William Wyler risked his life to film « The Memphis Belle » missions over Germany
Many people interested in WW2 and aviation have probably seen The Memphis Belle, a movie by Michael Catton Jones released in 1990. This beautiful film was also pretty accurate, and beyond paying tribute to the crews flying the B-17s flying fortresses, it described in a realistic way all what could happen to them during a bombing mission over Germany.
The crews of the 8th Air Force based in England had to accomplish 25 missions before being being withdrawn from the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and get back to the States. But this was a frightening roulette russe game. During 1943 and until the beginning of 1944, these bombers where shot down by the Germans between their 8th and 12th mission. In average. Many of them returned from only three, four or six missions. A great many did not return from the first one. The crews were formed of ten people, and some formations were composed of 1000 planes or more. Two or three hundreds of them were sometimes lost in one single operation.
These aviators were the combatants the most exposed to death. In the infantry, there were four or five men injured for one dead in combat. Among bombardiers, four or five dead for an injured. Between their first mission in August 1943 and their last one, on Mai 8, 1945, the forty bombers groups of the 8th Air Force lost 4145 planes.
On May 17, 1943, the Memphis Belle crew was the first one to complete its 25 missions. So goes anyway the popular belief thanks to the filmography devoted to this event. But the historic truth is that another B-17, the Hell’s Angel, had reached this goal on May 13 of the same year.
It remains that the feat of the Memphis Belle and her crew was at the time the subject of a film by the Hollywood director William Wyler (Ben Hur, Mrs Miniver, Roman Holiday). Meant to encourage the war effort in the US, this documentary makes the spectator realize the ordeal that these airmen went through. Especially by the end of the film (from the 27th minute). The men on the base, anguished and counting the planes returning one by one. The ambulance wagons, racing across the fields toward those big birds sometimes so terribly damaged that you wonder just how they could fly back all the way from over Hamburg or Stuttgart, to take away the injured and the dead. The pilots, navigators and machine gunners who return unscathed… but you can see hell in their eyes. It’s poignant.
Equally poignant is another film made by another Hollywood star, the actor Clark Gable : Combat America. Also a propaganda film, this one expresses perhaps better than The Memphis Belle all the intensity of the combats and the dangers that the B-17s had to cope with before and after being able to drop their bombs. William Wyler and Clark Gable really showed great courage in flying on several occasions on these planes during missions over Germany. This link on the problems encountered by Wyler and his team during the shooting bears witness to that.
Mission accomplished, the Memphis Belle and her crew returned to the States. They landed the Belle on different airfields across the country to promote the war effort and were welcomed as heroes. Then the glorious fortress was for a long time left abandonned in a hangar. For several years know, this mythic plane has been under restauration at the National Museum of the US Air Force, in Ohio.
Lieutenant John Phillippe Garreau, the hero of my novel The Legend of Little Eagle, is a fighter pilot on a P-51 Mustang. On his first mission in March 1944, his group accompanies a formation of B-17s to protect them on their way onto Germany. The prologue of the book tells what happened that day of baptism of fire, when Johnny scored two victories against ennemy aircraft.