Title: “Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story”
Author: Brian Nolan
Publisher: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd. (1981)
A few weeks ago, I got tapped to build a Spitfire Vc for the Museum of Flight Aces display, and of course, it must be Beurling. So, I finally read "Hero" by Brian Nolan. I remember badly wanting a copy of this book as a kid, but never got one, even the paperback. I bought a copy soon after becoming an employed member of society, but never got around to reading it. As I needed to build his Spitfire, I thought it was about time.
George “Buzz” Beurling is an interesting character. Was he someone that just loved to fly and fight? A psychopath? A hero? Lucky? A political pawn? A spy? Just misunderstood?
In “Hero”, Canadian journalist Brian Nolan explores the life of this complex man. Starting with his life in Verdun Quebec as a child of a strict religious family, to becoming obsessed with aviation (Buzz earned money for flying lessons by selling models), to his time in Malta, and finally his mysterious death in Italy, Beurling is an enigma. A great pilot and gunner, he was anti authority and mostly anti-social. A teetotaler, he made comments about fighting that have some labeling him a psychopath. (I do wonder how much we can take from some of his public statements. Was he just winding everyone up? Saying things to get attention?)
Everywhere Beurling went, controversy followed. He tried to join the RCAF, but they turned him down. A trip to the US bore no fruit, so he traveled to England and joined the RAF. After the usual training, he flew with 41 Squadron and got his first two kills. A Sergeant pilot, he was often offered a commission, and always turned it down. (He finally became an officer over his objections.) But it wasn’t until he flew his Spitfire off the HMS Eagle to Malta that he became a hero. His feats in Malta are the stuff of legends, though life on the Island was hard, and Beurling had quite a few accidents. (He was one of three survivors of a Liberator crash in Gibraltar on his way home to Canada.)
Returning home to Canada he was feted in public, spoke to sell War Bonds, and seemingly a political pawn used by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. This is most obvious in his transfer to the RCAF and a return to Europe to fly Spitfire IXs with 403 and 412 Squadron. He did not play well with others and scoffed at authority and RCAF fighter tactics. The hero only got two more kills and was sent home and out of the RCAF by D-Day. (There is a great story in the book, that Buzz approached the RCAF higher-ups to be allowed to start his own “flying circus” of four P-51s and three hand-picked pilots to cherry pick attached over Germany. If only…)
Returning to Canada, his life gets confusing. He married a woman from British Columbia and carried on an affair with an American socialite. Sometimes it appeared he had unlimited wealth, other times, it was as if he was a pauper. He told crazy stories and spent time hanging out with all sorts at Quebec ski resorts. And it only gets more confusing when the war ended. Beurling still wanted to fly and fight and told some he was getting paid big bucks to fight against Israel. But it appears he joined the Israeli Air Force for no payment due to his strong religious beliefs. Was he a spy for the English? A mercenary?
Everything got more confusing on May 20, 1948, when Beurling and one other pilot were killed in a crash of a Noorduyn Norseman in Rome. Did something just go wrong, or was it sabotage? Beurling was buried in a cemetery in Italy near Shelley and Keats. But even in death, Beurling could not stand still. His family was not happy that he was buried in Italy, and with the consent of his estranged wife, and in 1950 his body was exhumed and reburied in Israel.
Nolan’s book is a great examination of the man, a breezy read, and well written. (Other than an odd blast at excessive pro sports salaries…why do so many side with the extravagantly wealthy owners?) It asks the same questions I have above, with few answers. But someone should option this book for a movie, some of the stories are just too good to be true.
Next on the table is Buzz’s autobiography!
After reading the book, I compiled a list of Buzz's Spits in Malta. Kills in brackets. BR130 is his most flown aircraft, but not the only one he crashed. Sadly, I haven't found the others he pranged yet.
BR130 T-D (No kills. Crashed 7/14/42)
BR135 T-Z (2)
BR301 UF-S (5)
BR323 S (4)
BR380 (No kills. Flew off the HMS Eagle)
EP706 T-L (4)