on the farm he loved’.

So, having mobilised former servicemen into the ‘Torch Commando’, to oppose DF Malan’s Nationalist Government at the 1948 general election, South Africa’s greatest war hero embarrassed and offended the establishment – who erased him from the white narrative. Then, when Apartheid was eventually dismantled, he was ignored by the new narrative which told only that apartheid was opposed only by black activists. This was what Desmond Naidoo and I resolved to put right.

In South Africa, Desmond filmed interviews with various people connected with the story, not least Jonathan Malan, Sailor’s son, and, of course, Valerie. These interviews, therefore, provided a unique source of material regarding Sailor’s all-too brief post war life, and, having personally known many wartime pilots who had flown with the great man, my research had the RAF side well-covered. Desmond found, however, that the story remained politically sensitive, so achieving funding was difficult, as was getting the end result broadcast. All of this took time and great commitment. In the meantime, therefore, to ensure that the material was put to good use and to start raising awareness of the story, I wrote the book, first published in 2021.

3. During the war, Malan served alongside men of all races, impressing upon him and already global outlook – and why he found apartheid so abhorrent. (Colorised by Renee Chan).

Of the book, Valerie says: –

I found parts of it very illuminating as some of it contained information which does not appear in any other books about my father.

It is most heartening to know that people still feel compelled to remember and honour him. It is 60 years since his passing and I still miss him… I never regarded him as a hero – he as just my beloved Dad. We had many happy times together. Sadly, my brother Jonathan passed away on 20 October 2021 so he never got to read this book which I know he would have enjoyed. So, I must be one of only a few people left who knew and remember my father’.

The book was a great success and well-received, and at last, in September 2023, Desmond’s documentary, Sailor Malan: Freedom Flyer was broadcast by SA TV. The film was similarly well-received, and at the premier guests shared our astonishment that Malan was unheard of in South Africa.

Valerie: –

I thank Dilip for giving me the enjoyment of reading this book and I also wish to express my sincere thanks to Desmond Naidoo for his dedicated persistence in creating the really excellent documentary Freedom Flyer which aired on South African television recently. I had the privilege of watching it with my family and we were all moved by it – I particularly by being able to see him in motion again after all these years. Many thanks Desmond’.

So, between us Desmond and I achieved what we set out to, and the new, softback, edition of Freedom Fighter continues to make the story more accessible. From a personal perspective, of course, it is an honour to have received such praise from the great Sailor’s closest surviving relative – his daughter, Valerie.

Freedom Flyer is not currently available to watch online, but Desmond is working on that…

© Dilip Sarkar MBE FRHistS, 2024