Masters of the Air Apple TV+ series with Elvis star Austin Butler could boost Suffolk and Norfolk tourism, with wartime links Bury St Edmunds, Lavenham and Diss.
They called it the friendly invasion. In World War Two, hundreds of thousands of US airmen landed in England to join the battle against Nazi Germany.
Hastily constructed airfields sprang up across the farmland of East Anglia and the roar of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers heading out on perilous missions became a familiar sound.
Tens of thousands of men never returned – the 26,000 American deaths adding to the huge toll suffered by RAF Bomber Command, which lost 55,000 aircrew.
Now a television drama is set to salute the men of the American Eighth Air Force who battled terrifying conditions at 25,000 feet – more than four miles – high to carry out bombing raids on industrial, military and economic targets over Germany.
The Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air features the exploits of the 100th Bomb Group – also known as the Bloody Hundredth because of their heavy losses – who were stationed at Thorpe Abbotts, near Diss.
But their experiences were echoed across the USAAF bases of eastern England which included Rougham, Lavenham, Eye, Rattlesden, Sudbury, Tibbenham and Watton.
The programme is predicted to shine a spotlight on all the Suffolk and Norfolk connections. Venues including memorial museums are gearing up for an influx of visitors inspired to find out more about the men who played a key role in defeating Hitler’s forces.
Sue Warren, marketing manager of Bury St Edmunds and Beyond is confident the series will bring more tourists from the UK and America to Suffolk.
The ‘Mighty Eighth’ flew 600,000 sorties with 26,000 men killed in action. Around 28,000 became prisoners of war. More than 10,000 aircraft were lost. The bravery of its crews won them 17 Medals of Honour, 220 Distinguished Flying Crosses and more than 420,000 Air Medals.
Unlike ground soldiers the bomber boys slept on clean beds, drank in local pubs and danced to the music of travelling air force bands while introducing rural backwaters to the delights of Glenn Miller, chewing gum, jitterbugging and Coca Cola.
But they were also an elite group of fighters who put their lives on the line in the most dangerous role of all.
Flying in a B-17 was daunting. The crews had to wear oxygen to breathe, it was freezing cold and the aircraft's thin metal fuselage offered little protection from enemy fire. They faced these punishing conditions for up to 10 hours at a time.
The nine-episode Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks-produced drama, which begins today, is based on a book of the same name by renowned US historian Donald L Miller.
All the leading characters were real people, including pilot Major Gale Cleven, played by Austin Butler who won a Golden Globe and BAFTA for his performance as Elvis Presley in the 2022 biopic Elvis.
Maj Cleven was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery on a bombing raid in 1943, battling on against all the odds to complete the mission and safely land his badly damaged aircraft.
He was taken prisoner later that year after his aircraft was shot down and was reunited in the PoW camp with his best buddy from the 100th, Major John Egan.
Maj Egan was the epitome of the devil-may-care wartime bomber pilot. Wearing his hat askew, often with a moustache, he was the role model for newly arrived air crews at Thorpe Abbotts, according to the website of the American Air Museum.
He is played in the series by Callum Turner, best known as Theseus Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts films.
Despite being set on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, Masters of the Air was filmed in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and London. But the 100th Bomb Group’s real life home still keeps their memory alive. The control tower at Thorpe Abbotts is now the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum.
Dr Reg Wilson, chair of the trustees, said they had known about the upcoming TV series for several years, but filming was delayed because of Covid.
“There were consultations with the museum about various aspects, and more so with the 100th Bomb Group Foundation in the States,” he said.
“We had to keep it quiet for a long time due to a non-disclosure agreement. We’re looking forward very much to watching it.”
Reg said some of the heroes featured in the series went on to do great things after the war. Major Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal, a lawyer in civilian life who received 16 bravery awards, did 52 missions and survived. Later he was part of the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials.
Navigator Lieutenant Colonel Harry H Crosby flew 32 combat missions and was also highly decorated for gallantry, He wrote an autobiography "On a Wing and a Prayer" about his experiences.
Reg said the name Bloody Hundredth came about because there were some missions where they lost particularly heavily. “It just got about that the bomb group was unlucky and it was difficult to suppress it.
“The worst period was October 1943 – in three missions over three days 40 per cent of the aircrew and aircraft had gone. On one mission 13 aircraft took off and only one, flown by ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal came back. In all, 757 crew members from Thorpe Abbotts never came back.
The museum opened in 1983: “This year we are hoping to do a little bit of expansion, particularly to accommodate increased visitor numbers due to this series,” said Reg.
“What the 100th did is going to come to the attention of a lot more people and open up awareness, also of other bases across East Anglia.
“We are opening in the first week of March and we will have to cope with what comes through the gates. We will be putting on additional staff for the first few weeks.”
The museum also maintains a living connection with the US Air Force. The 100th Bomb Group eventually became the 100th Air Refuelling Wing which is now based at USAF Mildenhall – less than 25 miles from its wartime home.
“All their aircraft are named after B17s that were flying during the war and have the same D symbol on their tails,” said Reg.
“The guys from Mildenhall have regularly sent working parties here to paint huts and fences, clear leaves. They also send groups along just to learn about their history.”
Suffolk has many other links to the Eighth Air Force, some of which are mentioned in the original ‘Masters of the Air’ book.
They include Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum which is one of the best-preserved military buildings in the region.
Opened in 1992, it houses a collection including photos, artefacts, uniforms, letters, and photographs, which tell the story of the airfield – home to the 94th Bomb Group – and the personnel stationed there.
Exhibits include the wedding dress worn by British aircraft inspector Edith Gilham when she married her dashing B17 bomber hero Tom Miller on May 12, 1945, just after VE Day.
The museum is open every Sunday, from April to October with free entry. For information visit www.rctam94th.co.uk.
Evidence of the lighter side of life for US servicemen can be found in The Airmen’s Bar at The Swan at Lavenham hotel and spa.
More than 1,000 of their signatures adorn the walls, including the names of those who took up the infamous challenge of downing a 3.5 pint boot of ale and how long it took them.
A framed image in the bar depicts the moment the astonishing record of 22 seconds was apparently set by Mick Wilson in 1940, and the bar also displays an extensive collection of military memorabilia.
The Swan was the local for men from nearby Lavenham Airfield, which is also mentioned in the ‘Masters of the Air’ book, and was manned by the USAAF 487th Bomb Group.
The unit's first commander was Lieutenant Colonel Beirne Lay Jr., a prominent Hollywood screenwriter. After the war, he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1949 film, ‘Twelve O'Clock High’, a Hollywood blockbuster about a B-17 unit starring Gregory Peck.
Airmen could also let their hair down at Bury Corn Exchange, now a Wetherspoons pub, which was known for its dances to boogie woogie and jazz. Service personnel also held parties there for local children.
Bury’s Greene King Brewery was kept in business during the war thanks to Academy Award winning actor Jimmy Stewart who ordered trucks of lager every week for the thirsty air crews of the 453rd Bombardment Group stationed at Old Buckenham, in Norfolk.
Meanwhile, the Athenaeum in Bury, now an events venue, was home to a canteen for troops and by the time it closed in 1945 almost 1.5 million servicemen and women had entered its doors.
Sue Warren from Bury St Edmunds and Beyond, said the promotion of the Masters of the Air book had already led to several US tour operators planning visits to Suffolk and the east of England.
“We are confident the TV series will bring a further boost to Suffolk tourism from within the UK as well as a greater influx of visitors from across the Atlantic keen to experience where their service personnel were based and discover more about their lives during World War ll. “It’s also a great way for us to highlight some of our wonderful historic attractions and the important part they played during the war years.”
To coincide with the series, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides have created a ‘Masters of the Air’ guided walk.
Starting at 3.30pm on February 13 and March 12, it will take in buildings and places that contributed to the war effort or helped raise the morale of Allied servicemen and women.
Advance booking is essential on www.burystedmundstourguides.org tickets priced at £12 adults, £6 under 18s, under 5s free.
The walk will end with a visit to The Guildhall, to see the Royal Observer Corps Operations Room, where specialist guides will describe its vital role in Britain’s air defence.
The control centre is the only surviving room of its kind in the world. From there, the Corps protected the skies of Suffolk and relayed vital messages to crews at local air bases.
Tours of the Guildhall are available by appointment or for details of free open days throughout 2024 visit www.burystedmundsguildhall.org.uk.
St Edmundsbury Cathedral is staging a new display to coincide with the series, featuring an American flag presented in 1945 by the US Air Force which has never been shown publicly before.
The 48-star flag, made before Alaska and Hawaii joined the union, symbolised the friendship between service personnel and the citizens of Bury, and marked the sacrifice of the British and American nations in the cause of freedom for all peoples.
American connection kneelers created for the Cathedral’s kneeler project in the 1960s will also be on show.
Close by the cathedral is the Appleby Rose Garden in the Abbey Gardens, a memorial funded by John Tate Appleby who served with the 487th Bomb Group at Lavenham, out of royalties from his book ‘A Suffolk Summer’.
The garden has over 400 rose bushes and a unique bench made from the wing of a Flying Fortress. There is also a stone monument in memory of the 94th Bomb Group.
The Flight of Peace sculpture on the Lady Miriam Way roundabout in Bury commemorates the US Air Force’s arrival at Rougham in 1943.
The sculpture, with a dove of peace blossoming from it, is a symbolic remembrance of those servicemen who prepared, maintained and flew their Flying Fortress bombers on 325 missions.
Aircraft from Rougham were identified by the letter A in a square background on the tail, which is featured in the sculpture.
Our Bury St Edmunds is supporting the release of ‘Masters of the Air’ with a digital marketing campaign running from January to the end of March targeting visitors living within three hours’ drive time of the town.
For more information, where to stay and other things to see and do visit www.burystedmundsandbeyond.co.uk.