George Beurling

George Beurling

World War II Fighter Ace

George Beuling

A Short History


George Beurling was born in Verdun, Quebec in 1921. His parents had high hopes for George, wanting him to go to University and study medicine.

Mostly George wanted only to fly,

"Ever since I can remember, airplanes and to get up in them into the free sky had been the beginning and end of my thoughts and ambitions".
This was borne out in his school marks, which were barely above passing. He had taken his first flight by age 9, and hung around LaSalle Road airport outside of Verdun every chance he got. He often made the chances, skipping school to watch airplanes and do odd jobs for the mechanics. When he was sent to his room he spent hours building model airplanes. He sold these creations and used the money to buy flying lessons. The only books he was interested in were about flying, especially tales about the WWI aces. He studied the tactics and aerial battles of WWI, discussing them and arguing with anyone who had the time. Other kids bullied him because of his obsession with flying, and when he was chased home one day his father bought boxing gloves and taught to fight. He also said, "George I don't want you to look for a fight, but I don't want you to run away."

His home life made a distinct impression on him and his personality. His father was a devout Presbyterian church goer, but something early in his adult life made him switch allegience to a stern Evangelical sect called the Exclusive Brethren. They had absolute faith in the Bible. For the Beurlings there were daily bible studies, frequent reading of the Scriptures and weekly attendance at church. The Brethren were dead set against pleasures of the flesh, or for that matter, most other pleasures. It took years before they got a radio, and tobacco and alcohol were shunned. To that end, George never did take up drinking, smoking or swearing.

Still, George managed to have fun in and around Verdun and on his relative's farm. He was athletic and became a good swimmer, although he didn't participate in team sports.

One day at the Verdun airport, one of the pilots offered to take him up for a spin in an airplane if he got his parent's permission. He rushed home and asked them. His mother jokingly said, "Sure George, you can go to the moon." He got his first flight and was totally hooked on flying. He first took the controls of an airplane when he was 12, and soloed in the winter of 1938. He saved up enough money to afford a weekly lesson, but it was too slow for him. He quit school in grade 9 and left home, taking a train to Gravenhurst, Ontario. There he got a job hauling air freight into the bush for mining companies. It was dull work, but he got many hours of flying time logged and was responsible for navigating as co-pilot, building up a great store of practical experience in "seat-of-the-pants" flying. After getting his pilots license he headed west to Vancouver hoping to get a commercial license. Then he planned to join the Chinese airforce flying against the Japanese invading Manchuria.

Beurling tried everything that came along his way that had anything to do with flying. In Edmonton he joined a flying competition that included several RCAF pilots. He won the event. He was anything but humble on receiving the prize. He told the crowd that if the pilots from the RCAF was the best Canada could do, then they were in trouble. Several years later when he was rejected by the RCAF, he attributed the rejection to his comments in Edmonton, and carried a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life.

Ernst UdetBeurling often claimed that the WWI German ace, Ernst Udet, taught him how aerial combat maneouvers. However, it simply wasn't true. In the mid-thirties Udet was in California flying as a stunt pilot in Holleywood, but he had left for Germany and the newly founded Luftwaffe by the time Beurling was flying.

While trying to get to China George snuck into the U.S.A. on a tramp steamer and was caught. He was thrown into jail for two months and then released. By then WWII was on and George went into the first RCAF recruiting post and presented himself for duty, but his poor academic record got him booted out of the recruiting station. He took this to be a personal slight because he had made remarks against RCAF pilots in Edmonton. However, the RCAF at the time were very small, under equipped in aircraft and at the time were accepting only pilots with good educations. These men founded the core of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, teaching others to fly for combat.

As the Russians and Fins were in battle against each other he decided to head to Europe and join the Finnish airforce fighting against the Russians. The Finnish embassy in Montreal insisted on his parents permission as he was still only 18. His parents refused to give it.

Determined to get into the fighting he signed onto a munitions ship, the Valparaiso going to England, a sign of real despiration. The trip over was very hazardous as the German U-Boats were highly active in the north Atlantic, sinking ships at will. Once in Glasgow he went to the RAF recruiting office. They were impressed with his flying abilities, but told him that they would need a birth certificate before they would sign him. Unfortunately, George hadn't brought his birth certificate along. Off back across the Atlantic he went for the document, surviving a direct torpedo hit on his ship. And then back again to England. This time the English signed him immediately.

The Channel Front

Beurling was sent to a large training school in the north of England for a short time, as he was already a licensed pilot. The next stage of training a fighter pilot was to an Operational Training School (OTS) flying Supermarine Spitfires. He studied under the ace Ginger Lacy, who was eventually renowned for shooting down 30 Germans, including the Heinkel 111 bomber that had hit Buckingham Palace.

Beurling got his first taste of warfare while on leave to London. During an air raid he was astounded by seeing a little girl playing with a doll while bombs fell nearby and shrapnel screamed through the air. Rushing to her, he saw her arm had been blown off, and she was in shock. He scooped her up and carried her to an aid station. Another girl was pinned in a basement room while water from a ruptured main filled it. A doctor hurriedly amputated her leg and carried her to safety. These incidents hardened the naive Beurling. Up to then he had thought that the war was a great adventure for those who could fly.

In the final stages of fighter training he astounded instructors with his air-to-air gunnery, consistently scoring direct hits on the droge targets. Ginger Lacy offered him a commission on the spot, but perhaps distrusting officers, or more likely due a lack of self confidence, he turned it down. He announced that he preferred to live with the Sargeant Pilots. Once posted to 403 Sqdn, RCAF he was again offered a commission, and he again turned it down.

He apparently felt that he had more in common with the NCOs and enlisted men on the base than with the officers. He was quite popular with the fitters and riggers that looked after his aircraft, as he took an interest in the aircraft and their work. He would take them up in the squadron hack, a Miles Magister, for aerobatic displays. He also occasionally joined them in pubs, although he drank only soft drinks, and their quarters for bull sessions afterwards.

His fitter, George Demare, tells of an incident when he flew with Beurling.

My excitement began with a routine takeoff followed by our buzzing of a rugby game in progress. Down over the goal posts we flew, causing the startled players to hug the ground, then up over the other goal posts and away. Next we swooped down over a herd of cattle, then over a potato field so low we had to climb to clear the hedge at the far end. More excitement was provided by flying between two trees with inches to spare. Following those low-level escapades, it was up into the skies with a spiral climb, then a variety of loops, turns, stalls, and spins. For the grand finale Beurling took us into a power dive - straight down at a horrendous speed. Alas! the ground was so near I abandoned all hope. Then less than 100 feet from the ground Beurling executed a vertical hairpin turn and we were skybound again. After a few more aerial manoeuvres we came in for a smooth landing. When I emerged smiling, Beurling patted my shoulder and said "Good flying!"

These activities gained him his first nickname "Buzz".

His commanding officer placed him in the Tail-End-Charlie position. At this time the British were still flying in a flight of 4 aircraft, with three flying in a V, and with one aircraft flying behind and slightly above the others. This pilot was to weave back and forth inside the V watching for the enemy behind them. It was nearly impossible to maintain this position, while weaving and looking out for enemy aircraft. The Tail-End-Charlie frequently did not make it back to base as the Germans attacked him first. It was a seriously flawed tactic that the English eventually abandoned, but it cost many pilots their lives. The Germans used a loose finger-four formation, with two planes flying as a pair. They could see behind each other and attack targets as well. One day in March, 1942 on a sweep over northern France in Spitfire Vs, George recalled: "we were in the air, our tails in the sun, vulnerable to attack, when I reported Huns." However, nothing was visible. He was told to maintain radio silence! "Five minutes later we got bounced and I got shot." Disregarding instructions he pulled out of formation with three Focke-Wulf 190s on his tail. His engine hood was shot away, a shell splinter grazed his ribs and he figured himself for dead meat, when he got an idea. He dropped his landing gear and flaps, slowing instantly, and the Germans overshot him. Now being in a poor position they sped away to their base. On returning to base he lit into his commanding officer in front of everyone. While justified, it showed poor discipline on his part. Shortly after he was transferred to 41 Squadron, RAF.

He had more problems with his new commanding officer, but he downed his first German. At 24,000 ft over Calais, five FW-190s attacked him while in the Tail-End-Charley position. Cannon shells slammed into his wings knocking out his own cannons. Again, cunning saved his hide. He pulled straight up into the sun, the FW-190s followed and shot past him, as they had more speed, having just pulled out of a dive. As they climbed past him, he lined up on the middle plane and fired his four 0.303 Browning machine guns. A German aircraft exploded, tearing off the wings and splitting the fusilage. Back on the ground he was chewed out for breaking formation! Beurling responded

"Six of us broke formation, five Jerries and I".

Yet again, two days later, over Calais he was in the Tail-End-Charlie position when he spotted a flight of 190s below them and heading their way. The rest of the flight ignored his warnings, as usual. This time he didn't wait to be on the receiving end of the German's cannons. He peeled out of formation and dove on the Germans, scoring a perfect deflection shot on the lead plane. It fell away smoking and crashed into the sea. Once again he was reprimanded for disobeying orders by leaving formation. Disgusted with the crass stupidity of his commanding officers, he offered to take the place of a married pilot who didn't relish being posted to Malta, and was promptly granted permission to leave.

Malta

HMS Eagle
HMS Eagle Flying Off Spitfires

Getting to Malta was problematic, as the Germans and Italians were trying to cut it off and pound it to pieces. Any ship getting within range of Axis bombers flying from Sicily were in grave danger and German U-boats prowled the waters. The 16 new Spitfire Mk Vs and their pilots destined for Malta were shipped in the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. When they were within flying range of Malta (600 miles) the pilots were given instructions on the heading and approximate distance to the island and flew off the deck of the Eagle. This was difficult to do as the Spitfire was never designed for this. The technicians onboard Eagle put wedges in the flaps to hold them at 50% (Spitfires had only 2 flap settings, full up and full down), then the pilots had to rev their engines to the max while standing on their brakes. The deck officer waited until the Eagle rose on a wave and signalled them off. Once off the deck the Spitfire would drop close to the ocean before flying. Once altitude was gained, the pilots dropped flaps all the way, the wedges fell out and then retracted their flaps. The Germans did their best to confuse the new pilots by giving false instructions in English, but most pilots were not fooled by this ruse. Beurling had just landed in his brand new Spitfire, when the cockpit hood was whipped back, the groundcrew pulled him out and another pilot climbed into the cockpit. As soon as it was refueled and armed it roared off to confront an inbound flight of Axis fighters and bombers. He had landed in the middle of an air raid. Many Spitfires were destroyed on the ground before they had a chance to get into the fight.

His commanding officer of 249 Squadron RAF on Malta was S/L Stanley Grant, with FL Laddie Lucas his flight commander. He proved to be a good judge of character. He said of George,

"Beurling was untidy, with a shock of fair, touseled hair above penetrating blue eyes. He smiled a lot and the smile came straight out of those striking eyes. His sallow complexion was in keeping with his part Scandinavian ancestry. He was high strung, brash and outspoken. He was a rebel, yes; but I suspected that his rebelliousness came from some mistaken feeling of inferiority. I judged that what Beurling needed most was not to be smacked down but to be encouraged. His ego mattered very much to him, and from what he told me of his treatment in England, a deliberate attempt had been made to assassinate it. I made him a promise that I would give him my trust and that if he abused it he would be on the next aircraft out of Malta. When I said all this those startling blue eyes peered incredulously at me as if to say that, after all his past experience of human relations, he didn't believe it. He was soon to find out that a basis for confidence and mutual trust did exist. He never once let me down."

Air raid on MaltaHe arrived at the height of the siege of Malta by the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica. They were pounding the island night and day to blast it into submission. Malta was the perfect location to stage interception raids on Axis ships trying to reinforce General Rommel in North Africa. Their main airbase, Takali Field, was a shambles. There was a small shack for an ops room, the revetments for aircraft were made of broken rock and sandbags, and slit trenches abounded. It was blinding white and hot as hades in the day. Every morning the operational pilots would have to go out and sit in their aircraft on 1 minute notice. As the sun rose higher the all metal fighters heated up like ovens, with a scantily clad pilot sweating in it.

Takali Airfield, Malta
A German photo of Takali Airfield

"On the 12th I got my first real feel of Malta action when Raoul Daddo-Langlois - "Daddy Longlegs" - and Berkeley-Hill, Jack Rae and I were sent up to intercept 15 Me 109s. The enemy planes split us and Berkeley-Hill and I found ourselves alone. About four Jerries jumped B-H, and I pulled up sharply under one and blew his tail off. He went down vertically. Nobody saw him hit the deck, but Berkeley-Hill had seen my burst hit so I was credited with a damaged."

"In those moments of combat I proved to myself that I had the stuff to match flying and shooting with the gentlemen from Sicily. That's what I wanted to find out. As we walked away from our Spits, Daddy Longlegs grinned and said: "Good show, Beurling!" I felt swell."

During the following lull in fighting Beurling made copious notes in a black book that he carried with him. In it, he made detailed calculations on the angles, speeds and shots that he had made and missed so he could work out how to hit the target the next time. He developed a set of equations that he committed to memory that allowed him to perfect the art of the deflection shot. Deflection shooting was difficult at that time as the Spitfire V had only a ring and bead for an aiming device. Learning how to lead a plane so your shells hit the same space as the aircraft did at the same time was tricky to learn. Many never did, but he mastered it.

On July 6 he got to put into practice what he had learned when 8 Spits were sent to intercept 3 Italian Cant bombers heading for Malta. They were escorted by no less than 30 Macchi 200 fighters. Beurling led the assault diving straight through the Macchi formations and pulling up to fire on a big, Cant bomber. His first burst hit the pilot blowing off his head, the second took out an engine. Despite the damage, it made it back to base in Sicily flown by the bomber aimer/observer. Beurling turned quickly and fired directly into an Italian fighter, knocking it down in flames. He lined up another Italian fighter but it dove sharply to get away. Beurling followed all the way from 20,000 feet to 5,000. The Italian had no choice but to pull up and George caught him square in his sights. The Macchi blew up. Later the same day he led an attack on 2 Junkers Ju-88s escorted by 20 Bf-109s. A wild dogfight broke out and 2 German fighter pilots headed right for Beurling. He circled tightly and caught a 109 with a long burst from 800 yards and at a nearly impossible angle. He hit the fuel tanks and it went down in flames. In one day he increased his kill to 5 and became an ace. Back at base the other pilots snubbed him by not throwing an acknowledgement party of his ace status. He was only interested in attacking Germans. He admitted that he was a loner, but Lucas explained to him in simple, direct language that if he didn't fly as a team, he would be posted into the desert at some even more God-awful post than Malta. George flew with his wingman as well as he was able, however, over Malta most dogfights ended up being a single Spitfire against many enemy aircraft.

It was on Malta that he received his second nickname, "Screwball". Lucas recounts,

"His desire to exterminate was first made manifest in a curious way.

One morning, we were on readiness at Takali, sitting in our dispersal hut in the southeast corner of the airfield. The remains of a slice of bully-beef which had been left over from breakfast lay on the floor. Flies by the dozen were settling on it ..."

Beurling pulled up a chair. He sat there, bent over this moving mass of activity, his eyes riveted on it, preparing for the kill. Every few minutes he would slowly lift his foot, taking particular care not to frighten the multitude, pause and - thump! Down would go his flying boot to crush another hundred or so flies to death. Those bright eyes sparkled with delight at the extent of the destruction. Each time he stamped his foot to swell the total destroyed, a satisfied transatlantic voice would be heard to mutter "the goddam screwballs!"

So George Beurling became "Screwball" to 249, to Malta and to the world. It was an endearing appellation. It suited him exactly. What's more he like it. It helped his ego. It made him feel he was now regarded as an established member of the team. He felt the gaze beginning to be focused on him. At last he was a figure in his own right....

Beurling with souvenirs

George took to hunting the ubiquitous lizards around Takali airfield with his .38 pistol. He would go out alone and stand motionless waiting for a lizard to get within a prescribed range where he estimated they were roughly the size of a German fighter at 250 yards. This was his preferred range for firing. He often hit the lizards with a single bullet. He was completely focussed on being the best fighter pilot that he could be.

AA guns firing on MaltaMalta was a hectic station, with frequent, large scale raids by Germans and Italians. But the AA gunners on Malta quickly became the most proficient in the world with the constant practice they had. Many Axis aircraft were knocked down by the islands ground defences, as well as the Spitfires. By July 11 he had shot down two Bf-109s, three Macchi 202s, had a probable kill on a 109 and damaged a Junkers 88 bomber.

His markmanship had become a legend. He once reported he had fired 5 cannon shells into the cockpit of an enemy plane. Allied soldiers found the plane with 5 cannon holes in the cockpit. A fellow Spitfire pilot said of Beurling,

"He was so successful for many reasons, but the two most important were his eyesight and his knack for deflection shooting. He used to report sighting of aircraft many seconds before others saw them, and he knew whether he hit them in the front, centre or rear of their airplane and he usually used minimum ammunition."
Lucas stated,
"He had an instinctive feel for an aircraft. He quickly got to know its characteristics and extremes - and the importance of doing so. He wasn't a wild pilot who went in for all sorts of hair-raising manoeuvres, throwing his aircraft all over the sky. Not at all. George Beurling was one of the most accurate pilots I ever saw. A pair of sensitive hands gave his flying a smoothness unusual in a wartime fighter pilot ... This acute sensitivity told him that a Spitfire was only a fine gun platform if it was flown precisely. He therefore set out to make himself the master of the airplane. He never let it fly him."
He never shot haphazardly at an aircraft that was too far away. He liked to fire from about 250 yards with several short, hard bursts. That was usually enough.

Fox in the Henhouse

"Fox in the Henhouse" original painting by Rich Thistle.

On July 14 he ended up on the receiving end of some German lead. Three Bf-109s and 2 Italian Reggiane 2001 fighter/bombers jumped him. He turned towards the Italians figuring they could do less damage to him, as they were not equipped with cannons, but his aircraft was shot up pretty bad. Back at base he counted 23 holes in his aircraft. He got even a while later downing his first Reggiane and damaging a Ju-88.

Beurling waxed hot and cold on his Italian opponents. In a 1943 interview he referred to the Italians as "ice-cream merchants", saying

"The Eyeties are comparatively easy to shoot down. Oh, they're brave enough. In fact, I think the Eyeties have more courage than the Germans, but their tactics aren't so good. They are very good gliders, but they try to do clever acrobatics and looping. But they will stick it even if things are going against them, whereas the Jerries will run."
On July 27 Beurling dealt the Italians a hard blow by killing their leading ace, Captain Furio Niclot and shooting down his wingman, Serg. Magg. Faliero Gelli. Together they had knocked down 8 Spitfires over Malta. Gelli never saw him coming, he hit the wingman's radiator and engine sending him down to crash on an island. He was captured and made a prisoner and thus survived the war. Niclot was killed outright seconds later. Beurling was lining up on a third Macchi when two Bf-109s came up after him. He peeled off and attacked the Germans, hitting the leader in the fuel tanks and sending him down in flames. He was on a roll. He landed, refueled and went back up to attack four Bf-109s. He shot down one in flames and received credit for a damaged plane that limped out of the fight smoking badly. For his amazing day's work he received the Distinguished Flying Medal.

Beurling about to shoot down Gelli
Beurling after Gelli. Original painting by

Near the end of July he shot down another Bf-109, and his superior officers finally had to promote him to an officer and ordered him to accept. The press were anxious to interview him, and it wouldn't do to have the top fighter pilot in Malta be a Sergeant Pilot. So he became a Pilot Officer, much to his disgust.

He, and many of the surviving pilots, were exhausted by the physical demands of fighter combat, stress, heat, poor nutrition and a form of dysentery they called "the Dog". Beurling had lost 50 lbs since arriving in Malta, the Germans and Italians were close to shutting down the island by cutting off it's food supplies. He was bed ridden for a week, but managed to drag himself into the air to battle the Messerschmitts that circled Malta. Several flights of Bf-109s jumped him. He managed a short burst that brought down a German, but his comrades shot Beurling's plane to pieces. He crash landed in a field because his parachute was too loose for him to jump out. By the end of August he collected a shared victory over a Ju-88 that had been separated from it's fighter escort.

Valetta Harbour
Valleta Harbour

He was again bed-ridden for several weeks due to continued weakness from the poor quality food. In the middle of September he took a plane up but got it badly shot up by a German. He took revenge a few days later when he attacked 18 German fighters. One blew up when he hit the oxygen bottles, another fell away smoking and a third went down in flames. Then came October. The Axis powers pulled out all of the stops to crush Malta. It was a vicious battle, half of Beurling's squad was shot down in one week. His only close friend, a fellow Quebecer, was killed. After that he had no more friends, it was easier that way.

The air war over Malta became a real grudge match. Pilots on both sides were shot in the air while they hung from their parachuts, or while they floated in the water. Several Italians who landed on Malta were tortured and killed before the British troops could capture them. Little sympathy was shown by either side towards their opponents.

By the 14th of October Beurling had shot down 5 more German planes, three in one day. He should have been awarded the VC for that effort. Three flights of Spitfires scrambled to intercept 95 Axis planes. Beurling spotted them first, but his radio died and he couldn't contact the others. He piled into the Axis formations, damaging a Junkers 88, and downing 2 Bf-109s. Going home he came across a damaged Ju-88 and shot it down. Actually the huge enemy formations worked in his favour, as the large number of German and Italian fighters couldn't attack him all at once. They either got in each other's way or no one attacked him. Like Bishop he adopted the fast sneak attack and a quick withdrawal method. He could usually count on damaging or downing the first aircraft he attacked, and he got out with the resulting confusion. Then he could circle and pick off stragglers or wait for a favourable chance to attack again.

His last fight over Malta was, as usual, spectacular. He led 8 Spitfires in an attack on 8 Ju-88 bombers and 50 fighters. He cut out a bomber and shot it down, but the rear gunner hit him in a finger and forearm. He attacked and damaged a 109 in front of him, but two behind him shredded his tail and wings with cannon fire. He dove fast for the water, losing the Germans. Coming out of the dive he spotted a 109 below him and shot it down. But that attracted attention from more Germans.

"I'd been so intent on the guy in my sights and on Willie's tail that I'd forgotten I had a tail of my own."

"Just as I shot Willie's pal down, a Messerschmitt nailed me from behind, right in the belly of the Spit. A chunk of shell smashed into my right heel. Another went between my left arm and body, nicking me in the elbow and ribs. Shrapnel spattered into my left leg. The controls were blasted. The throttle was jammed wide open and there I was in a full-power spin, on my way down from around 18,000 feet. I threw the hood away and tried to get out, but the spin was forcing me back into the seat. "That is it," I said to myself. "This is what it's like when you're going to die."

I didn't panic. If anything, I was resigned to it. What the hell, this was the way I'd always wanted to go. Then I snapped out of it and began to struggle again.

The engine was streaming flame but I managed to wriggle out of the cockpit and onto the port wing from which I could bail into the inside of the spin. I was down to 2,000 feet. At about 1,000 I managed to slip off. Before I dared pull the ripcord I must have been around 500. The chute opened with a crack like a cannon shell and I found myself floating gently down, the damnedest experience in contrasts I'll ever have.

I caught my breath, pulled off a glove and dropped it to get some idea of the distance between me and the sea. A breeze caught it and the glove went up past my face. I laughed like a fool, then tugged off my flying boots and dropped them. Just as I did I hit the water.

He was rescued shortly after by a launch from shore. When they got there he was floating in blood-stained water babbling about the bible that his mother had given him. The rescue squad searched his pockets and found it. He was patched up as well as they could on Malta and spent some time in hospital before being sent back to Britain.

The flight back was in a Liberator bomber converted to a transport. The nineteen passengers rode in the bomb bay and fusilage without seats. George flew along with fellow Canadian ace "Billy the Kid" Williams and fighter pilot A.H. Donaldson. The aircraft ran into a ferocious thunder storm near Gibralter. Low on gas there was no alternate landing strip so, with poor visibility the pilot forced the bomber down. He couldn't control the plane well enough on descent into Gibralter and missed two thirds of the runway. The aircraft touched down too late and the pilot tried to pull back up. With the engines at full throttle but not generating enough power yet they crashed into the water. Beurling said afterwards that he could tell from the way the plane behaved that it was going to stall so he opened the emergency door and jumped just as the plane hit the water. He managed to swim the 160 yds to shore, despite a heavy cast on his foot. Only Donaldson, Beurling and another passenger survived. Beurling was hospitalized with shock and an infection in his wounded heel.

Beurling after Malta

The newsprint media flocked to his bedside in England and printed everything he said. One reported wrote "here was a youth with hidden courage".

Rest in Canada

He was sent back to rest in Canada and Prime Minister Mackenzie King milked his presence with a "photo-op" and nearly messed everything up by being late. Beurling was worn out after a 21 hour flight across the Atlantic. The PM's photo op

The next day he was given a hero's welcome parade through Verdun and Montreal. People lined the parade route despite a cold, slashing rain. Nearly 10,000 people packed the Verdun arena to see their hometown hero. The CBC sent an announcer to broadcast the whole spectacle to the rest of Canada. Being big about it, AC deNiverville, the senior officer for the RCAF No. 3 Training Command admitted that they made a mistake in not taking Beurling when he applied.
"This is one of the mistakes that the RCAF has made, and let us hope we will not make many more like that. We owe, the Royal Air Force a debt for being wiser than we were and readily accepting him."

It was then George's turn on the podium. He spoke for just over four minutes. Opening with

"This is no place for me, I'm a fighter pilot, not a speech maker."
He continued, apologising for not always looking excited to be in Victory Loan Drives, but he was exhausted, bewildered and excited. He had gone in a few weeks from desperate, kill-or-be-killed battle to an overwhelming, adoring public. He was undoubtedly suffering from battle fatigue.
Beurling in Verdun

The persona that George put forward for the public and the press was that of a hard-hearted, professional killer. He made statements like this on dog-fighting:

"I wonder if he is going to blow or fry. There is no time for any other kind of thought. There is always someone on your tail and you have to be pretty sharp. There is no time to loiter around. You have to be hard-hearted too. You must blaze away whenever you are in a position to get his oxygen bottles or gas tanks."
He gave a press interview that has been retained in the National Archives of Canada. In it he described a horrifying scene that, according to his brother David, haunted him in nightmares for years. In it he is attacking an Italian fighter aircraft.

From Brian Nolan's book Hero, he quotes:

"I came right up underneath his tail. I was going faster than he was; about fifty yards behind. I was tending to overshoot. I weaved off to the right, and he looked out to his left. I weaved to the left and he looked out to his right. So, he still didn't know I was there. About this time I closed up to about thirty yards, and I was on his portside coming in at about a fifteen-degree angle. Well, twenty-five to thirty yards in the air looks as if you're right on top of him because there is no background, no perspective there and it looks pretty close. I could see all the details in his face because he turned and looked at me just as I had a bead on him. One of my can shells caught him in the face and blew his head right off. The body slumped and the slipstream caught the neck, the stub of the neck, and the blood streamed down the side of the cockpit. It was a great sight anyway. The red blood down the white fusilage. I must say it gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you actually blow their brains out."

He was undernourished after the starvation diet on Malta, and his wound in his heel festered. He was secretly admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital for several weeks. He was allowed out only for his twenty-second birthday so he could enjoy his mother's chocolate cake.

On a Victory Bond drive. Following a full physical recuperation, although one foot was permanently shorter than the other, he was sent to help sell war bonds all across Canada. He made appearances at flight training schools, army camps and factories. He promoted Victory Bonds and enlistment. But he was a poor public speaker and he resented the boring work. When asked by a reporter about it he snapped "if I were ever asked to do that again I'd tell them to go to hell or else ask for a commission on the bonds I sold". In March, 1943 he was near the end of the bond drive in Vancouver. It was there he met Diana Whittall, the daughter of a respected Vancouver family. They dated, and went out swimming while he was there. They would marry 14 months later.

By the spring of 1943 he was fit for duty. He griped that the RCAF was pressuring the RAF into transferring him, however, it turned out that he applied for the transfer with a letter to AC deNiverville.

The European Front

After a short stint at sales, he was sent back to England and made a gunnery instructor at a training base. Unfortunately, he had no patience to teach others what he was so good at and desperately wanted back into action. He continually requested the RAF post him to an operational squadron, but they turned him down. The RAF finally transferred him to the RCAF in September, 1943. Monty Berger, an Intelligence Officer in 403 RCAF Squadron, convinced his superiors that Beurling was personable and willing to help. So Beurling was posted to 403 Squadron again flying from Kenley in Kent, headed by the Canadian S/L Hugh Godefroy. The famous English ace Johnny Johnson was WingCo Flying of 127 Airfield at Biggin Hill.

Hugh Godefroy, in his wartime biography "Lucky Thirteen" writes about many of the famous pilots he led, Beurling included. Of him he wrote:

"Beurling was a tallish slim fellow with a dishevelled crop of blond hair, sharp features and deep creases down each cheek. He was given to chewing gum slowly and deliberately with his mouth open. He had large ice-blue eyes that rarely blinked. With George there was no place for preambles. I went straight to the point. I outlined the conditions under which I would accept him into my Squadron. He listened in silence, his face an expressionless mask. Johnny (W/C Johnny Johnson) then pointed out that we needed experienced leaders with his capability and that he wanted him to take charge of the Ground Gunner Programme. There was a long pause while we both waited. Finally he said:

'Yep, I'll do it!'

'Okay,' I said, 'go on down to the Dispersal hut and meet your squadron mates and familiarize yourself with the Spitfire IX. You'll find it a lot different from the V's that you flew before.'

Without a change of expression he turned on his heels and strode out.

'Friendly chap, isn't he?' Johnny chuckled.

Beurling continued to be a mixed up guy. He seemed to specialize in showing off in bizarre ways, typical of insecure people. He was forever stunting in the squadron Tiger Moth, and buzzing the airfield or buildings at low level.

One time W/C Godefroy wrote:
"A wood duck had taken up residence in the pond and become tame enough to be hand-fed. Buck (Bob Buckham) never left the dining table without taking him some scraps. "Buzz" Beurling strolled out of the dining-room and stood for a moment in front of us on the top step surveying the scene. To our utter amazement, he pulled his Webley revolver from his holster, took aim at the duck and proceeded to shoot feathers out of its tail. Before he could fire the third shot, Buckham was beside him and with a lightning chop knocked the revolver from his hand. With his eyes burning like two coals of fire, he said very slowly,

"Beurling, if you ever shoot at that duck again, I'll kill you with my bare hands!"

Beurling just looked at him with those cold blue eyes, then slowly his face broke into a grin as he said:

"Okay, Buck, I wasn't going to hurt it."

As Squadron IO Monty Berger frequently debriefed Beurling after flights. He recounts one such incident in "Invasions without Tears".

The Squadron had returned one day from a mission and, during debriefing, reported all had been quiet.

"I shot down an FW-190", Beurling announced, almost in passing. This astounded everyone, but most of all Hugh Godefroy, who became visibly annoyed.

"How could you have shot down a FW, Buzz? You were flying Number Four!"

"I saw a little dot in my mirror at twelve o'clock," Beurling replied calmly. "I knew that if I said anything on the R/T the chances of our whole section turning around quickly enough weren't very good. That spot would have disappeared. So I peeled off, climbed and got behind him. I was to his left and behind, and I could see my shots going into the rear of his cockpit. The FW went down in flames."

George Beurling

Notwithstanding such tales of Beurling's "super vision", his account of shooting down an enemy aircraft without anyone else realizing it seemed farfetched. More importantly, without an eyewitness the only possible evidence that could be used to support his claim would be if the movie camera in his Spitfire, which operated when the machine guns were fired, had recorded the event.

"By golly", said Monty afterwards, "the film clearly showed the aircraft being shot down. He had spotted this dot, peeled off, got behind it and got back into position without anybody knowing what had happened."

Godefroy was already chafing as a result of Beurling's lone-wolf behaviour. It clearly contradicted a basic tenet that every other pilot in the squadron had come to understand, and respect as essential. Johnnie Johnson had made a point of laying it out for Beurling the day he arrived at Kenley. "There is one rule," he said firmly,"and it is not to be broken. We always fight as a team."

The rule existed wherever Beurling went, but he didn't always follow it. Craving action in the air, and denied as much largely because of circumstances or foul weather, he seemed to distance himself from his fellow pilots, while making it difficult for Godefroy to maintain his authority.

With continued heavy flying by the Wing and it's three Canadian Squadrons there were a lot of officers rotated out of the line for a rest. Johnson went to Fighter Command and Godefroy became WingCo Flying of 127 Airfield.

"As Gunnery Officer of my Wing, Buzz Beurling was doing a fine job, and, without consulting him I put him in command of a flight (as a Flight Lieutenant). As soon as the signal came through confirming his promotion, he stomped into my office and said:

'What are you trying to do? I'm not interested in Administration.'

I was flabbergasted.

'Administration? As a Flight Commander, you don't have to do any administration; all I want you to do is lead your men and lead them well. I told you when you first came here that we needed men with experience. Now you've done a good job as Gunnery Officer, and if you do just as good a job leading your Flight, you'll probably be the next man to be put in command of a squadron. Now get on with it; you'll find that all the administration is done for you.'

For a long while he stood staring at me in glum silence. At last he said,

'Okay, I'll try it!'

With his hands in his pockets, he slowly wandered out.

Monty Berger had heard the conversation and, with his face a mask of disbelief, said:

'My God, he's a hard fellow to understand; you'd think you were giving him seven days Confined to Barracks.'

Unknown to me, by this act I had lost Beurling's cooperation. The Wing Tiger Moth, which we used for running errands from one airdrome to another, was established for maintainence in his Flight. In bad weather he began taking up various members of his ground crew showing them how well he could perform aerobatics. The new inexperienced pilots in our outfit were fascinated by him. They practiced furiously on the ground shooting device trying to match his quality of accuracy. Every day that the weather was bad, I would see him from my office window, in the Tiger Moth doing precision aerobatics over the airdrome, below eight hundred feet. After the third or fourth time, I took him aside in the bar and said:

'Beurling, I don't mind your practising in the Tiger Moth, but you know as well as I do that aerobatics below a thousand feet over the airdome is a Court Martial Offense. If you want to do aerobatics, get away from here where the rest of the pilots and I can't see you. If I let you do it, some of these young pilots will see no reason why they can't do it too, and probably kill themselves. Can't you see that?'

He just looked at me with a wry smile, then, without saying a word, shuffled off.

It turned out that the continental air battles were a piece of cake compared to Malta, with flights of 50 or more Spitfires flying over German territory at once. Bored with massive fighter sweeps, he began to break formation and go off alone, leaving his wingman exposed. He soon got into trouble with his commanding officers for this irresponsible behaviour. But he still shot down aircraft. In September and December he downed two FW-190s, raising his total to 31.

Godefroy illustrates this tendency well.

"It was a great relief when the weather broke and we were able to resume offensive operations. With broken cloud over France, the weather was unsuitable for bomber missions, so I took the Wing on a fighter sweep ... Between towering cumulus clouds, SL Hunter vectored me onto a large formation of 190's, and I dived to the attack. Beurling was leading the Section on my port side, and when I was about a thousand yards from the formation, I saw Buzz out of the corner of my eye roll right over on his back and then go straight down. Instructing the rest of the Squadron to get into them, I pulled up to see what was going on. While watching Danny Brown knock one down, I heard Beurling's unmistakable voice on the R/T:

'I've had it!'

I called him and asked what the trouble was. There was no answer. I reformed the Wing and with nothing more about, took them all back to Kenley. Half an hour after the Wing landed, a lone Spitfire came into the circuit. It was Beurling. He did a vey cautious turn around the field, put his flaps down and came in and landed. The whites of his eyes were nothing but two pools of blood. Beurling had seen a single 190, thousands of feet below. Instead of attacking the ones in front of us, he had decided to get the one underneath. He had dived straight down from 20,000 feet and not realizing how the Spitfire IX would build up speed, he had got going so fast that his elevators had frozen up. Just after he had said, "I've had it", he had turned back the elevator trim and his aircraft had pulled itself out, blacking him out completely. Massive subconjunctival haemorrhages had resulted from the excessive G. His aircraft was a complete write-off, with all the rivets on the underside pulled from their mountings.

S/L Cam MacArthur grounded Beurling from operations. With the continuation of poor weather, Beurling resumed his aerobatics in the Tiger Moth. Once again he put on a show over the airfield. With considerable annoyance, I warned him that if he didn't stop, I'd have no alternative but to press charges.

George Demare was, once again, his rigger and had a different view of the famous pilot. He took to regaling the fitters and riggers with his stories of combat over Malta. They, at least, still looked up to him, even when he did do serious damage to the aircraft.

Later that summer Beurling pushed his insolence too far. As W/C Godefroy recounts:

"I was sitting in my office on the field on another dreary day with the ceiling overcase at eight hundred feet, catchin up on paper work. Hearing the sound of an engine, I looked out through the window and saw the Tiger Moth just about air-borne. With its wingtip just off the grass, it turned towards me, flew straight at my window and zoomed over the rooftop. In a minute or two I saw it again doing aerobatics. I picked up the phone and called Dispersal.

"The Wing Commander here; who's flying the Tiger Moth?"

"Beurling, sir."

"As soon as he gets down, tell him to report to my office."

I was seething. Beurling had purposedly disobeyed me. I had just posted a general order forbidding low aerobatics in the Tiger Moth. An hour later, when I had cooled down, Beurling slumped into the office with a sly grin on his face. He stood in front of me with his arms folded.

"Buzz, why did you purposely disobey my orders?"

"The Tiger Moth's in my Flight; I'm going to fly it when and how I want to. You can't tell me what to do."

"All right, Beurling. You've had fair warning. Go back to your quarters. You're under open arrest."

Throwing his head back to get the hair out of his eyes, with a wide grin on his face, he sauntered out.

Within an hour of sending the signal for Court Martial, I got a phone call from RCAF Headquarters. It was Air Marshal Breadner, the RCAF's Commander-in-Chief.

"Godefroy, what's this I hear about you putting Beurling up for Court Martial."

"That's right, Sir!"

"We can't do that. Mackenzie King did everything but crown him before he was sent back over here."

"As long as I'm Wing Commander Flying of 127 Airfield and he's on this Station, I will proceed with Court Martial. I couldn't care less if you decide to override me, but I will not allow him to fly again in this Wing, and he will be replaced as Flight Commander."

"I don't blame you, Godefroy. Tell him to pack his bags and report to RCAF headquarters."

George Beurling went to W/C Buck McNair's 126 Air Field as he was desperately short of experienced fliers. This fact shows how desperate McNair was, as he had previously rejected Beurling for his lone-wolf tactics in Malta. To Beurling's misfortune, McNair was even less tolerant of his antics than was Godefroy. To him the kernal of successful air combat over Europe was team work, and Beurling had shown that he was not a team player.

Two months passed in 412 Squadron before Beurling shot down another aircraft. It was a FW-190, his 32nd and last.

McNair had been badly wounded when he was shot down in flames into the Channel. With only minimal time to recover and with his sight in one eye damaged, he became difficult to get along with. McNair had forbidden Beurling to fly the Tiger Moth, so he had taken his frustration out racing station transport around the tarmac. Finally in a fit of anger and frustration, Buck told him that if he didn't pack up and get off the Station within the hour he would beat him up.

The entire RCAF HQ finally tired of his insolence and they grounded him. They were trying to develop a system based on teamwork and were discouraging the lone-wolf tactics of WWI. Most pilots were not as good as Beurling and could not survive on their own for long in battles against the Germans. W/C Johnny Johnson had discussed the merits of the long range American P-51 Mustang II fighter with him, noting that it could fly to Berlin and back from England. Beurling simply responded "Can it now." and got a far-away look in his eyes. Johnston figured that in a P-51 Beurling would have roamed all over Europe looking for fights and would "either finally get himself killed, or down more aircraft than any of us". He never got to try a Mustang. He was granted an honourable discharge from the RCAF and sent home. He applied to the USAAF but they rejected him too.

After the War

George Beurling was lost without the excitement of combat and the recognition it gave him. Commercial airlines turned him down for fear he would wreck a plane or drive off customers. He was reduced to begging on Montreal street corners. In 1944, his short marriage came to an end.

W/C Hugh Godefroy had one more encounter with Buzz.

"In December, 1947 I was in the Laurentians above Montreal skiing. At the end of a day we went into Grey Rock's Inn for a hot drink. I saw a familiar face: George Beurling.

He seemed glad to see me and came straight over and inquired about my activities since last we'd met. He told me he was going to the Middle East on the invitation of the Israelis. They had P-51's, and he would be doing dive bombing and strafing against no fighter opposition. He invited me to come. I would get $1,000 for crossing the Atlantic, and after eight weeks' flying, I could come home with a net of $8,000. As I thought about it, he watched me with those ice-blue eyes of his. Finally, with a slight smile, he said"

"There's only one hitch, Hughie. This time you'll be flying behind me."

Reports on what happened are varied. George Beurling ended up at Urbe Airport in Rome on his way to Israel. Their transportation was a Norduuyn Norseman, an aircraft known to be tricky on takeoff if the pilot was not familiar with it. On May 21, 1948, the front page of the Montreal Gazette reported that George Beurling and his friend, an American fighter pilot, Moshe Cohen, were dead. His engine cut on take-off, and in a desperate attempt to get his Norseman back on to the field he spun in. Sabotage was suspected but never proven. The Norseman burning.
Monty Berger, now a reporter in Montreal, wrote a moving tribute to the fallen ace. He was given a grand funeral in Rome and buried in Verano Cemetary (the Protestant cemetary) in Rome. Rome's Chief Rabbi and many Jews paid him their respects for losing his life while trying to defend their homeland. He lay in Verano Cemetary for two years before being relocated to Mount Carmel Cemetary as an Israeli hero.The funeral cortege.
His grave at Mount Carmel.

With 32 confirmed planes shot down, George Beurling was one of the top Allied aces of WWII. He was not a conventional kind of guy, some could say paradoxical. Many fighter pilots were highly unconventional on the ground, and did a lot of foolish things in relieving the tension of battle, but Beurling seemed to do things with a calculation to annoy senior officers. Almost to show them that he was the best fighter pilot around, and that is all that counted. He flew with a bible his mother had given him, yet he had an un-Christian attitude in killing opponents. He craved attention and fame, caring only for his standing as an ace, not for promotions or leadership. He couldn't stand taking responsibility for others. His love for attention was shallow, he couldn't form stable relationships with men or women. Many opposing words can be used to describe him. Rebel, irresponsible, ace, blood-thirsty, lone wolf, unfriendly, opinionated, rude. But he gave his all to a war that did not really concern him. He excelled at flying a heavily armed warplane at great speeds with precision and great effect. Despite his many shortcomings, the Allies got a bargain when they hired George Beurling. Perhaps the RCAF should have given him that P-51 to fly by himself.

Falcon of Malta

"Falcon of Malta" original painting by Rich Thistle.


Canadian Aces Home Page

Images From:


Quotes From: