BEURLING: THE HIGHEST-SCORING CANADIAN ACE

Many pilots from Canada distinguished themselves during World War II, flying for both the Royal Air Force and Canada’s own RCAF. George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling would fly for both, scoring 29.5 victories with the Royal Air Force and two with the RCAF for a total of 31.5, making him one of the top half dozen aces scoring victories with the Royal Air Force.

Beurling was born in 1921 at Verdun in Quebec, and took an early interest in aviation, devouring books about World War I aces and watching airplanes at the local airport. He took his first ride at age nine and had made his first solo flight by age 17. He then quit school to work as a bush pilot, flying mail and supplies to mining camps in the far north of Canada.

At one point, Beurling won an aerobatic contest in Edmonton, Alberta, flying against a number of RCAF pilots. In commenting about his victory, he made some pointed remarks about the quality of RCAF flight training and pilots that would not be forgotten. In 1939, he applied to join the RCAF and was refused. They claimed that it was his deficiency in “academics,” but Beurling knew the real reason.

World War II had begun and Beurling was itching to get into the action. He had been rejected by the RCAF, but when the Soviet Union invaded Finland at the end of November 1939, he decided that he would join the Finnish Air Force. However, the Finnish embassy asked for his parents’ permission because he was just 18. They said no.

Undaunted, Beurling signed on as a hand on a ship bound for Glasgow, and upon arrival headed for the first Royal Air Force recruiting office that he could find. They were ready to sign him on, based on his knowledge of aviation, but they needed his birth certificate, which he didn’t have. In a scene that could have been from a movie, Beurling walked out, signed on to another ship and made a round trip across the Atlantic—during which his ship was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat—to retrieve his birth certificate.

Once in the Royal Air Force, Beurling progressed quickly, and he had soon earned the nickname “Buzz” for his low-level—often unauthorized and unsanctioned—aerobatics. During his early months with the Royal Air Force, Beurling crossed paths with—and was trained by—James Henry “Ginger” Lacey, who would soon be one of the leading aces in the Royal Air Force, and who was the man who shot down the bomber that bombed Buckingham Palace. Lacey was impressed by Beurling’s flying skills, and so were the RCAF squadron commanders who offered him an RCAF commission. Beurling refused, deciding that he’d rather remain an enlisted pilot in the Royal Air Force than an officer in the RCAF. It was his turn to snub the RCAF.

Beurling scored his first victory in March 1942 while flying a Spitfire Mk. V with No. 41 Squadron on a sweep over northern France. He was flying last place in a four-ship formation, when five German fighter pilots attacked, especially keen to pick off the man at the end of the queue. Beurling pulled up and let the Focke-Wulf Fw 190s overshoot him. He then got one in his sights and picked him off. Two days later, again over France, Beurling saw a flight of Fw 190s and broke formation to attack them. He shot down the lead aircraft but was sanctioned for breaking formation for a second time.

Displeased with the leadership at No. 41 Squadron, Beurling volunteered for duty with No. 249 Squadron, which was based on the British island garrison at Malta in the Mediterranean. Malta was being referred to as an unsinkable British “aircraft carrier” in the Mediterranean and the Germans and Italians wanted it out of commission. This was because the British used it as a base from which to attack the Mediterranean supply lines used by the Germans and Italians to resupply their forces in North Africa. For General Erwin Rommel’s Deutsche Afrika Korps, these supplies were the key to victory. The Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica were tasked with eliminating Malta as an interference to Axis operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and No. 249 Squadron was about all that stood in their way. It was not pleasant duty, but for George Beurling it offered a welcome change.

Along with 16 new Spitfire Mk. Vs and 15 other pilots, Beurling was soon on the way aboard HMS Eagle. Because the Germans controlled the air over the continent, one of the only ways that the Royal Air Force could get aircraft to Malta was to send them aboard Royal Navy aircraft carriers. The only problems, beyond the danger of being torpedoed by the Germans, were that the Spitfire Mk. V was never designed for carrier operations, nor had the Royal Air Force pilots been properly trained for this kind of take-off.

Beurling managed to get off HMS Eagle and fly the last 600 miles to Takali Field on Malta, when he was ordered to take off immediately to intercept a strike force of German bombers headed for the island. He would soon learn that flying an intercept mission was something to look forward to. Despite the danger, anything was better than being on alert for a mission at Takali, which meant sitting in an oven-like cockpit under the blistering Mediterranean sun—and waiting.

On July 6, 1942, George Beurling and seven other Spitfire pilots intercepted three Regia Aeronautica bombers en route to Malta, escorted by an estimated 30 Macchi C.200 fighters. Beurling led the assault, diving straight through the Macchi formations and pulling up to fire on a big Cant Z.1007 bomber. Beurling’s first pass damaged a bomber, and he quickly shot down two of the Macchis. These were his first victories since coming to Malta.

With the first attack disrupted, the Spitfires returned to Takali to refuel, only to be sent up again. This time, it was a pair of German Junkers Ju 88s and about 20 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. A pair of Messerschmitts double-teamed Beurling, and he had to turn hard to get out of the way. This put him in firing position and he poured a burst into the Bf 109.

The young Canadian ace took his job seriously. He spent hours calculating range and deflection angles, making notes on what worked and what did not. In his spare time, he would hunt fast-moving lizards with a pistol. As the story goes, he would shoot when their size approximated the size of an enemy fighter at 250 yards. He soon got to the point where he never took more than one shot to hit his target. The same soon became true of the enemy aircraft. He was a master of marksmanship and of hitting his foe with an absolute minimum of shells.

On his morning patrol on July 27, Beurling downed two Regia Aeronautica aircraft—including one flown by six-victory ace Furio Niclot—and one of two Luftwaffe Bf 109s that attacked him. On his afternoon outing, Beurling would claim one Bf 109 as a confirmed kill, and a second as damaged. For this day’s success, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In October, when the enemy made a major effort to defeat the defenders on Malta, Beurling actually welcomed the massed formations of bombers because this situation favored his hit and run tactics. He could come in hard and fast, kill at least one, and escape in the confusion. He had added five to his score when he flew his last mission out of Takali. He and seven others attacked a force of Ju 88s that were escorted by several dozen Messerschmitts. In the process of downing one of the bombers, he was badly wounded by a bomber gunner and a pair of Bf 109s that got on his tail. Amazingly, he managed to shoot down a third Messerschmitt as he dove to escape the first two.

At last, it seemed like every Messerschmitt in the sky had ganged up on him, riddling the Spitfire’s cockpit with gunfire. His fighter nosed over and went down, its throttle jammed wide open. Somehow, he managed to get out, but he dreaded pulling his ripcord too soon for fear of being shot at while he descended. He finally opened his parachute with seconds to spare. He was picked up by a British boat, but his Malta flying days were over.

He was to be sent to back to Britain to recover from his wounds, but the transport carrying him crashed on landing near Gibraltar, and Beurling had to swim to shore. He was one of only three survivors, but he was badly injured and suffering from shock. His additional injuries, especially a badly infected heel, would take a long time to mend, so he was sent home to Canada, not just a wounded pilot, but a returning national hero—a national hero that had not yet turned 22. The kid who was rejected by the RCAF was now a great air ace lunching with Prime Minister MacKenzie King.

Because of his injuries, the starvation diet on which he had subsisted on Malta, and the fatigue of daily combat for several months, Beurling spent the next several weeks in the hospital. This was followed by several months of touring Canada making appearance at victory bond rallies, work which he strongly disliked.

When he finally returned to England during the summer of 1943, George “Buzz” Beurling was faced with many other things that he did not like. He was assigned to a Royal Air Force gunnery school, where he badgered his superiors to get back into action. When the Royal Air Force refused, he did the unthinkable and requested a transfer to the RCAF. In September 1943, Beurling was assigned to No. 403 (RCAF) Squadron, based at Kenley. He was promoted to flight commander, but he did not like this either, because it interfered with the “lone wolf” tactics that he had favored when he was on Malta and in England previously.

While he managed to shoot down three Fw 190s between September 1943 and April 1944, Beurling was depressed and he seemed to be sabotaging a career that had been at its peak when he came home from Malta. He refused to cooperate with others and deliberately disobeyed rules. On patrol, he broke formation and refused to attack except in the most difficult circumstances.

With some of his dangerous stunts, it almost seemed like he was trying to commit suicide. He had become anything but the highly effective fighter pilot who had been a hero of the Malta campaign. Finally, he was grounded and written up for a court martial. Instead, he was simply discharged and sent home again.

In 1948, he was hired to fly P-51 Mustangs for the Israeli Air Force, but en route to the Middle East, the transport aircraft he was flying crashed at Aeroporto dell’Urbe in Rome, only six days after Israel declared independence. Burned beyond recognition, his body was initially buried in Rome, but moved to Israel in 1950.