Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Revisiting the Memphis Belle, James Stewart and World War Two.

Crew of the "Memphis Belle"
Who can recall Memphis Belle, the film? I certainly can and I loved it. However, whilst it was fantastic it was not an accurate representation of the actual B-17 Memphis Belle and her crew. The film portrays the crew as the first to complete the target of 25 missions or tours as they were known, before they can return home. The truth is that just prior to the Memphis Belle achieving this coveted feat, the crew of Hell's Angels made it first, completing their tour on the 13th May 1943. The Memphis Belle crew completed their tour on the 19th May 1943. However, this particular Fortress was also famous for being the first B-17 to keep an entire crew alive. Naturally much of the credit must go to the skill and team work of the pilots and crew but it does make you wonder about those elusive little things such as luck and guardian angels. 

Crew of "Hell's Angels"
Whilst Hells Angels went on to do further tours, the Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to complete a tour AND return home. However, the crew that returned with the Belle was a made-up crew, and not the original crew, headed by Captain Robert K. Morgan.

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.
It was an extremely dangerous time in the skies and many men have written accounts of the battles that raged in those skies. Imagine flying to the target somewhere over Germany, in an armada of great flying fortresses, when suddenly you are attacked by the mighty Luftwaffe. Not only are you at risk from flak from below, but now the guns of a Focke-Wulf are upon you. The B-17 on your right wing is hit and goes spiralling downwards to earth, spinning out of control. You see no chutes. You had breakfast with those guys this morning.

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?