One of the most successful and decorated World War II pilots, Montreal-born George Frederic “Buzz” Beurling, was killed mysteriously while flying to Israel to join the War of Independence in 1948.
Beurling was, without a shadow of doubt, among the most accomplished fighter pilots in military aviation. Known as the “Falcon of Malta,” he played a major role in preventing Hitler and Mussolini from occupying the island and turning the western Mediterranean into an Axis lake. Beurling and his fellow pilots fought valiantly against all odds as waves of enemy war planes 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. Buzz alone shot down 27 Axis war planes in two weeks in 1942.
Winston Churchill’s immortal commendation issued after the Battle of Britain in 1940 that “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.
After the war, as Israel’s War of Independence was about to start, Beurling felt deeply 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.
This did not come as a surprise to Beurling’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 his brother 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,” Rick recalled. “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.”
Beurling’s first operation was to bring a Norseman plane from Italy to Israel on May 20, 1948. But, the plane exploded and crashed in mysterious circumstances in Rome. Many believe the plane was sabotaged before it took off. Beurling was 27 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 poets Percy Bysshe Shelley 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 nascent Israel from attaining air superiority, especially as Beurling was about to fly the vaunted P-51 Mustang fighter in defending Israel.
At the suggestion of the State of Israel and with the wholehearted support of the Beurling family, on Nov. 9, 1950, Beurling’s remains were brought from Italy to Israel. He was laid to eternal rest with full military honours in a Christian cemetery in Haifa.
Capt. Percy “Laddie” Lucas, a former commander of Beurling in Malta, remembered clearly that he was “untidy, with a shock of tousled hair, penetrating blue eyes, smiled a lot, was highly strung, brash and outspoken… something of a rebel.”
But the James Dean of Canadian fighter pilots was a rebel with a cause.