It’s safe to say we’re extremely proud here at ELC to be the official supplier of flight jackets and other apparel for the new Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks production “Masters of the Air”, streaming soon on Apple TV+. As the series launch approaches, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of the heroic USAAF unit and men that inspired the epic production.
In most military services, there are often units that stand out as unlucky or unfortunate. Either by mission, assignment, or the fates, such units usually go on to achieve a legendary and revered status. The US Army’s 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, USS Indianapolis after delivering the atomic bomb to Tinian, or the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, are all examples of military units experiencing particularly exceptional hardship. For the US Army Air Forces during World War II, this kind of reputation was earned by members of the Eight Air Force's 100th Bombardment Group.
The 100th or “Century Bombers” as they would later refer to themselves, consisted of 4 Squardons of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress' (the 349th, 350th 351st & 418th), their “Square D" insignia being the only World War II USAAF tail flash to survive in the present-day U.S. Air Force. Rendered on the vertical stabilisers of its B-17s, the large tail fins of which made an excellent canvas for the bold “D” on a square background, the 100th proudly wore the emblem into battle.
As a part of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) over Europe, the members of the 100th were both respected and pitied by fellow bomber crews. The Group’s reputation was well known throughout Bomber Command as a jinxed unit, with the chances of surviving a tour of 25 missions appearing as a dim possibility. Highlighting this expectation, a new airman assigned to the 100th in late 1943, told a companion, “I’m not going to make it…they just put me in the 100th Group. I haven’t got a chance.”
The 100th arrived in England in June 1943, one of the dozens of heavy bomber groups comprising the Eighth Air Force’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd air divisions. After a brief stay at an incomplete airbase in Podington, they set up shop at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in East Anglia. From here the Group’s airmen began flying over England and the Channel to get the lay of the land as they prepared for their first mission over enemy territory.
The Group flew its first mission on June 22nd 1943, but it was merely a diversion flight over the North Sea. Three days later they took off from Thorpe Abbotts on their maiden combat mission, a raid on the U-Boat pens at Bremen, Germany. Flying in a formation comprised of 275 bombers, the 100th sent 17 B-17 crews, who sighted their first German fighters while also receiving their initial barrage of ground-based Luftwaffe flak. In total, 18 bombers were lost, with the 100th losing 3. The baptism by fire had a sobering effect as the Group’s downed aircraft each took 10 men with them. Killed or captured, the loss of 30 airmen underscored the deadly and unforgiving nature of the air war. This first mission would fuel the beginning of the Group’s reputation as a “hard-luck unit”. As the losses and sacrifices grew, they would go on to become known as the “Bloody Hundredth.”
Soon after, the 100th would take part in a 12-hour mission to bomb German U-Boat pens in Trondheim, Norway. Because the majority of the 1,900-mile flight was over the waters of the North Sea, lead navigator, 1st Lt Harry Crosby, was unable to make pilotage checks of off ground references, meaning the young navigator felt the full weight of his responsibilities leading the 63-plane formation. Fortunately, Crosby’s calculations were accurate, and the bombers hit the target. On the way home, Crosby deviated from the planned route due to weather and then realised he did not make the required radio/position reports. Upon landing, he was summoned to the Group operations hut, expecting to be in line for a court martial. However, his radio silence and change in the return route prevented German interceptors from getting a fix on the bomber formation, and in an ironic twist of fate, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.
On August 17th, the 100th participated in one of its bloodiest missions that would begin to cement its infamous reputation. The Group flew to Regensburg for the first time, their mission, to target a factory where Messerschmitt Me-109s fighters were assembled. The mission required the coordination of two separate masses of Eighth Air Force bombers, one to Regensburg and the other headed to Schweinfurt and its ball-bearing works with Republic P-47 escorts. The Regensburg-bound bombers would then fly to North Africa and return to England at a later date.
However, the 100th was left unescorted when one of the P-47 units never appeared. Flying in the low and trailing squadron in the larger bomber formation, in what was afforded the darkly humorous nickname "Purple Heart Corner", the 100th were in the location that the German fighters often attacked first. While the Division successfully hit the target, the Regensberg force lost 24 bombers. Of the 100th's 220 airmen in 22 B-17s launched that day, 90 of those men and 9 Fortresses didn't return.
418th Bomb Squadron navigator Harry H. Crosby later remembered “what seemed to be the whole German Air Force came up and began to riddle our whole task force. As other planes were hit, we had to fly through their debris. I instinctively ducked as we almost hit an escape hatch from a plane ahead. When a plane blew up, we saw their parts all over the sky. We smashed into some of the pieces. One plane hit a body which tumbled out of a plane ahead.”
The Group’s reputation was sealed in the second week of October 1943, during missions to Bremen and Munster. On October 8th, 100th pilot John “Lucky” Luckadoo put his nickname to the test over Bremen. By this point in the war, German fighter pilots had worked out an effective method of taking down numerous aircraft in one action. They would get out in front of the bomber formation — 25 or 30 Focke-Wulfs or Messerschmitts wide — and spray the formation with cannon fire, rockets and machine guns. As a result, the 100th suffered tremendous fatalities. Seven B-17s were lost and 72 aircrew died on the Bremen mission.
However, it was the Munster raid of October 10th, 2 days later, that finally cemented the 100th ‘s terrible renown. While en route to the target, the Group experienced the most violent Luftwaffe attacks yet seen as bombers took hits from both flak and fighter planes. As the formation made its way to the initial point, planes of the 100th were downed one by one. Only 1st Lt Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal’s aircraft “Rosie’s Riveters” made it to the target. With his own plane hit, he continued the bomb run. He dropped his payload while also losing two engines, the intercom, and oxygen systems. The losses on the Munster mission were devastating: 12 aircraft and 121 men. Only “Rosie’s Riveters” returned to Thorpe Abbotts that day.
Several days after these disastrous missions, the 100th was able to muster only 8 aircraft for a raid that nearly broke the back of the Eighth Air Force. October 14th, 1943, became known as “Black Thursday.” On that autumn day, 291 B-17s assembled to make a second raid on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. American losses were unacceptable: 60 aircraft shot down, 17 written off and more than 100 others damaged. In a twist of fate that served to highlight the randomness inherent in war, the 100th Bomb Group emerged comparatively unscathed that dreadful day. All of the eight B-17s that it contributed to the mission returned to Thorpe Abbotts.
The October 1943 missions wound up being among the last bombing raids deep into German airspace that the Eighth Air Force flew without end-to-end fighter escort. Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring had once pompously bragged that Allied bombers would never be seen in the skies over Germany. By March 4th, 1944, Allied bombers weren’t just flying over Germany, they flew all the way to Berlin. On that date, the 100th and their friends in the 95th Bomb Group became the first fliers to successfully bomb the German capital. For its efforts, the 100th was later awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. Two days after this raid, they returned to Berlin on their 81st mission of the war. As they approached the target, an electrical equipment factory, they were met by swarms of German fighter planes. They would suffer a devastating loss of 15 aircraft and 150 crewman, ranking among the Groups highest.
The 100th Bomb Group flew its final combat mission on April 20th, 1945, just days before the cessation of hostilities in Europe. As the war in Europe wound down, the 100th and numerous other Eighth Air Force bomber groups celebrated the weeks leading up to V-E Day on May 8th by exchanging their 500-pound general purpose bombs for containers of food, medical supplies, clothing, chocolate and cigarettes. The so-called “Chowhound” missions dropped thousands of tons of supplies to the long-suffering people of the Netherlands and France. So many 100th fliers wanted to be a part of the humanitarian efforts that the oxygen systems, unnecessary at low level, were removed from the B-17s, freeing up room for as many as four extra crewmen on each plane. The missions helped the 100th put a positive spin on what had been a harrowing experience.
While the 100th earned its reputation as a hard-luck unit over the course of the war, it was really the terrible losses of the Regensburg and Munster raids that created a perception that was hard to shake. In addition to those missions, the colourful personalities and Hollywood swagger of the men that filled the ranks of the unit also added to its unique reputation. Men like Chick Harding, “Lucky” Luckadoo, the two “Bucks” - John “Bucky” Egan and Gale “Bucky” Cleven, “Cowboy” Roane, Harry Crosby, and “Rosie” Rosenthal all added to the unit’s distinct history and reputation. In the next ELC blog instalment we’ll take a closer look at these personalities who braved the air over Europe with the “Bloody Hundredth”.