By Dave O’Malley
It’s a famous photograph... at least here in Canada. It depicts two Flying Officers of 403 “Wolf” Squadron, RCAF. Both men are Canadian, both born in or near the Québec city of Montréal. Both are fighter pilots, Spitfire pilots, the finest. It looks like a cool day as the two young men have their battle dress tunics on and the pilot in the back wears a wool turtleneck sweater under his. It’s the late autumn of 1943, RAF Kenley in the south of England. Both men are in their early twenties. Both have spent many months training and flying Spitfires in England and Malta. They are both highly experienced.
The photograph is well known in these parts for its portrayal of the man in the foreground—the one who puts our nerves on edge by his beautiful, frightening ice-blue eyes. He is George Beurling, alternately in his career called “Buzz” and “Screwball” by his colleagues, whose business it is to kill German airmen using the most sophisticated weapon of the time—the Supermarine Spitfire. Of all the Canadians who engage in this grim business, Beurling is the most accomplished of all. There would be no one better at war’s end. Beurling was then, and is today, a figure that inspires conflicting impressions, opinions and feelings—both suspicion and adoration.
Take a look at George in this photo. In his eyes you can see, no feel, the spirit of the lone wolf, the practiced killer, the gifted predator. Both charismatic and at times controversial, introspective yet outlandish, he was a man who could not follow. Nor could he lead. More than a year before this photograph was taken, Beurling and the man in the background were aboard HMS Eagle, warming their Spitfires for their one and only aircraft carrier takeoff, bound for the besieged island country of Malta—the greatest aerial battlefield since the Battle of Britain. Some say greater. Here, Beurling would become the greatest Canadian ace of the war, and the subject of legend, hero worship, bureaucratic manipulation and conspiracy theory.
Both men appear to be sitting at a field secretary, a box with a fold-down desktop. Though they appear to be filling out after action reports, they are in fact autographing War Bonds for sale back home, something they did for several hours that day. Though this dramatic photograph, taken under the shade of a tree near London, will forever show us a terrifying glimpse into the conflicted heart of this great Canadian ace, with its disdain for authority and mistrust of the outsider, it is the man in the background I draw your attention to. That man is Flying Officer Robert G. “Bob” Middlemiss of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
While Beurling’s countenance is the one that arrested me the first time I saw this image, it is Middlemiss whose face I see now whenever this image comes by my screen. Where Beurling is worrisome to behold, Middlemiss is calming. Where Beurling is in turmoil, Middlemiss is at peace. Where Beurling is frustrated, anxious, Middlemiss is relaxed, comfortable, at ease with himself. Where Beurling’s face is sharp with tense jaw, sneering lips and upturned collar, Middlemiss’ face is softer, eyes more welcoming, body open to the viewer. Only his chin is firmly set.
I have seen this very look before—calm, wistful, thoughtful, introspective, non threatening, decisive, strong. It is the same look that appeared on the face of Squadron Leader James “Stocky” Edwards in a photograph taken in Italy at the very same period in the war. It is the face of a leader—in the case of the Middlemiss-Beurling photograph, the face of a future leader.
I bid you to compare the look you see here, on the face of RCAF ace James Edwards, with that on the face of Flying Officer Bob Middlemiss in the opening photograph–the face of a leader, tranquil, introspective, focused ahead. Identical.
A leader inspires trust and trust burns from Middlemiss’ eyes, while Beurling’s withering glance is anything but trusting. A leader is calm, not anxious. A leader has inner peace, not inner turmoil. A leader inspires, not threatens. This is not to diminish Beurling in any way, for his accomplishments are astounding, his humanity complex, his story well known, his life the subject of books and film. The North American spirit celebrates the lone wolf, the rebel, the independent warrior, but it was and is today, no way to win a war. Wing Commander Johnny Johnson “WingCo Flying” of 127 Wing, the all Canadian wing of which 403 Squadron was part, felt the need to drop a warning to the nearly 6-time ace and nearly untouchable hero: “There is one rule,” he said firmly,“and it is not to be broken. We always fight as a team.”
Wolves are most successful in packs. Young men, those that fly fighter aircraft, see themselves as predators, in the manner of Beurling. But in total war, without Beurling’s preternatural talents and fighting the enemy as lone wolves, they would soon be hunted down by the enemy pack and torn to pieces. To survive war, even to survive training, fighter pilots need tactics, practiced defences, mutual support and trust and above all they need leadership. They need to fight in a pack and they need an alpha male, not the lone wolf.
So there is no misunderstanding, Beurling was a great man, a great Canadian and the first person who would tell you this would be Bob Middlemiss, for they were good friends and comrades-in-arms. Today he remains a charismatic and sometimes misunderstood character, a national treasure, one of our legendary warriors, a matter of pride for Canadians... but so is Middlemiss. Flying Officer Bob Middlemiss, the man behind Beurling, the man with the still countenance and the pacific gaze, survived the war and went on to become one of the greatest natural leaders of the postwar period.
Spitfire pilot Bob Middlemiss—a photo most likely taken at the same time as the one with him and Beurling. RCAF Photo
Post war he was the first Exchange Officer at the RAF Central Fighter Establishment, flying Spitfire XIVs, and the new Vampire and Meteor jet aircraft. Following his new found jet experience, Middlemiss returned to Canada and was selected as the Commanding Officer of 421 “Red Indian” Squadron based at RCAF St. Hubert and flying the Canadair-built F-86 Sabre Jet. Middlemiss led his new squadron safely from RCAF Uplands to 2 Wing, Grostenguin, France, in an operation known as Leapfrog II. After his success in getting everyone there safely, he was tasked to form No. 1 Overseas Ferry Unit, a service squadron which, over several years, ferried some 650 Sabre and T-33 aircraft across the Atlantic via Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. Middlemiss personally led 16 of those mass “balbo” crossings of fighter and training aircraft.
Bob would continue a respected career as a leader, becoming the Commanding Officer of the first CF-104 Squadron, 427 Strike/Attack Squadron based at Zweibrucken, Germany and later as CO of 6 Strike Reconnaissance Unit, Cold Lake, another Starfighter unit. After suffering a mild heart attack in Cold Lake he lost his flying status and the ability to lead men in the air. He soon retired from the RCAF, but he would get the opportunity to lead 427 Squadron once again, this time in 2003 as the unit’s Honorary Colonel, an honour he would have extended in 2010.
The first time I ever heard about Bob Middlemiss, it was from one of the men he led in the Overseas Ferry Unit—Major Ron Poole. I met Ron in the mid-90s, in the last two years of a losing battle with cancer, and he was alive with the chance to share his stories of a life in the RCAF with an eager mind. One of his proudest accomplishments was as a Sabre ferry pilot of the Overseas Ferry Unit (OFU). At first a dumping ground for malcontents and “free spirits”, the OFU was turned into one of the proudest, brashest and most successful units of the Cold War RCAF, a “career posting”—all due to the leadership of one Bob Middlemiss. In the dappled shade of my backyard, cool drink in hand, fountain gurgling happily, Ron would regale me with stories of the OFU, their mass crossing of the North Atlantic, the dangers of flying into and out of Bluie West One, Greenland and the reverence the young OFU pilots had for their legendary leader. Middlemiss’ name was always spoken with reverence, a smile and a wistful longing to be back in the air with him.
Wing Commander Robert G. “Bob” Middlemiss died last week. He was 93. The citation accompanying his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Second World War states: “This officer completed two tours of operational duty and has completed sorties from Malta and the United Kingdom. He has destroyed three enemy aircraft and damaged others. His standard of leadership as a section leader and flight commander has always been high and he has invariably shown outstanding courage.” Leadership... it was an uncommon quality, but then again, Bob Middlemiss was an uncommon man.
Bob Middlemiss, 8th from left with Squadron Leader’s cuff bands and his new 421 Squadron pilots visit the Canadair Sabre plant in Montréal near their St Hubert home base. Canadair Photo
Sabres of 421 “Red Indian” Squadron are lined up and on parade at RCAF Uplands on 23 September 1952 in a formal send-off for 2 Wing (416, 421 and 430 Squadrons), bound for France. RCAF Photo
An overhead view of RCAF Uplands on 23 September 1952, as the RCAF brass sends off 2 Wing to France. Middlemiss’ 421 Squadron Sabres are grouped at the left. RCAF Photo
Bob Middlemiss would be one of two RCAF fighter pilots who would assess aircraft and recommend the replacement fighter for the F-86 Sabre—the winner being the CF-104 Starfighter. Here he sits in the cockpit of a new Canadian Starfighter. RCAF Photo
In 2012, Bob Middlemiss was the guest speaker at the Vintage Wings of Canada Members Gala. He shared with us some memories of his days on Malta. Photo: Peter Handley
Mike Potter, Founder of Vintage Wings of Canada and himself an Honorary Colonel of the Snowbirds, stands with a robust and healthy Honorary Colonel Bob Middlemiss in 2012. Photo: Peter Handley