Some years ago I did a short series of interviews for The Spectator with war veterans about their combat experiences. Most had found them exciting, fulfilling, even enjoyable: ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!’ said infantryman Mike Peyton, who likened it to doing the black ski run at Tortin in Verbier. But the one who had nothing good to say about it was RAF bomber pilot David Hearsey.
‘All those films where you see fliers gather in the mess for a sing-song round the piano: didn’t happen in my squadron,’ he told me. ‘Our base was grim, cold and windblown. Everyone was miserable and terrified and barely socialised with anyone outside their crew. What was the point? They were all going to die sooner or later. As a rough rule of thumb you’d be dead by your fifth mission.’ Still, it could have been worse, he admitted. ‘In the RAF, you flew at night, you were given your target and your bombing window, so you could plot your own route and do the job any way you wanted. But the US bomber crews had to fly in daylight in tight formation all the way there and all the way back getting shot to pieces. They had a really raw deal.’
Indeed they did. And Masters of the Air – which is produced by Steven Spielberg and is an air-war successor to Band of Brothers and Pacific – captures the relentless grind, the jaw-clenching anxiety and the pant-wetting horror of those terrifying missions quite brilliantly. Avoiding the cliché of the usual introductory episode where you see the disparate recruits go through their training, this series instead opens in medias res with the rookie crews on their first mission over Germany in 1943.