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Masters of the Air: ten other films and TV shows about the ‘friendly invasion’ of the American Eighth Air Force

Masters of the Air: ten other films and TV shows about the ‘friendly invasion’ of the American Eighth Air Force

New Apple TV series Masters of the Air tells the story of the famed 100th Bomb Group. The “Bloody 100th” (as they became known), were a part of the United States Eighth Air Force, a huge organisation which operated out of around 70 airfields in eastern England from 1942 to 1945.

The show is based on a popular history book of the same name by Donald L. Miller and involves some of the same production team as Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).

The trailer for Masters of the Air.

Masters of the Air is by no means the first time that the exploits of the Eighth Air Force have caught the interest of filmmakers and television producers. In several previous productions, two recurrent themes stand out: stories of Anglo-American romance and critiques of the bombing doctrine employed by American air force commanders.

Special relationships

The American military buildup in Britain – popularly known as the “friendly invasion” – was an unprecedented moment in British history.

It was the first instance of mass Anglo-American interaction, and in eastern England – where so much of the Eighth Air Force was based – many small rural communities were inundated by invading American GIs.

What followed were moments of “culture shock” as citizens of each nation attempted to understand one another. What followed, too, were Anglo-American romantic relationships. This is hinted at in the legendary refrain attributed to an unnamed British wit. The problem with the Yanks, apparently, was that they were: “Overpaid, overfed, over sexed, and over here.”

Little wonder that stories of Anglo-American love and romance quickly drew contemporary press commentary (especially when they led to marriage). Such stories have likewise featured in a number of films and television shows.

The trailer for War Lover (1962).

Take, for instance, director Anthony Asquith’s film, The Way to the Stars (1945). Focused on a British airbase – Halfpenny Field – taken over by the American air force, the film offers a lightheaded examination of the Anglo-American relationship, often lingering on moments of love and romance.

Take, too, the Herbert Wilcox film I Live In Grosvenor Square (1945) which similarly explores the Anglo-American ties that bind, this time via a transatlantic love triangle involving, once again, an American pilot. Anglo-American “special relationships” like this have remained a go-to plot device ever since.

In War Lover (1962), for example, two American bomber pilots based in England (one played by Steve McQueen) compete for the hand of an English sweetheart. In Hanover Street (1979), Harrison Ford’s American pilot similarly falls for an Englishwoman (Lesley Anne Down).

The trailer for We’ll Meet Again (1982).

By the time the British television series, We’ll Meet Again, was aired in 1982 the theme was well established. Offering a rather nostalgic take on the friendly invasion, the series tells the story of the relationships established between American bomber boys and the people of a small East Anglian village.

A similar story features in the BBC’s 2016 series My Mother and Other Strangers, though this time the focus is the relationships that follow the arrival of the Eighth Air Force in rural Northern Ireland.

Read more:
The Diplomat: Netflix show suggests the US-UK special relationship needs some TLC

Precision bombing

The second theme apparent in several previous productions concerns the bombing strategy employed by American commanders.

This theme picks up on a subject much discussed during the war (and afterwards): the effectiveness of daylight precision bombing. The doctrine employed by the Eighth Air Force, it was a notable point of divergence with the British ally who had given up on daylight bombing believing it too costly in RAF lives and planes.

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Their American counterparts, however, entered the war committed to proving that it could be done. This commitment, the Anglo-American disagreements that ensued and what it all meant for American aircrew, has drawn persistent attention in film and television.

The trailer for Twelve O’Clock High (1949).

An early example is the 1948 film, Command Decision, which stars Clark Gable (himself an Eighth Air Force veteran). But it is Twelve O’Clock High (1949) which offers the most probing examination of American bombing. Starring Gregory Peck as a no-nonsense commander, the film provides a moving exploration of the human costs (for American aircrew) of the precision bombing campaign, which saw huge formations of bombers do battle against experienced German fighter pilots. It similarly featured in the TV series of the same name that aired over 1964-1967.

More recently, the importance of precision to the American bombing campaign was also explored in Memphis Belle (1990). In one scene, for instance, the captain of the Memphis Belle – the name of the B-17 bomber at the centre of the story – is so committed to delivering a precision attack on a German factory that he even insists on taking a second pass over the target after the initial attempt is confounded by cloud cover.

Apple TV’s Masters of the Air is in good company. It is the latest in a long line of film and television which has found inspiration in the war fought by the American Eighth Air Force. And with creative input from the likes of Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks (both credited as producers) it looks set to be a notable addition to the genre.

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