His name may not be as well-known today, but during the Second World War, no Canadian was better in the skies than George Frederick Buzz Beurling. Called Canada’s most famous hero of the Second World War, the Knight of Malta and the Falcon of Malta, Beurling had an amazing but short life.
In this episode sponsored by Brock Crocker, I am looking at his life.
On Dec. 6, 1921, Beurling was born in Montreal, the third of five children to Frederick and Hetty Beurling. His father was from Sweden and worked as a commercial artist, while his mother was born in Montreal.
When he was six, Beurling’s father built him a model aircraft, sparking a lifelong fascination with flying. Through his childhood, he would build and sell model aircraft and he would hunt game birds to improve his shooting skills. Beurling would say years later quote:
“I’ve shot since I was 14 years old. First with a 22 and even with a slingshot.”
It was the hope of his parents that Beurling study at McGill and become a commercial artist but Beurling had other plans. He would quit school at the age of 15 and took a job to increase his income so he could begin to train as a pilot.
One year later, he had 150 flying hours and passed his examinations to earn his commercial pilot licence.
In order to increase his experience in the air, he wanted to go to China to join the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. His plan was to head to San Francisco and then go to China where he would work and then sign up for the force. Unfortunately for Beurling, he would be arrested as an immigrant at the border and sent back to Canada.
He would say quote:
“I thought I’d see some good fighting out there. I knew if I got to China, I could get into the Air Force.”
When the Second World War began, Beurling joined the Royal Air Force in September 1940. He had attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force but he was rejected. So, he took a merchant ship across the Atlantic and enlisted in England. He was refused at first because of a lack of documents, so he went back across the Atlantic, got the documents, then came back to England and was accepted.
Beurling demonstrated considerable skill as a pilot, earning the praise of Ginger Lacey who said quote:
“There are not two ways about it. He was a wonderful pilot and an even better shot.”
One pilot would state quote:
“Give Beurling a spit and a German. That’s all the instructions he needs or will ever absorb.”
Beurling was also noted for having exceptional eyesight, allowing him to succeed as a pilot in the air. He would begin to study gunnery, deflection, bullet trail and bullet drop to the point that it was automatic for him to think about in the air. This allowed him to make flying and shooting into one single action in the air.
In December 1941, he was posted with the 403 Squadron, with whom he flew his first combat mission on Dec. 25, 1941. He would remain with the squadron for four months, escorting bombers across the English Channel
Early in 1942, he would down his first German plane over the English Channel but he was reprimanded for attacking the target without permission.
In June 1942, Beurling was posted to Malta where he gained the nickname Screwball, a word he often used when speaking. He would say after the war quote:
“That was a word I used in describing things. You know like, what a screwball this is, and that sort of thing.”
On June 12, while flying a Spitfire, he was flying with three other pilots when they intercepted eight German planes. Beurling with be credited with damaging one of the planes.
From this point, his legend would start to grow as he claimed a series of kills in the air that was unprecedented in the area. On July 6, he would shoot down three German planes, then shot down two more on July 10, making him an official ace.
Over the next 10 days, he would continue his reign of terror in the sky, downing several aircraft, including one altercation that left his plane riddled with more than 20 bullet holes.
On July 22, Beurling’s best friend, Jean Paradis, a French-Canadian pilot, was killed. The next day, he would shoot down a bomber.
On July 27, he had his best day in the air in Malta. He would shoot down four planes.
Soon after, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
His citation would read quote:
“Sergeant Beurling has displayed great skill and courage in the face of the enemy. One day in July 1942, he engaged a number of enemy fighters which were escorting a formation of Junkers 88s and destroyed one fighter. Later during the same day he engaged 10 enemy fighters and shot two of them down into the sea, bringing his total victories to eight.”
On July 30, he became a pilot officer, and on Sept. 4, he earned a bar on his Distinguished Flying Medal. His citation reads quote:
“Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in July 1942, Sergeant Beurling has destroyed a further 9 enemy aircraft, bringing his victories to 17. One of his exploits was the destruction of 4 enemy fighters in one day; during these brief combats he also damaged a further 2 hostile aircraft. His courage and determination are a source of inspiration to all.”
Bedridden with dysentery in August and September 1942, he would only shoot down one plane.
He was back to form on Sept. 25 when he shot down three German fighters. Two weeks later on Oct. 10, while testing a Spitfire, he intercepted two German planes, shooting them both down and bringing his total to 21 planes shot down.
Beurling would say of fighting in the air quote:
“There is no room for stupid softheartedness in this war. The enemy is trying to get you, it is up to you to get him first. Hard and fast.”
On Oct. 16, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation reads quote:
“Pilot Officer George Frederick Beurling Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 249 Squadron. Since being awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Medal, this officer has shot down a further 3 hostile aircraft, bringing his total victories to 20. One day in September 1942, he and another pilot engaged 4 enemy fighters. In the ensuing combat, Pilot Officer Beurling destroyed 2 of them. As a relentless fighter, whose determination and will to win has won the admiration of his colleagues, this officer has set an example in keeping with the highest traditions of the Royal Air Force.”
As a pilot, Beurling disliked teamwork and tended to spend his time alone in the air and on the ground. He didn’t drink or smoke, and spent his time learning the art of aerial combat. His efforts to learn resulted in him becoming proficient in engaging enemy planes at 250 yards or less. He would also gain the nickname of “Buzz” for his habit of flying dangerously close to the ground.
He would say after the war quote:
“I got a reputation for being a wild flier. I’m not a crazy flier. If I were I wouldn’t be alive today. I’ve never scratched an aircraft because of my own error.”
While he was highly skilled, his flying style in the sky also resulted in Beurling being shot down four times while serving in Malta, which did result in hospitalization.
On Oct. 31, 1942, he would be sent back to Britain but on the way, his transport aircraft crashed into the sea off Gibraltar and Beurling was one of only three survivors. By the time he reached Britain, he had recorded 27 kills, the most by any Canadian pilot in the entire war.
Considered a war hero by this point, Beurling was sent back to Canada to help the Victory Loan Program by selling war bonds.
On Nov. 9, he would meet Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and was promoted to Flying Officer. King would write in his diary quote:
“Around 6:30, Pilot Officer Beurling arrived on the East Block. I welcomed him on behalf of the government and thanked him on behalf of the people as well.”
He would say in the public ceremony to welcome Beurling home that Beurling’s parents must be proud of their son. He would add quote:
“The people of Canada have been tremendously impressed with your achievements. We all feel that the splendid training you have received in your home is, no doubt, in large measure responsible for the great deeds you have accomplished overseas.”
The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:
“George Beurling of Montreal, Canada’s ace air fighter of World War Two, who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and who knocks German and Italian fighter planes out of the air like so many pigeons, arrived in Ottawa with his parents last night to receive from Prime Minister Mackenzie King the thanks, the congratulations and the plaudits of the Canadian people.”
In Canada, he had the aura of a modern rock star, having shot down so many Germans in such a short period of time. Many compared him to Billy Bishop, the ace of the First World War. During the tour, he also promoted his book, Malta Spitfire, which became a best seller. In Windsor, street car passengers paid tribute to him by giving way for a parade that was started in his honour. The parade lasted from 6:30 p.m. to 7:40 p.m., stopping all traffic in the east and west bound lanes of the street car.
On Nov. 14, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Order.
His first flight commander, Brand Walker of London, would say of Beurling quote:
“I told him once, he would wind up either with a Victoria Cross or be shot down early in his career because of his unusual tactics. It looks as if it’s the Victoria cross.”
Overall, he was unhappy with working in the war bond campaign. He would comment quote:
“The sooner I get back to Malta, the better. There is good hunting in Malta.”
For the Royal Canadian Air Force his comments about flying and that he enjoyed shooting people down in the air brought embarrassment to the organization.
He would say after the war quote:
“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 another interview he stated quote:
“It is strictly fun for me. There seemed to be more action available in Malta so I volunteered for there. I like to knock them down and the only question that ever flashes across my mind is whether they’ll be blown up or fried.”
Those he grew up with, and even family members, began to say he had grown an ego and that was why he didn’t like being around groups of people. He would address this in 1948, stating quote:
“They say I got swelled-headed and I don’t think I did. All I wanted to do was to get away from those crowds and get back on operations. I had a lot more combat hours to get in.”
On May 27, 1943, Beurling returned to England where he was posted to the Central Gunnery School.
On Sept. 1, 1943, he transferred from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Canadian Air Force. Later that month, he shot down another German plane.
The Edmonton Journal wrote quote:
“Canadians generally, we think, will be pleased that Flying Officer George Beurling has been able to secure a transfer from the RAF to the RCAF. This great Canadian dead-shot air fighter will feel more at home among Canadians than he has in RAF squadrons, and certainly he should be granted his dearest desire to get back into the air again.”
Beurling wanted to fly deep penetration, free-roaming raids into Germany but this was refused by his superiors, who were becoming increasingly annoyed with his antics in the air. When he took part in a stunt over low on the ground at an airfield, he was threatened with a court martial, despite just becoming a flight lieutenant.
In April 1944, Beurling returned to Canada and was given an honorable discharge. He ended his flying career with 31 official kills in the air, nine claimed damaged and three medals.
In August 1944, he would travel to the United States in order to get American citizenship, stating it was always a dream of his to do so.
He would also barnstorm around Canada and took some bush flying work but he felt lost not being in combat, stating that it was the only thing he ever did well, or liked.
In an interview with Macleans that was published on May 15, 1948, it says quote:
“When Beurling talks of air combat, his tanned boyish face glows with happy recollection and present excitement. He remembers every detail of every flight in the air, the date, the hour, the altitude, the direction he was flying, and best of all, the deflection he gave the shots that batted the enemy down.”
Beurling would say of his time in Malta quote:
“I would give 10 years of my life to live over those six months I had in Malta in 1942.”
In 1948, Beurling was recruited to fly Mustangs for the Israeli Air Force. When asked of why he would go overseas to fight he said quote:
“I know it may sound hard. I will drop bombs or fire guns for anyone who will pay me.”
He would add that the only country he wouldn’t fly for would be the Russians, stating he did not like the Russians.
It seemed to be the sheer love of flying that motivated Beurling, rather than money. He would say in the Maclean’s interview quote:
“I’ve been flying since I was 14. I started flying near Montreal. I will always fly. I am always thinking of angles of fire. Even when I walk down the street I look at the angle at which telephone wires cross the line of the building. I calculate angles as I walk along and sometimes stop and go back to check an angle. The way pianists can enjoy music by hearing a note in their heads, that is the way I am about angles.”
Five days after the article was released, on May 20, 1948, he would die in a fatal crash of his transport aircraft. He was on his way to Palestine, leaving from Rome, to fight once again in the air. This was his tenth crash. It appeared his luck had finally run out. Many questioned how he died after so many close calls and surviving the Second World War. There was a rumour that the British Secret Service had him killed because he was seen as a dangerous pilot but this is pretty unfounded.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“Beurling, who flashed to fame through hostile wartime skies and who asked little of life but action and adventure, was known to have been on his way to the Middle East to take part in the present fighting between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine.”
Many didn’t realize he had even left, and were surprised to hear he had died. His father said quote:
“I’m afraid it is. My son told me some time ago he was heading that way.”
Andy O’Brien from the Montreal Standard saw him three weeks earlier. He said quote:
“He said then he was going to Palestine to fight for the Jews. I haven’t any doubt it is him.”
Canada’s Minister of Defense, Brooke Claxton, would say he would quote:
“Always stand high among those who served Canada in a great force.”
His friend, the son of Billy Bishop and a pilot himself, Arthur Bishop, stated quote:
“He was something to see in action. I can’t praise his ability enough. I’m surprised he died in a plane crash.”
His funeral was held in Rome but his family was not able to attend. His coffin then sat for three months in a warehouse before his wife was able to claim the body.
Finally, in November 1950, his coffin, draped in the blue and white Israeli flag, was laid to rest at a nearby air force base as an honour guard marched. He would eventually be re-interred at a military cemetery.
Today, a high school is named for him in Ontario. In 1974, he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.
I’ll end this episode with what the Montreal Gazette said of him on his death quote:
“The cool-eyed blond Beurling was an unorthodox type from the start and was described by persons who didn’t understand him as a show-off. This show-off though had read flying exploits and aerial tactics when his schoolmates were reading boyish adventure tales. When he did get into the air, he had confidence in the knowledge of his perfection as pilot and marksman. He never had any doubts about the ability of Buzz Beurling.”
Information from Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, Canadian Veterans Hall of Valour, Winnipeg Sun, Wikipedia, Macleans, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Victoria Times Colonist, Montreal Star, Kingston British Whig Standard, Montreal Standard