George (Buzz) Beurling was a famous Canadian combat pilot in World War II. He wasn’t Jewish, but he decided to leave for the nascent State of Israel and join the Israeli Air Force during its War of Independence. Although he did not have the chance to fight for the State of Israel before he was killed, the IAF still remembers him
Itay Itamar | Photography: Carmel Horowitz
“My name is Richard, but Rick is also ok and if you forget that too, just say ‘Hey, you’”, joked Rick Beurling. Despite his demeanor, he’s already reached the eighth decade of his life. He takes a yellow envelope out from his bag, pulls out an old letter, and begins to read it out loud: “We experienced the death of your son, George Berling, with much sadness and deep sorrow. He was killed in the line of duty, while displaying great courage and honor to his family’s name, inspiring his comrades to continue on. We, on behalf of the national honor and with deep humility, request your permission to lay George to rest in the soil of the State of Israel in order to show the eternal honor of the Government of Israel and the hope of our people in every country, to continue in peace and humanity”.
George’s father received the telegram on the 27th of May 1948 from the “Haganah”, the Jewish paramilitary organization that became the Israel Defense Forces. Rick shows the telegram and reveals a picture of a pilot. This is his big brother, who will remain 26 forever.
“He Wanted to Help”
George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling was born in Montreal in December 1921 to an observant Christian family. By age 14 he was already flying and wanted to join the Canadian army but was rejected on the grounds that he didn’t yet know enough about flying. As World War II broke out, a desperate need arose for brave and talented pilots. The Royal British Air Force agreed to enlist Buzz and he crossed the ocean to enlist as a Spitfire pilot. He was an excellent pilot, a fact reflected in his many accomplishments during the war: he shot down 32 Italian and German enemy aircraft, 27 of them in combat above the island of Malta. He is remembered as the Canadian pilot who shot down the most enemy planes ever.
He was considered a ‘lone wolf’ and developed fighting methods that he later taught the Israeli Air Force. For example, Beurling found that by shooting cannon on the approximated flight path of an enemy plane, one could attack the plane without straightening one’s tail, utilizing a side angle. Pilots that flew with Beurling said that he would be able to notice approaching planes before anyone else, and was capable of counting them. As others were unable to see what he was talking about, they thought that he was simply nervous or tense, but in the end he was always accurate.
He ejected from two planes and was awarded four citations, making him the most decorated Canadian pilot in history. He was severely wounded but recovered and returned to fly. Towards the end of the war he returned to Canada as a national hero whose exploits and adventures were documented in detail in the book “Spitfires over Malta”, co-written with Leslie Roberts.
George and Rick’s father studied Holy Scriptures and the education that the brothers received at home and their worldview about Israel and the Jewish people was very much influenced by faith.
“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”, remembers Rick. “I think that after Buzz’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”.
“He wanted to be there”
George Beurling was offered a large sum of money to join and fly in one of the air forces that fought during the Israeli War of Independence, but he, of course, rejected the offer. He turned to the Jewish community in Montréal and offered himself as a volunteer to serve in the young air force, but he was turned down due to suspicion that he was a spy or was working for an enemy country’s military.
He did not give up and turned to Sydney Solomon, a Jewish community leader who was involved in joint activities between Canada and Israel, and tried to convince him. “Sydney sat with us in the kitchen and told us that it was very difficult for them to believe my brother, because they thought that it was a trick or a type of bait”, recalls Rick. Sydney was skeptical of George’s motivations, asking why he would want to come to fly for the State of Israel and George, whose allegiance was unmatched, was insistent and answered Sydney’s questions with passages from the bible. “He wanted to be part of creation of Israel, re-establishing the State of Israel”, says Rick.
At the outbreak of the War of Independence, Leonard Yehudah Cohen, a British pilot that also fought in Malta and George Beurling volunteered in the Mach”al (volunteers from abroad) group in the young IAF. Both of them were supposed to join Squadron A, today known as “Flying Camel” squadron, which was at the time practically the entirety of the IAF. “I didn’t have a chance to speak with him then”, explained Rick with sadness. “Sydney told us that he explained to George not to let us know when the time came. One day someone picked him up off the street, he got into their car, and got on a plane and left. There wasn’t a chance for him to speak with anyone”.
Their first task was to bring a Norseman plane from Italy to Israel. On May 20th, 1948, Buzz and Leonard went on a test flight on the plane that was to be brought to Israel. During the test flight, the plane caught fire and they crashed in the Rome airport. Maj. Gen. Motti Hod, formerly commander of the IAF, was then a young pilot named Mordechai Fein. He too was supposed to be on the plane. The circumstances of the accident are still unknown, but the conventional wisdom is that someone sabotaged the plane before the flight took off, knowing that it was bound for Israel. In the beginning, Beurling was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Rome.
“My father replied to the telegram that the “Hagannah” sent as follows: Your request touches us in our hearts. George, who devoted his last days to fight for the establishment of the State of Israel needs to be laid to rest in the holy land”.
On November 9, 1950, George was laid to eternal rest with full military honors in a Christian cemetery in Haifa. “At a later time, they said that maybe it was a mistake to request to hold his body in Israel and that they would check the possibility of returning him to Canada, but my family insisted that he would stay in Israel because that is where he wanted to be”, explained Rick proudly.
“They Didn’t Forget My Brother”
This wasn’t the first time that the Beurling family had visited Israel, but it was the first time that they fit it together with Buzz’s story through the IAF. “60 years might seem like a long time”, said Rick, “but it did not seem that way from a wider perspective”. Buzz, considered today a member of the “Flying Camel” squadron, is honored in the memorial room of the squadron.
60 years after his burial in Israel, the Fallen Soldiers Department of the IAF renewed its connection with his family and invited the Beurlings to come to Israel for an official visit on Israel’s National Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day. During the IAF ceremony on “Mountain of Pilots”, Rick served as a representative of bereaved families from abroad. “This is an opportunity for me to remember my big brother as a brother, not necessarily as a hero”, said Rick. “It is very gratifying to see how much care the Israelis demonstrated in honoring his memory. I think that he was a bigger hero here than he was in Canada. In Montreal, he has a street named after him and in the last few years it was decided to name a school after him – Beurling High School”.
“On our wall at home hangs a certificate from Israel, on which it is written that 300 trees were planted in Israel in memory of George a few years ago”, continued Rick. “Every year, the Consulate General of Israel to Toronto invites us to celebrate Israeli Independence Day with them. One time I received a ‘Legion of Honor’ in the name of General Wingate from the Canadian Legion. I was very proud to wear the uniform and a hat with the Star of David on it. Three years ago, the Canadian Air Force Attaché to Israel presented golden wings to me in Buzz’s name in the presence of the IAF. My family and I are very appreciative of the treatment that we receive here in Israel, still after so many years. We always said that there was no way the Jews would forget my brother”.
“He Wasn’t Superman”
“For my daughters, it was an incredible experience, they never had the chance to get to know him”, said Rick. “We have not told them about him so much. We didn’t tell our children ‘you have a famous uncle’. In general, we presented him as a good man. Everything else they learned about him from books at school. It was really a surprise for them. They did not discover another side of their uncle, they found that you know him and care about him”.
But Buzz wasn’t the only one to fly. Rick, who was ten years younger, remembers how he came to watch his older brother fly. As a child, he loved airplanes and was excited when they offered that he could paint and clean planes. As payment, he would be allowed to sit in the back and fly on short flights. At a later point, he received flight lessons in exchange for his work and already by the age of 13 he started to fly, at a younger age than his older brother. “He wasn’t Superman. All in all he was a normal guy, like me and like you, but with exceptional skills in anything that had to do with flying”, explained Rick. “He wasn’t looking to be a war hero; he simply really loved to fly. When he flew a plane, it wasn’t him and the plane – the plane became part of him”.
“I remember that we also loved to swim. When he returned from the war he was very famous and young boys from the local high school would come up to him to ask for signatures and photographs. I sat on the sidewalk, resting my face in my hands in disappointment, waiting for hours for him to finish all of the signatures. Afterwards, he would tell me, ‘for adults I wouldn’t stop, but for children I have to’. He loved children”.
Throughout their visit, which lasted almost a month, the Beurling family visited different sites in Israel, including IAF bases and a meaningful tour of the “Flying Camel” squadron that still commemorates Buzz. “It’s inconceivable that George was just a kid. When my son reached the age of 20, I couldn’t even begin to think about how it would be possible for him to do the things that Buzz and hundreds of other young people did in World War II. I see the young soldiers here in Israel and I wonder how you do the things that you do, protecting the country and its citizens and doing just a wonderful job. They are really heroes, these young people”, Rick continued with appreciation.
“It Was Worth It”
On this occasion, it was decided based on the family’s request to grant George a full Jewish memorial service for the first time. The memorial service was attended by the crew of the “Flying Camel” squadron, the commander of the squadron, the head of the Department of Fallen Soldiers, Lt. Col. Danny Shneidman, who accompanied the family for the entirety of their visit together with First Lt. Z., the Canadian Ambassador to Israel Jon Allen, and the Canadian Defense Attache to Israel Col. Geordie Elms.
“The Israeli Air Force was built on the foundations of courage and determination like yours. The love that you felt for our nation, George, is the same with which we build our future here today”, said Lt. Col. A., commander of the squadron, during his remarks. “George was not killed in vain. He was killed for something that bore fruit and this was worth it”, Rick said during his remarks at the memorial service.
Towards the end of the visit, the Commander of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, and Lt. Col. A., commander of the squadron, met with the Beurling family.
“This is a special country. Our soldiers, especially in the air force, and the families of those fallen are all part of one unit, forever. That’s the connection. We see this as a top priority because this is what makes us a family”, said Maj. Gen. Nehushtan. “We are very proud of what we have today, but we remember our roots. In a very big way, we owe you our thanks”.
Rick said, “I see that you all do not distinguish between the last hero and the soldiers who serve today. Everyone is remembered the same way and it’s great. I am certain that this is the example for many young people in the State of Israel and it gives them much motivation to enlist and serve their country”..”
“The young pilots today in the squadron hear the heroic stories about people that were young like them, who showed a lot of courage and it gives them inspiration and instills in them confidence. When they hear stories like George’s, they feel the need to raise the bar”, said Lt. Col. A.