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Archive Report: Allied Forces

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George Screwball Buzz Beurling
George 'Screwball' Beurling: Canadian Ace of Malta

George Frederick 'Buzz' Beurling DSO, DFC, DFM & Bar, RAF & RCAF (6 December 1921 – 20 May 1948), was the most successful Canadian fighter pilot of the Second World War. He is often referred to as 'Screwball' Beurling.

Beurling was recognised as "Canada's most famous hero of Second World War", as "The Falcon of Malta" and the "Knight of Malta", having shot down 27 Axis aircraft in just 14 days over the besieged Mediterranean island. Before the war ended his total climbed to either 31 or 31 + 1⁄3. Beurling's wartime service was terminated prior to war's end. In an attempt to continue combat flying in the postwar era, Beurling lost his life in a crash while delivering an aircraft to Israel.

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 in Gravenhurst, Ontario, and soon gained a commercial license. George Beurling joined the Royal Air Force in September 1940.

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 (which was fighting the Soviets in the Winter War), but 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. In September 1940, after he had survived the return trip, the RAF accepted him as a pilot.

Having survived one or two aerial misdemeanours, he reached the Operational Training Unit at RAF Hawarden in September 1941. Beurling demonstrated considerable skill in training. In Hawarden, he came under the influence of the great Ginger Lacey, whose score at the time stood at 27. Lacey later commented about Beurling: "There are not two ways about it, he was a wonderful pilot and an even better shot."

These two factors, coupled with exceptional eyesight, were the keys to his later success. But they did not come without effort. At Hawarden, he immersed himself in gunnery, estimation of range, deflection, bullet trail and bullet drop, imprinting them into his subconscious until they were automatic. For him, flying and shooting became one single action. In the middle of December, he was posted as a Sergeant Pilot to RCAF 403 Squadron, which had just moved to North Weald, Essex. Beurling flew his first (uneventful) combat mission, flying the Supermarine Spitfire, on Christmas Day 1941. He remained with 403 for nearly four months, escorting bombers and flying fighter sweeps across the English Channel. A couple of times, his formation was jumped by German fighters, but he never managed to get off an effective shot while with 403.

By late spring, a decision was made to include only RCAF personnel in RCAF squadrons. Beurling, who was Canadian but an RAF pilot, joined 41 Squadron in Sussex.

            George Beurling in Spitfire lX by Len Krenzler. Print signed by George's brother Richard. Available for purchase.

His first two missions with his new squadron were uneventful, but on the third, a sweep over Calais on 1 May, five Focke-Wulf Fw 190s jumped the section. Beurling, who was the "tail end Charlie", the last of the formation, became separated from his flight and his Spitfire suffered a number of serious hits that put half of his guns out of action. Nevertheless, he managed to fire a short burst at an FW 190; the German fighter exploded in mid air. Two days later, as usual for a newcomer, he was assigned again to the number four position. He spotted a lone FW 190, and broke from the flight to pursue it. He claimed the German fighter as destroyed over Cap Gris Nez. On this occasion, Beurling was reprimanded for attacking a target without permission, and became unpopular with his superiors and fellow pilots.

He then volunteered for a posting overseas. When his ship reached Gibraltar, Beurling learned where he was destined: the island of Malta and No. 249 Squadron RAF.

Quotes on Beurling in Malta

'He fired only when he thought he could destroy. Two hundred and fifty yards was the distance from which he liked best to fire.'

'A couple of short, hard burst from there and that was usually it.'

'He picked his targets off cleanly and decisively, swinging his sight smoothly through them as a first-class shot strokes driven partridges out of the sky. It was a fluent and calculated exercise...'

'For Beurling the confirmed kill was the thing.'

Nine of his kills on Malta were Italian pilots. About them he used to say: "The Jerrie are probably better over-all pilots than the Italians, but they certainly let the Eyeties do their fighting for them when the going got tough. When we get around to adding the final score for this show I hope somebody thinks of that".

On 6 July, he was flying one of eight Spitfires that were scrambled to intercept three Italian Cant bombers and 30 Macchi 202s, Italy's top-line fighter. The eight Spitfires dived straight into the Italians. In seconds, with one burst Beurling had damaged a bomber. Then, suddenly he was on the tail of a Macchi whose pilot (probably Sergente Maggiore Francesco Pecchiari from 51° Stormo), spotting the Spitfire, plunged into a dive. The Canadian chased his prey for 15,000 ft and, when the Italian pulled up at 5,000, Beurling let go a two-second burst from 300 yards away. It was a perfect hit. Although he wasn't aware that he had been fired on, when Beurling inspected his Spitfire back at Takali, he found it riddled with bullets. Undaunted, that evening, just before dusk, he was in the air again in a patrol of four Spitfires. Radar had shown two German JU 88s and 20 Messerschmitts, the deadly 109Fs, heading towards Malta. After the four Spitfires dived and split up the formation, Beurling followed a fighter trying to escape at low level over the sea. After he laid down a two-second burst the German crashed into the Mediterranean.

On his last combat mission over Malta, while engaging a third aircraft, another, taking him unawares, drilled his aircraft with cannon shells from behind. Screwball, injured quite severely by shrapnel, bailed out low down. He landed in the sea and got into his dinghy. Malta's air-sea rescue service quickly came to his aid. L.G. Head, a member of the crew of HSL 128 remembered that when they picked him out of the water he was most concerned that he was unable to locate a small bible that he had been given by his mother.

Fighter pilots played a critical role in the defence of Malta during its siege. Beurling landed on the island on 9 June, after having flown off the deck of HMS Eagle aboard his Spitfire, during Operation Salient. His nickname on Malta was "Screwball", an expletive he had a habit of using.

Beurling had his baptism of fire in the mid-morning of 12 June when, flying a Spitfire, with three other pilots from 249, the formation intercepted eight Bf 109s. Beurling claimed to have blown the tail off a Bf 109, but nobody saw it hit the ground, so he was credited with a "damaged". After that, Beurling claimed a series of kills that had no equal on the Mediterranean island. On 6 July 1942, with other pilots from 249, he attacked a formation of three Cant Z1007bis, 14 Reggiane Re.2001s and more than two dozen Macchi MC.202s. He almost certainly shot down Sergente Francesco Pecchiari from 352 Squadriglia. Then he claimed another Macchi that crashed near Zejtun, likely the Reggiane of Sottotenente Romano Pagliani, 152 Squadriglia. He made a third claim that day, a Messerschmitt, hit from a distance of 800 yards and was credited with three victories in his first proper air battle at Malta.

On 10 July, his Malta tally rose to five in just four days, making him an ace. That day, it seems likely that he shot down the MC.202 of Sergente Maggiore Francesco Visentini, from 378 Squadriglia.

On 12 July, Beurling, flying a Spitfire, and searching for Pilot Officer Berkeley-Hill, who was missing, spotted Tenente Colonnello Aldo Quarantotti and Tenente Carlo Seganti, flying Reggiane Re.2001s. Beurling, with Flying Officer Erik Hetherington, dove on the tail of the second of the two Reggianes and downed Seganti. Then Beurling attacked the other Reggiane. He closed up to 100 ft and just when Quarantotti spotted him, Beurling delivered a short burst that decapitated the Italian commander. This aircraft also fell into the sea. Two days later, he was badly shot up by Reggianes. Beurling's aircraft was "riddled by better than 20 bullets through the fuselage and wings". "An explosive bullet nicked my right heel", he recalled.

On 22 July, he lost his best friend in Malta, French-Canadian Pilot Jean Paradis. The following day, eight 249 Spitfires were scrambled. Beurling claimed to have badly damaged a bomber and, after a long dogfight with a Reggiane, to have blown "his left wing off". The 151 Squadriglia, in fact, lost Serg Magg Bruno Di Pauli. The Macchi 202 pilot reported to have parachuted down after an AA shell had damaged his aircraft and realizing that he was followed by six Spitfires that, at the moment, had still not fired.

Furio Niclot Doglio; he was Beurling's 14th "kill".

27 July, was Beurling's "biggest day on Malta". That day, he shot down Sergente Faliero Gelli, and immediately after, Captain Furio Niclot Doglio, both flying Macchi MC. 202s, Regia Aeronautica's best fighter. Niclot Doglio, who was diving to counter attack the head-on Spitfires of 126 Squadron and had misunderstood the warning waggling of wings of his wingman, Maresciallo Ennio Tarantola (who had seen the oncoming 249 Squadron fighters from left, high above), was his 14th "kill".

On the same day, Beurling claimed also two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, one of which was piloted by the ace Leutnant Karl-Heinz Preu of JG 53 although other sources attribute this to flak. On 24 July 1942, Beurling was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, the citation read:

"Sergeant Beurling has displayed great skill and courage in the face of the enemy. One day in July 1942, he engaged a number of enemy fighters which were escorting a formation of Junkers 88s and destroyed one fighter. Later during the same day he engaged 10 enemy fighters and shot two of them down into the sea, bringing his total victories to eight."

"When asked if he cared about medals Beurling said the DFM was "the one gong that means something. You know what it means? It means all the time I spent trying to earn money for flying time to get a license. It means that trip across Canada on the rods and the Seattle hoosegow and the long trek back. It means my attempts to get into the Canadian, Chinese, and Finnish Air Forces and three trips across the Atlantic in a munitions ship to get into the RAF. It means all the months of training in England and the hell of a time I had to get posted to a front where I could get some fighting and prove to everybody else what I had known for years about myself. Yes, sir. That's the real one, that D.F.M. That's the one I treasure more than all the others. I figure I won that one the hard way. The others came along in 'due course!' "

- from "Malta Spitfire" - G Beurling & L Roberts)

(L Roberts: - I dug up the citation and took it along to show the hero. It said: "Sergeant Beurling has displayed great skill and courage in the face of the enemy." It described engagements recorded in earlier paragraphs, up to July 6th, at which time he had destroyed five enemy aircraft and damaged three others over Occupied France and at Malta. The young man read the document and grinned. "Lots of two-dollar words, huh?" was his comment.

On 30 July, he was commissioned as a pilot officer, and on 4 September won a bar to his DFM, largely for his exploits on 27 July. The citation read:

"Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in July 1942, Sergeant Beurling has destroyed a further 9 enemy aircraft, bringing his victories to 17. One of his exploits was the destruction of 4 enemy fighters in one day; during these brief combats he also damaged a further 2 hostile aircraft. His courage and determination are a source of inspiration to all."

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, while he was shooting at a Bf 109, he was jumped by two more. He claimed that he hit one and that it went straight into the sea. This was apparently confirmed by his section leader. But his aircraft was then hit in the engine and he belly-landed in a stone-walled field. "I climbed out, he recalled, unhurt except for a superficial cut in one arm." Beurling was shot down either by Herbert Rollwage or Siegfried Freytag and Fw Pohl of I./ JG 77, who all claimed a Spitfire shot down.

Beurling hitched back to Ta' Qali Field. On 25 September, he had another successful day, claiming to have downed three German fighters, but on this occasion his victories seem to be "overclaimed". That day, flying with 11 other Spitfires, he met a dozen Bf 109s 30 miles northeast of Zonqor Point. He claimed to have "disintegrated" a first Messerschmitt, to have damaged a second and put in flames a third, that "enveloped in flames, dived vertically striking the sea", the pilot bailing out. Two of these victims were two German fighters that came back to base, even if badly damaged and the third could be the one piloted by Kurt Gorbing, who made a forced-landing and died shortly after.

On 10 October, Beurling was testing his newly serviced Spitfire when he was vectored to intercept two Bf 109s, flying line abreast at 1,000 ft over Filfla. He reported to have hit the "starboard fellow" in the engine: "He pancaked right smack down on his belly and flipped over onto his back." The second BF 109 tried to fly away but he hit the gas tank: "The ship blew up, complete with pilot." Those "kills" brought Beurling's Malta tally to 21, plus another shared with two others. But there is no record of a Messerschmitt crashing on the island on 10 October 1942, nor any German losses. On the morning of 13 October, three miles north of St Paul’s Bay, Beurling, attacked a formation of Ju 88s, escorted by 30 Bf 109s. He claimed to have at first hit a bomber, then an oncoming Bf 109 that burst into flames. Seconds later, he shot at a second Messerschmitt, without observing strikes, “but pilot bailed out”. On 16 October he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation read:

"Pilot Officer George Frederick BEURLING, D.F.M. (128707) Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 249 Squadron.

Since being awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Medal, this officer has shot down a further 3 hostile aircraft, bringing his total victories to 20. One day in September 1942, he and another pilot engaged 4 enemy fighters. In the ensuing combat, Pilot Officer Beurling destroyed 2 of them. As a relentless fighter, whose determination and will to win has won the admiration of his colleagues, this officer has set an example in keeping with the highest traditions of the Royal Air Force."

Beurling's Spitfire VC was the plane in which he scored most of his victories in Malta.

A committed Christian, teetotaler, and non-smoker; while his counterparts patronized the local bars every night, he dedicated himself totally to the art of aerial combat. Tending to be a loner on the ground and in the air, Beurling angered his commanders with his disdain for teamwork. His relentless concentration on aerial fighting led Beurling to develop a marked skill at deflection shooting and together with his "situational awareness", he was soon recognised as a deadly fighter 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. Beurling owed his spectacular success to remarkably good eyesight and the ability to "toss his Spitfire" into violent combat manoeuvres. If jumped from behind, he would pull back on the stick of his Mk VC Spitfire so hard that the aircraft would enter a violent stall, flick over and spin. This was a hard, sudden and very dangerous act for the enemy fighter on his tail to follow. Beurling would also ram both ailerons and rudder into a sudden and violent turn, causing his Spitfire to flip over and drop like a stone. Only a very experienced (or crazy) pilot would pull such stunts more than once or twice. Beurling made them a matter of habit. He knew that the Spitfire could be nursed out of such self-induced trouble and get him home safely.

But Beurling was not invincible; he was shot down four times over Malta. On 14 October 1942 (his last flight over Malta), Beurling scrambled with six other pilots from his squadron to intercept a raid of Ju 88s escorted by 60 Bf 109s, Macchi 202s and Reggiane 2001s just south of Zonqor Point. He strafed a bomber that he claimed to have shot down, but was, in turn, hit by return fire from the Ju 88: “I picked up about 30 bullet holes.” Then he claimed to have damaged a Messerschmitt and to have blown the left wing of another Bf 109 off at the root. Seconds later, another German fighter hit him from below. He was wounded in the heel, elbow and ribs, and his Spitfire was set on fire. He managed to bail out into the sea. During this action, no Messerschmitt was in fact destroyed. Only 2 Staffel (Black 1/7619) of I/JG53, flown by Obfw Josef Edere who was wounded, was damaged in the action, and Edere crash-landed at San Pietro, Sicily. Beurling was probably shot down by Obfw Riker of 4/JG53 or Ltn Karl von Lieres of 2/JG27 (who was credited with his 26th). Of the seven Ju 88s claimed to have been shot down by the RAF, only one did not return. After his rescue, Beurling was hospitalised.

Beurling was then sent back to Britain on 31 October 1942. On the way, the B-24 transport aircraft he was aboard crashed into the sea off Gibraltar. Beurling was one of only three survivors.

On 4 November he received the Distinguished Service Order, the citation read:

"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 13 October 1942, he shot down a Junkers 88 and two Messerschmitt 109s. 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."

Over Malta, he had claimed over 27 kills, by far the highest total by an RAF pilot during the campaign.

This is part of an ongoing research project. Sources include Wikipedia, the Paradie Archive (on this site), Canadian documentary makers, Kate Tame, Kelvin Youngs, RCAF official sources and Stefan Pietrzak Youngs

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