July 01, 2002



People may wonder about my own choice of monicker for Maj. Harry Schmidt, who killed 4 Canadian soldiers back in April. As frequent readers will know, his air force handle was, of course, "Psycho." Pilot nicknames are more than just affectations... they are, for many purposes, the effective full name of pilots. And one can bet that had Harry Schmidt made the news for something not ignominious, the fact all his colleagues called him "Psycho" would be seized upon no doubt as an item of air force colour.

I would suggest people don't get called "Psycho" for no reason. It may even be evidence of a career-long pattern of reckless behaviour. They didn't call the guy "Maverick" or "Gooseman;" he was Psycho Schmidt. No, it's not evidence good enough for a courtroom, of course not. But it reminds me of another flying ace people should probably know about: "Screwball" Beurling.

Sqn. Ldr. George Frederick Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar, was of course, Canada's greatest World War Two ace (and the eighth-best among the Western Allies), with 32 aerial victories to his credit. On the tarmac, he was known as "Screwball" (in the lingo, pretty much equivalent to "Psycho" at that time); in the history books and popular accounts of the time, that nickname was modified, however, as he is generally referred to by posterity as "Buzz." Seems the powers that be didn't like the idea of the leading ace position being held by person with a madman's nickname.

Trouble is, Beurling was, by any peacetime standard, as mad as a hatter. He spent his spare time obsessively killing flies; he shot his squadron's pet duck; he buzzed the airfield in any airplane his commanders let him fly. He claimed to have shot German aircrew in parachutes and in dinghies. Both flagrantly anti-social and anti-authoritarian (but disturbingly good looking), one (favourable!) historian wrote of him:

He craved attention and fame, caring only for his standing as an ace, not for promotions or leadership. He couldn't stand taking responsibility for others. His love for attention was shallow, he couldn't form stable relationships with men or women.

Here's the other side of the problem. 28 of those aerial kills were during one sixteen-week period during the defence of Malta, when Beurling was a 20 year-old pilot officer in the RAF. Beurling, you see, was also a born killer: completely fearless, and possessed of inhuman instinct and reflexes. In Malta in 1942, when the Axis pressure on the island was incessant, his commanders just let him fly solo, in order to do maximum damage to the enemy (No one was suicidal enough to act as his wingman: Beurling himself crashed four times.) After the desert campaign wound down, they tried several times to fit Beurling into a regular Spitfire squadron in England. It never worked... he was inevitably facing arrest within days for something, and sent on.

If you had to look for an Axis counterpart, it would be Japan's leading ace, Hiroyoshi "The Devil" Nishizawa (87 confirmed kills), who also was shunned by other pilots as a walking flight risk and all-round annoyance on the ground... like Beurling pretty much a psychopath in regular life, but unbeatable in the air. In World War Two, commanders who ran across such wild talents as these two had to wrestle with the choices of reining them in and losing their contribution, or letting them go and losing what little control they had over them. It was always a tough choice.

Okay, so what's your point, Brucer? It's this. In Flitters the other day, someone argued that Maj. Psycho Schmidt's actions over Afghanistan were a side effect of a profession (fighter piloting) that rewards and requires aggression... that he wasn't one of those "pussywhipped ritalin zombies." My rejoinder would be people like Screwball Beurling and "Devil" Nishizawa cannot be said to have been lacking in aggressive tendencies... they were so aggressive they couldn't interact normally with other humans. But you know... even when their commanders just gave up and said 'do whatever the hell you want,' those guys never got so out of control in their aerial killing sprees that people on their own side of the war DIED as a result. The better part of valor isn't discretion, it's judgment... even when they had no other redeeming qualities out of the cockpit, the great psychopath aces of World War Two still had that to their credit. Maj. Psycho, on the other hand, evidently did not. That's why Screwball and the Devil were heroes, and Maj. Psycho is a menace, and also why there really should be no difficulty telling the difference.

UPDATE: Beurling's 28 kills in 16 weeks (or 7 kills a month) may not sound like much, but it was a torrid pace compared to almost any other pilot on his side. Some historians have joked the RAF should have just given him one of the latest model P-51s and let him fly solo over Europe until he died or the war ended. If they had, or Beurling had found a way to fit in, his kill numbers could easily have exceeded every other Western Allied pilot's. Just for a refresher, the top Allies, with number of months in which their kills were accrued, were:

Richard Bong (US) 40 (months in action -- 24)
James Johnson (UK) 38 (27)
Thomas McGuire Jr. (US) 38 (17)
Marmaduke Pattle (SAF) 34 (9: KIA)*
David McCampbell (USN) 34 (6)
Adolph Malan (SAF) 32 (13)
Brendan Finucane (Irish) 32 (23: KIA)
George Beurling (CDN) 31.5 (4)

*Confirmable kills only. Records of how many planes Pattle shot down in the Greek campaign in 1941 before his death in the air were lost in the defeat. Some say he was the highest-scoring pilot among the Western Allies.

Posted by BruceR at 11:44 PM



The WashPost is focussing on the Canadian inquiry into the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly its reference in passing that the American pilot who killed four Canadians may not have been told that the Kandahar base had a rifle range just outside the perimeter. As reported here previously, this is likely to be the cornerstone of Maj. Harry "Psycho" Schmidt's defense in any upcoming disciplinary proceedings.

As I said in Flitters earlier tonight, I suspect the passing reference, in a heavily censored executive summary for a report that's still confidential, is less than the Post makes of it. It may really refer to the Canadians being unable to conclude whether Maj. Psycho heard and understood a briefing on ground dispositions in Afghanistan (ie, his bosses said they told him, he said he doesn't recall, etc.) Being denied the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses' statements, the Canadians likely concluded they cannot determine which side is lying on this narrow point (and to them, a moot one).

What they're definitely NOT saying is that "[either] the Army did not tell the Air Force or ... the Air Force failed to pass the word to the pilots' unit," as the Post surmises... for that would be entirely contradictory to the Canadian inquiry's main conclusion, that the ONE person, Maj. Psycho, bears full responsibility.

Anyway, it's not much of a defense for Psycho, if it ever goes that far. Essentially the argument would be that he felt justified in dropping a bomb on any muzzle flash he saw anywhere in Afghanistan last April, since he wasn't specifically told which of them were the American coalition ones... surely it's fair to say, though, that at least 50 per cent of any given night's muzzle flashes in the 'Stan in April were going to be something other than Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers... so even best case Schmidt had at least a 50 per cent chance of going against U.S. interests by his actions, either by hitting American soldiers, their allies, or pro-American Afghans, if he didn't bother to check first. (And given that the location in question was within binocular and weapons range of the American base in Kandahar, the odds of those being Al Qaeda weapons that night HAD to be a lot less than 50 per cent, you betcha... given the same actions on a different night that week, Psycho might have killed an Airborne clearing patrol, some Afghan allies at a wedding celebration, or a bunch of Special Forces raiders, instead. One has to hope the US Army can't leave such behaviour uncensured and still feel confident about their air cover.)

Posted by BruceR at 12:22 AM