We went up to intercept a mixed raid of bombers and fighters,"
said Beurling. "We got over them, went through the fighters to get
at the bombers. Then the bombers turned and beat it for Sicily. So we
were left with just the fighters."
"Where was this, George?" asked Beurling's father. "Right
"No, just off the island. The odds were about eight to one against
"Eight to one!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, that's not uncommon," said young George Beurling, D.S.O.,
D.F.C., D.F.M. and Bar, Canadian ace of the R.A.F., lifting his lanky
six-foot-one up in his Montreal hospital bed and shoving back his mop
of yellow hair, "I've been up when the odds were twenty to one. But
in this case it was only eight to one."
"Briefly, what happened?" I asked.
"I went after a group of four - two Jerries and two Eyties. I hit
one - blew pieces off him. He made a couple of spins, went down, and crashed
just off shore. Then I attacked another and blew him up. Then two Messerschmitt
109's passed under me, but I half rolled onto them and went under them
and gave one a burst in his belly. Just as he went down, another 109 attacked
me and I damaged him, but didn't bring him down. That was three, and one
damaged. I came down to refuel. Then another raid came over, and I went
up and we attacked six 109's. A couple of our fellows got hit and had
to bail out, but I sailed in and destroyed another Jerry - he fell into
the sea. That made four. Then I attacked another and he streamed black
smoke, but I didn't see him hit the deck. Well, that made four in the
bag that morning -and one probable. So, said Beurling, with a grin, "they
thought I ought to take the afternoon off. They thought I looked kind
"No, not much."
Beurling's father looked across at me, his blue eyes sparkling with satisfaction.
One, two, three, four enemy planes brought down in a forenoon - many a
fighter would consider that a good bag for a season - and Beurling ticked
them off as casually as if they had been four partridges.
Creature of the Air
This lad George Beurling, now only twenty-one years old, is a phenomenon
worth study. Not alone because his story is thrilling (and it's plenty
thrilling), not alone because his total bag up to date of twenty-nine
enemy planes brought down, plus three probables and nine damaged, is very
close to the top R.A.F. record and the best by far any Canadian or American
can show in this war, but chiefly for two other reasons.
One: he is man-in-the-air incarnate, completely a creature of the air,
more completely than I dreamed any human being could be. Since he was
six, this lad has been fascinated by the air, scheming every hour of every
day how to get into the air and stay there, up in the air constantly since
he was fifteen, a pilot at seventeen, and now at twenty-one a master of
the air, unhappy on the ground, happy in the air, thinking of his life
and his future only in terms of the air. Thus Beurling is a sharp clear-cut
symbol of the future.
Two: he is the war killer incarnate - hard, cold, ruthless when engaged
in air fighting. Beurling will tell you that his superb record is partly
due to luck, but actually it is due to the fact that he has studied his
job of killing the enemy, and keeps constantly studying it, and pursues
the job with relentless precision. He is, in fact, what every man of the
armed forces of the United Nations must be if we are to win this war.
Beurling puts it this way: "There is no room for stupid softheartedness
in this war. The enemy is trying to get you; it is up to you to get him
first - hard and plenty."
George Beurling has been putting this conviction into practice with calculated
When he says, "I blew him up," "I gave him a burst,"
it doesn't mean he simply cut loose at an enemy plane, hoping to bring
it down. It means that - whenever possible - he has fired at the enemy
plane from a certain intended distance, at an intended moment and an intended
angle, and often at an intended spot in the enemy plane.
His first bag is an example. It was in April, 1942. For months, at training
camps in England, he had been itching to get into action, and then suddenly
his squadron was assigned as part of a daylight sweep of Spitfires into
France escorting bombers in a raid on Lille. Beurling asked to be put
last in the squadron - the most dangerous spot. "There wasn't much
action over France at that time," he said, "and I thought if
I was last man I might see some fun."
A squadron leader doesn't like to ask a man to take last position, Beurling
explained. If the man happens to get knocked off, then the leader will
feel responsible. But if a man volunteers, it's fine. No one's to blame
but himself. The trip to the objective was comparatively uneventful, but
on the way back to England, a swarm of Focke-Wulf 190's attacked the sweep.
Five of them attacked Beurling.
"One after another tried to get on my tail," said Beurling,
"and I kept whipping around to get them off." Then by a trick
of his own, Beurling almost stopped his plane in midair. The Focke-Wulf,
which was behind him at that moment, shot past and crossed in front of
him. "By the speed he passed me, I judged he was going at 450 miles
an hour," said Beurling. "So at about 300 yards I allowed him
four and a half rings and gave him a two and a half second burst."
The six guns of the Spitfire - two 20 millimeter cannon and four .303
machine guns - are arranged so that their fire converges at about 300
yards. That is the ideal distance. If a plane is traveling 100 miles an
hour across your sights, you aim the diameter of your ring-sight ahead
of it. This Focke Wulf was going 450 miles an hour across Beurling's sights,
so he aimed a distance of four and a half rings ahead. In other words,
he fired so that the enemy plane and his bullets and shells met in the
air at the same spot and the same moment. It all happened in seconds,
but it was done with expert precision. "The Jerry exploded,"
said Beurling, "and went down in a trail of black smoke."
No Time For Fear
When George was a kid of six, in Verdun, a Montreal suburb, he came home
on the run one day sobbing: "They're chasing me!" His father
said: "George, I'm going to teach you how to defend yourself."
He took the boy downtown and finally found a pair of little boxing gloves
that fitted him. "I used to get down on the floor and teach him how
to box," said his father. "Soon he was good enough to give me
a good fight. I said, "George, I don't want you to look for a fight,
but I don't want you to run away.'"
Since then George has never run away. He has let the other fellow do the
running. When I asked him whether he was ever afraid, as for instance
when once he was alone over Malta against twenty enemy planes, he said,
wrinkling his brow: "Why, mister, in a fight I don't have time to
Incidentally, George doesn't smoke or drink. His family brought him up
that way and he thinks abstinence is a good thing for his air fighting.
At the same age of six his father made him a model airplane and from that
moment George began to watch the skies and dream of flying. When he was
eleven he began to hang around the nearest airdrome, the Curtiss-Reid
Flying School at Cartierville. He said to his father: "How can I
get over that fence?" "Well," his father said, "get
one leg over, and when they get used to seeing one leg over, get the other
leg over, and then jump down inside." So George did, and presently
he was a pet of the pilots and mechanics. They let him hang around and
ask questions because they saw he was no idler but really interested and
intelligent. Pilots took him up on flights. His passion for planes and
flying go him the nickname "Buzz", which has always stuck to
him. By the time he was fourteen, he was taking flying lessons. He paid
for them by selling newspapers and doing odd jobs around the airdrome,
washing off planes, helping roll them in and out of the hangar, running
errands for pilots. His greatest pal and mentor, a bush pilot named Ted
Hogan, used to take George along on trips into the bush country north
of Montreal, delivering freight and passengers to mining camps, and on
these trips George often handled the stick.
George Beurling and Ted Hogan, the man who, for George, started it all
"When George was fourteen or fifteen," said
his father, "I remember when we'd be walking along the street he
would suddenly burst out, 'Pop, do you know what Rickenbacker did when
he had four Jerries on his tail?' Or, 'Remember Richthofen, that big German
ace? Do you know what he did when he was outnumbered three to one—?'
George studied the air battles in the other war and he could describe
and argue about the tactics of all the leading fliers. He ate, drank and
slept airplanes and especially air fighting."
To test George, his father tried to interest him in his own profession,
that of a commercial artist, but George couldn't see it. The air for him.
An uncle, a doctor, offered to put George through medical school. His
parents favored that; his mother, especially, thought George had the makings
of a surgeon. But George couldn't see it. The air, the sky and its freedom,
In 1939, when he was seventeen, just about the time he got a flying permit,
he lit off for Vancouver, riding the rods, and tried to enlist in the
Chinese Air Force. "I thought I'd see some good fighting out there,"
he said with a grin. Balked in his attempt at Vancouver, he tried to get
to San Francisco, planning to hop a ship to China. "I knew if I got
out to China, I could get into the Air Force," he said. But U.S.
officials stopped him at the border - he had no papers and no money -
and sent him home.
He tried to enlist with the Finland Air Force. His dad, who is of Scandinavian
ancestry, blocked that. He tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
They advised him to go back to finish high school - he had another year.
"So," he said, "I thought I'd try the R.A.F."
A friend told him there was a munitions ship down at the docks needing
deckhands. He rushed down, signed on and sailed. This was the summer of
'40. It was an exciting trip. The convoy was attacked several times. George's
ship narrowly missed being torpedoed. Landing in Glasgow, George tried
to enlist in C.A.F., but in his hurry he had come away without his certificated
logbook giving his flying time. R.A.F. men advised him to hop home and
get it. So he signed on for the return voyage, got home, grabbed his papers,
signed on again with the same ship, said good-by again to his family who
by this time were reconciled to his ambition, and was off again for Britain.
Spots 'Em First
During his R.A.F. training in England, George paid especial attention
to two things. He trained his eyesight. "I would pick out a hill
in the distance," he said, "then a tree on that hill, then a
branch of that tree, and bring my eyes to focus on it and try to make
out the details as quickly as possible. By doing that again and again,
I found I could spot aircraft in the sky and distinguish what they were
quicker than other fellows could."
At Malta, it was said that he could always spot a squadron of approaching
enemy planes before anybody else. Also he constantly trained his eyes
to take in the whole heavens in one searching and regularly repeated glance
"You've got to do that constantly when there may be enemy planes
about," he said. "Especially you've got to watch the sky above
you - that's the dangerous place - and when you look, make sure there's
nothing there, or if there is, what it is."
He paid special attention to shooting. In Canada, knowing he was going
to be an air fighter, he and a friend had practiced with an old Vickers
machine gun. Especially he studied "deflection shooting," believing
from his study of air combats that it was a vital factor - possibly the
most vital - in success in the air. Deflection shooting means shooting
which takes into account the angle of your plane to the enemy plane, their
respective speeds and the distance they are from each other. If you were
always dead on the tail of the other fellow and always got him dead in
the bull's eye when you fired, you wouldn't need to know anything about
deflection shooting. "But," asks George Beurling, "how
often does that happen? Most times you are coming at him on an angle and
he has one speed, and you another, so there are several factors to take
into account. Without knowing deflection shooting, I'd have a bag of five
or six today instead of twenty-nine."
Beurling has become such a master of deflection shooting that the British
Air Ministry now has a book he has written on the subject, for the use
of R.A.F. pilots.
In getting his second bag, Beurling had a narrow squeak. Determination,
quick wit and skill brought him out of it. His squadron was on a fighter
sweep over the French coast near Calais. Attacked by a swarm of FW-190's,
they were outnumbered five or six to one. Beurling, again in the rear
by his own request, got all the fun he wanted. "I got it from both
sides," he said, "cannon shells and machine-gun bullets. The
plane bucked and shuddered with the impact. I thought it was going out
of control. Shrapnel pierced the cockpit and got me in the ribs. My port
cannon and machine guns were knocked out of action, my starboard cannon
was knocked loose so it was pointing down and flapping in the breeze,
my only effective guns were my two starboard machine guns. A shell burst
inside one wing, blowing it up to three times its size, so the whole lift
of the wing was thrown off - the wing was actually wobbling. And I was
out over the middle of the Channel. I thought for a minute I'd have to
bail out. Then the Jerries came at me again - six of them. I pulled my
plane around and flew right into the sun. The Jerries who were on my tail
turned and flew after me, but the sun must have blinded them as I thought
it would. They flew right on over me without seeing me. I gave the middle
one a burst with my two machine guns. He was only fifty yards ahead of
me. I couldn't hear the guns, as only two were firing, and thought I'd
run out of ammunition, but he blew up, and the other Jerries beat it for
And George staggered home toward England....his plane riddled, the engine
shot through and through and leaking, one wing almost falling off...but
he got home.
A month or so later, he went to Malta. A fellow he knew had been detailed
there, but didn't want to go because he had a wife in England, so Beurling
volunteered in his place. "I understood Malta was a hot spot, so
I thought I might get some good fighting."
The Hottest Spot On Earth
At that time, last summer, and indeed all through early fall, Malta was
the hottest spot on earth. Raids of German and Italian bombers and fighters
would come over from Sicily, sixty miles distant, seven or more times
a day, beginning at four in the morning, day after day. Then there would
be a few days' lull, and it would begin again. There would be perhaps
fifteen bombers and from fifty to one hundred and fifty fighters, and
against this the island's defenders often had only eight, ten or twelve
planes. Once there were only four Spitfires on hand to protect the island.
(Of course today Malta is better defended)
The purpose of the attacks was to destroy the airdrome and the shipping,
and make Malta ineffective as a base from which air attacks could be launched
in aid of the armies in Libya. But due to the brilliant defense by the
R.A.F., the enemy signally failed to destroy Malta. In this defense, Buzz
Beurling played a star role. He destroyed twenty-seven enemy aircraft
and helped boost the total of his squadron to over three hundred planes
brought down - the best record of any fighting squadron in the world.
On account of the nearness of the airdromes from which the enemy took
off, the advance warning was very short. Even if the R.A.F. felt sure
a raid would be coming at a certain hour, they couldn't send fighters
up ahead of time to meet it, because of the shortage of petrol. The Spitfires
had to remain on the ground till the raid was actually reported. Then
they took off.
"It would take us about ten minutes to get up to twenty thousand
feet, maybe fifteen to get to thirty thousand," said Beurling. "After
we got in the air, the airdrome would let us know what was coming. It
might radio, 'Boys, there's some Jerries coming.' and in that case we
would look alive, but they might say, 'Boys, there's some Ice-cream Merchants
coming over, take it easy.' Then we could relax. The Eyties are comparatively
easy to shoot down. Oh, they're brave enough. In fact, I think they have
more courage than the Germans, but their tactics aren't so good. They
are very good fliers, but they try to do clever acrobatics and looping.
But the Eyties will stick it even if things are going against them, whereas
the Jerries will run."
Beurling would watch the flying of an enemy squadron and pick out the
really good ones and go for them. "After a pilot has made one or
two turns you can tell if he is really good and worthy of a fight,"
said Beurling. The really good ones, he explained, are the boys to get
rid of first, because they will wait outside and at the right moment come
in, whish, and knock you out.
On one occasion he engaged a number of enemy fighters that were escorting
Junkers 88 bombers and shot down two. In the evening of the same day he
went up to help repel another raid and shot down another fighter at 800
yards. "I elevated my guns to get him at that range. I wasn't sure
I had him at first but he was seen to fly ten miles out to sea and explode."
"I had a wonderful ground crew," he went on. "They deserved
as much credit as I did. They always kept my plane in perfect shape. Sometimes
when I came down riddled full of holes, they spent half the night patching
up my ship so I could go up again in the morning."
Of course it is more valuable to bring down a bomber than a fighter, Beurling
said, but a fighter is more fun, because it can give you a better scrap.
He learned just where to hit a bomber to knock it out.
"Suppose you hit one in the bomb rack?" I said.
Beurling's face lighted up. "Then it's really good, the whole thing
goes up with a bang!" As Beurling developed his tactics and his system
of deflection shooting, he began to knock them off with a sureness and
regularity that astonished and delighted his pals. It was said at Malta
that if there was anything in the sky when Beurling went up, he would
get it. He studied air firing so carefully that he rarely fired except
from the exact range from which his guns were harmonized for maximum concentration.
If he fired from a shorter distance, thus encountering the possibility
that the fire from his two wing-cannons might pass to either side of the
target, he made allowances and aimed so that one of his cannons would
be certain of striking home.
Once last August he was up with another fighter and the other man's engine
developed trouble and he had to go down, leaving Beurling alone facing
twenty enemy fighters. They poured a hail of bullets into him. One got
under him and put a cannon shot in the belly of his ship, wounding Beurling
with shrapnel in the heel. The tail of his plane was riddled; the top
of his cockpit shot away, but his guns kept firing. "I got one of
them" he said, "then the others kind of faded away. I think
they were running out of gas."
Not long after that, he and another pilot were mixed up with fifteen.
Beurling shot down one Messerschmitt, then all the rest of the enemy came
for him, riddling him with bullets. Suddenly his engine conked out. He
would have bailed out, but he found that he had picked up somebody else's
parachute - the harness was very loose and Beurling was afraid that if
he jumped, he would be brought up with such a jolt that he might rupture
himself. So he put his ship's nose down and glided precipitously to the
island, a twenty-five thousand foot drop. Malta is a very difficult place
on which to make a crash landing, for the island is all divided up into
small fields separated by high stone walls. To hit one of those walls
would be fatal. Beurling picked out the biggest field he could see, one
that looked little bigger than a big backyard, and dove for that.
"I had seen a couple of crash landings in the movies here in Canada,
and I noticed that they always took the force of the crash on one wing.
So I stuck one wing down and when we hit, I hardly felt the shock,"
he said. "My plane was smashed, but all the damage I got was my arm
ripped open and a few scratches."
He caught a truck ride back to the airdrome, had his arm sewed up, and
in half an hour he was up again in the thick of another raid. "We
were short of pilots that day," he said.
"Aw shucks" - Beurling meets Mackenzie King, then Prime Minister
of Canada. Also present is Beurling's Father (left), his two brothers
(in front), his Mom (in the fur) and AVM L. S. Breadner
is behind her. According to Breadner, King did everything to Beurling
"but crown him."
"A Wonderful Show"
Beurling's mother, who happened to be in the hospital room as he was telling
this part of the story, looked at her son and sighed with relief. Then
she said: "What about night fighting on Malta, George? Did you have
much of that'
Beurling rose up in bed excitedly.
"It's a wonderful show! Best on earth! Lights, red, green
and yellow from the shells, red strings of flame, 'onions,' they call
them, like great yellow fingers - aircraft caught in the searchlights
- aircraft falling in flames, flaming pieces falling off and being caught
by the wind! Oh, Mom, it's really great! When they drop their incendiaries
they just cover the whole island, it's like liquid hot metal, one big
solid mass. You see high explosives hit the aircraft and explode in a
deep red glow! And you're up there too -"
Now Beurling was standing up beside his bed, his face glowing, his blue
eyes shining, a tall blond Viking of the air.
"- sometimes your own anti-aircraft guns pick you up and cut loose.
Once I was up at night looking for Junkers bombers and I saw shells curving
up and then turning and coining toward me. I thought they were firing
at a Junkers, but then I realized they were firing at me! They thought
I was a Jerry! I radioed down to quit it and they radioed back, 'Okay.'
Oh, it's terrific, and wonderful! I wish I was back there this minute!"
He sank back in bed.
I could imagine Beurling's mother saying to herself, "I'm thankful
As Beurling's score rose at Malta, he got citation after citation. First,
the Distinguished Flying Medal, then a bar to that medal. He was offered
a commission, but for a time refused it, saying frankly that he wanted
to remain a sergeant. But later he was persuaded to accept a commission
as Pilot Officer, equivalent to Second Lieutenant. Then he was awarded
the Distinguished Flying Cross. "A relentless fighter whose determination
has won the admiration of his colleagues," said this last citation.
Because of the strain of constant air raids day and night, other fighter
pilots on Malta worked on alternate days, one day on, one day off, but
"Buzz" Beurling worked straight through, "because,"
he says, "I loved it."
Other pilots could stand only two months or so of it at a stretch, then
had to get away on leave. Beurling was there almost five months straight
and probably would be there yet if he hadn't been shot down and wounded.
On a day in October, Beurling went up in a squadron of eight fighters
to meet a raid of bombers and fighters.
"I spotted them coming from the east," he said, "and we
climbed to get above them. My leader destroyed one fighter, No. 2 damaged
another, and I half rolled onto a bomber, hit him and set him afire; his
wing fell off and he spun down. But just as he fell, the gunner got a
shot at me from below - wounded me in the arm and fingers. Then I saw
a Messerschmitt attacking my leader. I gave him a couple of seconds' burst;
he spun into the sea. Then I heard two Spitfires calling for help down
below. I went down in a power dive at about 600 miles an hour, got under
the whole formation of enemy planes, came up under one Jerry and blew
off one of his wings. But another had followed down; I didn't think anybody
could be as fast, but he was, and he gave me a burst, shot my controls
away and put cannon shells into the belly of my plane. Shrapnel got me
in the foot. There I was at eighteen thousand feet, my engines out of
control, doing a power dive in spirals down toward the sea. My engine
was on fire, flames coming over toward me. I tried to climb out of the
cockpit, but the way I was spinning, centrifugal force pressed me into
my seat. I fought to get out and at the last minute I did get out and
jump. Another split second and it would have been too late."
The power dive had taken him from eighteen thousand feet to one thousand
feet above the sea in an unimaginably brief tick of time. His parachute
opened. He floated gently down into the Mediterranean. A power launch
rushed out from shore and picked him up. His foot was bleeding badly;
shrapnel had cut an artery. He went right to the operating room. While
he lay in hospital, he was awarded the D.S.O., an honor usually reserved
for senior officers.
Shortly afterward the R.C.A.F. asked that Beurling, Canada's greatest
air hero of this war, be granted leave to come home. He came - narrowly
missing death in a plane crash at Gibraltar which killed fifteen of his
fellow passengers - and I found him chafing in a hospital bed, crazy to
get back into action. When he gets on his pins, he will make a tour of
Canada talking to young air recruits, telling them what air fighting is
like, what to look out for in a fight, how to train for fighting. "But
I want to get back to Malta," he said.
I say again, this lad Beurling is the kind of fighter all our men in the
armed forces should be if we are to win this war.
Beurling in the cockpit of a Hurricane
--- Beurling ---
--- Canadian Aces ---