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George Beurling

George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling DSO, DFC, DFM & Bar, RCAF (6 December 192120 May 1948), was the most successful Canadian fighter pilot of the Second World War.

Beurling's wartime service was terminated prior to war's end; in an attempt to continue combat flying in the postwar era, he lost his life in a crash en route to delivering an aircraft to Israel.

Early life

Born in Verdun (now part of Montreal), Quebec, Beurling first took the controls of an aircraft in 1933 and was flying solo by 1938. He left school to work for an air freight company out of Gravenhurst, Ontario and soon gained a commercial license. He had intended to go to China, but was imprisoned for a few months for illegally crossing the border into the United States in an attempt to join the Flying Tigers.

Second World War

With the outbreak of war, Beurling tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his lack of academic qualifications led to his rejection. He then tried to join the Finnish Air Force (who were fighting the Soviets in the Winter War) but was thwarted when he could not get his parents' permission. Instead, Beurling sailed across the Atlantic on a convoy, landing in Glasgow, intending to enlist in the Royal Air Force. Unfortunately, he had forgotten his birth certificate and had to return to Canada to get it, but after surviving the return trip, the RAF accepted him as a pilot.

RAF service

Beurling demonstrated considerable skill in training but turned down a commission and was posted as an NCO, a Sergeant Pilot, to 403 Squadron and, in 1942, to 41 Squadron where he had his first certain combat success. On several occasions, Beurling was reprimanded for attacking targets without permission, and thus was unpopular with his superiors. He then volunteered for a posting to Malta and 249 Squadron.

Malta

By 6 July 1942, Beurling had three confirmed victories, shortly after, raising his total to five to make him an official ace. A teetotaler and non-smoker, Beurling dedicated himself totally to the art of aerial combat. Through relentless concentration he developed a marked skill at deflection shooting and together with his "situational awareness," was soon recognized as a deadly combat pilot. Like many successful Spitfire pilots, Beurling developed the habit of only engaging enemy aircraft at 250 yards or less — a range at which many other pilots would be breaking away. His nickname on Malta was "Screwball," an expletive he had a habit of using. Beurling tended to be a loner on the ground and in the air – angering his commanders with his disdain for teamwork.

On 27 July, Beurling shot down the famous Italian ace Capt. Furio Niclot Doglio of 20 Gruppo, Serg Gelli of 150 Gruppo and two German fighters, one of which was the "five-kill" ace Lieutenant Preu of JG 53. For this day's work he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal; having reached eight victories. At the end of July, he was promoted to Pilot Officer and won a bar to his DFM with 17 confirmed kills. The enervation of daily combat combined with the effects of the poor rations and dysentery were telling. Beurling was bedridden for much of August and September, gaining only 1½ victories in August. On 8 August, he was shot down and crashed in a field, initially knocked out by the impact but revived, seemingly uninjured, to hitch hike back to Takali Field (correctly named ta' Qali, but then known as Takali).

In September, Beurling had another of his successful days, downing three German fighters, a feat he repeated in October. He was awarded the DFC for these exploits. On his last flight over Malta he led a flight of eight Spitfire Vs against over 60 German aircraft. He shot down a bomber and a fighter, but was wounded twice. While engaging a third aircraft, Beurling's Spitfire was badly damaged and he spun down out of control, only just managing to bail out. He was rescued from the sea and hospitalized. He received a DSO and was sent back to Britain. On the way, his transport aircraft crashed into the sea off Gibraltar and only Beurling and two others survived. Over Malta, he had claimed over 27 kills, by far the highest total by an RAF pilot during the campaign.

Home

After landing back in England, he was then sent to Canada to join a Victory Loan Drive, selling war bonds, becoming the guest of honour at a parade in Verdun and meeting Prime Minister Mackenzie King. He did not enjoy the war bond campaign. The leg wound Beurling had received over Malta, combined with his poor general health, returned him to hospital for several weeks. He completed his promotional work in mid-1943 and also met his future wife, Diana Whittall in Vancouver.

Back to combat flying

Returning to England, Beurling was posted as a gunnery instructor to 61 OTU. In September 1943, he transferred to the RCAF and was posted to an operational squadron, 403 at Kenley, flying the new Spitfire IX. Shooting down a Fw 190 of JG 2 in September, but unhappy with flying sweeps, Beurling requested command of a flight of Mustangs in order to carry out deep penetration, free-roaming raids into Germany. His request was turned down.

Disciplinary problems annoyed his commander but he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant. However, his stunting of a Tiger Moth at zero feet over his airfield eventually led to his wing commander, W/C Hugh Godefroy DFC, threatening him with a court martial; subsequently, Beurling was transferred to 126 Wing HQ and then to 412 Squadron RCAF.

At 412 Squadron, he again came into conflict with his commander for stunting and his lack of teamwork, leading to his eventually grounding. He claimed his last kill on 30 December, shooting down a Fw 190 of JG 26.

The end of a career

Beurling returned to Canada in April 1944 where he was given an honourable discharge in October. Despite an attempt to join the USAAF, his wartime flying was over; he ended his career with 31 and one shared confirmed kills, nine claimed damaged, along with a DSO, DFC and a DFM and bar.

Beurling's marriage ended in 1944, and, in 1948, he was invited to fly P-51s for the Israeli Air Force. En route, while landing at Urbe Airport in Rome, Beurling fatally crashed his Norseman transport aircraft. Suspicion at the time of the accident centred on possible sabotage which never was proven. George Beurling was buried in Rome (and conferred the rank of Colonel by the Italians, despite his never having advanced beyond Flight Lieutenant in actual career), but, in 1950, re-interred at Mount Carmel, Israel with full military honours.

Malta Spitfire, an account of his time in Malta, co-written by Leslie Roberts and Beurling, was not published until after his death.

A street is named after George Beurling in his hometown of Verdun, Quebec, Canada. Beurling Academy, a high school in the Lester B. Pearson School Board in Verdun, is also named after him.

According to Group Captain "Laddie" Lucas, Beurling was "untidy, with a shock of fair tousled hair above penetrating blue eyes. He smiled a lot (sic) and the smile came straight out of those striking eyes... he was highly strung, brash and outspoken... something of a rebel".

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • Beurling, George and Roberts, Leslie. Malta Spitfire: The Buzz Beurling Story. London: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-301237-1.
  • Nolan, Brian. Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story. London: Penguin Books, 1981. ISBN 0-14-006266-1.
  • Shores, Christopher and Williams, Clive. Aces High. London: Grub Street, 1994. ISBN 1-898697-00-0.
  • Oswald, Mary. They Led the Way: Members of Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. Wetaskiwin, Alberta: Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame, 1999. ISBN 0-9684843-0-1.

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