|Crew of the "Memphis Belle"|
|Crew of "Hell's Angels"|
|Control Tower of RAF Molesworth|
So, it wasn't exactly as Hollywood made out but we got a taste of what it was like being part of a heavy bomber group. Risking your life every time you flew a mission, not knowing if it was going to be your last. I can only try and think of what that might be like -I don't know what it's truly like because, thanks to all those brave souls who fought for our freedom and peace back then, I have never had to experience anything like it. It is very saddening however that today war continues to rage between countries.
I heard a story once about a crew member (American) from one of the B-17's, who upon his forthcoming last mission -the 25th- became convinced that he was going to be killed. So convinced, he walked out to the furthest corner of the airfield and shot himself. That goes some way to illustrating the fear those men felt. Fear they lived with day in and day out. A fear that screamed too close to some that death was all around them, waiting.
And just to give Hollywood a mention, James Stewart the actor, was a commercial pilot before the war and was drafted into the army in October 1940. Unfortunately he failed the medical due to being a little underweight. Apparently he sought professional help in order to 'bulk up' and make the weight requirement. After doing so he enlisted in the Air Corps and was successful, taking his place among other recruits in March 1941. After various postings he eventually became Commander of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, which made its way to RAF Tibenham, Norfolk, England in October 1943.
Stewart flew with most of his combat crews during their training flights. Their first real mission was on the 13th December, 1943 and it was to bomb the U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany. Three days later Stewart led the squadron on their mission to Bremen. I think in the film, Memphis Belle, one of the crew hears that their final mission is Bremen. He says something like, "We're dead!" It was a very heavily defended place and the bombers encountered the heaviest flak ever on that mission.
Stewart took his role very seriously and was the consummate professional. So much so in fact that many of his missions were unaccredited at his own request. He was awarded multiple medals including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster.
I dare say that Hollywood would have been concerned to have their stars serving right in the heart of the enemy, risking their lives. Stewart was not alone. Clark Gable also served with the Eighth Air Force as a gunner, seeing action in the skies over Germany. He flew around five missions but one in particular was quite rough, with one crew member killed, another two injured and Gable himself narrowly missing being hit in the head by flak. When MGM studios heard of this they used their powers of persuasion to have him reassigned to non-combat duties.
|Formation of B-17's in flak.|
Bullet's fly through the sky, straight from the cannons of Focke-Wulf 190. They rip a giant hole in the wing of your ship. You immediately think, "this is it," but miraculously she continues to fly. Rather than panic, you're so wrapped up in getting through this, firing back at the raiders. Mayhem and madness all around. Another Fortress bursts into flames. You see the first chute come out and wait for the others. You count five in total-no more -one of the chutes is on fire. He's not going to make it.
There's nothing romantic about war although film directors make an excellent job of showing audiences that there is. The reality is that it's harrowing, terrifying, brutal and psychologically debilitating. Not to mention the physical effects, the most tragic of all being death. Whilst many people today lobby for peace and even condone those who serve or have served their countries, I think it is essential to show our thanks to veterans, regardless of your stance on war. After all, if they had not done what they did during WW2, I often wonder if I would be here today. What about you?