‘There were no foxholes in the sky’: the astounding adventures of the real Masters of the Air

Austin Butler in Masters of the Air
Austin Butler in Masters of the Air - Robert Viglasky
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On October 10 1943, the 100th Bomb Group – known as the “Bloody Hundredth” – flew as part of the US Eighth Air Force on a mission to Münster, Germany. Stationed at Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, the 100th Bomb Group sent 13 of its B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers to Münster. Twelve were lost in as many minutes. Only one returned.

The Bloody Hundredth nickname came from the bomb group’s reputation: a jinxed unit that suffered devastatingly high losses, and is now the subject of an Apple TV+ series, Masters of the Air. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks – and based on the book of the same name by historian Donald L Miller – Masters of the Air is a companion piece to Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

As explained in Miller’s book, the RAF and US Air Force had opposing philosophies to strategic bombing. While the RAF bombed German cities at night, the US Air Force bombed specific military and industrial targets by daylight – factories, U-boat pens, railway marshalling yards. The Münster mission, however, was a break from US Air Force doctrine. The target was not a railway marshalling year, but the railway workers themselves. It sat uneasily with some of the American airmen – bombing the city just as the workers piled out of mass at the cathedral.

The Luftwaffe threw everything it had at the US bombers, including 350-plus fighter planes and a heavy field of “flak” – antiaircraft artillery that exploded with bursts of black smoke and flung out deadly shards of shrapnel, punching holes through the planes and slicing through the airmen’s flesh.

The only plane of the 100th Bomb Group to return was Royal Flush, piloted by Lt Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal. Two engines were out, one of the wings was torn apart, and three members of the bomber’s 10-man crew were injured. “I didn’t feel relieved,” Rosenthal later said. “I felt guilty. Why had I lived when all those other good men died?”

Squadron leaders and best pals: Major Gale “Buck” Cleven and Major John “Bucky” Egan
Squadron leaders and best pals: Major Gale “Buck” Cleven and Major John “Bucky” Egan - American Air Museum in Britain/

Münster was part of what the Eighth Air Force called “Black Week” – a series of missions that cost the Bloody Hundredth more than 200 men, almost half of its airmen.

Among those lost during Black Week were charismatic squadron leaders and best pals, Major Gale “Buck” Cleven and Major John “Bucky” Egan, played by Elvis’s Austin Butler and Callum Turner (The Capture) in Masters of the Air. They were shot down in separate missions, but both were captured on the ground and ended up in Stalag Luft III, the prisoner-of-war camp where The Great Escape happened.

The 100th Bomb Group was activated in June 1942 and flew to England the following spring. Its airmen had just seven months of training. It was a rowdy unit. Masters of the Air addresses the unit’s discipline issues in early episodes – seen in their raucous drinking and loose formations – but omits their ramshackle, uncoordinated training. In one disastrous exercise, they were instructed to fly from Nebraska to California. Fourteen planes failed to make it to their destinations, with a number of pilots landing near their girlfriends instead. One crew landed as far afield as Smyrna, Tennessee, where the pilot’s wife lived – 2,300 miles from the target and in the opposite direction.

“They were a wild group of guys,” says Miller. “Hard to discipline. They almost didn’t get sent over. They almost got decommissioned.”

Apple TV’s Masters of the Air flies close to the real events; Tom Hanks assured Miller about that from the start. “Tom’s idea was fidelity above everything,” says Miller. “In the spirit of Das Boot, it’s about human beings doing their job. If they do their job well, the war gets won.”

Navigator Harry H. Crosby – played by Anthony Boyle in Masters of the Air – wrote about his experiences in his book, A Wing and a Prayer. Crosby described how the first time he ever saw a B-17 land during training, it crashed and killed the entire crew. In another incident – seen in the show – Crosby’s plane got lost on the way to England and flew towards occupied France instead. When they finally got to England, the plane was forced to crash land because the landing gear wouldn’t come down.

The TV series portrays Turner’s Egan as a gung-ho boozer and philanderer, who drank and sang into the night with Irish labourers in the area; whereas Butler’s Cleven was a man of simpler pleasures (“ice cream, cantaloupe, and English war movies,” wrote Miller), who abstained from the local pub sessions and stayed faithful to his gal back home, Marge.

Presenting them as the lead characters reflects their outsized personalities. Their time, though, with the Hundredth at Thorpe Abbotts was relatively brief. “Their first mission was June 1943 and they were POWs by October,” says Reg Wilson, chair of the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum in Diss. “But they made their mark because they were a couple of characters.”

Scott Nelson, a North Dakota farmer and aviation artist who befriended Buck Cleven in his later life, thinks Cleven would have hated the fanfare and hero worship. “He was very modest,” says Nelson. “Many times, he said he just wanted to fade away. He didn’t want a big deal made of him… Buck was quite a guy.”

U.S. B-17 Bombers releasing metal fragments and small bombs onto the airport of Pardubice
U.S. B-17 Bombers releasing metal fragments and small bombs onto the airport of Pardubice - Mondadori via Getty Images

The 100th Bomb Group’s first combat mission – to bomb U-boat pens in Bremen on June 25 1943 – is recreated in the first episode. Bomber groups were made up of four squadrons, containing up to 12 bombers. Three groups made up a combat wing, part of a much bigger formation of hundreds of bombers and escort planes.

In Masters of the Air, the mission to Bremen is “scrubbed” with a single bomb being dropped. It’s true that the Hundredth turned back under bad weather and came under attack from German fighter planes. The Hundredth lost three planes – 30 men.

One of the navigators, Jim Brown, later commented: “The men were saddened, depressed and numb with grief for several days at the loss of thirty men with whom they had lived and laughed and worked and played for the prior seven months... From that day on we all realized that our job was dirty, dangerous and downright brutal. Any feeling of our personal immortality left us swiftly on that day.”

Part of the reason for the Hundredth’s losses in early missions, says Miller, was “ineptitude”. He adds: “They wouldn’t fly in tight formations… they got hammered.”

Indeed, the show depicts the problems with not maintaining a disciplined formation. “At that time the bombers had very little escort cover on missions,” says Reg Wilson. “Their survival was dependent on how tight they could fly a formation. They were all a bit slack at that time. Sometimes they made it easier for the German fighters to get amongst them.”

Chances of survival were also down to luck – where squadrons were placed within the formation. “The Germans would want to pick off the low stragglers,” Wilson says. “If the 100th Bomb Group happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time… It doesn’t matter how good a pilot you are. If a shell’s going to hit you, it’s going to hit you.”

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air
Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air - Robert Viglasky

When writing his book on the Hundredth, first published in 2006, Miller wanted to capture the whole air war experience, from life on the bases to the missions and POW camps. He also wanted to explode the myth of the air war as “push-button warfare”.

“They were closer to the enemy than the infantry,” says Miller. “In air fights, they could see the eyeballs of German pilots. There were no foxholes in the sky.”

The series does for the air war what Saving Private Ryan did for D-Day, showing the harrowing, ferocious reality of air warfare: shrapnel slicing off body parts, legs and faces blasted away, skin ripped off by frostbite, men trapped in gun turrets as the planes plummet.

“For concentrated fury of combat, I don’t know anything quite like it,” says Miller. “In a 30 second flash, the pilot gets his head blown off, a guy has two legs blown off, and another guy is rushing to the front of the plane because the pilot’s now headless and someone’s got to try and land the plane. But his buddy beside him has got a terrible sucking chest wound, and if he moves his hand from the wound his buddy will die. At the same time, the Focke-Wulfs are coming in. The plane’s shaking like hell, it stinks of tobacco, p---, s---, and blood, and everybody’s wondering if they’re going to bail.”

One common injury for airmen in the Eighth Air Force – shown in Masters of the Air – was frostbite. “Flying B-17s was a fairly harrowing experience even without someone trying to shoot you down,” says Reg Wilson. “You’re at 25,000ft, it’s minus 30 degrees outside. If you touch any metal with your bare hands, you get frostbite… I’ve heard a story where a guy was badly shot in the backside and bleeding out, and the only way they could stop him bleeding was to take his trousers down and stick his backside against the skin of the aircraft and freeze the wound.”

One of the Hundredth’s most notorious missions came on August 17 1943, part of a dual strike that would see the fliers split and bomb both Regensburg and Schweinfurt. The idea was to confuse the enemy fighters and divide their counter attack.

The Schweinfurt mission was delayed by weather, so the Regensburg bombers got the full force of the enemy. The Hundredth sent three squadrons, a total of 21 bombers, flying in the last, lowest, most vulnerable position, known as “Purple Heart Corner”. But instead of returning to Thorpe Abbots, the plan was to fly to North Africa.

The target was a Messerschmitt factory, which accounted for 30 per cent of Germany’s single-engine fighter planes. The did significant damage to the factory, but the mission also cost the Eighth Air Force 60 planes and almost 600 men. The Hundredth lost nine planes – a 40 per cent loss rate.

The mission made even more of a hero of Buck Cleven, however. With his plane hit six times by 20mm cannon shells, his crew were wounded. As described in Miller’s book, “the radio operator, who had just heard that his wife was pregnant, was bleeding to death in a pool of frozen vomit, his legs severed above the knees”. The crew wanted to bail, but Cleven warned his co-pilot, “You son of a b----. You sit there and take it.” The moment is replicated almost word for word in the third episode of Masters of the Air.

“The plane was so shot up, everyone was ready to bail out,” says Scott Nelson. “Cleven told them to stay put. Some accounts say he pulled a weapon on his co-pilot. I asked him about it. Buck said it wasn’t true, but other people who were there said that it was true.”

As reported by Lt Col Beirne Lay, Cleven’s words were heard on the interphone and had a “calming effect” on the crew. Cleven was recommended for the Medal of Honor, downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. But Cleven never collected it. “Medal, hell, I needed an aspirin,” Cleven would say.

The B-17 "flying fortresses" of the 100th Bomb Group Wing flying toward Germany, 28 February 1945
The B-17 "flying fortresses" of the 100th Bomb Group Wing flying toward Germany, 28 February 1945 - piemags / Alamy Stock Photo

One other crucial member of the Hundredth was Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, the hero of the Münster raid in October 1943, and played by Nate Mann in Masters of the Air. He was not part of the initial crews to come to Thorpe Abbotts, but was a replacement following the unit’s losses that summer. Reg Wilson notes that he wasn’t “flash and flamboyant” like Buck Cleven and Bucky Egan, but he adds: “Most people here [at the museum] would see Rosenthal as the main character. For the bomb group, he was the rock.”

Rosenthal not only completed a tour of duty of 25 missions, he flew a total of 52 sorties with the Hundredth Bomb Group. A Jewish New Yorker, Rosie was driven by decency to fight the Nazis. “A human being has to look out for other human beings or else there’s no civilisation,” he would say.

The leadership of Rosenthal, along with Lt Col John M Bennett, who joined the Hundredth in November 1943, began a more disciplined period for the unit. Though a lot of it, says Wilson, was down to practise across the Eighth Air Force. “It was a general progression. Extended fighter cover, better flying, better tactics. That all improved their survivability.”

Nevertheless, the Bloody Hundredth still sustained heavy casualties, and their stories collected in the series stand for the losses suffered by all who flew against the Nazis in the Second World War. As Reg Wilson puts it: “When it lost, it lost badly.”

Masters of the Air is on Apple TV+ on January 26

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