For almost two years, from late 1940 to late 1942, the island of Malta was mercilessly besieged by the Axis air forces of Italy and Germany. Although no RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) squadrons served here during the siege, at least twenty-five percent of Malta’s RAF (Royal Air Force) defenders at any one time were Canadians. Among these were some of Canada’s greatest and most successful air fighters of WWII.
But a brash twenty-year-old from Verdun, a working-class neighborhood of Montreal, Quebec, proved to be the most successful - and most colorful - of all Canadian pilots who gained the status of ace over Malta or in any other air battles of the Second World War.
As a child of nine, George Beurling was an airport "rat", trading chores for rides with local pilots. He began to play hooky from school to indulge his passion for airplanes and flying, and endured the spankings, both at school and at home, which were the inevitable results. He was obsessed with flying. He made model airplanes and sold them for money to take flying lessons. He read every book about the World War I aces he could get his hands on, and amazed his father with his knowledge of the tactics, which had made them successful.
In 1938, at age sixteen, he had soloed. Anxious to get his wings, he got a bush-flying job in northern Ontario where he finally got his certificate. George was obsessed with a burning ambition to become a fighter pilot. At the first possible moment, he headed west to Vancouver to obtain his commercial license, and then, he hoped, to China, to fly in the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese.
On his way to the west coast, he heard of a flying competition in Edmonton. George couldn't’t resist, and for the first time, his extraordinary flying skills became publicly apparent. Having won the competition handily, defeating two RCAF pilots in the process, during his victory speech he showed his brash personality by berating the Air Force for their loss in the contest. According to him, it was this incident which later poisoned his chances of success in the RCAF.
While in the west, George spent some time observing pilots who were barnstorming on the prairies just before the war, and from them probably learned some of the combat flying techniques which later made him a phenomenon. By this time, Beurling probably knew more about combat flying than any Canadian alive.
When war was declared, George attempted to join the RCAF but, as he had not yet finished high school, he did not qualify. Displaying characteristic determination, he made the perilous north Atlantic crossing to join the RAF. When refused because he couldn't’t prove his age, he promptly made the perilous return crossing to Canada to pick up his birth certificate, and then sailed back to England. His perseverance paid off.
In the RAF, he quickly achieved a reputation as a loner who had no ambition for promotion, no respect for military discipline, and who antagonized superiors with ease. Having proven his skill in early combat flying over France, he volunteered for duty on the island of Malta, which was under heavy and constant siege by the Germans and Italians. His squadron commander was more than willing to see him go.
Malta was made for George. In fact, flying Supermarine Mk V Spitfires over the island, he could practice his art singly, often attacking large groups of enemy aircraft without a wing man. His unique combination of incredible eyesight, fantastic marksmanship, superb flying, and pure luck quickly added up to astounding success. Victories mounted. His fame increased. He was affectionately dubbed "Screwball" and rather liked the nickname. In the popular press, he acquired the sobriquets "Falcon of Malta" and "Savior of Malta". He was even finally forced to accept an officer’s commission because the RAF did not want to continue having to explain to reporters why the reigning ace of Malta was still only a sergeant. He was front-page in every Allied country!
But all was not well with George. He was ill with what was simply called the "Malta Dog", caused by exceedingly poor diet suffered by all on the island. And the stress of standing constant readiness in the hot summer sun was taking its inevitable toll. He had lost fifty pounds since arriving in Malta and spent some time on his back, unable to fly.
It was in a very weakened condition that George’s luck ran dry on Oct. 14, 1942 in the busy skies over Malta. One of my Beurling paintings, FOX IN THE HENHOUSE depicts his last sortie over Malta. As usual, against great odds, Buzz dove down on the tail of several Me 109’s, passing close enough to one of his three victories of the sortie, a JU 88 he sent down in flames, to see the face of the gunner peppering his Spit.
Buzz Beurling Portrait by Rich Thistle ©
Shortly afterward, nursing two wounds and his well-holed Spitfire, a time when other pilots might have headed for home, he attacked another ME-109 which he instantly splashed for his third victory of the sortie. But in doing so, he drew the attention of several other German fighters and was caught from behind in a hail of enemy fire. His bird mortally wounded and his body absorbing more of the hot metal flying around his cockpit, George was barely able to escape with his life. Plucked from the jaws of death by a rescue launch, George’s Malta days were finished. He had survived by the narrowest of margins. On his flight back to England, the Liberator bomber in which he was a passenger crashed into the sea killing fifteen. George, encumbered by a heavy cast on his wounded foot, was just able to swim to shore.
Partly recuperated, Beurling was sent home to Canada to become a focus of the war bond and recruitment effort. However, he found his public relations tour selling Victory Bonds across Canada to his personal distaste, a fact which he failed to hide successfully. Soon, to his intense relief, he was sent back to England. However, the RAF, unwilling to risk the loss of such a public figure, refused to post him to an operational squadron. In desperation, he applied to the RCAF. Quickly grasping the chance to get the now-famous Beurling into a Canadian uniform, the RCAF posted him to 403 Squadron (RCAF) for duty over France where he shot down his last two aircraft, both Folke-Wulf FW-190’s.
However, Beurling continued to be his own worst enemy. His outrageous personal behavior continued. Continuing to refuse to submit to squadron discipline, he was finally -and quietly- sent home to Canada and granted an honorable discharge. Although he finished the war in the RCAF as Canada’s top ace with thirty-three victories, he was removed from the air war just as the allies could have used his skills in the final push into Germany which was to begin on D-Day.
Nonetheless, George was still to be the only Allied pilot to have achieved top ace standing in his particular air battle. In all other air battles, Axis pilots, who generally served continuously -either until the battle was over or until they died- scored highest ace standing. But, in a country tired of war and of war heroes, George was unable to adjust to life in peacetime. He could not get work. His marriage had ended in failure.
In 1948, desperate to return to the only real life he knew, George decided to join the Israeli Air Force, against the advice of his mates. George Beurling, holder of the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Medal, and Canada’s ranking ace of World War II, died searching for another war when the Norseman he was piloting to Israel burst into flames and crashed on landing at the Rome airport. There is a widely held theory that his aircraft was sabotaged by the Arabs who were made aware of his enlistment with the Israeli Air force by the press coverage he was given.
Furthermore, his final chapter ended with a sad but somehow very Canadian twist. Financially incapable of bearing the cost of his return to Canada, his family was unable to claim Beurling's earthly remains, which lay ignominiously for a time in a coffin in a Rome warehouse, and then were buried in a Rome cemetery. The Canadian federal Liberal government of the day, which had used his celebrity status to raise war bond money, expressed condolences to the family, but would not finance the return of the Canadian war hero they had helped to create. Thus did Canada treat this fallen hero.
Eventually, the Israelis interred the Canadian ace in the Protestant section of the military cemetery in Haifa with full military honours, presided over by an Anglican Priest and Jewish Chaplain. As all graves in this cemetery are identical, all buried here are treated with equal and considerable respect.
Attending the funeral were members of parliament, ranking officers of the Israeli Defence Force, The mayor of Haifa and other dignitaries, including the British consul and the British military attaché. The Canadian Ex-Serviceman's League and the Jewish community of Canada sent eulogies.
- Photos of Buzz Beurling's grave in the Haifa Military Cemetary and details of the internment ceremony courtesy of Laurence Schneider.
- Visit the Israeli Air Force site to read an interesting article about Buzz, his reasons for joining the Jewish cause, an interview with his brother and the high regard in which he is held by the Israelis.
An editied version of this article by Rich Thistle was published in the American magazine AVIATION HISTORY in the 'Art of Flight' section, Nov. 1997 issue. FOX IN THE HENHOUSE
FALCON OF MALTA
- original painting available in catalog
- limited edition fine-art print available in catalog
GEORGE "BUZZ" BEURLING
- original painting available in catalog
- limited edition fine-art print available in catalog
- original drawing available in catalog