Canada's greatest Second World War air ace also hailed as hero in Israel

George (Buzz) Beurling, a Canadian fighter ace during the Second World War, marks up his kill of enemy aircraft. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

MONTREAL - Flight Lt. George (Buzz) Beurling, Canada's deadliest air ace in the Second World War, earned the nickname "the Falcon of Malta" after his eagle eyes and quick trigger finger sent a record number of attacking German and Italian pilots spinning to the ground in flames.

Hailed in Canada for racking up 31 aerial dogfight kills, he's also a hero in Israel after signing up to fight in that country's 1948 War of Independence.

But his brother Richard remembers him as the "good, all-round guy" who mastered the harmonica and took him up in a two-seater airplane to do aerobatics and buzz the family home.

"For our parents, he was just their son. For me, he was a brother and he was a lot of fun."

Despite his bravery in the cockpit, however, George Beurling had to grapple like other combat veterans with the horrors he had seen.

"He had trouble sleeping at night," said Richard Beurling. He added that while present-day soldiers can receive help for post-traumatic stress disorder, which in George Beurling's era was described as "battle fatigue" or "shell shock," such treatment wasn't available for his brother.

"He couldn't get anything like that," Richard Beurling said. "It just wasn't being recognized. There were several times that my dad would drive him around Montreal throughout the night, praying with him, talking to him, counselling him because he didn't get that kind of counselling from doctors."

He was sometimes haunted by the close-quarters combat, Beurling's brother said.

"It was a big problem because he saw the men he'd killed. Sometimes he said he could look right in their eyes. He could see them because he would be that close to them."

And like most other vets, the fighter pilot didn't like talking about what he saw on the battlefield.

"He liked to talk about fishing and hunting."

George Beurling was born in Montreal in 1921 and was first drawn to flying when his father made him a small wooden airplane when he was seven.

The youngster was soon studying aviation more closely than his schoolwork, his father said in later years, and even wanted to build his own airplane, using a motorcycle engine. His parents kiboshed that idea.

He took his first flying lesson when he was 14.

"When he became interested in flying, I think that probably took over most of his life," said Richard Beurling, who said he could understand because he himself learned to fly at age 13.

George Beurling briefly flew for a cargo company in Gravenhurst, Ont. When the Second World War broke out, he wanted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and be a fighter pilot.

But in an odd twist of fate, the RCAF didn't initially want the man who would become the country's greatest Second World War ace. It turned him down because he hadn't finished high school.

It didn't stop him. He decided he would go to England and join the Royal Air Force.

That wasn't easy either even though the British were desperate for pilots as the threat of Nazi invasion loomed.

George Beurling signed on with a converted cattle ship ferrying supplies to the embattled country, planning to jump ship in England and then sign up with the air force. Again, he was stymied.

"He was obviously young," Richard Beurling said of his brother, who was 18 at the time. "He didn't have his birth certificate with him, he didn't have a letter of approval from his parents. They said, 'well, look, lad, go and get that and then come back.'

"And that's what he did."

The voyage home would be slower with the ship limping to Montreal after taking torpedo damage from a German submarine lurking in the inky waters of the North Atlantic.

Once the ship was repaired, he signed on again, sailed back and got into the RAF, sliding into one of the legendary Spitfire fighter planes.

Accounts have said he sometimes rubbed superiors the wrong way because he shunned teamwork and chafed at authority. It was said he developed a reputation as a loner but Richard Beurling says that doesn't sound like his brother.

"I've heard from just reading articles that when he didn't get a positive response from the leader of a flight, he took off and he got in trouble for that," Richard Beurling said. "Apparently that was not a thing to do.

"Knowing him as an individual, he wasn't a maverick by practice or habit, I don't think."

Beurling said his brother was "a very social guy" but wondered if he didn't fit in with some of the others in the RAF and later the RCAF because he was younger than many, wasn't as educated as some pilots and officers who had completed university, didn't smoke or drink strong liquor, and hewed to his deep faith.

He always climbed into his cockpit with a small Bible given to him by his mother tucked into his pocket. He once refused to get into a rescue boat after being shot down in the Mediterranean until he fished the book out of the bottom of the dinghy in which he'd been stranded.

Whatever his traits, no one could dispute his prowess behind a gunsight, particularly on the beseiged island of Malta. It was a particular target because it was the perfect place from which to attack Axis relief and supplies headed to North Africa.

After seeing some action in Europe, Beurling volunteered for service in Malta, arriving there at the height of the seige in June 1942. It was there he would gain his greatest noteriety, shooting down 29 enemy planes, 27 of them in two weeks.

Beurling excelled at anticipating enemy manoeuvres in the air and in deflection shooting, which involves firing ahead of a moving target so the target and the bullets eventually collide.

"Sometimes the pilots he flew with thought he was just nervous because he would say 'I see some planes coming' and actually it was proved that he did see planes," Richard Beurling said.

"Apparently he had very good eyesight that was maybe better than normal."

It was said Beurling, who scanned the skies when aloft looking for enemy aircraft, could spot incoming planes when they were barely specks on the horizon and could count them.

The Malta assignment took a heavy toll on him.

Poor rations put him in hospital with dysentery and he was shot down four times over Malta, suffering wounds to his heel, elbow and ribs.

In his last encounter on Malta, he launched a head-on attack on enemy bombers, destroying one before he saw his leader being attacked. Although wounded, he took out that enemy fighter and then climbed again to shoot down another as his aircraft was peppered with German shells and shot down.

"He had pieces of shrapnel that would work out of his body, little pieces would just fester and come to the surface so he must have been pretty close to the opportunity of being killed," recalled Richard Beurling.

He remembers seeing his brother being treated in a Montreal hospital when he returned to Canada in 1942 at the request of the federal government to participate in a bond drive.

"He was just skin and bones at the time," Beurling said of his normally slender sibling.

Beurling would return to England with the RCAF for active combat duty in 1943.

He would go on to raise his total of enemy aircraft shot down to 31. He got an honourable discharge from the RCAF in 1944.

After the war, Beurling's hero status didn't wane. His brother remembers him being surrounded by a crowd of 50 schoolkids who spotted them on the street and sought his autograph. Another time, neighbourhood children showed up at the family home with cloths in their hands and announced they had polished his car.

"I think they knew he had a soft heart for them," Beurling said of his brother who adored children. "He gave me a little bit of money and said, 'take the kids to the store and get them some candy'."

As much as he indulged the youngsters he met when he returned home, he also carried in his heart the memories of the children he'd seen in the war zones where he fought.

"He was really struck with the kids around Malta that were maimed and killed and that bothered him a lot," Richard Beurling said.

For all his accolades, however, George Beurling oddly found it hard to get back into the air after leaving the military. Commercial airlines, including Air Canada, took a pass when he applied for a pilot's job.

"Because of his age and because of the reputation that followed him, nobody would even consider it," Richard Beurling said. "He was pretty upset about that."

An attempt to rejoin the RCAF also fell on deaf ears.

"Some of the problems he had had with somebody in the RCAF came back to haunt him," Richard Beurling said.

It was the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 that finally provided an opportunity.

He was sought out by the Arabs, who offered him large amounts of money to train their pilots but he turned them down because his sympathies lay with Israel.

The Israelis were reluctant to take him on, however, because he had been approached by the Arabs. Beurling, who was not Jewish, showed the same determination that got him into the RAF and kept coming back.

Former RCAF ace Sydney Shulemson, who was locating planes and recruiting pilots for the fledgling Israeli Air Force at the time, said in later years that Beurling quoted Bible passages when he asked him why he wanted to fly for the emerging state. He replied he believed the Jewish people were supposed to go back to Israel.

"He wanted to be part of it," Richard Beurling quoted Shulemson as saying.

George Beurling was finally accepted and was to teach tactics to Israeli recruits. One of his first duties, however, was to ferry a new aircraft to Israel. He sent his mother a package of postcards of Italy the day before takeoff and said he'd be taking the aircraft up for a test first.

The plane burst into flames shortly after getting airborne on May 20, 1948. Mystery has swirled around the crash ever since although Richard Beurling said the Israelis believe the airplane was sabotaged.

Beurling was initially buried in Italy although the Canadian government asked his family if they wanted to return him to Canada at their expense. They opted to go with a heartfelt offer from Israel that came a few days later, saying it would be their honour to inter the pilot in their country because he was an "inspiration."

Beurling's father said at the time he believed that was fitting because his son"dedicated his last days to fight for the cause of Israel." He was laid to rest in Haifa and is still celebrated by the Israeli military decades after his death.

Richard Beurling described his older brother as someone who wanted to put his special skills to use for his country.

"I know that most people would say that it was because he simply wanted to fly," Beurling said. "That was a big part of it but we'd also like people to remember that he was also a Canadian boy."