The Nazi-killing odyssey of "Screwball" Beurling,
top ace of Britain's RAF, turned down in 1940 by the Canadian Air Force
because he hadn't cut his cultural teeth.
WHEN George Beurling walked into the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting
center in Montreal, about the time France fell, and told them he wanted
to be a Spitfire pilot, the officer-in-charge brushed the youngster off
with a laconic "Sorry, son, but you haven't had enough schooling
to fly with the RCAF. Come back when you graduate." When Beurling
asked if they'd like to see the private pilot's license he had earned
by scratching every dime he could find for flying lessons, the answer
was simply "Sorry." Whereupon the seventeen-year-old went away
from there, fit to cry, but still convinced he had been born to «hoot
When Pilot Officer George Beurling, of Britain's Royal Air Force, not
Canada's, came back to Montreal on leave from Malta two and a half years
later as the third-ranking combat pilot of the British Empire and first
in the immediate records, the higher learning was still missing, but his
point had been proved. Instead of doctorates and magna cum laude credentials,
the kid from the wrong side of the tracks brought home a tally of twenty-nine
enemy planes shot down, all but the first pair in less than four months
of action over Malta, plus a number of "probables" and "enemy
aircraft damaged," plus four decorations for outstanding bravery
and a commission won in battle. The faces of the Canadian recruiting officers
were noticeably red.
What happened to Beurling during the intervening months is spun from the
same stuff with which the lamented Horatio Alger, Jr., used to inspire
Young America to great deeds a couple of generations ago. The RAF has
a motto for it in the Latin tag which appears on the insignia of the force,
Per Ardua ad Astra, a free translation of which might read "To the
stars, the hard way." That was Beurling's route.
The day the Canadian Air Force turned him down for lack of the three R's,
the boy went home and did some heavy solo thinking. Home was, and still
is, the upper flat of a weatherworn frame cottage in Verdun, a working-class
suburb of Montreal.
He shut the bedroom door and pondered a life-ruined by red tape before
its eighteenth birthday. Gone were all the dimes and quarters and dollars
he had scrimped to buy flying time from Ted Hogan and'' Fizzy " Champagne,
the prewar bush pilots who had been his civilian instructors. That's what
comes of preferring engines to high schools! But you can't kill an obsession
just by saying "No" to the party-obsessed. By the time George
rolled into bed his mind was made up. Somehow he would make his way to
England and see if the hard-pressed British could use a guy with a private
license and a yen to fly fighters. Within a few days he was at sea, working
his way across on a merchantman in convoy.
In England, Beurling told a recruiting officer his story. The officer
said, "Splendid. But have you your parents' permission to join up?
After all, you're a minor, old boy!" George shipped for the return
trip to Canada, to get a letter from his folks.
The Nazis scored a hit on his ship, but it stayed afloat and limped into
an anonymous east-coast port, whence the young man hotfooted it to Montreal
and the little house at 315 Rielle Avenue, Verdun. With money earned during
the two-way Atlantic passage, he hired a car and took his mother riding
in the country. The outing was what mom calls a "treat," since
the family doesn't own a car, though Beurling pere paints them with a
spray gun in the body plant where he works. Mrs. Beurling's passion for
motoring made the boy's task easy. Once the papers were signed, the lad
waited just long enough to pick up his laundry and kiss the folks good-by
before returning to Britain on a munitions ship. This time the recruiting
officer said "Yes," and Beurling was in the RAF.
The kids who fly the Spitfires are good pilots. They have to be good to
survive. And once in a while one turns up who is superb. Such young men
combine flying skill with marksmanship in such perfect co-ordination that
every movement they execute while the undercart is up is performed as
if flying and shooting were one and the same thing. It is that strange
magic called timing, and either you have it or you haven't. Beurling has
it, plus the approach of a scientific perfectionist to his trade. His
squadron leader in Malta calls him “the perfect mathematician of
the air," going on from there to discuss the precision of the deflection-shooting
by means of which the young man bagged most of his kill. That means timing
your burst to arrive at a given point at the precise moment when the enemy
reaches it, and it is a matter of split-second reckoning relating to two
planes, yours and the victim's, which will be miles apart a minute later
if you miss.
"People keep asking me what my system is," Beurling says. "It's
a matter of training your eyes to focus swiftly on any small object that's
out there. The trickiest part of this is deflection shooting, or shooting
across the beam of an enemy aircraft traveling 300 miles an hour or better.
It means you fire well ahead of it, if your bullets aren't going to pass
hopelessly behind. I've never stopped practicing this."
It was 1942 by the time the young transatlantic wayfarer had shucked off
all the red tape and worked his way up to sergeant pilot's rank and was
posted for combat duty to an operations squadron in Britain. Things were
pretty dull in Western Europe. Now and then he picked up a dogfight and
once was caught flat-footed under a cloud bank by five Focke-Wulfs while
alone on a sweep over Occupied France.
Before they could get him, Beurling had let down the wheels and the wing
flaps and yanked the slowed-up Spit into a tight inside loop. By the time
the visitors spotted him again he was a speck in the distance, heading
for home. That, he says, is the only time they ever caught him off his
Over France he picked up his first two scores, but he was still just another
young pilot called George when he went to the orderly room and asked his
commanding officer for a transfer to Malta, where things were happening.
He went there in June.
The going was hot in Malta last summer. The Germans and Italians—
Beurling insists the latter are better fliers than the Nazis—were
pasting the island day in and out and attacking British convoys headed
for Gibraltar or Egypt. Enemy convoys were thrusting across the Mediterranean
to reinforce and supply the Afrika Korps, and their aircraft were running
a day-and-night shuttle service over the main line. Allied fliers were
banging Rommel's rear and going to work on Axis shipping, in addition
to providing their own with an umbrella.
Beurling's mates say he would make six, seven and sometimes eight operational
flights a day. When he wasn't flying he was either practicing gunnery
tricks or boning up new ideas to be tested in tomorrow's battles. The
citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross called him "an exceptional
pilot who continues to be the inspiration of all who come in contact with
him." But his fellow pilots christened him "Screwball."
In the first days at Malta he was undisciplined and cocky. You can't peel
out of formation and go hunting on your own whenever the whim occurs and
make friends. But it didn't take long to convince Beurling that he couldn't
fight a one-man war. Once he had accepted that and settled into the groove
he began to go places. A lot of credit belongs to his RAF bosses. They
might easily have destroyed his spirit during the deflation process, but
they left it intact.
Blunt speech, easily mistaken for freshness in a youngster, was George's
hallmark—and still is. There was, for example, the incident which
the literati of the RAF are wont to mention as The Case of the Refused
Commission, whenever the Beurling saga is being examined, which is daily
in most fighter messes. It happened before George went to Malta. His commanding
officer, a paternal gentleman, had been thinking how nice it would be
if a youngster of promise were invited to eat at the officers' mess. Any
other sergeant pilot on the station would have jumped at the chance. Not
"Look," he said, "I'm not the sort of guy who should be
an officer. I'm better like this."
No Desk Flier
"But," countered the wing commander, "don’t you want
to get ahead? Don't you want to be in command of a station someday?"
"Wha-a-a-at!" cried Beurling, horrified. "Spend all my
time flying a desk? No, sir, not me!"
He didn't get the commission—not until the kinks had been ironed
out. Even then he let it be known that he didn't particularly want it.
By the time all the medals had been distributed and the pilot officer's
suit acquired, Beurling's brashness was curbed, but the flair for forthright
speech remained. Only he now applies it to the enemy and to the day's
A strange mixture, this young flier. You think of a cold-blooded killer;
then he says that, if he had the courage to stick it out until he made
the grade, the credit belongs to his parents for their encouragement and
the kind of home-life background they had given him. You think of a hard-spoken
kid; then he wilts with emotion when the Prime Minister of Canada shakes
his hand. Many things have happened to this externally case-hardened youngster
during the past two years, and. most of them happened the hard way.
On one point his seniors were unanimous while they were hammering discipline
into him: the boy was the best combat pilot to turn up since Paddy Finucane.
Beurling was sending Huns into the sea in flames, in clouds of smoke,
in bits and pieces. He shot them down singly and he shot them in bunches.
On July twelfth he knocked off three Italian Macchi 202's. He had other
triple-killing days and, on July twenty-seventh, he hit the jack pot by
shooting down two Messerschmitt 109's and two Macchis and damaging two
Decorations began to come his way in midsummer, while he was still Sergeant
Beurling. The Distinguished Flying Medal came when he had shot down his
eleventh enemy plane and his ninth at Malta. The bar to his DFM was awarded
a few weeks later. Meanwhile the ex-problem child had been commissioned
pilot officer, despite his restated aversion to "spit-and-polish."
After moving his kit across to the officers' quarters he took to the air
and went Hun hunting, just to prove to himself that his new status didn't
mean a thing. On October tenth he was awarded the Distinguished Flying
Cross for "destroying two enemy fighters and probably a third, in
a matter of seconds."
On October twenty-third he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order,
second only to the Victoria Cross, for his exploits nine days earlier
when, in addition to destroying three enemy aircraft, he saved his flight
commander from certain death by removing a Hun from the gentleman's tail
by the accepted Beurling method, a quick burst of gunfire.
That day he destroyed two 109's and a Junkers 88 before his controls and
a piece of his left heel were shot away. For the first time "Screwball"
took to the silk. When a crash-boat crew fished him out of the Mediterranean,
he told them the parachute ride had been swell fun.
The medicos at Malta dried him out and encased his wounded heel in plaster
and he was furloughed. At Gibraltar he sat around moodily for several
days, waiting for a transport plane to carry him to England. But the strange,
charmed odyssey of the boy who refused to be kept out of the war was not
ended. As the huge Liberator took off from the Rock it tripped on a hilltop
and catapulted into the sea, killing sixteen passengers and crew members
and seriously injuring eleven. Young Mr. Beurling came ashore with superficial
bruises! In Britain he rested briefly in hospital, then caught a Canada-bound
The kid wilted under the withering fire of the home-front welcome.
Mom had been saving her sugar coupons against this day and piling her
pantry shelves high with pies and cakes. Pop was thinking seriously of
taking a day off from the body factory. Ten-year-old Dick was counting
the hours to the time when he would sit across the kitchen table from
his brother and George would tell him how it was done. Five-year-old Dave
simply wanted to look at the hero, and sis and her husband figured to
drop around for a talk. Maybe pop would read a chapter from the Bible,
and the reunited family would thank God together for George's safe return.
In all of which the Beurlings counted without the Canadian government,
Montreal's million residents and the press liaison officers of the Air
Life Becomes Too Strenuous
First the family was invited to be at the flying field
at a given hour in the evening. They went in their Sunday best. Pretty
soon a ferry-command officer came along and said "Any minute now,"
and a big bomber slid in along the runway. Flashlights popped. The bomber
door opened and Pilot Officer Beurling stepped out. Mother, father, sister
and brothers all embraced the returning hero. Then the shooting started.
Lock, stock and barrel the Beurlings were bundled into the big ship, mom's
new hat slightly awry and her voice complaining that her feet ached. With
that the door slammed shut and the ship taxied out for the take-off. Forty
minutes later the Beurlings landed at Ottawa, to be whisked to a hotel
suite and whisked right out again to the Parliament Buildings to meet
Prime Minister King. Everybody said how proud they were, the Prime Minister
to meet George, and all the Beurlings to meet the P. M. Then they were
whisked back to the hotel, where George went to sleep before they could
get him out of his uniform.
During successive days the hero of Malta was rushed from reception to
reception, from luncheon to dinner party, from broadcast to broadcast,
while mom sat at home wondering when George would be coming home to get
some sleep and go to work on the pies.
Finally he collapsed in a broadcasting studio, shortly before he was due
on the air for an interview. Officialdom, alarmed, sent for the sawbones,
who prescribed complete rest.
To all these goings-on Pilot Officer Beurling had one major contribution
to make. That was in the auditorium, down home in Verdun, the night of
the big welcome. Girl Guides had just come to the dais to present him
with twenty-nine red roses, one for every notch in the handle of his gun.
Beurling took the roses and handed them to mom. When the applause died
he thanked his townsfolk nervously; then, clearing his throat and visibly
dying a thousand deaths, he said: "This is no place for me! I'm a
That was the old "Screwball" Beurling of Malta, worn down to
his uppers, but telling the world that the odyssey isn't finished yet!
--- Screwball Beurling ---
--- Canadian Aces ---