“Screwball” Beurling: The Falcon of Malta

George Beurling turned into a stone-cold killer in the cockpit of a Spitfire, becoming Canada’s highest-scoring ace of World War II .

In a few short weeks he downed 27 Axis aircraft. A deeply religious, nonsmoking teetotaler who eschewed profanity and possessed little more than a grade school education, George Beurling was obsessed with flying and shooting and confessed to love to partner his passions. Canada’s most visible war hero in 1943 ruined his fundraising war bond tour by telling a reporter, “One of my can shells caught him in the face and blew his head right off….I must say it gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you actually blow their brains out.” 

The public knew him as “Buzz” Beurling, but his fellow airmen called him “Screwball.” He first took the controls of an airplane at 12, soloed at 14 and was licensed by 17. “Ever since I can remember,” he later wrote, “airplanes and to get up in them into the free sky had been the beginning and end of my thoughts and ambitions.”

In 1938 Beurling tried to get to China to join the air war over Manchuria. With Canada’s entry into World War II he sought to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), but was rejected because of his lack of education. Desperate to experience aerial combat, he crewed on a freighter to England. Finally, in September 1940, Beurling was accepted by the Royal Air Force (RAF). A year later, on September 9, 1941, he qualified as a pilot and earned his wings. In May of the following year he scored his first two victories, flying a Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vb against Focke-Wulf Fw-190As.

Beurling shows off souvenirs from one of his Malta victories. (IWM CM 3658)
Beurling shows off souvenirs from one of his Malta victories. (IWM CM 3658)

Alongside Beurling’s aerial skills and puritanical habits rode an irascible, arrogant and antagonistic alter ego. Fellow pilot Hugh Godefroy described him as “a tallish slim fellow with a disheveled crop of blond hair, sharp features and deep creases down each cheek….He had large ice-blue eyes that rarely blinked.” His squadron leader on Malta, Stanley Grant, described him as “high strung, brash and outspoken. He was a rebel.” Beurling repeatedly refused promotions, and when finally ordered to accept a flight lieutenant’s commission, insisted on continuing to bunk with the sergeants. 

He also simply could not resist hair-raising stunts to the point of courts-martial. While the base commander lectured a group of pilots about the absolute ban on dangerous pranks—a lecture inspired by Beurling’s hijinks in the squadron’s de Havilland Tiger Moth—Buzz “buzzed” the lecture hall. He regularly took his riggers and fitters for joyrides. On another occasion he shot a tail feather off Godefroy’s pet duck. Beurling was a lone wolf who was constantly reprimanded for breaking formation. Discipline and accepting orders were never his strong suits. Only his public profile as an ace and a hero protected him from military justice.

By mutual agreement Beurling was one of the pilots selected for Operation Salient, and he was dispatched to Malta. He got his shot at aerial combat and the RAF got rid of a nuisance.

Malta amounted to a stationary, unsinkable aircraft carrier astride the supply chain from Italy to North Africa. As the Axis attempted to blockade and bombard Malta into ineffectiveness, Allied reinforcements arrived aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. Among them was Beurling, flying his Spitfire Vc to the Mediterranean island on June 9, 1942. For almost a month he was silent, without a victory, but then he embarked on a killing spree without parallel in the history of aviation.

On July 6 Beurling destroyed two Macchi C.202s, the Italian Regia Aeronautica’s best fighters, as well as a Messerschmitt Me-109F. On July 27 he hit the jackpot, killing six-victory Italian ace Furio Niclot Doglio and downing his wingman, Faliero Gelli, who was taken prisoner. Beurling was also credited with two Me-109s that day, one piloted by  German ace Karl-Heinz Preu, who was killed.

Beurling shot down this Macchi MC.202 "Folgore” of 378th Squadriglia, 155th Gruppo, 51st Stormo, on July 27, 1942. The pilot, Sergeant Maggiore Faliero Gelli, managed to crash land with minor injures and was taken prisoner. (HistoryNet Archives)
Beurling shot down this Macchi MC.202 “Folgore” of 378th Squadriglia, 155th Gruppo, 51st Stormo, on July 27, 1942. The pilot, Sergeant Maggiore Faliero Gelli, managed to crash land with minor injures and was taken prisoner. (HistoryNet Archives)

By October Beurling had been shot down on multiple occasions. Afflicted with dysentery and underweight, he was finally forced out of the fight by a serious shrapnel wound in the heel. Remarkably, on the return flight to England, he was one of only three to survive when their Consolidated Liberator overshot the runway at Gibraltar. For the next year he fulfilled a variety of noncombatant tasks, from a Victory Bond tour of Canada he regretted to a stint at a gunnery school he reveled in. 

A handful of outrageous incidents alone establish his extraordinary talents.

Beurling loved flying right on the deck, and he swore he did it best inverted. He argued that the blind spot created by the cowling was eliminated when the aircraft was upside down.

Squadron intelligence officer Monty Berger recalled Beurling’s account of spotting an enemy Fw-190 and shooting it down in the fall of 1943, when he was with No. 403 Squadron, RCAF. “I knew that if I said anything on the R/T [radio telephone] the chances of our whole section turning around quickly enough weren’t very good,” Beurling told him. “That spot would have disappeared. So I peeled off, climbed and got behind him. I was to his left and behind, and I could see my shots going into the rear of his cockpit. The FW went down in flames.”

“By golly, the [gun camera] film clearly showed the aircraft being shot down,” Berger said. “He had spotted this dot, peeled off, got behind it and got back into position without anybody knowing what had happened.”

Buerling updates his score. (HistoryNet Archives)
Buerling updates his score. (HistoryNet Archives)

By the time the war ended, Screwball Beurling wore the Distin­guished Service Order, Dis­tin­guished Flying Cross, Dis­tinguished Flying Medal & Bar and was credited with 31 victories. Unable to adapt to civilian life, he yearned for dogfighting. “I would give 10 years of my life to live over again those six months I had in Malta in 1942,” he told a reporter, adding, “…combat, it’s the only thing I can do well; it’s the only thing I ever did that I really liked.” 

He contracted to Israel to fly P-51 Mustangs in 1948. En route, with fellow Malta pilot Leonard Cohen, their Noorduyn Norseman crashed on takeoff from Rome, killing them both.

RAF ace James “Ginger”’ Lacey summed it up: “There are no two ways about it, he was a wonderful pilot and an even better shot.”  

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!

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