The 'Ten Commandments' of Air Fighting

Air to air image of a Spitfire, taken over RAF Coningsby    'Sailor' Malan portrait by Cuthbert Orde 29th December, 1940    'Sailor' Malan's 'Ten of My Rules for Air Fighting'    

Group Captain Adolph Gysbert Malan, a former nautical ‘type’ better known to his RAF comrades as ‘Sailor’, was one of the RAF’s truly outstanding fighter aces and leaders of the Second World War. As well as his success as a pilot, he was the author of the ‘Ten Commandments’ of air fighting that were to be found pinned up in every RAF station and training school, heavily influencing the tactics of fellow RAF pilots during the war.

Having joined the RAF in 1936, Malan had flown Gloster Gauntlet biplane fighters with 74 Squadron until converting to the Supermarine Spitfire monoplane in February 1939. In May 1940, whilst a flight commander, Malan scored his first aerial victories during the air operation covering the Dunkirk evacuation. The following month he recorded the Spitfire’s first nocturnal kill and flew with great distinction throughout the subsequent Battle of Britain, notching up many more victories and being appointed to command 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron. The portrait of 'Sailor' Malan by Cuthbert Orde (above) was completed for the Air Ministry not long after the end of the Battle of Britain. In 1941, he became Biggin Hill’s first Wing Leader and Fighter Command’s top-scoring ace. So relentless were the rounds of offensive operations over enemy occupied France during 1941 that by August of that year, ‘Sailor’ was rested at his own request due to exhaustion. Following his visit to the USA on a diplomatic mission, he was given command in December 1942 of the Central Gunnery School at Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, where he found a platform for sharing his hard-won experience with fledgling fighter pilots.

During 74 Squadron’s rest period at Kirton the previous year, ‘Sailor’ had produced ‘Ten of My Rules for Air Fighting’ which, according to Wing Commander Ira Jones, assumed the proportions of "biblical quotations for the 'Tiger' pilots". These rules had been published and shared widely throughout Fighter Command and were commonly found displayed throughout RAF stations and training schools (see the poster above, part of the 'Sailor' Malan exhibit at Bentley Priory Museum, Headquarters for Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain). Now that ‘Sailor’ was officially working in a training role, he had a real opportunity to impress this essential advice upon the inexperienced pilots he clearly cared so much about. Of his ten air fighting rules, Wing Commander Malan wrote the following in his ‘Forget-Me-Nots For Fighters’:

"Generally speaking, tactics in air fighting are largely a matter of quick action and ordinary common-sense flying. The easiest way to sum it up in a few words is to state that, apart from keeping your eyes wide open and remaining fully awake, it is very largely governed by the compatibilities of your own aircraft in comparison with that flown by your opponent. For example, in the case of the Spitfire versus the Me 109F, the former has superior manoeuvrability, whereas the latter has a faster rate of climb. The result is that the Spitfire can afford to ‘mix it’ when attacking, whereas the Me 109F, although it tends to retain the initiative because it can remain on top, cannot afford to press the attack home for long if the Spitfire goes into a turn. Obviously, there are a lot of factors involved which must govern your action in combat – such as the height at which you are flying, the type of operation on which you are engaged, the size of formation etc.

There are, however, certain golden rules which should always be observed. Some are quite obvious whereas others require amplification. Here they are: -

  1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes before opening fire. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds, and only when your sights are definitely ‘ON’.
  2. Whilst shooting, think of nothing else. Brace the whole body with feet firmly on the rudder pedals and have both hands on the stick. Concentrate on your ring sight.
  3. Always keep a sharp look out even when manoeuvring for and executing an attack and in particular immediately after a breakaway. Many pilots are shot down during these three phases as a result of becoming too absorbed in their attack. Don’t watch your ‘flamer’ go down except out of the corner of your eye – “Keep your finger out”!
  4. Height gives You the initiative.
  5. Always turn and face the attack. If attacked from a superior height wait until your opponent is well committed to his dive and within about 1,500 yards of you. Then turn suddenly towards him.
  6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly, even though your tactics are not of the best.
  7. Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
  8. When diving to attack, always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as top guard.
  9. INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.
  10. Go in quickly - Punch hard - Get out!"

In truth, these ten rules were little different to those worked out by fighter aces during the First World War. Indeed, Wing Commander Jones himself had given almost identical advice to 74 Squadron pilots, indicating that apart from increased aircraft performance, little else had changed. The important thing was that these rules were now published in a succinct format and shared, widely. Moreover, and crucially, everyone knew that the revered Malan had been there and done it; this was no maxim written by a tactician tucked away at the Air Ministry writing only from the standpoint of theory and doctrine. No, this was sound and practical advice, from experience hard-earned in actual combat by the RAF’s leading fighter ace with a double DSO and DFC.

The ‘Ten Commandants’, as they came to be known, could carry no greater gravitas.

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This Otway & Orford blog is courtesy of historian Dilip Sarkar MBE and adapted from his forthcoming book 'Sailor' Malan – Freedom Fighter: The Inspirational Story of a Spitfire Ace, to be published by Pen & Sword in May 2021. Read more on © Dilip Sarkar, 2 November 2020.

Cover artwork for 'Sailor' Malan – Freedom Fighter: The Inspirational Story of a Spitfire Ace by Dilip Sarkar MBE, to be published by Pen & Sword in May 2021.

The air to air image of a Spitfire over RAF Coningsby was taken by SAC Scott Lewis and is reproduced with permission of the MOD under the Open Government LIcence version 1.0. The portrait of 'Sailor' Malan by Cuthbert Orde for the Air Ministry is from the 'Pilots of Fighter Command' book, published in 1942. The image of the 'Ten Rules' poster is courtesy of Bentley Priory Museum, Headquarters for Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. These images have been cropped to a square format.