Squadron Leader Marmaduke "Pat" Pattle was the highest scoring pilot of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces during World War 2, with 51 "Kills". Pattle claimed all of his victories in North Africa and Greece, he was the top scoring pilot in both the Gladiator and Hurricane. A gifted flyer and natural marksman he took infinite pains to improve his talents, doing exercises to improve his distance vision and sharpen his reflexes. His first 15 victories were in the antiquated Gloucester Gladiator, 9 more victories followed in a Hurricane. Then over 39 days he shot down no less than 26 enemy aircraft. He scored his victories in less than nine months of active warfare. This gives some idea of the almost incredible ability of this great fighter pilot, of whom his friends said: "He flies like a bird".
Marmaduke "Pat" Pattle was born in Butterworth, Cape Province, South Africa, on 3 July 1914, the son of English parents who had emigrated to the Union. He attended Keetman’s Hoop Secondary School, South West Africa, and Victoria Boy’s High School, Grahamstown. He joined the SAAF as a cadet on leaving school, but in 1936 transferred to the RAF, completing his training in the UK in 1937 and joining 80 Squadron, which had just re-equipped with Gladiator biplanes. In April 1938 he accompanied the unit to Egypt, where by 1939 he had become a flight commander. In August 1940 the unit moved up to the Libyan border, where he first saw action.
On 4th August, 1940, in his first action, fighting against 27 Italian aircraft, with only three other Gladiators, he shot down two(one Fiat CR42, one Breda Ba 65) but was himself shot down, and walked back to the Egyptian border to be picked up by the British Army. He and Peter Wykeham-Barnes were the first members of the "Late Arrivals Club", which was founded much later in Cairo. The members of this Club used to receive a badge depicting winged flying boots and a certificate saying 'This airman when obliged to abandon his aircraft on the ground or in the air as the result of unfriendly action by the enemy, succeeded in returning to his Squadron on foot or by other means long after his estimated time of arrival. It's never too late to come back". Pat, on that occasion, was over 48 hours late.
On the 8th August, 1940, the Squadron shot down nine confirmed and six damaged(Pat getting two Fiat CR 42s) for the loss of two Gladiators. On 15th September, as Sailor Malan was leading his Squadron in the Battle of Britain over South-East England, so Pat Pattle led "B" Flight against the Italians over Libya and damaged a Savoia SM 79.
No.80 Squadron was by then at Sidi Haneish and "B" Flight was detached to Bir Kenayis in October, getting Mk 2 Gladiators by November, and moving to Abu Suweir en route to Greece on 9th November 1940, arriving at Eleusis, 15 miles from Athens on the 18th. They made their first Greek sortie from Trikkala on 19th, shooting down nine confirmed and two possibles, of which Pat got two CR 42s.
Torrential rain kept them grounded until 25th November but thereafter they continued to shoot down Italians almost at will, and Pat took command of the Squadron at Yiannina, the CO being still at Trikkala. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and with his score at 11 confirmed, plus a share in two, held the Middle East record at that time. The official citation read: "In all his engagements he has been absolutely fearless and undeterred by superior numbers of the emeny.'' Pat flew Hurricanes from Paramythia from mid-February 1941, and on the 28th, during a wide-ranging series of engagements over the front, he claimed four victories during the day, followed by three more on 4 March over Albania.
When a Bar to his DFC was gazetted early in March, Pattle was already credited with 23 victories. At that point he was promoted and given command of 33 Squadron, which had also now reached Greece. On 6 April 1941 the Germans invaded Greece and during the rest of the month the RAF fighters were engaged in increasingly chaotic conditions, as the Greek and British forces were forced into retreat. His initial claims against the Luftwaffe were documented, but increasingly, loss of records for the month has forced reliance upon diaries and memoirs - particularly the diary maintained by his fitter, W.J. Ringrose. Whilst many of the April claims did not receive official confirmation or recognition, it does appear that by 20th his score had reached at least 50, making him the RAF's top-scoring pilot of the war.
On Sunday, 20th April 1941, Hitler's birthday, he still had a high temperature and was undoubtedly a very sick man. Despite this, he insisted on taking off to follow the remnants of Nos. 80 and 33 Squadrons to meet more than 100 enemy aircraft. With 15 other Hurricanes, which were the only fighters left in Greece, he swept into battle and was about 1,000 feet above a defensive circle of Bf 110s when he saw a single Hurricane climbing towards them, and then a single Bf 110 peel off from the circle to dive at the Hurricane. Pat swooped through the Bf 110s to protect the lone Hurricane's tail. He must have known that the 110s would follow him, but he pulled up under the first 110 which was firing into the Hurricane and shot it down in flames, thereby saving the life of Timber Woods(who after shooting down two 110s was himself shot down and killed later in the day). Pat pulled his Hurricane up and round and dived into a space between the 110s, shooting down another 110 in flames as he did so. He was last seen diving in flames, slumped forward across his instrument panel, and his aircraft fell into Eleusis bay.
Pat Pattle was the most successful fighter pilot of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces in the 1939-45 war; that he has never been officially acknowledged as such is due to the fact that the British Ministry of Defence is not in a position to confirm his victories. His last official score was 23 in the citation for his Bar to the DFC in March 1941. All official records of the last few weeks in Greece were destroyed. The operations record book of No.33 Squadron RAF, written from memory and intelligence summaries, confirms that he destroyed many more enemy aircraft during those few weeks in which he commanded that Squadron(which command, and even his posting to the Squadron, are not recorded officially).
There is no doubt that he was the highest scoring pilot of the RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces; he would have cared nothing for this. That he died, trying to save his friend, would have been enough for Tom Pattle, one of South Africa's greatest air heroes and leaders, and one of the most modest and charming of men.