Masters of the Air, Episode 6

  • Published

Masters of the Air, episode 6, season 1, “Part Six,” directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, written by John Orloff. Aired February 23, 2024, Apple TV+.

Masters of the Air episode 6, in addition to chronicling the aftermath of the brutal Münster mission of October 10, 1943, also unpacks a number of important topics surrounding the US Army Air Forces’ bomber war against Germany. Some viewers may have missed any reference in the series to the disastrous October 14, 1943, “Second Schweinfurt” mission, which essentially forced a temporary halt to deep daylight raids into German airspace. While the raid’s impact on the Eighth Air Force as a whole was enormous, in this one case the Bloody Hundredth got off lightly: after Münster, the 100th could only muster eight planes for the Schweinfurt raid, and all returned safely with no casualties.1

Though the show takes some chronological liberties and makes other concessions to good storytelling, the issues raised are fundamental to an understanding of the bomber war. This installment features three major plot lines: Major John “Bucky” Egan’s (Callum Turner) odyssey from bail out to arrival at a prisoner of war (POW) camp; Major Harry Crosby’s (Anthony Boyle) attendance at an Oxford symposium to address Anglo-American relations, and the arrival of Lieutenant Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal’s (Nate Mann) new crew at Thorpe Abbotts and their stay at a rest home after three harrowing missions.

A powerful scene depicts dozens of footlockers of missing crew members being readied for shipment home, but the action soon shifts to Egan’s efforts to evade capture and then deal with the first phases of his captivity. In reality, Egan’s capture and transit to a POW camp were routine, but the show takes the opportunity to dramatize the range of hazards facing downed airmen.

Shotgun-toting German farmers first capture Egan and pass him on to the authorities. While he and some fellow captives are being marched through the burning streets of a bombed German town, a furious mob of civilians, encouraged by a party official, overpowers the guards and begins attacking the Terrorflieger (“terror flyers”). Most of the airmen are killed; Egan manages to escape from the burial wagon taking them to an unmarked grave. Once again captured by the police, Egan finally passes to Luftwaffe control and finds himself at the transit camp and interrogation center known as Dulag Luft.

Egan’s encounter with the lynch mob is based on a number of incidents that took place during the war. Nazi propaganda encouraged German civilians to take the law into their own hands. Photos of American pilots wearing leather jackets decorated with names such as “Murder Incorporated” were circulated in order to incite violence against Allied airmen. The Allied authorities investigated and punished a number of these crimes postwar.2 Though not central to the episode, there are other issues of morality touched upon. We see dead civilians being pulled from the rubble, and an uncomprehending Egan glimpses a train hauling cattle cars filled with human beings—by late 1943 the extermination of the Jews of Europe was accelerating.

At Dulag Luft, Egan faces a skilled interrogator seeking to extract valuable information. US Army Air Forces personnel of the day received only minimal survival, resistance, evasion, and escape training; most knew—as Egan did—that “name, rank, and serial number” were the only permissible items to be divulged. Yet they were unprepared for the sophisticated grilling in store for them at Dulag Luft.

The urbane, cultured interrogator shrewdly combines the “brother airman” card, a disarming curiosity about baseball, and veiled threats of treating Egan as a spy. German interrogators could draw on thick files of information about every Army Air Forces unit, culled from press clippings, previous interrogations, and especially letters, diaries, photos, and even theater ticket stubs brought along on missions by careless Americans. Astonished POWs, confronted by all of this information, were easily convinced that the Germans already knew everything. So what was the harm in filling out a few “Red Cross” forms—which  their interrogators claimed would serve to notify their families at home? English-speaking Germans were sometimes placed in the cells with new captives, masquerading as fellow Americans. Eventually, the 100th’s parent Third Air Division produced educational materials warning airmen to “Empty Your Pockets!,” “Beware of Fake Forms,” and “If You Didn’t Know Him Before, Don’t Trust Him Now!”3 The “spy” ploy turns out to be a bluff, and the uncooperative Egan is sent to Stalag Luft III—the future site of the famed prison break, the “Great Escape”—where he is reunited with some friends.



The second subplot involves the series’ narrator, navigator Crosby. Still grieving and guilt-ridden over the loss of his friend Captain Joseph “Bubbles” Payne (Louis Greatorex), Crosby is selected to represent the Army Air Forces at a symposium hosted by Balliol College, Oxford University. At the week-long event, British and American personnel attended lectures by distinguished dons and discussed the state of Anglo-American relations. Despite the gauzy memories of the “friendly invasion,” the arrival of millions of American personnel in the UK did not always proceed smoothly. Incidents of disorderly conduct, poaching on private land, mistreatment of women, and other clashes of cultures were worrisome to the Allied leadership.

Writer John Orloff takes a bit of dramatic license here: Payne was indeed killed in action, but later in the war.4 Still, this Oxford subplot, and Crosby’s growing friendship with a British female junior officer attending the conference, largely track with the account in the real-life Crosby’s outstanding memoir A Wing and a Prayer.

In that memoir, Crosby noted that when Egan and Major Gale “Buck” Cleven were shot down, the character of the 100th Bomb Group changed. He admits that his feelings about the two airmen were complicated. He considered both to be outstanding, larger-than-life leaders, but he also saw within them an undisciplined aspect that did not always work to the benefit of the unit.5

The final subplot of this episode involves a new crew led by pilot Rosenthal. Three missions in three days, culminating with Münster—theirs was the only ship to return to Thorpe Abbotts that awful day—earn them a spell at the “Flak House.”6

It’s worth remembering that right about this time, General George S. Patton famously slapped two shell-shocked infantrymen who were patients in a Sicily field hospital. Victorian-era ideas that combat fatigue was a symptom of a character defect—pejoratively referred to as a “Lack of Moral Fiber”—persisted.7 Yet the Army Air Forces was somewhat ahead of the curve in recognizing that even the bravest individuals have a breaking point. Though the service still dealt rather harshly with outright combat refusals, crews who had been through a harrowing set of missions were sent to a country house for a short period of recuperation, supervised by a flight surgeon and furnished with access to all sorts of genteel amenities. Later in the war “flak leave” became a normal part of a crew’s combat tour.8   

Rosenthal’s crewmates take full advantage of the opportunity, but he himself bristles at the inactivity. He complains to the flight surgeon that he was just getting into his battle rhythm after three missions, and he compares himself to American jazz drummer/bandleader Gene Krupa, forced to stop playing in the middle of a set just as he was hitting his stride. The flight doc listens sympathetically, then notes that Krupa wasn’t only playing for himself—he was setting the rhythm for the entire orchestra. This insight gives Rosenthal pause, and he joins his crew for the rest of the brief reprieve. He is last seen back at the base, tapping out a Krupa-esque riff on the crew hatch of his B-17 before boarding. This neat scene foreshadows Rosenthal’s rise to one of the greatest leaders to come out of the 100th Bomb Group.

Questions of morality, inter-Allied relations, and combat stress are front and center in this important segment of the series. The fortunes of the 100th Bomb Group—and indeed of the entire US Army Air Forces daylight bombing effort—bottomed out in mid-October 1943. But changes were in the works—leadership, strategic, operational, and tactical—that would radically transform the narrative. And it would be a transformation and a learning curve that the 100th Bombardment Group would do its costly part to bring about.         

Richard R. Muller, PhD

1 Roger Freeman, Mighty Eighth War Diary (London: Jane’s, 1981), 126.

2 See Kevin T. Hall, Terror Flyers: The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021).

3 Third Bombardment Division History, February 1945, USAF Historical Research Agency, 527.02 Volume II.  

4 Harry H. Crosby, A Wing and a Prayer (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 241.

5 Crosby, 320.

6 See Ian Hawkins, Münster: The Way it Was (Anaheim, CA: Robinson, 1984).

7 Mark Wells, Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 164­­­–65.

8 See Wells, Courage.

"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."