Masters of the Air: Who were the men behind new Spielberg, Hanks and Apple TV wartime series?

Austin Butler stars in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's later wartime series Masters of the Air. Credit: Apple.
Who were the real 100th Bomb Group? Credit: Apple

A major new Apple TV series tells the stories of The 100th Bomb Group - their high-altitude heroism, courage, loss and brotherhood. But their real-life inspiration can be traced back to an airfield in the south Norfolk countryside.

As Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg shine a spotlight on another band of wartime brothers, those tasked with looking after the memory of the crew that inspired it say they hope the $275m series does them justice.

Apple TV's latest offering, Masters of the Air, tells the tale of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Airforce, which became known as the "Bloody Hundredth".

Made by the producers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the nine-part series follows the American bombers from their deployment in 1943 to being taken as prisoners of war and stars Elvis actor Austin Butler alongside Callum Turner and Doctor Who's Ncuti Gatwa.

Based at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in south Norfolk, they were part of the 350,000 US military personnel who passed through the East of England during the Second World War - in what became known as the "friendly invasion".

The airfield is now home to the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum where volunteers have spent decades helping to preserve the memory of the squadron.

Simon Quilter, a volunteer and communications officer for the museum, said they would find it "quite odd" to see Hollywood stars playing the characters they know so well from history.

"The important thing for us is that these veterans' stories are told in the right way and respected in the right way," he said. "For the memories of those veterans, those boys who flew, but also their families. Accuracy is more important than stardom."

And the signs are good. Members of the production team, actors, and scriptwriters spent five years going back and forth to the former airbase, where the museum volunteers would take them through the stories of those stationed there.

Producer Kirk Saduski and screenwriter John Orloff were regular visitors.

"We've had to explain everything to them," said Brian Barden, a volunteer of 10 years. "It's been quite exhilarating at times because of the passion they seem to have put into it.

"It seemed to us, sometimes, they were making excuses to come back so we could take them round the airfield again!"

Nate Mann plays pilot Major Robert Rosenthal in Apple TV series Masters of the Air. Credit: Apple / 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum.

Among the stories Mr Barden was keen to tell was that of Robert Rosenthal, known as Rosie, who signed up the day after Pearl Harbour.

Played by Nate Mann in the TV series, he became known as the legend of the 100th Bomb Group, and was one of the luckiest in their ranks.

"To survive 52 missions was quite incredible, really," said Mr Barden, as he stood next to a cabinet full of Rosie's many medals.

"On his third mission, they sent out 13 aircraft and his was the only one to come back. The airbase was a very sad place that night. All the ground crews on the hard standings waited for their air crews to come back and there were a lot of empty beds in the barracks that night."

Rosie was shot down twice, breaking his arm both times. On his last mission, over Berlin, he was forced to bail out of his B-17 but managed to land in Russian territory.

By the end of the war he was the most decorated pilot in the 8th Air Force and, as a lawyer, he joined the Nuremberg Trials as an assistant to the United States prosecutor and interviewed Hermann Goering.

Austin Butler plays commanding officer Major Gale "Buck" Cleven in Masters of the Air on Apple TV. Credit: Apple / 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum

Taking centre stage in the Masters of the Air is Major Gale "Buck" Cleven, played by Bafta and Golden Globe winner Butler.

Having enlisted as a flying cadet at the age of 21, "Bucky" became commanding officer of the 350th Bomb Squadron and was shipped overseas to Thorpe Abbotts in June 1943.

A central figure in many of the group's famous missions, he was eventually taken as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III - which became better known as the site of the Great Escape in 1944.

Bucky's endeavours were among those documented by fellow airman Harry Crosby, whose memoir A Wing and a Prayer was one of the books on which Masters of the Air was based.

Harry Crosby, played by Nate Mann in Masters of the Air, was a navigator with the 100th Bomb Group. Credit: Apple / 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum

During a raid of Bremen in Germany, Crosby - played by Anthony Boyle - found himself navigating in an aircraft that had lost all its navigational equipment.

Rather than panic, he was able to guide the bomber back to the Norfolk coastline, making it all the way to Ludham - around 40 miles north-east of Thorpe Abbots - before making an emergency landing.

As for the airfield, Thorpe Abbotts hosted 3,500 airmen at the time - outnumbering the local villagers - and the site remains much the same as it was when the US airforce was in residence.

Covering 600 acres, it included three runways, two hangars and 50 hardstands to maintain around 70 aircraft.

The control tower remains centre stage at the base, with its glasshouse offering panoramic views of the airfield, despite having been taken over by pigs during the 1950s and 1960s.

As well as the bomb group, the base once welcomed legendary bandleader Glenn Miller - who performed in the main hangar in September 1944, just two months before he went missing.

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