by Robin J Brooks
He became the top-scoring fighter pilot in Malta. He was also a non-conformist to rules and regulations and something of a rebel when it came to authority. In all other respects, however, George F. “Screwball” Beurling was a superb pilot eventually becoming a legend on Malta.
Until he arrived there in June 1942, very little was known about him except the fact that he was often severely reprimanded for his “cavalier” attitude. Transfer to Malta and in particular attachment to No 249 (Gold Coast) Squadron was to bring out the best in him thus changing the impression that he had so easily created for himself.
George Beurling had applied to join the RCAF in 1940 but lacked the educational qualifications to enable him to become a pilot. Not being content with any other occupation, he worked his passage to Britain and joined the RAF where he was accepted for aircrew training. He was untidy, a non-conformist with a shock of hair and a sallow complexion.
Although sometimes very undisciplined, he passed his flying training with no problems and was soon in the thick of the fighting. He gained two early victories but was severely reprimanded for breaking away from the accepted formation pattern to do so. It seemed that he was hellbent on shooting down every enemy aircraft himself no matter what methods he used.
This of course did not please his superiors who regarded him as somewhat reckless. It was known that the more difficult and individual pilots were sent overseas in the hope that they would learn to conform and would not aggravate the top brass of the RAF in the UK. In the case of Sgt Beurling, this could not have been closer to the truth. 249 Squadron was to make him into a hero.
The Squadron itself was originally formed in August 1918 as an RNAS squadron equipped with Short 184 seaplanes. It disbanded on 8 October 1919 and reformed as a fighter squadron at Church Fenton on 16 May 1940. Converting from Spitfire Is to Hurricane Is in June, it took part in the Battle of Britain and served with distinction throughout the campaign. Being manned by a large proportion of Commonwealth personnel, 249 adopted the name of “Gold Coast” and for the rest of 1940 and early 1941 carried on with defensive patrols flying from Church Fenton, Boscombe Down and North Weald.
They re-equipped with the Hurricane IIa in February 1941 and in May of that year, the squadron was notified of a posting to Malta. They embarked on the aircraft carriers HMS Furious and Ark Royal and after a rough crossing, flew their aircraft to Ta’ Qali airfield on the 21 May. Eventually, No. 249 converted from Hurricanes to the Spitfire Vb and later the Spitfire Vc.
No. 249 Squadron at that time was led by Sqd Ldr ‘Laddie’ Lucas, who by the tossing of a coin with David Douglas-Hamilton, the CO of No.603 Squadron, elected to have Beurling join his squadron. Someone had already informed him that there was an exceptional pilot even if a crazy one!
Setting in Ta’ Qali, Beurling flew his first operation with his new squadron the next day and first scored in Malta on 6 July, when mass raids on the island began from mid-morning. Both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica were over Malta in force as every fighter squadron from Ta’ Qali and Luqa rose to defend the island. Eight Spitfires of 249 were scrambled from Ta’ Qali and met a large force of bombers escorted by fighters over Gozo. In the thick of it, Beurling managed to shoot down a Macchi 202 and two minutes later shot down another. Landing to refuel and re-arm, he took off again and this time shot down a Bf109 and damaged a Cant Z1007.
By this time he had acquired the nickname ‘Screwball’ and this was based on the fact that when the adrenaline was flowing, he would constantly utter the phrase ‘the goddamn screwballs’. Thus the name stuck with him throughout his service career.
On 27 July, Beuring had an even greater day when he claimed two Macchis, two Bf109s with two more damaged. One of the Macchis was shot down when his Spitfire’s cannon jammed and he was only able to bring his four machine guns to bear upon the Italian. At the debriefing, Beurling told the Intelligence Officer just what had happened but, unable to believe it, he awarded Beurling a probable until a report came through from Gozo that a Macchi had crash-landed after being shot down by machine guns from a Spitfire. Sgt Beurling was given his kill!
Slowly, day after day the relentless onslaught on Malta and Gozo continued. Beurling, commissioned on 30 July, added to his score. By August it was approaching 16 and no other pilot on the island could admit to such a score in such a short time.
Earlier in the month one of the most important convoys for Malta had left Gibraltar. Code-named ‘Pedestal’, it was essential that this convoy reached Malta in order to lift the siege-like conditions the people, both civilian and military, were suffering. The Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica carried out massive attacks on the ships by day and by night with the result that out of 14 in the original convoy, only five made it to Malta, one of them being the precious oil-carrying tanker ‘Ohio’. The Malta squadrons gave the ships all the protection they could and although they shot down many enemy aircraft, the convoy suffered badly. Once again 249 were in the thick of the fighting and Operation ‘Pedestal’ gave Plt Off Beurling more kills.
On 4 September he was awarded a Bar to DFM. He seemed invincible and to many other pilots on the island, he was becoming a legend. September and early October brought his score to 26 and a half and it seemed as though he would go on forever. On 14 October 1942, Dingli radar plotted a force of eight Ju88s escorted by about 50 109s approaching the island. 249 were scrambled and managed to meet the enemy off the Gozo coastline. Beurling immediately weaved in amongst the bombers and promptly shot one down.
Pulling up to attack the fighters, he fired at a 109 which also went down but not before one of the Ju88s had sent a burst across his cockpit hitting his hands and forearm. Putting his Spitfire into a dive in order to get clear and return to base, he noticed one of his fellow pilots being chased by a 109. With no thought for his own safety or his injuries, Beurling wheeled his aircraft around and fired his guns into the belly of the 109.
Unfortunately, an unseen 109 also had Beurling in his sights and raked his aircraft with cannon fire. The Spitfire fell out of control as the shell splinters reached the legs and heels of Beurling. Realising his aircraft was out of control, he ejected his canopy and wrenched at his straps as he prepared to bail out. Despite his injuries, he found himself swinging beneath a canopy of silk and prepared for a landing in the sea.
The cool salt water soothed his wounds as he clambered into his dinghy and noticing the coastline just a short distance, felt that he must have been seen to fall into the sea. Minutes later, High Speed Launch 128 was approaching having watched the Spitfire fall and a parachute open and gently splash down near St Paul’s Bay.
‘Screwball’ was taken to the Mtarfa Military Hospital where he reluctantly received the news that his tour of duty on Malta was over. Despite the award of the DFC (16 October 1942) and later the DSO (3 November 1942), he felt rejected and sad that he was to leave his beloved Malta. On 1 November 1942, he left Malta for the UK in a Liberator. Approaching Gibraltar, the aircraft crashed into the sea but Beurling survived.
On Malta, his magic lived on. He was credited with over 27 victories whilst with 249 Squadron at Ta’Qali thus becoming the highest-scoring Allied pilot on the island. He eventually added two more kills to his total before finally being killed in 1948 while delivering an aircraft to Israel.
‘Screwball’ Beurling became a legend on the island of Malta and in one small corner of the National War Museum at Fort St Elmo, Valletta, his memory is forever engraved. He was indeed, one of the greatest pilot heroes of the war and of Malta.