Not long ago George Beurling, Canada’s best fighter
pilot in the last war, sat inside a Montreal hotel room and brushed aside
with a few words his unhappy experiences as a civilian so he could see
more clearly and live again the best years of his life.
When Bearing, who is now 26, talks of air combat, his tanned boyish face
glows with happy recollection and present excitement. For he remembers
it all clearly. He remembers every detail of every fight in the air—the
date, the hour, the altitude, the direction he was flying and best of
all the deflection he gave the shots that batted the enemy down.
His official score was 31 destroyed, highest of any Canadian.
“I would give 10 years of my life to live over those six months
I had in Malta in 1942. The food was lousy and we were bombed all the
time. My weight dropped from 177 to 126. But the flying weather was good
and every time you went flying the sky was full of Germans to fight,”
Beurling said. In those desperate days on the George Cross island, he
shot down 28 aircraft and won every air decoration for fighting except
the Victoria Cross.
Heartless young Beurling, who has found the years of pence dull and disappointing,
may soon get his wish to see life again through a gun sight. He said in
Montreal that he had been approached by warring factions in the Near East
to fly as a combat fighter pilot.
Beurling refused to be quoted on the reply he had made to these advances.
But he added: “I would be glad to get back into combat. It’s
the only thing I can do well; it's the only thing I ever did I really
When asked about the restrictions already imposed by the U. S. State Department
to keep citizens from going to Palestine to fight, and possibly to be
invoked by Ottawa against Canadians, Beurling said: "I've been through
all this before. I was all set to go to China in 1944 to fight for the
Nationalists. The pay was to be $1,500 a month in U. S. funds on the barrelhead.
Good dough. But Ottawa stopped me from going. I also got an offer from
the Chinese Communists not long ago."
Since his discharge, Beurling has flown commercially for other men who
had their own companies, flying fishing and hunting parties into the bush,
hauling freight and passengers. In between jobs like these he has sold
life insurance (he couldn't stand it), hunted deer in Cape Breton with
bow and arrow, taken passengers up for 15 minute flips at fair grounds,
fished under water wearing goggles and armed with a spear, skied and done
lots of fishing on his own.
Can't Settle Down
OH, IT'S been all right. I'm not kicking. I've made out all right for
money. I used to get $500 for 15 minutes stunting down in the States.
One day I made $690 carrying passengers in a Norseman down in the Eastern
Townships. I've worked for a while and then gone fishing for a while.
It's been all right but I've never been able to settle down." said
The only aircraft Beurling now has is a Tiger Moth, specially stressed
for aerobatics. He holds a commercial pilot's license with the Department
of Transport and has logged about 4,000 hours, including his combat
He often thought of starting his own little charter company and has
owned his own planes at various times. He had the backing, too. He says
Harry Ship of Montreal and Ernie Buckerfield, the West Coast grainman,
had both repeatedly offered to back him in any project he wanted to
undertake. But it has never worked out that way and he has never settled
"And I'm glad," Beurling now says. "It leaves me clear
and without any strings to go back to the only thing I really love—combat
flying. I've never really wanted to be a commercial pilot or an airline
pilot. I know that now! I'm a fighter pilot."
Beurling has few of the usual patriotic feelings of a man for his country.
He thinks he did a job for Canada during the war, no more than he should
have, though, and somehow Canada has failed to do right by him. He doesn't
know exactly where the shortcoming has been and he doesn't blame anyone
But he has never felt any great sympathy or understanding for other
young Canadians. The reason for this is he feels, that he has never
been interested in anything but flying. When his high-school contemporaries
were starting to go out with girls and swaying around juke boxes listening
to Ella Fitzgerald's reading of a "A Tisket, A Tasket" and
Connie Boswell's swing revival of "Martha" he was learning
a roll off the top and perfecting dead-stick landings.
"There are times when I feel I am more a European than a North
American," he said.
Who Needs a Fighter?
BEURLING ran a hand through his straight blond
hair that has a tendency to slide down from the high-crested pompadour
in which he combs it and waggled a nail file in the other hand to
accent his next words;
"I know it may sound hard, but I will drop bombs or fire guns
from a plane for anyone who will pay me. And I will fly for the
one who will pay me the most," he said.
"I don't like the Russians"
How about Russia? "Except Russia," he said.
"I don't like the Russians."
Beurling was asked if he was interested in the politics of any of his
"I'm interested in politics, and I read a lot about them, but only
to find out where the next war is going to be and where they will need
fighter pilots. Other than that all I ask is 'How much will you pay me?'"
What was he going to do with all the money he made as a mercenary, or
did he think he would live to spend it?
Beurling shrugged his shoulders.
"I think so. I've been shot at before. Besides, in the air—that's
competition or rivalry, or whatever you want to call it, carried to the
highest level. You're shooting for the win. I always think I can win.
[The next several lines are illegible -ed]
Beurling doesn’t blame anyone for the way things have worked out
since he climbed down from his Spitfire. He's not bitter, although it
amuses him in an acid way that some of the people who were pelting him
with roses and big hellos in 1942 when he came back to Canada on a triumphal
bond tour now wonder where they've seen him before.
Beurling is even ready to admit that one of the big reasons for his failure
to rehabilitate successfully lies within himself. He knows he is different
and that the world is rarely kind to people who are different.
"I'll tell you the difference between me and most of the fellows
who were in the Air Force," he said. "Most of us who went into
fighters went because it was the softest place to fight. In the Air Force
the bombers' crews were the real heroes. They did the dirty, dangerous,
heavy work. In the Navy you lived hard and got seasick and in the Army
you died in the mud. So we went into the fighter force where every man
was captain of his own aircraft and slept in his own bed at night.
Fighting's His Life
"But to most of the boys I knew, being in the Air
Force was just an interlude. They studied deflection shooting, enough
to get by and they had no more curiosity about it. They learned to fly
and now that they're out they are back at their jobs and have no desire
ever to pilot an aircraft again." Beurling said this last with a
rising note of surprise in his voice. The surprise was genuine, for he
cannot imagine anyone not being interested in flying once he has flown.
He cannot imagine a man losing his interest in deflection shooting once
he has lined up the rings on a target in combat.
"Me—I've been flying ever since I was 14. I started flying
near Montreal. Ernst Udet, the German and to me the greatest flier of
all time, taught me aerobatics. I will always fly. And as for shooting,
guns and shooting have always been my hobby. I am always thinking of angles
of fire. Even when I walk down the street I look at the angle at which
telephone wires cross the line of a building. I calculate angles as I
walk along and sometimes stop and go back to check an angle. The way pianists
can enjoy music by hearing a note in their heads, that's the way I am
about angles." He spoke like a man deep in his favorite subject.
Deflection is the angle by which a fighter pilot must aim ahead of his
opponent's speeding plane so that his bullets and the plane end up in
a tie in the sky. To aid ordinary fighter pilots in making these swift
and complicated calculations the Air Force supplied them with a gyro gun
sight which anticipated the angle of the fire for them. Pilots said of
Beurling that he carried his own gun sight in his head, so keen were his
eyes and so swift and faultless was the calculating equipment he had in
his brain. Beurling says he can see three times as far as most people.
"I could do just about as well with a plain ring sight as I could
with that Air Force sight which could never promise more than 15 or 20%
hits," said Beurling. "In fact, I have designed my own sight
which will guarantee 60% hits. I've made a working model of this and checked
it every way I can, short of actual air combat, and I'm sure it's the
best air gun sight in existence."
He was asked what he would do with it. Beurling grinned.
"It's going with me. I need it in my work."
Would he patent it?
"Perhaps," He said. "Just so long as the RCAF doesn't get
His War With the RCAF
Beurling first clashed with the Royal Canadian Air Force
a year before the war when he entered the aerobatic competition at a light
plane air show in Edmonton. Two RCAF fliers also competed and Beurling,
trained by Udet, then a commercial instructor in Portland, Ore., a year
before, won against both of them. Beurling rode the rods to the west coast
and took instruction from the famous flier with money he had saved. As
he stepped forward to receive his prize from a senior RCAF officer, George
remarked with a characteristic candor that often antagonizes people (much
to his surprise), "If that's the best the RCAF can do, it better
get some pilots."
Beurling is convinced that this was the reason the RCAF did not accept
his application in 1939. He went then to England and the RAF.
"I guess I sometimes rub people the wrong way, but I can't stand
sloppy performance no matter where," he said. "I have to mention
Flight commanders, squadron leaders, wing commanders and brass hats have
all been given a wrong rub by Beurling who has often chosen exposed and
public places to make his blunt pronouncements.
"It was that way I got a reputation for being a wild flier,"
said Beurling. "I'm not a crazy flier. If I were I wouldn't be alive
today. I've never scratched an aircraft because of my own error.
We were giving an air show in Malta to raise the morale of the Malts and
two wing commanders chose me to fly with them on this beat up. We flew
down a broad street dropping down below the level of the roofs. The wing
commanders told me to fly down the center straight and level while, they
formated on me. When we got back I didn't think much of this and I told
them so. They asked me what I would have done. I showed them. I flew down
the same street 50 feet off the deck—upside down. That's aerobats,
I said when I got back. And they got sore. I was a sergeant pilot at the
When Beurling first went on operations in England he was posted by the
RAF to a Canadian squadron because he was a Canadian. On one of his first
operational flights he tangled with authority and sowed the seeds of fact
and legend that later blossomed into his reputation.
"The squadron leader was a Canadian and he was permanent force. He's
also dead now so there's no point in mentioning his name. He told me to
fly tail end Charlie in red section, my usual spot. We were in the air
with our tails in the sun by the way, vulnerable to attack, when I called
up and reported Huns. The squadron leader gave me hell and told me to
stop trying to cause trouble in the air and to stop reporting Huns that
"Ten minutes later we were bounced and I got shot. It wasn't bad,
just a sliver of cannon shell that grazed my ribs. But I got a German,
my first, that day. When we got back on the ground I had my turn and bawled
the squadron leader out. I told him we might all have been killed."
Beurling, who was a sergeant at the time, had a feeling that there wasn't
much of a future on the squadron for him, so when a posting came through
for a squadron mate who had put in for Malta and had then got married
and wanted to stay in Britain, Beurling took the posting.
Beurling next came to the attention of the RCAF and Canada during the
Battle of Malta, when stories began to come out of that embattled isle
about a Canadian fighter pilot called Screwball Beurling who was hotter
than a 10-cent pipe.
Beurling had refused to accept a commission as a pilot officer. Finally
the RAF told him he was an officer whether he liked it or not and moved
his gear to the officers' mess. George, however, continued to eat with
the sergeants. The next day he shot down three 109's.
"In Malta we never used all that code stuff on the air. When we called
a guy up we called him Joe or Pete and they started to call me Screwball
because that was a word I used in describing things. You know, like 'What
a screwball kite this is' and that sort of thing. I got the name Buzz
for something else,'' and Beurling made a low sweeping motion with his
hand simulating a low-flying aircraft buzzing a field.
The RCAF's interest in Beurling increased in the fall of 1942 when word
was received that the great individualist, with a score of 29 enemy aircraft
destroyed, would soon return from Malta for a rest. Beurling had been
wounded in an air battle on Oct. 14.
Target for an Me109
Beurling remembers it all clearly.
"It was one o'clock in the afternoon and I was closing in on a 109G,
riding the prop with about 440 on the clock. I had given him one burst
and was contemplating another shot when I had a hunch that I should break.
I often have hunches and they have saved my life more than once. Just
as I was about to break there was a slapping sound on my Spit and my legs
were buffeted all over the cockpit. The controls jammed, oil filled the
cockpit and I started down in a left-hand power spin. I managed to crawl
to the door and fall out. The chute opened with a big slap and then the
109 who had shot me started target practice on me. The ones that came
close went zip and the tracer that was missing me by quite a bit went
whoosh. One of our guys came along and chased him away and I hit the drink.
My dinghy opened all right and it was then I noticed that I was shot in
"The air-sea rescue launch came out with the German bullets spattering
all around it and they drove on as though they were in a regatta. They
took me back and they had to build a new heel on my left foot. I got an
immediate D.S.O. that day," he said.
On that one mission, Beurling had shot down four aircraft, probably destroyed
two more and damaged one, bringing his Malta score to 28, his over-all
total to 29. He and three of his squadron mates had taken on 80-plus Germans.
The Liberator that took him and a score more airmen out of Malta overshot
the Gibraltar runway and crashed in the water. Beurling, his shattered
leg in a cast, but his judgment unimpaired, saw trouble ahead when the
pilot came over the end of the runway on his approach. He hobbled to an
escape hatch and by the time the big plane hit the water he had already
jettisoned the hatch and was ready to dive into the water. He swam 150
yards to safety.
He returned to Canada early in November, 1942, and began a tour which
set several records in hero worship, bond selling and bad taste. In his
native Verdun he received 29 red roses, one for each foeman he had slain.
Each rose was presented by a pretty girl. He went from coast to coast
while thousands cheered, gawked and bought bonds for victory. As the show
hit the road a murmurous clangor filled the star's ears until almost all
of it became completely meaningless.
"If I were ever asked to do that again I'd tell them all to go to
hell or else ask for a commission on the bonds I sold.
The Big Letdown
He found himself falling victim to a combatant's occupational
malaise, a great impatience with the people at home because they didn't
know and couldn't know what it was like over there.
"They say I got swelled-headed but I don't think I did. All I wanted
to do was to get away from those crowds and get back on operations. I
had a lot more combat hours to get in," he says.
In Vancouver he met Diana Gardiner, widow of a fighter pilot, and they
were later married. Their childless marriage recently ended in divorce.
"I guess I'm not a family man. I like flying too much and was away
a lot," said Beurling of his unsuccessful marriage.
Back in Britain, and still in the RAF, Beurling was given a posting to
training command. The brass said to him in effect, "You're the best
deflection shot we've got so you've got to teach others how to do it."
Beurling, who talks about himself and his talent with the same blunt scientific
impersonality as he discusses the shortcomings of others, believed then
as he does now that there is a strict limit to what can be taught. Unless
you've got a calibrated mental gimmick in your skull like George himself
you will probably never be terrific as an air shot.
He stuck the gunnery course from May through to September, 1943, and when
the RAF, which is still his favorite Air Force, still showed no signs
of putting him on operations again Beurling forgave the RCAF for once
spurning him and said he would transfer.
The Ace On the Carpet
The swearing-in ceremony at 20 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
the RCAF headquarters in London, took place while movie cameras ground
and senior officers beamed paternally on a native son come home. But first
it was necessary to get a hat for George. One of the conceits of fighter
pilots was to take the ring stiffener out of their caps so they would
subside into an amorphous "operational" blob. It was even said
that fighter pilots on arrival in heaven took the rings out of their halos.
Beurling's hat looked as though the camel corps had held maneuvers over
it. A hat was borrowed from one of the service photographers and the ceremony
went on and George went into the RCAF.
Right from the start there was an awkwardness about the new alliance,
due in part perhaps to a remark dropped conversationally by the newest
member of the RCAF. Beurling said after the swearing in that he had slept
the night before in the park across from RCAF Headquarters because he
had no place to go.
It was patiently explained that this was no way for an officer to act
and he was sent on his way to an RCAF station, taking with him much wise
counsel and leaving behind him the misgiving that perhaps the highly individualistic
hero might not fit too well into the well-disciplined RCAF machine.
"None of the RCAF wings wanted me. I had a reputation for being hard
to handle said Beurling. But he recalls the part played in his career
by Air Marshall W. A. Curtis, now Chief of the air staff in Ottawa, with
gratitude. [illegible] wise and kindly advice remains as one of the few
bright spots in Beurling's memory of the RCAF.
He Gave Himself Leave
"When I flew with them I flew as tail end Charlie
in red section, a place reserved for sergeant pilots," said Beurling.
"Even there I shot down some Germans and some of them didn't like
that. The officers on the wings seemed to resent me. I probably said a
few things about the way they were operating they didn't like, but I never
did like sloppy operations and I've always said so."
Beurling was given various jobs in connection with gunnery instruction
and says he accepted these noncombatant assignments without a whimper.
However, things did not go smoothly and one RCAF officer reported back
to Lincoln's Inn Fields that Beurling had been seen throwing his hat in
the air and shooting at it with his service revolver. And he was hitting
The uneasy mating of George Beurling and the RCAF came to an end in May,
1944, when word came from the station where the fighter pilot was stationed
that he was being court-martialed for low flying. The official version
was that Beurling, in defiance of a new and stern directive, had taken
a Tiger Moth and loudly beaten up the station while all the squadron leaders
and top brass were deep in conference.
Beurling's story is this: "I had been over at another station giving
some gunnery instruction and had taken a Moth to make the six-mile trip.
The ceiling was only 300 feet and I had to fly low. It was a routine flight
under low cloud, that's all." He's still angry about it.
Some of the unhappy aspects, of court-martialing a hero, such as the bad
publicity, were pointed out to his senior officers in the field by calmer
minds in London who were further away from the problem and Beurling and
consequently felt they had a better perspective. The court-martial was
quashed and Beurling who sometimes has the feeling he can't win except
in combat was criticized because he had beaten the rap.
He thought of going to India, but rejected the proposition when he found
out how few Japs there were to fight and returned unwillingly to training
command. He sent in his resignation and without waiting to hear of its
reception took off his tunic, a tunic bearing almost the whole heroic
spectrum of medals—the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished
Flying Cross and Distinguished Flying Medal and Bar. All decorations were
received in 1942 while he was stationed at Malta. The DFM is the decoration
for non-commissioned pilots and is regarded by connoisseurs of gongs as
the toughest and best to get. Then he gave himself leave. He was discharged
in Montreal in September.
That was the end of Beurling's short unhappy association with the RCAF.
He would never join it again, he says, under any condition. In the RCAF
itself there is resentment against a man who, some think, thought he was
bigger than the force. There is, too, a deep regret that Beurling's individualism
would not permit him to stay and grow with the RCAF.
Reflecting on this, a senior officer said recently, "He could have
been another Billy Bishop—a distinguished citizen. I wish there
were something we could do for him, but even if he wanted to I don't think
he would fit into the peacetime RCAF where discipline is even stricter
and flying is even more standardized than it was during the war."
They May Even Have Spitfires
Beurling is looking forward to the future with
new interest and enthusiasm. The last eight months have been bad,
he says, but now that his course of action is clear he feels that
he is fulfilling a destiny which was indicated when as a child of
14 he learned to fly.
His face brightened as he spoke of possible new theatres. "They
may even have Spitfires out there in Palestine," he said and
paused. The slightly surging buzz of a distant aircraft came down
the soft spring air to the hotel room. "Stinson," he said
Glad to get back into combat
then continued. "They came to me and said they
were going to buy bombers, but I talked them out of it. Now they're going
to buy fighters. It will be a war of shallow penetrations with lots of
strafing. The Jews have four former Luftwaffe pilots lined up to fight
with them. I've met one of them. He's in Detroit now. His brother was
shot down over Malta."
"No, not by me. We checked that. An Englishman shot him. But he's
a keen type, this fellow. Really interested in combat."
Beurling stood up and stretched his six feet of well-nourished fighter
pilot. He had been sitting for a long time talking. When he talks air
war he forgets the time.
"I'm in good shape, too. I've done lots of skiing this past winter.
I don't smoke and I don't know the taste of liquor. I guess you've heard
lots of stories about how Beurling was tight as a lord. Well, they're
lies. Don't know the taste of the stuff," he said.
We went down to the street. The fine spring day had suddenly turned cool.
"I don't care what you say about me. I don't care what anyone says
any more. But don't bring my family into the article. My father's a religious
man and he doesn't like wars. One night when I was talking about air combat
he looked worried and said 'George, when you look like this I don't know
you,'" said Beurling.
We shook hands and said good-by. Beurling turned up the collar of his
topcoat and thrust his hands deep in the pockets as he walked down the
street all alone.
--- Beurling ---
--- Canadian Aces ---