Review of “Masters of the Air” TV series

Masters of the Air

Review by Richard Howe

Masters of the Air is a World War II miniseries on the Apple TV streaming service. There are nine episodes in all, released weekly beginning on January 26, 2024. If you’re into binge watching, all are now available.

The show follows pilots and crew of the 100th Bomb Group which flew B-17 bombers from England over occupied Europe from 1943 until the end of the war. Masters of the Air complements Band of Brothers from 2001, and The Pacific from 2010, to form a trilogy of World War II streaming series. Now all we need is one about the U.S. Navy, although as far as I know, nothing like that is being considered.

This latest edition does not sugarcoat the experience of these aircrews, many of whom died in combat. In the early years especially, flying these planes was near suicidal and the show emphasizes the strain and trauma that surviving crews endured, especially with the knowledge that they had to go back and do it over again the next day and the day after that and the day after that.

The program strives to depict many of the experiences of these men including the struggle to jump from an out-of-control airplane; the extreme cold they operated in due to the high altitude they flew at; the experience of surviving a shoot down only to be placed in a prisoner of war camp; how the western European “underground” helped some downed flyers make it safely back to England; and the importance of the maintenance workers who kept the planes flying.

The show also explores the morality of strategic bombing in World War II. The planners and theorists maintained (publicly, at least) that only military targets were being bombed, but the crewmembers knew full well that most of the bombs fell on neighborhoods, killing hundreds and even thousands of civilians.

An early episode features an argument between the newly arrived American flyers and more experienced British bomber crews over the wisdom of daylight bombing which the Americans did versus nighttime raids done by the British. American theorists maintained that flying in daylight made aiming the bombs more precise and that, with 10 heavy machine guns each, the American “Flying Fortresses” (called that because of all the machine guns) could protect themselves from enemy fighters. The British maintained that dropping bombs from 30,000 feet was inherently inaccurate, day or night. Whatever accuracy was lost by operating at night was offset by carrying more bombs due to the reduced weight of fewer machine guns and crew members. It’s an argument that has no winner, although given the high toll taken on the American planes by German fighters and antiaircraft artillery, the British approach seems to have made more sense.

The show’s title, “Masters of the Air,” comes from a book by that title but refers to the air superiority that was achieved by the Allies by the middle of 1944 and the D-Day invasion. A big part of this was the deployment of more advanced American fighter planes, particularly the P-51 Mustang, which had the range to accompany the bombers all the way to their targets and the capability to outperform almost every German fighter plane.

This development is depicted on the program by a squadron of Black American fighter pilots, some of the esteemed Tuskegee Airmen. The program uses these characters to highlight the racism endemic in American society at the time.

Even if Allied air superiority reduced the threat from enemy fighters, German antiaircraft artillery, known as flak, was still deadly to the bomber crews. One of the final episodes graphically depicts this, and builds upon the experience of a surviving crew member who bailed out over Russian lines and, before being repatriated, observed firsthand a recently liberated Nazi concentration camp and all the dead civilian prisoners inside of it.

If you’re interested in military history and have an Apple TV subscription, I recommend watching Masters of the Air.

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