Tom Pattle

Text by Divan Muller
“Flying an aeroplane in combat should be automatic. The mind must be free to think what to do. It must never be clouded with any thought on how it should be done.” - Tom Pattle
Early life and flight training

Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, better known as Tom or Pat Pattle, was born on 23 July 1914 in Butterworth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. He completed high school in 1931 and volunteered to join the South African Air Force. Pattle’s application was rejected, so he found employment at a gold mine, where he tested metals and ore to identify their elements. In 1936, he joined the recently formed Special Service Battalion. Later that year, he sailed to Britain to serve with Britain’s Royal Air Force. Pattle began flight training in England, followed by combat training in Wales. By the time he had completed his training, Pattle had earned a reputation as an outstanding pilot and exceptional marksman. In 1937 he was assigned to No. 80 Squadron, equipped with Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters. The unit was moved to Egypt during the following year.

World War II

The Second World War erupted in Europe in September 1939. About nine months later, Italy declared war on France and Britain, hoping to expand its territory in Africa. No. 80 Squadron received a number of relatively modern Hawker Hurricane fighters, but Pattle was transferred to the squadron’s ‘B Flight’, which meant he had to fly obsolescent Gladiators against the new enemies. In August 1940, Pattle had his first taste of combat when four Gladiators confronted 27 Italian aircraft. Pattle shot down a Fiat CR.42 fighter, along with a Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft. After claiming his second aerial victory, the guns on Pattle’s aircraft jammed. Still, he remained in the dogfight and was subsequently shot down. Pattle bailed out and made his way back to Egypt on foot. Two days later, he shot down two more CR.42s. For a while, the squadron was tasked with close air support duties, until November 1940, when it was moved to Greece.

Upon arrival in Greece, the squadron almost immediately saw combat, with Pattle destroying two CR.42s during the unit’s first Greek mission. Despite the fact that Pattle was still flying old, slow Gladiators, his number of aerial victories continued to increase. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for ‘acts of valour, courage and devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.’ The award citation described Pattle as ‘absolutely fearless and undeterred by superior numbers of the enemy’ in all his engagements.

Soon, Pattle was promoted to the rank of squadron leader and given command of No. 33 Squadron, which was equipped with Hurricanes. By then, he had shot down more than twenty enemy aircraft and showed no signs of slowing down. In March 1941, he was awarded a bar to his DFC for destroying three enemy fighters during a single mission. Taking command of his new squadron was not an easy task. His men were combat veterans, independent and did not approve of the fact that someone from another squadron had been promoted to have command over them. However, through strong leadership and above average skills as a pilot, the men quickly changed their opinion of Pattle. He was critical of the squadron’s lack of discipline and combat skills and implemented various measures to improve the unit’s ability to fight.
As the war progressed, Pattle and his men encountered fewer Italian fighters and an increasing number of German fighters and bombers, including advanced Messerschmitt Bf-109s. Still, Pattle’s number of ‘kills’ continued to increase at an impressive rate. Eventually, the constant, intense combat began to take its toll on Pattle. He was mentally and physically exhausted and had developed a severe fever. Despite having lost considerable weight and being obviously extremely ill, Pattle continued flying and shooting down enemy aircraft. He believed that quitting would harm his squadron’s morale. Pattle’s fierce determination to keep fighting was illustrated by the events of 19 April. He had become so weak that he had to be helped into his flying gear. Still, on that day, he managed to destroy three fighters and three bombers, whilst claiming one ‘probable’ and one ‘shared’ kill.

He destroyed one more fighter and one bomber during the following morning on 20 April. Later that day, Pattle and fifteen other Hurricane pilots intercepted a German formation consisting of more than 100 aircraft. During the ensuing battle, Pattle noticed a lone Hurricane being attacked by a Bf-110 heavy fighter. Despite realising that he would make himself a target, Pattle broke formation and shot down the pursuing Bf-110, thereby saving his comrade’s life. He then pulled up and destroyed another Bf-110, before being killed by enemy cannon rounds. His Hurricane burst into flames and plunged into Eleusis Bay in southeastern Greece.

Combat records

Axis forces continued to advance into Greece, as the Allies retreated, resulting in the destruction of official records held in Greece, including Pattle’s combat records. We know for certain that he had at least 23 ‘kills’, as that was mentioned in the citation for Pattle’s bar to his DFC. We also know that he shot down many more aircraft after receiving that award. It is estimated that Pattle may have destroyed more than fifty enemy aircraft, which would make him the highest scoring pilot of all the Commonwealth air forces. Sadly, it is unlikely we will ever know the exact number.