A decade in the works, the much anticipated Masters of the Air is a great television series which had the potential to be monumental. But most critics have agreed that this vast epic about the USAAF 100th Bomb Group, however powerful it was in its finest moments, failed to achieve the emotional connection of Band of Brothers, the 2001 milestone series from the same executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks.

Adding my own voice of critical assessment to those of all the others, I’d have to say that the major flaw in the nine-episode series was its biting off more than it could chew. Unfortunately, this left viewers picking through a jumble of unresolved subplots and missed opportunities which tumble randomly across the middle episodes. One of the missed opportunities, coincidentally, involves a real person from my own recent book from Osprey, entitled The Ones Who Got Away (2024).

But first, there are high points in Masters of the Air as well. Having penned several books about the Eighth Air Force in World War II, and about the B-17 Flying Fortress, I have written often of the men, machines, and operations which viewers have now encountered on the screen. I’ll start by giving the series high marks for historical and technical accuracy in the visuals – the uniforms, sets, and aircraft – as well as for the extremely effective flying scenes.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours going through original photos and footage of men and aircraft at the National Archives, and I can see that the production team did their homework, and I know where they did it. I have seen the original images that are echoed by the CGI imagery of Masters of the Air. I have also spent hours crawling through real B-17s taking detailed pictures of everything (for a book about same), and I have to say they got it right with the interiors. Even the color of everything (especially the color) is spot on.

I cannot disagree with the nitpickers who found nits to pick, and I did cringe at the absence of B-17Gs in the final episodes, but overall, the production team did a very good job with production design – especially in the early episodes, and especially in comparison to a lot of war movies out there.

The core premise of the storyline is encapsulated in a single statement by veteran Harry Crosby in his 1993 book A Wing and a Prayer, which is in turn quoted by Donald Miller in his 2007 book Masters of the Air. Said Crosby, “Gale Cleven and John Egan gave the 100th its personality … Bob Rosenthal helped us want to win the war.”

These four individuals are the lead characters. Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (portrayed by Austin Butler) and Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) were friends who were B-17 pilots with the 100th, and who were both shot down in October 1943. Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann) joined the 100th in August 1943 and flew 52 missions before being shot down in February 1945. All survived. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) was the lead navigator of the 100th Bomb Group.

Each of these characters was well cast and well portrayed, but viewers and critics alike had been hoping for the kind of camaraderie and unit cohesion we recall from Band of Brothers. This was, alas, impossible when Cleven and Egan landed in a POW camp just as Rosenthal entered combat. Meanwhile, Crosby had been marginalized by desk duty.

As I’ve noted, I found the major flaw of the series to be a throng of unresolved and arguably unnecessary subplots. These involve interesting themes that might have been developed into satisfying stories, had they not been awkwardly thrown into the narrative only to be cut off without resolution. This running time could have been better devoted to strengthening the interpersonal narrative within the 100th, and to what Masters of the Air did so well with its air combat scenes.

In Episode 7, for example, a great deal of time is spent introducing Alessandra “Sandra” Wesgate (portrayed by Bel Powley) as a love interest for Crosby. She is an intriguing character, but it is not clear where she fits in the larger Masters of the Air storyline. We later see her operating as a spy in occupied Europe, but then she is abruptly dropped, not to be seen again.

Finally, I come to that “missed opportunity” subplot involving a real person who is a character in my own recent book, The Ones Who Got Away. She is Micheline Dumon, aka “Michou,” a 20-something-year-old Belgian nursing student who became one of the leading figures in the Comet Escape Line which helped hundreds of downed Allied airmen evade German dragnets and escape occupied Europe. Among Michou’s assets were her determination, her astute cleverness in reading people, and the fact that she looked like she was only 16 – so the Germans never took her seriously!

Michou does appear in Episode 4 of Masters of the Air, ably portrayed by Léonie Lojkine. She is introduced to downed airmen Sergeant Charles Bailey (Bailey Brook) and Sergeant William Quinn (Kai Alexander). When they express reservations about putting their fate in her hands, scoffing that “she’s barely a teenager,” a Comet Line operative replies, “she’s your guide and you will do what she says.” Such exchanges really happened, and in the end, Michou and others like her delivered.

As readers will often see in The Ones Who Got Away, young Comet handlers frequently brought the young evaders aboard passenger trains right under the noses of the Gestapo. In Episode 4 of Masters of the Air, there is a tense and dramatic scene wherein Michou, Bailey and Quinn are together in a train compartment with a Gestapo man outside on the platform, when a conductor barges in, asking pointed questions. Suddenly, just as we are really starting to get into this storyline, the scene simply ends. “What happened next?” viewers are left to ask.

Their ensuing escape through the rugged, snowy Pyrenees, with the Germans hot on their trail, is never seen. Quinn reappears in England in an Episode 7 cameo with no explanation of exactly how he got there. This whole subplot is a missed opportunity for a great story within Masters of the Air, but even by Episode 4, the series had already bitten off more than it could chew.

Fear not, however – the entire adventure-filled escape stories of numerous evaders await you in the pages of The Ones Who Got Away from Osprey. If there are any producers reading this blog who are interested in fulfilling the promise and telling the rest of these stories, I await your call.

The Ones Who Got Away: Mighty Eighth Airmen on the Run in Occupied Europe
By Bill Yenne
Osprey Publishing (Hardback)