Masters of the Air, Episode 9

  • Published

Masters of the Air, season 1, episode 9, “Part Nine,” directed by Tim Van Patten, written by John Orloff. Aired March 15, 2024, Apple TV+.

Episode 9 brings the war in Europe—and thus the story arcs—to an end. It begins with Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann) leading the 100th Bomb Group and the entire 3rd Air Division on a strike against Berlin on February 3, 1945, complete with P-51 escorts.1 This scene does well to show the scale of air operations by that point in the war with the “thousand plane raids.” The February 3rd mission included over two thousand aircraft—1,437 heavy bombers and 948 fighters—to strike right at the heart of the Third Reich.2 As Navigator Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) narrates, the men of the Army Air Forces have gained air superiority and are truly “masters of the air.”

Yet air superiority does not mean impunity, as Rosenthal’s crew is shot down. Mann does a terrific job showing not only Rosenthal’s command of his crew and his aircraft on the bomb run, but also the difficulty in getting out of an aircraft that is spinning out of control. Many crew members were unable to bail out of bombers due to being pinned against the aircraft by centrifugal force, spinning to their deaths. Upon landing, Rosenthal breaks the same arm that he broke in his first crash—a forced landing in France—and convinces advancing Russian soldiers that he’s an American. As the book on which the series is based reveals—in a moment where reality seems even more bizarre than Hollywood—Rosenthal was actually greeted with a bear hug from the Russian soldier who only moments prior pointed a rifle at him.3

During Rosenthal’s time with his Russian hosts he visits what historians believe to have been the Zabikowo camp near Poznan, Poland, where prisoners—mostly Jews—were hung, shot, and burned. While some rumblings of “death camps” were shared among Allied personnel, it wasn’t until the discovery of the multitude of concentration camps that the true horror and scale of the wholesale industrial extermination of Jews and other persecuted groups became known to the world.4 

Episode 9 also exposes the audience to the brutality of the “Blizzard March,” when prisoner of war (POW) camps were hastily evacuated in late January 1945 as the Allies closed in on the Reich and the POWs were moved deeper into the German heartland, potentially to be used as hostages. Utter chaos ensues as 10,000 POWs from Stalag Luft III prepare for a trip of unknown duration and destination in blizzard conditions with just 30 minutes’ notice. Within that half hour, some POWs chose to consume as much food as possible, paying dearly for it later as their shrunken stomachs forced them to vomit. Others made hasty decisions as to what they could carry on makeshift sleds.

The line of prisoners from Stalag Luft III extended 30 miles and spanned days and nights of marching. POWs were packed into cattle cars with human and animal feces on the floor, with many suffering from dysentery and hypothermia. There were a few fatalities from an air attack by an unwitting P-47. Shared misery led to shared humanity, accurately depicted as one POW is shown helping a German guard who struggles to keep up on the march.

The Muskau brickworks factory provides a brief respite for warmth before the march continues on to Nuremburg’s Stalag XIIIB and eventually to the overcrowded Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, where POWs joined with thousands of other Allied prisoners from across the British empire, ballooning to a total camp population of over 100,000. In reality, for nearly three months, even the Red Cross didn’t know where the prisoners were.5 Of note, while Lieutenant Colonel Albert Patton “Bub” Clark (Sam Hazeldine) is shown as the senior American officer from Stalag III, in actuality it was Colonel Darr Alkire—the original stateside commander of the 100th, ironically—who served in this role. Alkire later took command of a B-24 group.6

Although little backstory is given, we meet George Neithammer (Josh Dylan), a college friend of Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) from Wyoming. Neither knew that the other had joined the Air Corps until they saw each other as POWs and later made their escape together. While Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) is shown fighting with a guard while Cleven and two others escape, the true story is an even more compelling example of duty. When Cleven told Egan about his plans to escape, Egan told him that as Alkire’s provost to maintain order among the POWs, he was duty bound to stay with the prisoners, sacrificing his chance for freedom for the greater good.7

Fortunately for viewers, the episode depicts the liberation of Stalag VIIA by General George S. Patton’s Third Army. With a little dramatic license, red-tail P-51s are shown visible from the camp, strafing the nearby Moosburg train station. Skirmishes between German guard towers and American forces preceded the camp’s liberation. Seeing the American flag raised over the town of Moosburg, Egan remarks on the tears and salutes across camp, before he eventually replaces the Nazi flag over the camp as well.

A different form of airpower is shown with the Operation Chowhound/Manna airdrops of food to the people of the Netherlands. True to screen, bombers and crews accustomed to dropping tons of death and destruction took joy in bringing life and sustenance instead, witnessing the demonstration of genuine gratitude from the Dutch, who spelled out “MANY THANKS, YANKS” in a tulip field.8 Such missions were widely popular among the airmen, who leapt at the chance to do something positive after enduring the horrors of war. One history records the reaction of one such crew member:

Children ran out of school waving excitedly. One old man stopped at a crossroads and shook his umbrella. The roads were crowded with hundreds of people waving. Nobody spoke in the aircraft. My vision was a little misty. Perhaps it was the rain on the Perspex.9

The episode also captures perhaps one of the more enduring legacies of the Eighth Air Force: the profound bond between American airmen and their English hosts—often referred to as the “Friendly Invasion.” Children like Sammy Hurry (Alfie Tempest) did in fact spend most of their free time on base with the ground crews, and townspeople came out in their Sunday best to see the crews fly off one last time for home.10 The strong connection between the airmen and the countryfolk is evident in the local museums established and maintained after the war to honor those who served. The historical accuracy of the Masters of the Air set was largely due to the photos and memories preserved by the local Brits who maintain the museum at Thorpe Abbotts, the actual home of the 100th.

The episode also shows the emotional toll the war had on the airmen. In contemplating the end of the war, Crosby and Rosenthal try to reconcile what they, as individuals, did in war. While just war theory and the law of armed conflict clearly state that the use of force in World War II was justified, many still wrestled with its moral and ethical challenges. Rosenthal himself, whom many believed volunteered for a second tour because he was Jewish or had family members imprisoned in Germany, notes, “I didn’t do it because I was a Jew, I did it because I was human, and I can’t stand bullies.”11

The episode’s coda shares what happened to a number of the main characters after the war, demonstrating the diversity of experiences in post-war life common to World War II veterans. Some stayed in the service, others became lawyers or teachers, or obtained advanced degrees—in other words, they moved on with life. Many did not talk about their service—especially to their families—for years, if ever.12

Masters of the Air succeeds in showing ordinary people doing extraordinary things during the horror of warfare. No other screen portrayal to date has succeeded in showing the full scale of mass daylight bombing raids. For general viewers, the series highlights the courage and sacrifices of the airmen of the Eighth Air Force and those in the English countryside who kept them flying. It also reveals the brutality of warfare in the subfreezing cold blue. For today’s Airmen, Masters of the Air shows our origin story—the doctrine and strategy developed here at Maxwell Field in the 1930s and the culture of Air Corps airmen that lives on today.

Lieutenant Colonel Matt Ziemann, USAF

1 Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2024), 423.

2 Robert Dorr, “The Bombing of Berlin by Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force,” WWII Quarterly 5, no. 3 (2014), https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/

3 Miller, Masters of the Air, 424.

4 “Zabikowo Camp,” Holocaust Historical Society, February 5, 2022, https://www.holocausthistoricalsociety.org.uk/.

5 Miller, Masters of the Air, 492–505.

6 Miller.

7 Kirk Saduski, interview by author, March 8, 2024.

8 Miller, Masters of the Air, 490.

9 Edward Jablonski, Air War, Volume IV (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 122.

10 Chuck Dunning, “Keepers of the Castles of Little America,” British Heritage Travel, September 23, 1997, https://britishheritage.com/.

11 Donald Miller, interview by author, February 16, 2024.

12 Saduski.

"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."