The real Masters of the Air — Unlock the true history behind Apple's successor to Band of Brothers

Masters of the Air on Apple TV Plus
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It has an illustrious war record. The American 100th Bombardment Group (Heavy) earned the nickname ‘the Bloody Hundredth’ due to the severe casualties it suffered while bombing Nazi Germany. Based at RAF Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, England, the Group flew over 300 combat missions and earned two Distinguished Unit Citations during World War II but suffered 732 lost airmen and 177 aircraft missing in action.

This January, Apple honors the heroism of the Bloody Hundredth with a nine-part Apple TV Plus miniseries based on their wartime actions. Masters of the Air, based on the 2007 book of the same title, has Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman as executive producers, making it the spiritual successor to the trio’s other works, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. This means the new Apple series has a lot to live up to, but its budget of over $200 million and talented cast list, which includes Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Anthony Boyle, and Nate Mann, suggests it will do just that. Look out for Sex Education and Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa, too. The first of nine episodes premieres on 26th January, with a new one appearing every Friday after that.

The show boasts some extremely strong source material. Flying its first combat mission on 25th June 1943 and its last on 20th April 1945, the courage and tenacity displayed by the Bloody Hundredth was legendary. 

The Eighth Air Force arrives

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The British RAF Bomber Command started bombing Germany in 1940, attacking firstly industrial targets during daylight raids, later switching to night missions bombing cities. The American Eighth Air Force, of which the Bloody Hundredth was a part, arrived in Britain in June 1942. It was an extremely low point in the war. Although the Battle of Britain had been won and the Blitz withstood, Germany remained master in Europe, and the Japanese had taken many allied territories in the Far East. Until the Americans arrived, Britain stood alone as the only democracy at war with the Nazis, and since Dunkirk, she didn’t have a land presence in Europe with which to fight. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it, “We have no continental army which can defeat the German military power, but there is one thing that will bring him down. That is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” The Eighth Air Force was given the use of English air bases to intensify this campaign.

Masters of the Air on Apple TV Plus

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Each Eighth Air Force heavy bomber held a crew of ten. In the cockpit there was the pilot and co-pilot. The bombardier and navigator sat below them, and the flight engineer, who also operated the top turret gun when the plane was under attack, was behind these four. The top-side machine gun was manned by the radio operator. Two waist gunners and a ball turret gunner sat further back, and the tail gunner – a terrifying position that suffered tremendous casualties – was at the rear. The 100th Bombardment Group retained its own Fighter Command to provide cover on its bombing missions. Operating from bases near the bomber stations, these fighter pilots flew P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings. 

An unlucky unit

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Due to its high casualty rate, the Bloody Hundredth was deemed an unlucky unit to be stationed to. For example, in the Summer of 1943 a replacement crewman arrived at Thorpe Abbotts, ate a late meal, flew a mission the next day and was lost. No one even got his name. He became known as ‘the man who came to dinner.’ But as 100th Bomb Group Major John Bennett put it, “What the 100th lacks in luck it makes up for in courage. The Men of the Century have fighting hearts.”

And courage was certainly needed. As the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum put it, “Getting up each day to undertake notoriously dangerous missions took great courage from the men of the Eighth Airforce... Bomber crews in particular could feel vulnerable as they had limited functionality in their aircrafts to fight back when approached by hostile forces in the air.” 

Naturally, the terrors of the air war took their toll. Group Major Bennett allowed his airmen to get drunk to let off steam, as long as there wasn’t a mission planned for the next day. He made a point of speaking to every new serviceman attached to the unit – many of whom had never been in an aeroplane before – explaining that everyone was afraid. Flight surgeons regularly assessed every man, spotting those that showed signs of extreme anxiety, and after a particularly difficult mission flight crews were allowed to recover in rest homes known as flak houses.

Meet the airmen

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Enemy ground guns and fighter planes were not the only dangers faced by the Bloody Hundredth. Unlike the airplanes of the First World War, which fought at an altitude of around 12,000 feet, World War II’s bombers flew up to three times as high. This close to the stratosphere, the air was unbreathable, and the cold was a bit deep. Frostbite was a regular occurrence. When a member of Major Johnny Egan’s squadron was killed, he always wrote personal letters to their wives and mothers. Despite always going out on missions with his men, Egan, played in the show by Callum Turner, survived the war and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal during his career.

Another character we’ll meet in the show is Major Gale Cleven (Austin Butler). A Squadron Leader by the age of 24, he took part in the disastrous Regensberg-Schweinfurt mission in August 1943, when almost 600 men and 60 planes were lost in an attack on German airplane factories and ball-bearing plants. 

Masters of the Air on Apple TV Plus

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Bomber pilot Major Robert Rosenthal is played by Nate Mann. A lawyer by profession, Rosenthal received 16 major awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, and the Air Medal with seven clusters. He also got the Distinguished Flying Cross from Great Britain and the Croix de Guerre from France.

Over the show’s nine episodes, we will get to know these people individually, meeting the men behind the uniform. And while we’ve not had any information about a second season, Apple’s website refers to the forthcoming show as ‘Season 1’. If it’s popular – and it very likely will be – we could very well get a second season. Masters of the Air is sure to be one of the best Apple TV Plus shows in 2024.