TV Review: MASTERS OF THE AIR (Ep. 3) on Apple TV+
What a ride.
While parts 1 and 2 of Masters of the Air were a bit of an introduction to the characters and a warm-up to how the 100th Bomber Group operated during World War II, part 3 is nothing less than the equivalent of the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan, dropping the viewer right into the planes on a mission to bomb Regensburg. The mission briefing by Colonel Chick Harding (played by James Murray, an English actor whose portrayal may look and sound a bit like Aldo Raine from Inglorious Basterds) lays out just how enormous the mission is: three air task forces, 376 heavy bombers, and 240 fighters.
The 100th is assigned to bomb a factory that assembles engines for the Messerschmitt Bf 109, one of the planes most heavily used by the German Luftwaffe, and then fly directly south to Telergma, a small airport in the northern part of Algeria. It’s a true test of skill for Crosby, the lead navigator. Any decent pilot today could make the flight without any issue, but in the days before GPS, navigators were essential in telling the pilots where to turn and to which degree. Crosby made a near-fatal mistake in the first episode when they mistakenly flew over France, but he can’t afford to be wrong this time; even a small mistake will result in them crashing into the Mediterranean.
Once the credits roll, the flak starts flying, and the mission is underway. Even watching in the comfort of your own home or from your desk at work (or wherever you’re watching it), it’s hard not to tense up as though you’re there in the B-17 with the 100th. It had to be absolute hell flying into a cloud of flak for long periods, trying to avoid any hits. Then once the flak stops, an even greater danger arrives: the German Luftwaffe. While the B-17s are armed with a dozen heavy machine guns, they’re still not nearly agile enough to avoid machine gun fire, a fact we’re quickly presented with as the 100th loses several bombers during the raid, including the one carrying Sgt. Quinn (Kai Alexander). In a heartbreaking scene, he’s forced to abandon one of his fellow gunners just before the plane explodes and he’s quickly taken prisoner.
Still, the mission is a success, and what’s left of the 100th eventually ends at Telergma. Cleven’s plane is in especially bad shape and they were forced to ditch everything not bolted down just to make it. The fact that his plane was able to make it was remarkable; he received the Distinguished Service Cross (the second-highest decoration military decoration, just behind the Medal of Honor) for his leadership during the mission*.
- – one website lists this mission as the reason he was awarded the DSC; another website lists a different bombing mission but uses the same date as the Regensburg mission, August 17, 1943
Overall, it’s a pretty harrowing episode, and easily the most exciting of the three episodes so far. I admit that I didn’t know much about how the B-17s operated before watching this series, but even after just three episodes, I can’t help but have an immense level of respect for the men who flew in them. These crews became family to each other, and I love that the series is showing their bonding during downtime, much like Band of Brothers and The Pacific did. It’s beautiful, ugly, and harrowing, often at the same time, and I’m not sure anyone else could give a better portrayal.
Masters of the Air Part 3 gets an A