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Aces of Aviation

Gloster Gladiator Mark II of Thomas St. John Pattle

Gloster Gladiator Mark II of Thomas St. John Pattle

Gloster Gladiator Mark II from the 80th Squadron of the RAF, piloted by Captain Thomas St. John Pattle in December 1940.

Wingspan: 9.83 meters.

Length: 8.36 meters.

Height: 3.15 meters.

Engine[s]: Bristol Mercury IX of 840 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 407 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 10000 meters.

Range: 689 kilometers.

Armament: Four Browning M1919 0.303-inch machine guns.

The files of the Ministry of Air show that Group Captain James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson was the RAF pilot who achieved the highest score during the Second World War, with 38 confirmed victories. But had it not been for the loss of the Allied official files during the evacuation of Greece in 1941, it is possible that it would have been an unknown South African, with a career of only nine months, who would have received that accolade.

Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, born the 3rd July 1914 in Butterworth, Cape Town province, had tried to join, without success, the South African Air Force in 1936. But arrived to Great Britain at the end of that year, he was accepted as pilot of the Royal Air Force, trained and sent to the 80th Squadron, which was equipped with the Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter. In 1938 the 80th Squadron was destined to Middle East, and at the outbreak of the war Pattle had reached the rank of Flight Commander.

The delay of the entry into the war of Italy granted enough time to the 80th Squadron for increasing its effectiveness before the first combats against the Regia Aeronautica, which took place in June and July 1940. Pattle was the first to enter action over the desert the 4th August, when he downed a Fiat CR 42 fighter and a Breda Ba 65 bomber; however his aircraft was hit beyond the enemy lines and he had to return by walking to his airbase.

Pattle quickly earned the reputation of being a good shooter and an intelligent tactician who was able to boost the poor prestations of the Gloster Gladiator. He downed four Italian aircraft in the early November, when he accompanied his squadron to Greece to help that country in resisting the Italian attack. The 19th November he downed four CR 42 and the 2nd December he destroyed two Meridionali Ro 37 reconnaissance biplanes, claiming another three CR 42 two days later. When his record reached eleven victories he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. At the end of the year he had added to his record another CR 42, one Savoia-Marchetti SM 79 bomber and one SM 81 bomber. He destroyed another CR 42 the 9th November, while flying a Gladiator from Paramythia, before the 80th Squadron were re-equipped with the Hawker Hurricane.

Adapting his tactics to the faster monoplane aircraft, Pattle downed a Fiat G 50 fighter the 20th February, to which a CR 42 followed the 27th February. The following day he entered combat during the large battle which took place on the whole southern part of Albania, and his contribution to the victory were two CR 42 and two Fiat BR 20 bombers. The 4th March it was attributed to him the destruction of three G 50, which raised his record to 24 victories and earned him the first bar for his Distinguished Flying Cross.

Pattle was then entrusted the command of the 33rd Squadron, which was equipped with the Hurricane as well and operated in Greece, and he downed a G 50 the 23rd March. Shortly after the Germans took part in the Balkan Campaign and the RAF began to face the Luftwaffe. The 6th April Pattle destroyed two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters; the 12th day he had added to his record one CR 42, two Junkers Ju 88 bombers, one Bf 109, one Bf 110 heavy fighter, one Heinkel He 111 bomber, one Dornier Do 17 bomber and one SM 79. The pressure of the fight was noticeable in Pattle and his fellow pilots; nonetheless and despite a strong attack of flu, he continued flying and managed to destroy two Bf 109 and one Ju 88 the 19th April.

The following day he engaged a group of Messerschmitt over Eleusis Bay and destroyed two Bf 110 before flying in assistance of one of his commanders, Flight Lieutenant W. J. Woods. In turn, Pattle was attacked by two Bf 110 and downed over the sea. At the moment of his death, his official record acknowledged 23 victories, but it has been generally accepted that he destroyed many more aircraft, largely because he used to attribute to other pilots victories which had been, in the largest part, achieved by him. It is very possible that no pilot of the Mediterranean theater were as known and appreciated as this modest South African, who has been often called "the forgotten ace".