Malta Spitfire tells the story of one George Beurling, a Canadian Spitfire pilot who took part in the defense of Malta during World War II. The book is written by one of Beurling's close friends, Leslie Roberts, and is an account of the life of Beurling, told in the form of the conversations that Beurling and Roberts had towards the end of Beurling's time in Malta.
The book, however, starts long before Beurling had set foot on Malta. Beurling was born and grew up in Montreal, Canada, and fell in love with flying at a very early age. By the age of nine he was already spending most of his spare time (and some of the time he was meant to be at school!) at the Lasalle Road Airport, which was near his home. Sitting watching the Montreal Light Aeroplane Club and their aircraft convinced Beurling that he was destined to fly.
At the age of ten his wish came true. One of the instructors at the Aeroplane Club (now moved to Cartierville) offered Beurling a ride. It was tough convincing his parents, but in the end they relented and let him go. Beurling was truly bitten by the flying bug. He knew that he wanted to fly, but didn't know that with the imminence of World War II, his chance would come.
His first attempt to sign up for service was, naturally, with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unfortunately, due to his lack of school qualifications they would not take him (he couldn't understand how they could turn away qualified pilots just because they didn't finish school). Then word came that the Finnish Air Force were hiring pilots. Immediately Beurling made enquiries. The only thing standing in his way was the consent of his father (as Beurling was not old enough to sign himself up). In the words of Beurling, "'You will sign it, won't you?', I asked, pretty urgently I imagine. Dad simply looked up and said: 'Nothing doing!'. And that was that. No Finland for me'".
Beurling's final opportunity came at the hands of the RAF, and so he signed up to work his way across the Atlantic with the merchant navy, and across he came, landing at the Queen's Dock in Glasgow, although not before 70% of the naval escort for the ship had been torpedoed. Within an hour he was in an RAF recruiting office with a Flight Lieutenant listening to his story.
Unfortunately Beurling had forgotten one thing. His birth certificate. So in a move which shows his determination to fly, he re-crossed the Atlantic on the same ship he had just arrived on, picked up his birth certificate, and then made the return trip to Glasgow. At last he was in, he'd made it, he was now a trainee flyer in "the biggest flying show in man's history".
However, his approach to flying was at odds with what the officers in authority wanted from him. Once training was over, he was posted into East Anglia, where he would fly sorties over England and into German-occupied France. His time here was not the happiest, and he eventually volunteered to be posted to 249 squadron in Malta.
Once Beurling had reached Malta, his skill began to shine. His record whilst on the island (27 confirmed kills with several more damaged aircraft to his name) speaks for itself, and he was by far the most successful RAF pilot there. He became known as "Screwball", a curse he would regularly use. By the end of July 1942 he was promoted to Flying Officer and received the Distinguished Flying Medal. During September he claimed three kills in one day, an achievement he repeated in October, both of which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Beurling's last flight over Malta saw him as the lead pilot of a flight of eight Spitfires, sent up to intercept 60 German aircraft. He claimed two victories but was wounded and his Spitfire was severely damaged. He bailed out and was hospitalised, an experience which he found deeply frustrating. Posted back to England, he was almost killed on the transit flight as the aircraft overran the runway at Gibraltar and sank, killing most onboard.
Not a lot more is written about the war. He was honourably discharged in October 1944, and these were obviously unhappy times for him. Sadly, in a mirror of Beurling's life, the book comes to an abrupt end. Beurling was killed whilst flying as an instructor on the P-51 Mustang aircraft with the Israeli Air Force in 1948.
More than just a book, Malta Spitfire is a historical document. With fewer and fewer of the RAF's Spitfire pilots alive each year, books like this remind everyone of the price that was paid by so many in World War II. Beurling was one of the most successful pilots to fly in the skies over Malta, and without him and his comrades, the outcome of the war could have been very different. This book is an insight in to how the RAF held on so far from home, and the part that the islanders themselves played in this campaign.
Sometimes shocking, sometimes humourous, Malta Spitfire is a real page-turner. For anyone who wants to read about the RAF in World War II, Roberts and Beurling give a fantastic view into what life was like, the hardship, the camaraderie, and the heartbreak. A fantastically well written book, and one without which my book collection would not be complete.