Published on June 10, 2012
RAF/RCAF pilot George “Buzz” Beurling was already an experienced pilot when he arrived in Malta on the eve of the opening of the battle for the island. He had come under a bit of a cloud, having disobeyed orders in flight over France when he had deserted his formation to attack an enemy aircraft, which he had shot down. Despite his victory, he was condemned by the squadron commander as not being a “team player” and thus, he volunteered for a posting outside of England to avoid punishment and further issues. He was soon sent to Malta, where he arrived on June 9, 1942, to serve with RAF No. 249 Squadron flying the Supermarine Spitfire VC.
On June 10, 1942, exactly 70 years ago, the Seige of Malta began. With little warning, the Axis Powers of Italy and Germany commenced an intensive air campaign against the island. Over the next two months of fighting, George Beurling would rise to become the unrivaled star among the pilots defending Malta. He flew out of Takali Air Base, which was bombed heavily throughout the battle. Further, the island was isolated and poorly supplied — civilians and military alike were living on starvation rations. Yet for Beurling, his Malta posting was a dream come true — the ideal opportunity to hunt enemy airplanes.
In just two months of fighting over Malta, he would become the leading ace in the Royal Canadian Air Force and become the highest scoring ace of the defensive campaign. During July 1942, in a single 14-day period, he set a record by destroying 27 German and Italian aircraft, damaging eight others and scoring three probable kills. Among those shot down during this period would be Italian Reggiane Re.2001s, Cant Z1007bis and Macchi MC.202s as well as several German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. That record of “kills” in air combat in such a short time is nearly unequaled in the entire history of fighter warfare (only German ace Werner Voss of World War I comes to mind).
Beurling’s Tactics and Methods
George Beurling’s tactics were elegant in their simplicity — he would engage the enemy without hesitation, instantly seeking extreme advantage. Once engaged, he would maneuver his aircraft to within as little as 250 feet from his target. To achieve this, he was known to throw the plane around the sky with violent maneuvers, doing whatever it took to get on the enemy’s tail. Then, typically using a deflection shot, he would “walk the gun sight” across the target’s line of flight and fire a relatively short burst with his guns (usually less than two seconds). His ability at aiming deflection shots was excellent (while most other pilots just spoke of getting hits on the airplane, Beurling would talk of aiming for the enemy’s oxygen bottles or fuel tanks). By maneuvering in so close, he set up his target so that it was hard to miss.
The secret of his success was in his flying — and few could fly like Beurling in combat.
As deadly as he was on offense, he was equally slippery in defense. When attacked from behind, rather than attempting to turn into the enemy and engage in a protracted dogfight, Beurling’s principles were to simply throw the plane into a violent accelerated stall and spin out of the fight so as to make good an escape. He knew that he would fly again an hour or two later and encounter more of the enemy; if anything, the air campaign over Malta was intense and unceasing. Beurling always sought and frequently established clear positional advantage before committing to a fight, allowing him to frequently attack enemy formations of much larger size. Undeterred, he would press his attack with supreme confidence in his abilities. It was during these attacks when he was sometimes shot down himself — which happened several times as he pressed his Spitfire into the fray against a numerically superior enemy force.
Beurling’s combat spirit is best summed up in the award of his Distinguished Service Order medal, which described, among other engagements, his final mission over Malta, in which he unhesitatingly lead eight Spitfires against an enemy formation of eight Junkers Ju-88s and 50 fighters:
Pilot Officer George Frederick BEURLING, D.F.C., D.F.M. (128707), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 249 Squadron. Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Pilot Officer Beurling has destroyed a further six enemy aircraft, bringing his total victories to 28. During one sortie on 13th October, 1942, he shot down a Junkers 88 and two Messerschmitt 109’s. The following day, in a head-on attack on enemy bombers, he destroyed one of them before he observed his leader being attacked by an enemy fighter. Although wounded Pilot Officer Beurling destroyed the fighter. Then climbing again, although his aircraft was hit by enemy fire, he shot down another fighter before his own aircraft was so damaged that he was forced to abandon it. He descended safely on to the sea and was rescued. This officer’s skill and daring are unexcelled.
What is missing from the award is the fact that Beurling had been trapped in the burning Spitfire as it had spun down from 18,000 feet. Finally crawling out onto the wing at 2,000 feet, he was able to leap clear at what he estimated to be just 1,000 feet. He opened his parachute at 500 feet and shortly afterward, hit the water. Floating in his Mae West, he was still bleeding profusely from his wounds when he was picked up by a launch from the island of Malta.
Badly wounded and with a spreading infection from an explosive shell that had “nicked” his heel, he was ordered to be sent back to England for recovery. Even then, his trip back on a transport plane would be eventful — it crashed in bad weather at Gibraltar when the pilot overshot the runaway, attempted to go around and pancaked into the Mediterranean. Of the nearly two dozen on board, only Beurling and two others would survive. Beurling later wrote that he had recognized the impending stall and crash and so threw open the escape hatch. He leapt out of the plane just as it struck the water. He swam the distance to shore despite his combat injuries and new injuries from the crash itself.
Beurling’s Personality and Hatred of the Nazis
Many of his contemporaries would call Beurling a cold-blooded killer, a moniker that is perhaps a compliment when in war. A later reviewer (a USAF officer) noted that in terms of his personality profile, Beurling appeared to be “more accurately a frustrated, desperate man whose hatred for the enemy is reflected throughout the book in his vitriolic, disparaging remarks about the Germans.”
Beurling’s hatred of the enemy also drove an unpredictability and explosiveness in his personality. This often got him in trouble with senior officers. He was rude, often intentionally misbehaving while counting his record in combat to insulate himself from significant punishment. He was never a team player, but rather sought out the enemy in a lone hunt whenever possible. The RAF’s and later RCAF’s difficulty of dealing with the hardened Beurling even manifested itself during his war bond tour while recovering from his injuries. Standing in front of the adoring crowds, he insisted on telling the crowds how much he loved killing the enemy. He enjoyed detailing the circumstances.
In one recorded interview on Canadian radio during this time, he described the circumstances of one kill with extreme graphic terms (do not read if of a feint heart — but remember, this is a time of war and warriors have but one goal, to kill and defeat the enemy). He stated:
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 port side 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 fuselage. I must say it gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you actually blow their brains out.
Finally, unrepentant and continuously in trouble with his superior officers, he was forced into retirement from the RCAF in October 1944 (well before the end of the war).
Beurling’s Retirement Considered
With 32 victories to his credit, Canada’s greatest fighter pilot was retired from combat by men who were perhaps better suited to flying desks than fighter planes — their reasoning was that he was too unpredictable and refused to obey orders. In one event from earlier in his career that illustrates his undisciplined side, Beurling had been flying “tail end Charlie” at the back of a formation of Spitfires. Scanning the skies, he spotted a lone German Focke Wulf fighter in the distance. Knowing that if he called it out to the squadron that the leaders would take the kill, Beurling broke formation, closed on the enemy, shot the aircraft down and then returned to his position in the flight. None of his fellow squadron mates noticed his temporary departure from the formation. On returning to their base, the squadron reported no action for the day, but then Beurling stated that he had shot down an FW-190.
The other pilots were incredulous. Clearly, he was lying — there hadn’t been a single enemy plane sighted, let alone engaged. Nonetheless, the intelligence officers developed his gun camera footage and were able to verify that indeed he had shot down the enemy plane. Despite his victory, he was still reprimanded for not being a “team player,” which instead simply prompted him to ask if he could be issued an American-made P-51 Mustang and given the mission of flying alone over enemy territory to hunt Luftwaffe aircraft. He was summarily turned down.
His unmanageable behavior continued into 1944 as he struggled with the RCAF to be posted to combat positions, but his goal was always the same — he wanted to get into combat and kill the enemy. Thus, his forced retirement was a personal blow. Beurling was a man who was driven to achieve one thing, to kill the enemy in air combat.
Undeterred, he drove south and tried to sign up with the US Army Air Forces in hopes of returning to combat over Europe. By then, however, the war was too far advanced and the need for additional pilots was much less than it had been even just a year earlier. Further, he was still in moderately poor health due to his numerous combat injuries. This counted against him in the review and he was rejected. With no other options, he returned to Canada to enter civilian life. Six months later, the war in Europe ended. A few months after that, in August, the war against Japan finally came to a close.
Beurling faced a difficult adjustment to civilian life and peace. He had survived a terrible ordeal in combat, having been involved in no less than nine air crashes and surviving — he was shot down four times over Malta alone that eventful summer. Further, he had been unable to participate in the bulk of the combats in August due to starvation-induced illness and combat injuries — the privations of war weighed heavily on him. He was unforgiving of all around him and his hatred of the Germans continued to burn. During the war, he had lost his best friend, French-Canadian pilot Jean Paradis, and many other colleagues in combat. Perhaps in one of today’s military forces, he would be recognized as having a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, but at that time, he was simply retired from military service and sent home to start a new life in peacetime.
Soon afterward, his wartime marriage to Diana Whittal Gardner disintegrated. His personal relationships were strained and his family wanted nothing to do with him.
Beurling’s Last Flight
Finally, got his chance to get back into combat. In 1948, he volunteered to fly P-51D Mustangs for the new Israeli Air Force. He signed on a quickly traveled to Europe, where he met with another volunteer pilot, Moshe Cohen, who was another veteran of the battle over Malta during Beurling’s time. The two set about smuggling a Noorduyn Norseman cargo plane to Israel as part of their new duties the newly formed IAF. At Rome’s Aeroporto dell’Urbe, the plane’s engines inexplicably failed just after take-off. Trying to make it back to the runway, they crashed short and the fully fueled airplane exploded into a fireball. At the time, many thought it was sabotage, although the cause was never firmly established as the aircraft (and the pilots) were burned beyond recognition.
The Italian military honored him with a proper military funeral fit for a hero, even if he had fought for the opposing side during the Malta campaign. He was so estranged that his family and widow failed to show up or even claim his body. Beurling’s remains were stored for three months in a cemetery warehouse before finally his widow ordered that he be buried there. Two years later, Israel claimed Beurling’s body as its way of honoring his sacrifice and volunteer service to the IAF for which he, like many of the volunteer foreign pilots who helped establish the IAF, had paid the ultimate price. With full military honors and a parade through the streets of Haifa, George Beurling’s body was laid to rest in a military cemetery at the foot of Mount Carmel with Israeli Air Force aircraft flying overhead in a salute while an honor guard stood vigil.
Although for most Canadians his history and contributions to the RCAF are unknown, Beurling’s 1943 book, Malta Spitfire, has gone through several printings and remains an extraordinary read. His writing captures his battle-hardened hatred of the enemy and the challenges of the defense of Malta. Indeed, based on his book, there is little doubt that his hatred for the Nazis was intense, undimmed and the driving force behind his combat technique.
Today, one wonders if the RCAF would “weed out” a modern-day equivalent of George Beurling. Most likely it would, as would the other air forces of the modern era. Those who were then the best of the best would today likely be eschewed in favor of those who could be counted on as safe, reliable, predictable and disciplined. One wonders just what has been lost along the way and whether modern combat pilots, the Top Guns of today, still quietly study to learn a thing or two from the likes of Beurling. If not, then it would seem that the desk-jockeys may well have won the final battle of what it means to be a fighter pilot.