Masters of the Air, Episode 3

  • Published

Masters of the Air, season 1, episode 3, “Part Three,” directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, written by John Orloff. Aired February 1, 2024, Apple TV+.

Having recently rewatched Twelve O’ Clock High (1949)—the stark depiction of the immense burden of commanding in combat—I found it jarring to see the first trailer for Masters of the Air. Whereas Twelve O’ Clock High was shot in black and white and features more scenes in an office than in the air, Masters of the Air’s trailer is evocatively colorful and brash. Still, both—to some extent—delve into the same territory of the interdependent struggle to balance a leader’s responsibility to the mission as well as to their crew members. Both also focus on so-called “hard luck units.”1 In addition to pointing out some differences and similarities between the two shows, this review above all will help contextualize Masters of the Air given the disappointingly limited background information the show has provided so far.

Masters of the Air begins in May 1943, almost a year after the Eighth Air Force’s first mission. Twelve O’ Clock High, by contrast, starts earlier in the war. Indeed, the authors of the novel on which the movie was based had been with the Eighth Air Force since its arrival in England in 1942. They had thus witnessed one of the darkest periods of the Eighth’s history in the winter and spring of 1943 as the organization began bombing Germany. Without the long-range fighters that greatly eased the bombers’ missions in 1944, it was statistically impossible for crews to finish their tours at this point in the war.

It was also difficult for the Eighth’s leadership, with some advocates of daylight bombing desperate enough to consider the need to perhaps switch to nighttime bombing.2 Masters of the Air’s second episode briefly touches on this tension between British and American bomber crews. But the fight that breaks out between the two nations’ crews has little to do with airmen having imbibed their leaders’ doctrine but rather more to do with the human costs that the American crews had to pay.3

The key tension that has not significantly emerged yet in Masters of the Air is that between the crews and the Eighth Air Force’s highest-ranking and, arguably, its most dogmatic leaders.4 As one Airman wrote critically and retrospectively of the Army Air Forces' mindset, “Washington was engaging in a numbers game similar to the one that was later used in the Vietnam War” resting on “grossly exaggerated reports.”5 This critique receives some credence from the correspondence of Army Air Forces General Ira Eaker. Eaker wrote in the middle of March 1943 that the Eighth Air Force had successfully completed its “daylight high-level precision bombing experiment.” Nothing could be further from the truth, especially without the arrival of long-range escort fighters. Instead, the fulfillment of missions required what Eaker dubbed the  “self-sacrifice” of bomber crews. Tragically, though, the targeting of submarine pens that played such an important role in this phase of the war—the subject of episode 2—was a waste. They were so well-reinforced by concrete that even a fortuitously precise hit would be unsuccessful.6

These human costs had taken a toll on the morale of crew members and some leaders, including two colonels who returned to the United States from England in April 1943, supposedly having lost their “combat spirit.” Hearing of this, Eaker insisted that each member of the Eighth Air Force be “fully imbued with the offensive spirit” and be willing “to pay any cost and at all odds.”7 This was the mindset of Air Force generals leading into episode 3. Having finally built up an air fleet, Air Force leadership would now proceed to burn through it, determined to prove itself to the other services and its ideas to itself and the Royal Air Force.

This notion of “maximum effort” emerges in both Twelve O’ Clock High and Masters of the Air, as epitomized by the latter in episode 3’s raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg. As Colonel Neil Harding (played by James Murray) explains in this episode, a “maximum effort” attack consisted of 12 bombers in August 1942, but now the Americans could launch 370 bombers. Putting this number in perspective, however, shows how much maturing the Eighth Air Force still had to do. The previous month, the British had launched 791 bombers during Operation Gomorrah, the infamous attack on Hamburg, Germany.8

Episode 3 also marks a key shift in the air war’s targeting. In episode 2, the Eighth Air Force struck joint targets. The attack on a German submarine pen in Norway supports the Battle of the Atlantic, so critical in keeping sea lines open between the United States and Great Britain. Schweinfurt and Regensburg, by contrast, epitomize the types of industrial bottleneck targets that pre-war air planners had envisioned at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air Corps Tactical School. Schweinfurt had a key ball bearings factory that planners hoped could grind fighter production to a halt. US air planners had latched onto the idea of bottleneck targets after noting how a flood of a Pennsylvania factory had temporarily shut down aircraft production because the factory was the only one to produce an unusual spring required in propellers.9

To obtain as much surprise as possible and prevent the enemy to concentrate forces, planners envisioned all the bombers flying the same course for both targets, only breaking into two groups at the last possible moment. Those bombers heading for Regensburg would, in theory, receive the most attention by the Germans, thus facilitating the bombers headed to Schweinfurt. Leaving Regensburg, bombers would fly south to African airfields to avoid having to face German fighters a second time.

Equipped with B-17Fs with so-called “Tokyo tanks,” aircraft bound for Regensburg carried an extra 1,080 gallons of fuel. But the fuel came at a cost. Because the aircraft drew on the Tokyo tanks first, the aircraft easily caught fire if hit. By contrast, the Schweinfurt bombers would have to bear the full force of German attention.10

Some key problems resulted from the Americans seeking to have a maximum effort without having conserved the required mass to effectively destroy a target. Lacking sizeable-enough weapon loads or aircraft numbers to destroy the factory, they ended up destroying what could be fixed relatively quickly.11 Airpower zealots might proclaim that Regensburg had been “literally wiped off the map,” and a bomber crew member in episode 3 does excitedly claim the factory to be “gone.” But hindsight would not support such proclamations.12 Losing as many bombers in one day as the Eighth Air Force had in the previous six months, moreover, meant that any destruction that had occurred could not be followed up on until October.13

More importantly, the problem with this plan was simple: it required all the pieces to fall in place. The literal fog of war—in this case caused by English weather—had something to say about a plan depending on precise timing, breaking up the synchronized plan into two disparate groupings, allowing German fighters to attack both.14

One historian has retrospectively described this plan as so complex as to be “all but overwhelming.”15 It is difficult to ascertain exactly what message Masters of the Air’s screenwriters meant to convey regarding the mission’s planning. They have Harding proudly proclaiming the mission to be the “biggest armada in air history,” albeit incorrectly, as the British had flown more bombers the previous month. Harding also intones, “The mighty Eighth has a plan” consisting of a “three-punch combo” in which “timing will be essential.” Unless the writers expect viewers to home in on the importance of timing, we must perhaps wait to see the evolving messages as the series continues to release new episodes.

In the meantime, it is enough to return to Twelve O’ Clock High and Masters of the Air. The former focuses most on the burden of command and thus features far more glimpses into the mental anguish of those responsible for serving the mission first and foremost. By contrast, Masters of the Air focuses much more on the men who must carry out the mission. As such, episode 3 fittingly concludes with badly-battered bombers and their bloodied crews finding themselves with only each other as they observe the setting sun over the Algerian desert.

Heather P. Venable, PhD

1 See John T. Correll, “The Real Twelve O’ Clock High,” Air & Space Forces Magazine, January 1, 2011, https://www.airandspaceforces.com/.

2 Heather Venable, “Rescuing a General: General Haywood “Possum” Hansell and the Burden of Command,” Journal of Military History 84, no. 2 (2020): 502–503.

3 See, for example, Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940–1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 78.

4 See Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 6–7.

5 Ralph H. Nutter, With the Possum and the Eagle: The Memoir of a Navigator’s War over Germany and Japan (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2005), 120.

6 General Ira Eaker to Commanding General, VIII Bomber Command, March 24, 1943, Papers of Ira C. Eaker, Box I:19, Library of Congress; and also see Barrett Tillman, “Hard Targets,” Air Force Magazine, September 2015, 80-84; https://www.airandspaceforces.com/.

7 Major General Ira C. Eaker to Commanding General, Fighter Command, April 21, 1943, Papers of Ira C. Eaker, Box I:19, Library of Congress.

8 John Curatola, “Operation Gomorrah: The First of the Firestorms,” July 10, 2023, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/; and see Overy, Bombers, 167.

9 Stephen Budiansky, Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Iraq (New York: Penguin, 2005).

10 Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2024), 195.

11 Miller, 200, 192.

12 Lieutenant General Harold George, qtd. in Miller, 200.

13 Miller, 201.

14 Ed Jablonski, Double Strike: The Epic Air Raids on Regensburg-Schweinfurt, August 17 (New York: Doubleday, 1974).

15 Jablonski, 36.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."