The Canadian 'Falcon of Malta' who died for Israel

'Top Guns': The little-known story of the decorated Canadian WWII pilot who died mysteriously in 1948 after joining the Israeli Air Force.

Erol Araf ,

Noorduyn Norseman
Noorduyn Norseman
ISTOCK

One of the most successful and decorated Canadian World War II "Top Guns," George Frederic' Buzz' Beurling, was born in Montreal one hundred years ago on December 6, 1921. After the war, he joined the nascent Israeli Air Force to fight in the War of Independence and was killed mysteriously in 1948: It was a lamentable end to a dazzling dream.

This is his story.

'Buzz' was, without a shadow of a doubt, among the most accomplished fighter pilots in military aviation. He was considered a "lone wolf" who spent more time mathematically calculating optimal shots from various angles and distances to maximize Spitfire ammunition than having a pint with his mates. For example, Beurling found that by shooting cannon on the approximated flight path of an enemy plane, one could attack the aircraft without straightening one's tail, utilizing a side angle. Pilots who flew with Beurling said that he would notice approaching planes before anyone else and count them. As others were unable to see what he was talking about, they thought that he was nervous or tense, but in the end, he was always accurate.

Known as "The Falcon of Malta," he and other ‘Top Guns’ played a significant role in preventing Hitler and Mussolini from occupying the island and turning the western Mediterranean into an Axis lake, thus securing the vital lines of communication for their North African campaigns. Accordingly, the dictators blockaded the strategically located island, intercepted supplies to the besieged British forces, and bombed the small island incessantly. The Germans and Italians flew over 3000 bombing raids, dropping 6,700 tons of bombs on the Grand Harbor area alone: the archipelago was largely reduced to rubble. In May 1941, Erwin Rommel warned that "Without Malta, the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa." In Churchill and Malta's War, 1939-1945, Douglas Austin argues that the Prime Minister understood that without Malta's ability to attack ships resupplying German forces in North Africa, victory in Europe would be delayed by up to a year. Victory on the shores of the burning island enabled the Allies to use it as an unsinkable carries in the subsequent invasion of Italy leading to the collapse of the Berlin-Rome Axis.

With little or no food, shortage of spare parts and fuel, Buzz and his fellow pilots fought bravely against all odds. They launched sorties after sorties, with little rest, as waves of enemy warplanes tried to force Malta into submission. Each Nazi assault was confronted and repulsed with the defiant roar of Spitfires resulting in the decimation of the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica Italiana. Those who fought the Axis were often reminded by Admiral of the Fleet, Andrew Browne Cunningham of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Knights Hospitaller who fought valiantly against Suleiman the Magnificent’s superior forces. 'Buzz' shot 27 Axis warplanes in two weeks in 1942 and earned another sobriquet:”Knight of the Sky.”

Churchill's commendation issued after the Battle of Britain in 1940 "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" found new resonance as the Pact of Steel's Maltese dreams were shattered on the shores of a blood-drenched island thanks mainly to Beurling and his band of brothers.

After the war, as Israel's War of Independence was about to start, 'Buzz' deeply felt that Arab threats to destroy the fledgling Jewish State would amount to granting Hitler a posthumous victory. Without hesitation, Beurling decided to take to the skies yet again and help Israel survive. The fledgling Israel Air Force was forged in battle, but most pilots and aircrew were overseas volunteers. The reason for this disastrous situation was that Britain, in charge of the Palestine Mandate before May 15, 1948, had refused to accept Palestinian Jews who wanted serve in the RAF until 1943 - almost four years into the war. When the 1948 War broke out, there were only 25 Jewish pilots: the rest came from abroad, including my boss at Israel Aerospace Industries, the late Al Shwimmer, an American, who organized the smuggling of jets into Israel.

'Buzz's' decision to join the fray did not come as a surprise to George's brother Rick who told Itay Itamar, writing for the Israel Air Force Journal that the family had been brought up on Holy Scriptures and that both he and 'Buzz' shared a Judeo-Christian world view.

"We very much identified with the history of the people of Israel. Our father always said that one day Israel would become an independent state, and we always waited for it to happen," remembered Rick. "I think that after George's experience in World War II, together with the fact that Israel was about to become a nation, he ran to help. Even though he wasn't Jewish, he had a Jewish heart “said Rick Beurling.

‘Buzz’ contacted Sydney Solomon, a Montreal Jewish community leader who was deeply involved in Jewish and Israeli affairs. It was not easy: Solomon was suspicious and questioned Buerling's motives. "Sydney sat with us in the kitchen and told us that it was challenging for them to believe my brother because he thought that it was a trick or a type of bait," recalled Rick during Itamar’s interview. But, 'Buzz' convinced him as he answered each question with a quote from the Bible. He wanted to be part of the epic struggle about to unfold and burned with the desire to defend the Jewish State. Beurling, a religious man versed in the Holy Books, could not imagine that a few years after the liberation of concentration camps, another holocaust might be inflicted on the Jewish people.

According to Itamar, as soon as Beurling received the green light at the outbreak of the War of Independence, he joined Leonard Yehuda Cohen, a British ace who had also fought in Malta. Both pilots volunteered in the nascent Israeli air force. 'Buzz's' first operation was to bring a Norseman plane from Italy to Israel on May 20, 1948. But, the aircraft exploded and crashed in mysterious circumstances in Rome as many believe that the plane was sabotaged before it took off. He was twenty-seven years old when he died.

His charred remains were unclaimed and kept in a warehouse in the Verano Monumental Cemetery for five months. Eventually, Beurling, the romantic war hero, was interred in Rome's Protestant Memorial Garden, appropriately enough, between the graves of Percy Bysshe Shelly and John Keats.

Although we don't have access to all the relevant documents, the suspicious circumstances concerning the crash have been discussed in many books, including Brian Nolan's The Buzz Beurling Story. Suffice to note that the World War II ace had many powerful foes: Pro- Arab western secret services were fiercely opposed to his activities; Rome was full of Nazis signing up to fight with the Arabs; remnants of the SS were sworn to settle scores with the "Maltese Falcon"; and Arab intelligence services were determined to prevent incipient Israel from attaining air superiority, especially as Beurling was about to fly the P-51 Mustang. But the possibility of an accident, however, cannot be discounted.

At the suggestion of the State of Israel and with the approval of the Beurling family, on November 9, 1950, George's remains were brought from Italy to Israel. He was laid to eternal rest with full military honors in the Christian cemetery in Haifa.

On the 60th Anniversary of his internment, it was decided, based on the family's request, to grant George a full Jewish commemorative service in Haifa. The memorial service was attended by the crew of the "Flying Camel" squadron, the commander of the squadron, and the head of the Department of Fallen Soldiers, Lt. Col. Danny Shneidman, who accompanied the Beurling family during their first visit to Israel. The Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Jon Allen, and the Canadian Defense Attaché to Israel Col. Geordie Elms, too, were present.



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