GRAEME College had the privilege of hosting Hilary van der Vyver, an avid historian, at a special assembly where she spoke to the Grade 6 to 12 pupils about one of Graeme College’s more famous Old Boys; Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle.
Thomas Pattle, as he preferred to be called, was one of, if not the greatest flying ace in the Second World War. He would also be known as a gentle man with many great qualities such as respect, common decency and honesty.
Pattle was born in Butterworth in 1914 to a father in the South African Armed Forces. After attending school at Keetmanshoop Secondary School, Pattle and his brother finished their schooling at Victoria Boys’ High School when his father’s was transferred to the area. Both Pattle boys matriculated in 1931.
Pattle joined the South African Air Force after matriculating, but in 1936 was transferred to the Royal Air Force. After completing his training his squadron was transferred to North Africa (Egypt). Pattle trained and fought in a Gloster Gladiator biplane. Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the 80 Squadron was moved closer to the Libyan border. Pattle commanded “B” Flight which was stationed at Sidi Barrani.
Van der Vyver recounted the story when Pattle was shot down over Libya. He managed to parachute from his plane but had to pretend to be dead through the descent and lay still on the desert floor until dark. He started walking back towards the border and, at the end of the night, discovered he had been walking in the wrong direction. He turned around and started walking again. Pattle finally crossed the border after another full day and night of walking and stumbled onto an Allied patrol who returned him back to his Squadron at Sidi Barrani.
In November 1940 Pattle’s squadron was transferred to the Balkans to assist the Greek Air Force in defence against the Italian invasion. He continued to perform well and was well respected and liked by all who flew with him. In 1941 Pattle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Shortly after this the squadron was re-equipped with new Hawker Hurrican planes, a distinct improvement over the virtually obsolete Gloster Gladiators. The fuselage was made from metal, there were more guns and it was much more manoeuvrable.
In April 1941 Pattle was suffering from influenza and had been ordered to reduce his flying and only participate if the air alarm was sounded. Pattle’s final mission was what became known as the “Battle of Athens”.
The author, Roald Dahl, recorded five Allied planes downed; one of which was Pattle’s. Pattle tried to assist one of his pilots, Lt W.J. “Timber” Woods, who was being attacked by three Italian planes. Still suffering from fever from the influenza, Pattle’s performance was not his best and he was shot down over Eleusius Bay.
At age 27, Pattle was called “the Second World War’s greatest flying ace” by Roald Dahl and is mentioned in most aeronautical histories of this period.
Van der Vyver spoke about his great achievements, but emphasised that throughout his short and brilliant life Pattle remained true to himself. He was humble, polite to everyone regardless of rank, knew how to bring out the best in himself, others and his planes. Van der Vyver expressed her faith that these qualities, which were instilled in Pattle at Graeme College, were still present in Graemians and that they could be used to improve the world in many different and wonderful ways.