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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Adolph Gysbert Malan was understandably better known by his later nickname of ‘Sailor’. Philiip Kaplan’s book is an overdue biography of the stalwart of the Battle of Britain. But if the mark of a good biography is that the reader really feels he has got to know the subject by its end, then this volume fails that test. The book is rather one-dimensional, and focusses overly on Malan’s undoubted combat skills with a degree of coverage of his unique leadership style. Like Bader he generated his own force field. Unlike Bader, he seems relatively personable.


Of complex genetic background, part Huguenot, part Boer, but brought up in a relatively Anglo-Saxon manner in South Africa, he earned his nickname by completing his education on a South African naval training ship, the Botha, as a cadet – his first job was as a merchant seaman. That education sounds positively Dickensian, and Kaplan attributes the gentle side of Malan’s character to his reaction to that harsh regime.


Malan’s thirst for flight was initiated when he happened to sail in to New York at the same time as Charles Lindbergh’s triumphant return from his US – Europe flight. Sailor went on to pursue almost all of his wartime career with the same squadron – no. 74 'Tiger' Sqn.


There are no footnotes so it is very frustrating for the reader not being able to tell from where some quotes, particularly those of Malan, are extracted.


The book’s strange introduction is a taste for the dislocated framework of the rest of the book – themes are returned to time and again. Indeed when some themes reappear in the final quarter of the book, I realised that whole chunks of text have been repeated. Malan dies a full 33 pages from the book’s end. Indeed the second half of the book looks to contain a lot of padding. Themes are introduced which are only of the most tangential interest – some lengthy eyewitness accounts of life in the London Blitz, for example. An obsessive section on Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain film is another.


There is the odd slip that betrays that Kaplan is not wholly at ease with his subject. He comments at length at various times about the Spitfire’s ability or deficiencies relative to its German opponents usually without making it clear to which mark of Spitfire he is referring – which is quite crucial. He refers to a “feeder tube” protruding from under the Sptifire’s wing, when he must really mean the pitot tube. The RAF attacks “Mardyck” airfield, when I am fairly sure he means Marck, to the East of Calais. There are some other Pen & Sword quirks – the bibliography elides into the index.


Battle of Briatin Legend: Adolph Malan

Philip Kaplan - Pen & Sword, 2012

ISBN978 1 781 590454

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