Whenever I watch the 1984 movie Top Gun and see Tom Cruise in his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, I think of Canadian World War II fighter ace George “Buzz” Beurling. Why? Because these two pilots were very good at their craft as well as confidant rebels.
Buzz Beurling had another nickname. “Screwball.” Beurling was a committed Christian who didn’t drink, smoke, or swear. But that didn’t stop him from being a troublemaker in the eyes of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was rude and full of himself, a true mercenary, and a loner who didn’t take well to orders from superiors. He hated the stiff formation flying forced on him. He’d rather go off on his own and engage the enemy in his Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered Supermarine Spitfire.
Beurling was an instinctive pilot, and a master at deflection shooting, where a pilot fires ahead of his prey just at the right moment and the proper angle, eventually catching the prey with a deluge of potent shells. In the space of just a few months in mid-1942, while stationed with an RAF fighter squadron on the Mediterranean island of Malta, Beurling shot down over two dozen Axis aircraft, earning him such honors as “The Falcon of Malta” and “The Knight of Malta.” He is still talked about in Malta today, where he’s a folk hero.
Beurling didn’t need tracers for his aiming like many other fighter pilots did, this info confirmed in 1983 by Cecil Mann from Ancaster, Ontario, a ground crew explosives expert stationed on the same British airdrome as Beurling’s squadron. “Most pilots would use a ratio of armor-piercing, tracer, two standard bullets, armor piercing and a tracer,” Mann said to me. “Some preferred explosives. Beurling wanted nothing but armor-piercing, standard and explosives--no tracers. He always said, ‘I don’t need tracers. I know where I’m shooting. Just give me enough to do the job.’” A good portion of Beurling’s kills were as close as 250 yards away. Sometimes less. And he liked to use short, hard bursts.
George “Buzz” Beurling came into this world on 6 December 1921 in Verdun, Quebec. He had a strict upbringing. His parents wanted him to go to university and study medicine. He took another route by dropping out of high school and taking up flying. He obtained his commercial license in 1938, then flew for an air freight company based in Gravenhurst, Ontario. When World War II broke out in 1939, Beurling approached the RCAF, but was turned down due to his lack of education. Then he tried to join the Finnish Air Force (who were fighting the Russians), but couldn’t obtain his parents’ permission. Next, he sailed across the Atlantic in 1940 to enlist with the Royal Air Force. Trouble was, he had forgotten his birth certificate back home in Quebec. So, he returned to England a few weeks later and was taken right away by the RAF, where he went through extensive training.
Beurling worked on being the best fighter pilot who ever lived. Blessed with keen eyesight and excellent estimation of range, he worked hard until everything seemed to become second-nature to him. He and his Spitfire became one. As Sergeant Pilot George Beurling, his first posting was to RCAF 403 Squadron in Essex. With them, he flew his first operation on Christmas Day 1941. He remained with the squadron for four months, flying fighter sweeps and escorting bombers across the Channel. No real action to speak of, however. He was then sent to RAF 41 Squadron based in Sussex.
Flying “Tail-End Charlie” on his fourth operation with 41 Squadron, he broke formation to shoot down a lone German FW 190 over France. For such action, he quickly became unpopular with his superiors and his squadron pilots. After his short stint in England, Beurling applied for a posting outside the British Isles, where he thought his talents would be more appreciated and accepted. On the other hand, his superiors found this the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. Taken by RAF 249 Squadron on the besieged island of Malta, Beurling arrived in his Spitfire on 9 June 1942, after having taking off from the deck of HMS Eagle and flying 600 miles to the island.
On 12 June, his first time out in his Spitfire, in a formation of four, he was credited with a damaged German Bf 109. On 6 July, he shot down three Italian aircraft. Four days later he became a Malta ace by shooting down his fifth enemy machine. Four more kills came on 27 July. By 30 July, his tally rose to 17. For most of August and September, the effects of daily combat flying plus the poor rations, the heat and dysentery (which the pilots called “The Dog”) led to Beurling--newly commissioned as a pilot officer--being bed ridden. He had lost almost 50 pounds. When he returned to combat, he never let up. More kills.
After shot up badly on 14 October 1942, he was forced down over the water, where he pancaked his Spitfire, then was rescued in the dinghy he had managed to pull out before his fighter sank. With 27 Malta kills to his credit (the highest by any RAF pilot on the island), his time in Malta was over, his reputation established. On Halloween 1942, in route to England, his B-24 Liberator transport hit a fierce thunderstorm and crashed in the water off Gibraltar when the pilot missed the runway. One of only three survivors, Beurling swam the 160 yards to shore.
Later landing in Britain, he was then sent to Canada to help in the war effort by selling war bonds. But he was a poor speaker and he hated everything about the tour, except signing autographs for his female admirers. Promoted to Flying Officer on 30 January 1943, he continued his promotional tour of the country, most of the time embarrassing the RCAF by telling the shocked crowds that he enjoyed killing enemy pilots, especially blowing their heads off. His off-the-wall “screwball” behavior may have been the result of battle fatigue. Or he could have said such graphic things just to get off the tour. What he actually really needed was a good, long rest.
Returning to Britain in late-May as an RAF gunnery instructor, he was then transferred to the RCAF on 1 September, and posted to his original operational squadron at 403. The next day, he shot down an Fw 190. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant within a few weeks, Beurling stunt-flew a Tiger Moth at zero altitude over his airfield. Instead of court-martialing Beurling, the base commanding officer sent the pilot to 126 Wing Headquarters who in turn sent him off to 412 Squadron, where the earlier-mentioned Cecil Mann, ground crew with 401 Squadron, came in contact with him.
The undisciplined Beurling, up to his old tricks, drove his new commander crazy by refusing to fly in formation and engaging in even more stunt work. His final World War II kill came on 30 December 1943, when he shot down an Fw 190, while flying escort for a flight of American bombers. According to Cecil Mann, he remembered Beurling performing a “victory roll” for all to see over the base after one particular kill, his last in the war. By now the RCAF (and the RAF before him) had enough of their “lone wolf” and canned him for good.
By the time the RCAF had returned Beurling to Canada in April 1944 with an honorable discharge, a year before the war ended, he had been given the rank of Squadron Leader and decorated with a DSO, DFC, and DFM and Bar, and had shot down 31 and one-third aircraft, the highest total of all Canadian pilots. He also damaged nine other aircraft. (The one-third of a kill meant it was unconfirmed--an aircraft that two other pilots may have shot down.) Throughout the war, he had survived nine air crashes, including his four times shot down over Malta.
Beurling found civilian life too boring and couldn’t wait to get back to combat. Anywhere around the world. When he was recruited by the Israelis--during their fight for independence in 1948--to fly P-51 Mustangs, Beurling jumped at the chance. But the Norseman transport plane he was flying crashed en route upon landing near Rome. Sabotage was suspected, but never proven.
George “Buzz” Beurling was laid to rest as a local hero in the military cemetery at the foot of Mount Carmel in northern Israel. He’s a hero here in Canada, too, although a lot of people, I find, have never heard of him. What a shame.