Masters of the Air, Episode 5

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Masters of the Air, season 1, episode 5, “Part Five,” directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, written by John Orloff. Aired February 16, 2024, Apple TV+.

Episode 5 of Masters of the Air is the most searing installment yet. Classic movies such as Twelve O’clock High (1949), Command Decision (1949), Memphis Belle (1990), and Fortress (2012) have tried to convey the carnage of World War II’s Combined Bomber Offensive over Europe, but none do so as effectively as this episode. This production excels at graphically illustrating the difficulty of aerial warfare and the terrible consequences in battles five miles in the air, on the ground below, at home station, and even back in the United States. Perhaps introducing directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team responsible for directing the smash Marvel Cinematic Universe action hit, Captain Marvel (2019), is the reason the action sequences are so visceral in this episode. Although the 100th Bomb Group had been hardened in combat by October 1943, three straight days of missions to Bremen, Marienberg, and Münster have staggered its resolve.

Previous episodes had shown the devastation of combat and losses of the series’ notable characters, who often seemed to come straight from central casting in Hollywood. They were energetic young pilots with brash demeanors, cocksure attitudes, and all the visual flair associated with the bomber boy stereotype: 50 mission crush hats, leather jackets, white scarves, sunglasses, and rakish good looks. Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler), and Lieutenant Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan) were the mainstays of the 100th.1 Colonel Neil “Chick” Harding (James Murray) was the hard-bitten, aggressive leader we expected to lead this lot as well.2 Now, all of them are gone—or soon will be—and a new leader has emerged.

Lieutenant Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann) arrives with a bunch of other new faces to make up for the horrendous losses the hard-luck 100th has been dealt. His first mission, seen in episode 4, was the raid on Bremen, where the group lost seven aircraft. In Donald Miller’s book, after his third mission in three days, Rosenthal leaves his bomber and asks the intelligence officer “Are they are all this tough?” before going with his men for medical care.3 This episode vividly illustrates why he asked the question by highlighting the raid on Münster.

Egan views this mission as an opportunity to avenge Cleven’s death. Up to this point, Egan has been the life of the party at Thorpe Abbotts, but the loss of his best friend has understandably altered his mood, making him pensive and solemn. Still in the business of dropping bombs, Egan exhibits a clear change in character as he is seen drinking and smoking in his “office,” the flight deck of a parked B-17, before he careens away in a jeep for briefing.

The target of the raid is the medieval walled city of Münster. Instead of a factory or submarine pens, the Army Air Forces is going after a railroad marshalling yard in the center of town. Mirroring decades-old debates regarding appropriate targets for strategic bombing, the crews opine about whether they should target a site so close to houses and churches. Uncharacteristically, Egan ends the discussion by pulling rank and formality. Avenging Cleven is enough reason for him. As the crews head for their bombers, Egan literally puts on a new mantle of responsibility by shedding his omnipresent fleece coat for the standard leather jacket.

As we have accompanied the 100th Bomb Group in previous missions, we have seen extraordinary heroism, stoicism, and flagging discipline in keeping formation as well. The group has a well-deserved reputation for its hard charging ways and hotshot piloting, but as the missions move from the relative ease of French targets to the Third Reich, flying skills do not make up for poor formation and rigid discipline.4 In spite of that reputation, even the best group formation of 18 unescorted Flying Fortresses is not a match for 200-plus Luftwaffe fighters coming at them head on.

Because of damage from the previous two days’ missions and aborts, the 100th only has 13 B-17s heading to Münster. In about seven minutes, the group basically ceases to exist as the lead bomber with Egan at the helm is hit and other aircraft either explode almost instantly or are last seen plummeting in pieces to German soil below.5 The mission was obviously nerve-wracking for the crews as there were more f-bombs dropped in this episode than in the previous four combined.

While waiting for the escorting fighters to withdraw—in this case aided by ground fog that kept one fighter group at base and a missed rendezvous that forced another one to turn home early—the German fighters had extra time to attack.6 By targeting lead crews and going after individual groups, the Luftwaffe fighters eliminated experienced veterans, broke up unit integrity, and picked off dispersed individual bombers one by one. Employing rockets allowed the less maneuverable twin-engine fighters to stay out of gun range and hit bombers with devastating effect.

During this single week in October 1943, the Bloody Hundredth lost 21 planes and over 200 men missing or killed.7 The only regular combat crew to return was that of Rosenthal. In the episode, his crew is shown far from home in a badly crippled ship, with two engines on the same wing out, a huge hole in one wing, and three gunners seriously wounded. As they lose altitude and limp home, Rosenthal maneuvers the B-17 to help his crew shoot down pursuing enemy fighters. The crew arrives back at Thorpe Abbotts, and it is a grim scene as the group maintainers and staff realize that only a single aircraft has returned.

More so than any previous episode, the influence of chance and fate is highlighted. Egan has bailed out and is on the run in Germany, and Captain Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), promoted to group navigator, misses the mission, probably saving his life as the man he replaced, his good friend Captain Joseph “Bubbles” Payne (Louis Greatorex), is killed in action. In reality, Payne and his crew were lost on the March 4, 1944, mission over Berlin months later. Nevertheless, the randomness of combat and the devastation of loss are amply demonstrated in this episode. Even the formerly good-natured and kind-hearted crew chief, Sergeant Ken Lemmons (Rafferty Law) grieves mightily and loses his bearing around the English children who follow him all the time. Clearly, the losses and changes indicate the 100th is about to chart a new course, and Rosenthal will pilot the course Crosby charts into the future.

At this point, even the most cynical viewer has to question the efficacy of the Army Air Forces’ bombing strategy. The horrendous losses incurred during day bombing and the suitability of striking targets near civilian areas have already made their way into the dialogue of the series. The devastating losses have increased dramatically as well. Hopefully, future episodes will deliver answers to help understand why daylight bombing remained an important element of Allied victory in World War II.        

Dr. John G. Terino, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF, Retired

1 Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 9; and Harry H. Crosby, A Wing and a Prayer: The “Bloody 100th” Bomb Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Action over Europe in World War II (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 36, 39–40, 260.

2 Crosby, 142, 147–48.

3 Miller, Masters, 20.

4 Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II (New York: Random House, 1993), 275.

5 Roger Freeman, The Mighty Eighth: Units, Men, and Machines (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1970), 77.

6 Perret, Winged Victory, 275.

7 Crosby, Wing,147.

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