On 6th September, 1943, 403 squadron’s Operations Record Book recorded the arrival of one of Canada’s finest fighter pilots….
“F/O Beurling (DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar) reported to our Squadron today for duty. George Beurling, who formerly was on 403 Squadron as a Sergeant, completed a magnificent tour of operations in Malta.”
By this point in his career, Beurling was a national hero with a reputation for being a ‘lone wolf.’ In 1942, he had destroyed 27 enemy aircraft in a 14 day period while serving with 249 squadron as a sergeant pilot in Malta. He transferred from the RAF to the RCAF on 1st September 1943, and Wing Commander ‘Johnnie’ Johnson was asked if he would have Beurling in his Wing. Although he felt that Beurling’s temperament wasn’t suited to their style of team fighting, he decided that it was unfair to condemn this extraordinary pilot and that he should be given the chance to prove his worth.
He was sent to 403 squadron, who were at Headcorn and about to return to Kenley.
Hugh Godefroy made him Gunnery Officer; a position which seemed to suit him, though he hankered after the longer range of the American Mustang fighter, wishing to fight in the style that had been so successful for him in Malta- hunting down the enemy in pairs rather than large formations.
Kenley would also see Beurling reunited with one of his comrades from Malta – fellow Canadian, Bob Middlemiss, who paid tribute to his friend, and recalled their time at 403 squadron, during a speech he made at the unveiling of a statue of Beurling at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum:
After my rest tour from 53 OTU, I was posted to an RCAF Sqn based at Kenley and then on the Airfield at Lashenden, living in tents and preparing ourselves for the time when we would be invading the continent. I was lying down outside the tent that was our dining room, enjoying the sun when I got a kick on the bottom of my boot. Here was Beurling having returned from his rest tour in Canada.
One incident that I well remember was the day that we were giving Wing Commander “Johnny” Jonhson his farewell dinner [18/9/1943]. The AOC was flying over from his Headquarters in an Auster aircraft. When he flew low over the top of us Beurling happened to have a shotgun over his shoulder and said ‘I will give a “ring and a half” of deflection’ and fired. When the irate AOC landed and questioned us we all pleaded ignorance and said it was probably a farmer shooting at some ducks – luckily nothing further was said. Also here Beurling would take up the Tiger Moth and do spins and aerobatics over the field then often would land in a farmer’s field and buy and bring back some freshly laid eggs. On these occasions we had a feast of yummy eggs.
Squadron morale soared on 24th September, when Beurling scored his first victory with 403.
It was sunny and bright with a few scattered clouds. There were two sweeps carried out today and F/O Beurling destroyed one FW 190. Besides this, there were six non-operational sorties on aircraft tests and local flying. On the sweep in the afternoon, many e/a were seen. W/C Godefroy destroyed one e/a. F/L Buckham destroyed one and damaged another. F/O Beurling saw the Hun above, pulled up and gave him one burst of cannon. F/O Beurling saw the e/a’s port wing break off and claims this one as destroyed. F/O Beurling used a very small amount of cannon shells in destroying this aircraft. Morale has been boosted and everyone is very happy.
Beurling’s fine shooting during Ramrod 243, on the 24th, was recalled by Hugh Godefroy in ‘Lucky 13’….
Buzz Beurling gave a nice exhibition of marksmanship by taking a 90 degree deflection shot at one and knocking his port wing off. After the show, in all seriousness, he grumbled that he was out of practice or his line of sight would not have been off. I could hardly share his disappointment, for the Wing had destroyed three without a loss.
However, Beurling’s daredevil flying brought him to the verge of disaster on 18th October, a few days after 403 arrived back at Kenley:
The incident is recorded in the squadron’s Operations Record Book:
On the last sweep, F/O Beurling called on the R/T, “I’ve had it.” He landed ten minutes after the rest of the Squadron. F/O Beurling had gone after some Huns and could not pull his a/c out of a dive. He managed to turn it out and, after blacking out, came to at 1,700 feet before flying back home. We were all very pleased to see him return.
Hugh Godefroy, now Commander of Kenley’s Canadian Wing, gave a more detailed account of Beurling’s arrival back at Kenley, in ‘Lucky 13’:
Half an hour after the Wing landed, a lone Spitfire came into the circuit. It was Beurling. He did a very cautious turn around the field, put his flaps down and came in and landed. The whites of his eyes were nothing but two pools of blood. Beurling had seen a single 190, thousands of feet below. Instead of attacking the ones in front of us, he had decided to get the one underneath. He had dived straight down from twenty thousand feet and not realising how the Spitfire IX would build up speed, he had got going so fast that his elevators had frozen up. Just after he had said, ‘I’ve had it,’ he had turned back the elevator trim and his aircraft had pulled itself out, blacking him out completely. Massive subconjunctival haemorrhages had resulted from the excessive G. His aircraft was a complete write-off, with all the rivets on the underside pulled from their mountings.
Needless to say, Beurling was grounded from operations to recover.
Godefroy lost Beurling’s co-operation when he put him in charge of a Flight without consulting him. George openly defied orders by performing low level aerobatics over the airfield in the squadron’s Tiger Moth. Godefroy eventually put him under open arrest and threatened him with a Court Martial. Air-Marshal Breadner, the RCAF Commander in Chief, intervened and had Beurling transferred over to Buck McNair’s Wing, where they were crying out for experienced pilots. Consequently, Beurling left Kenley on 8th November 1943.
F/L Doug Matheson who flew with Beurling, had some interesting thoughts on him:
Buzz was a good guy. It was too bad he had not stayed in the RAF, they would know how to handle him. He wanted a Mustang to do his thing; the RAF would have given him one- like they did with all sorts of unusual types, but that was not the Canadian way. Everyone has to conform. Canadians are unable to cope with extraordinary people who sometimes are called heroes. Canadians can’t stand heroes.
George Beurling was a committed Christian, teetotal, and a non-smoker, who devoted himself to perfecting the arts of flying and shooting. Despite his difficulties with him during his time at Kenley, Godefroy said, “Technically, I consider George one of the greatest fighter pilots I have ever known.”
“Buzz” continued to rebel against service discipline and was released in Oct 1944. Lost in a world without air combat – “It’s the only thing I can do well; it’s the only thing I ever did I really liked” – he joined the Israeli Air Force in 1948, and died when the aircraft he was ferrying to Palestine crashed.
George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling DSO, DFC, DFM & Bar (6 December 1921 – 20 May 1948), of Verdun, Quebec, now lies at rest in the military cemetery at the foot of Mount Carmel. The grave is marked, as are the others in Israel Defense Forces cemeteries, with only name, serial number and rank: for Beurling that of segen, lieutenant.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.
More about George Beurling in Tony Harding’s article here.