Pat Pattle’s name is not something you would commonly encounter whenever we talk about World War II. What’s surprising about that fact is that based on the number of victories he has as a fighter pilot, he should be talked about more. This was because his diaries and logs were lost. So without official sources, his credit for his accomplishments as a pilot tend to go unnoticed by historians. Nonetheless, his story is still definitely worth telling.
South African of English Origins
Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle was born in what today is known as the Eastern Cape, South Africa, on July 3, 1914. His parents were South Africans of English origins. His father was Sergeant-Major Cecil William John Pattle, and his grandfather was a Royal Horse Artillery veteran, Captain Thomas Marmaduke Pattle. So, it wasn’t a surprise that young Pattle also took the military path later on in his life. Marmaduke was both gifted in academics and sports. He excelled at school and, at the same time, was a good boxer and swimmer. He particularly developed an interest in mechanical things, specifically in combustion engines. By age 12, he was already building Meccano models of aircraft and other vehicles.
As an early teen, he was usually the one to fix their family’s motor car. Although intelligent, he preferred to take and pass the Junior Certificate Exam with first-class honors. He was certain that he wanted a career in mining engineering, but he still sent an application to join the South African Air Force in 1932.
Soaring into the Military
His military career started when in 1933, he was invited for an interview for a commission in the Air Force in Pretoria. Thirty of them vyed for three places, and he was not selected. The reason was that he lacked flying experience. This started his new ambition, and he enrolled in Johannesburg for flying lessons. He also worked at a mining company called Sheba Gold Mine to fund his pursuits. He excelled and achieved exceptional results in his pilot training programs. In 1936, he saw that the RAF was offering a Short Service Commission, and he decided he wanted to join. By 1937, he was ready to fly.
His first attachment would be the No. 80 Squadron based in Egypt, where he remained until 1939. In 1940, he was truly able to apply and test his flying skills against the Italian air force, Regia Aeronautica. That very same year, he earned his first four victories. Pattle’s victories are more impressive when we consider that he was flying an obsolete Gloster Gladiator which was a bi-plane.
He was shot down three times and crash-landed once after a mechanical failure. One of the pilots that brought him down was probably Tenente Franco Lucchini of 90 Squadriglia, 10 Gruppo, 4 Stormo, an Italian ace of the Spanish Civil War, Pat Pattle landed and pretended to be dead to avoid being strafed. When the coast was clear, he started wandering in the desert towards what he hoped were Allied lines. After two days, he was found by a detachment from the 11th Hussars, who then sent him to Sidi Barrani. Pattle considered being shot down as an embarrassing moment of his life, and he vowed that he would never get lost ever again in the desert and brought with him a compass and some survival gear on his future flights.
Short but Worthy Career
After the Italian Invasion, Pat Pattle and his squadron were transferred to the Balkans to aid the Greek Air Force against an invasion by Italy. They arrived in Athens on November 16, 1940, and then moved to the airfields north of the capital. Further operations in Greece granted him another 20 enemy aircraft that he successfully downed. All of his air victories were against the Italian air force. While the soldiers of the Italian army were not exactly famous for their fighting ability, its pilots and their planes however were the first-rate. His squadron would also see their aged Gladiator bi-planes replaced by the Hawker Hurricane armed with four 20mm cannons instead of .30 cal machine guns.
In April 1941, the Germans were forced to invade Greece to assist the faltering Italian army and Pattle would now be flying against the Nazi’s Luftwaffe. To Pattle, it was another chance to test his skills. He would fly in combat against the Germans for the next two weeks. These two weeks were glorious for him as this was when he earned most of his career victories, at times downing 5 Luftwaffes in a single day. In what seemed like the highwater mark of his flying success, he achieved six victories on April 14th, 1941, which was nothing short of incredible given the high quality of German pilots and planes at the time.
On April 20th, Pat Pattle had destroyed two German Me 109s by lunchtime and took off again with remnants of two squadrons to attack 100 Luftwaffe bombers and fighters attacking allied shipping in the by of Athens. Pattle at the time was sick with pneumonia and sheer exhaustion. It would be the last time that he would be seen alive. During the wheeling dogfighting, Pattle shot down a JU-88 bomber and destroyed a Me-110 fighter that was about to shoot down one of his squadron mates when he passed before the guns of another german fighter that shot him down. Pattle’s plane crashed into the sea.
When the Germans drove the British out of Greece most of the records of his squadron were lost or destroyed, so the exact number of air victories scored by Pattle is difficult to assess. 27 of them are officially confirmed by German and Italian records and an unofficial tally of 47 is also possible. Including unofficial but probable victories, his score could be as high as 50 planes brought down.
According to official records, RAF Group Captain James E. “Johnnie” Johnson was the UK top-scoring ace of WWII, with 34 destroyed in the air, 7 shared victories counted as half kills, 3 probables, and 10 damaged.
Had the records been preserved and Pattle lived through the war to confirm information from lost records, the UK’s top-scoring ace in WWII may have been a South African.