Maestro of the Wooden Wonder

George Stewart on the nose of a plane

George Stewart is more than a national treasure, he’s an internationally renowned aviator and expert on all things to do with the legendary De Havilland Mosquito.

Interview by John Wright Moto/ology Contributor

By all normal statistics, George Stewart should have been dead during any one of his missions over occupied Europe during World War II.  Casualties among bomber crews ran at 50 percent, while those among the Mosquito aircraft which George flew ran at 30 percent. You can work out for yourself how likely it was that George might never have come back from his tour of 50 missions. Yet, come back he did at the ripe old age of 20 in 1944. Recently, he just celebrated his 100th birthday on January 14th of this year. He also earned a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for his activities flying his Mosquito fighter-bomber on intruder missions over Germany and occupied Europe. George “intruded” over Luftwaffe air bases, hoping to shoot down returning German night fighters who in turn were trying to shoot down RAF and other allied bombers.

We dropped in on George and his wife Marion, just 8 days after his 100th birthday, and what follows here is an account of an exciting and dangerous time in his life.

JW: So, George, just who are you?

George Stewart: Well, I was born right here in Hamilton, Ontario. I had an early love for airplanes and decided I’d learn to be a pilot. 

JW: When exactly did you develop your interest in aviation and airplanes?

George Stewart: Oh, I guess I was about 4 or 5 years old and I saw this speck in the sky. My father said, that’s an airplane, and that there was a man in it. I replied how can a man be in that tiny speck?

JW: You were pretty young when you got your first ride in an aircraft, were you not?

George Stewart: My dad took me to the old aeroclub in Hamilton and he bought me a ride in a Gypsy Moth, the precursor to the Tiger Moth. It cost $2.00 for 20 minutes! I was hooked!

JW: Fast forward to the time when you decided to join the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). Where did you take your initial training?

George Stewart: I took my initial flight training at the RCAF base at Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron in a Tiger Moth. Then, I went on to Centralia, Ontario to fly in Ansons. That was where an instructor in another plane and I had a mid-air collision in the Hensall area. He was cut and bleeding and his student was hung up in the controls with a broken leg. We had crashed in a farmer’s field and his wife ran out and brought us tea and cookies.

JW: But the story doesn’t end there—you faced some disbelief when you returned to the base…

George Stewart: Yes, the word had got back to the base that there was a crash, and we were all dead. I met a friend of mine who said, “But, you’re dead! How can you be here?” 

JW: So, as Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”

George Stewart: Yes, indeed. After that incident, the training continued. Now, in my group, everyone wanted to be a fighter pilot and fly Spits. (Supermarine Spitfires) I just wanted to get overseas and fight. As my favourite plane, I asked to fly Mosquitos. (The De Havilland Mosquito Fighter-bomber.) When I finally got to England, the training continued.

JW: You said that everyone wanted to fly Spits, but you didn’t want to fly any single-engine aircraft.

George Stewart: That’s right. I badly wanted to fly Mosquitos, but I had to fly other multi-engined aircraft first. You had to work your way up to the Mossies. We trained on Blenheims, Bolingbrokes and Bisleys before we got to the aircraft I really wanted to fly: De Havilland Mosquitos. By good luck, I was posted to night-fighter training and with that, on to Mosquitos.

JW: You got an urgent request to lead some Mosquitos to the Middle East.

George Stewart: We were tasked to fly some Mossies to the Middle East where they were badly needed. Our route took us to Gibraltar, then to Africa, to Rabat, Algiers and around the Mediterranean. Along the way we lost 15 out of 30 due to weather. We ended up in Sardinia. After we arrived, it turned out that they didn’t need us after all, but they kept the aircraft.

JW: How did you manage to return to England if you left the aircraft behind in Sardinia?

George Stewart: We flew back in a mixture of Catalinas and DC-3s (Dakotas). We took a lengthy, roundabout route, first flying to Naples, then on to Pompeii where we had a layover, saw Vesuvius and watched it erupt. The locals sold us a piece of lava from the eruption with an Italian coin embedded in it. I still have it! I didn’t mind that trip around the Med in the Mossie as it gave me extra time to become more familiar with the airplane.

JW: After your return, it was time for you to fly over occupied Europe and Germany.

George Stewart: That’s right. Our commanding officer said something to me that I thought was strange, and that was, “Make sure you don’t take any unusual or unnecessary chances.”

JW: That doesn’t sound like a very confidence-building comment. How many trips did you make over Germany?

George Stewart: I flew 2 days on and one day off. I did a tour of 50 missions in total, one tour of 35 and one of 15 before I was done. I would have done more, but we weren’t allowed to.

JW: I’m assuming these missions were both exciting and terrifying! Describe, if you will one of your most dangerous trips.

George Stewart: Well, on one run, we were cruising at 240 miles per hour at 500 feet above the water to try to avoid the enemy radar, then after we crossed the coast, we’d climb to about 3,000 feet. My navigator, who by the way, worked at a table about the size of a large letter, directed me to a known Luftwaffe aerodrome and there we found all the lights were still on. We saw a Junkers Ju-88 coming in on final and I gave it a few “squirts”. All the lights went out instantly and up came the flak. As we climbed away, we saw a Heinkel He-III in the “pattern” just above us and I gave it a few squirts as well which then brought up more flak. We quickly dropped a couple of 500-pound bombs and went off home.

JW: I understand you developed a novel route home because you didn’t like flying over water.

George Stewart: That’s right. I didn’t like flying directly back over a lot of water because I didn’t want to be shot down into the sea. So, I flew along the coastline, parallel to the sea. I reasoned that if I were hit, I could bail out and become a prisoner of war.  Sometimes the greatest danger is in the location. We figured being a captive was a lot better than drowning.  On this particular trip, we discovered a “Freya” radar station on the way back, and as we passed it, I gave it a squirt as well!

JW: You told me your plane wasn’t equipped with radar, but rather four .303 machine guns in the nose and four 20mm cannon in the lower part of the nose firing forward, along with some bombs in the bomb bay.

George Stewart: That’s right. Our role was to be an intruder, to fly in and try to shoot down the German night fighters who were trying to shoot down our bombers.

JW: You miraculously escaped bullets, sometimes unknowingly. So did many of your friends.

George Stewart: One time a bullet came through the cockpit and just missed my navigator and me. My buddy got shot to hell but managed to get back in his aircraft—which was just an absolute wreck, but luckily, he kept it in the air until he crash-landed it back at our base in Woodbridge.

JW: Please tell us about some of your comrades, for example, “Sticky” Murphy who won the DSO and Bar, The DFC and Croix de Guerre.

George Stewart: Sticky’s original job was flying agents in and out of France in Lysanders. He was shot up pretty badly one time. Then he converted to Mosquitos and joined 100 Group, flying, like me, in missions against German night-fighter bases. Sadly, he was killed on one of those missions.

JW: So, George what was your final tally in all your missions over Europe?

George Stewart: Well, I damaged a Ju-88 and a Heinkel He-111 and shot up about 10 trains… oh, and I survived. It was funny though, about that airbase we hit. The next night when we went there, we couldn’t get close to it because of the flak! I guess they were expecting us now.

JW: Were there some places over Germany that had a worse reputation than others?

George Stewart: Oh, yes. Well, Gütersloh for sure had a bad reputation. One time, on my 40th mission, the flak came up and it appeared they were trying to lure me into either a balloon barrage or anti-aircraft fire kill zone. What we would do is, as we circled an aerodrome, we’d do a steep turn and sideslip the aircraft so we could throw the gunners off. The plane would appear to be headed in one direction and the gunners would “lead” their fire that way, but instead we were “slipping” somewhat sideways so we’d veer off in a different direction to their fire.

A friend of mine, Jock Reid would say in dealing with situations like this: “Don’t overthink about it all—it’s just like swimming, just jump in and do it.”

JW: Then, when the war in Europe had ended, your time flying Mosquitos was not over. You went to China to teach the flyers of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists how to operate the Mosquitos they had purchased from Canada. They were trying to fly them against the Communist forces of Mao Zedong during the renewed Chinese civil war.

George Stewart: Initially I was paid $1,300 (American) a month to instruct the pilots on the Mosquitos the Canadian government had sent over. When the tide turned against the Nationalists and we had to evacuate from Hankow, things got a bit more dangerous, so I was paid $3,000 a month. (This was very big money at the time!)

What had happened was the Chinese flyers couldn’t get the hang of handling the Mossie’s violent swing on take-off. If you didn’t handle the throttles just right or if an engine failed, the plane would either swerve violently or flip over on it’s back. Quite a few Chinese pilots were killed and injured in this way, before we showed them how to handle things. I had developed a way of setting the throttles and anticipating the “swing” that proved to solve the problem. After they implemented my technique, the accidents and injuries dropped dramatically.

Doug Switzer: I had asked George if he had noticed any big differences in the handling, performance or any other nuances of the British-built Mosquitos with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines versus the Canadian or Australian-built aircraft with the U.S. licenced Packard-built versions of the Merlins. He said the only difference he noticed were the British planes measured throttle settings and manifold pressures in inches of mercury (as in barometric pressure), and the Packard engine’s had instruments that measured pounds of boost. Other than that, they were virtually the same.

Toward the end of the war and afterwards, George went on to fly Spitfires, and several other notable aircraft like P-51 Mustangs and so on. He even has seat-time on the T33 jet trainer among others. He has logged an incredible amount of flight time and is recognized today as the premier living expert on the DH Mosquito and its use in combat. As such, he’s been consulted by museums and collectors of the few remaining and flyable examples on many occasions. George Stewart has indeed led a fascinating and full life and to a very great degree he has enjoyed a charmed existence. As he said, there was a lot of skill and prudent judgement involved in surviving his combat adventures, but luck was also a very big player.

Thank-you for your service and a very Happy Birthday, George… here’s wishing you many more!

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