On the morning of 25 June 1943, B-17s of the 100th Bomb Group went to war for the first time. The 100th Bomb Group is one of the most famous of the Second World War - earning the nickname 'The Bloody Hundredth'. Their experiences feature in the Apple Original Series Masters Of The Air.

The 100th was among an armada of American bomber and fighter groups to arrive in England to bolster the flagging formations of the Eighth Air Force. Eighth Air Force Bomber Command became the Eighth Air Force in February 1944 and oversaw the bombardment of strategic targets throughout Europe until 1945.

However, the 100th was not statistically noteworthy. They won numerous awards, but other groups won more. They didn’t fly the most missions, drop the most bombs, or even suffer the most casualties. But where did their legend come from? 

In this video, IWM curator Dr Hattie Hearn examines the real history of 'The Bloody Hundredth'.

The true story of the 100th Bomb Group

© IWM

Hattie Hearn: "On the morning of 25th June 1943, B-17s of the 100th Bomb Group went to war for the first time. The target was the heavily defended submarine pens at Bremen in north-west Germany. This would not be a milk run. As the formation passed north of the Frisian Islands, three B-17s became lost in the heavy cloud cover and fell prey to prowling Luftwaffe fighters.

The 100th had been in the air for a matter of hours and had already lost 30 men. It was the start of a legacy that would earn the bomb group the nickname the ‘Bloody Hundredth’."

John 'Lucky' Luckadoo: "What we did has become legendary. My comrades are the heroes. Those of us who did survive are just damn lucky."

Hattie Hearn: "Despite being one of the most famous US Army Air Force groups of the Second World War, the 100th was not statistically noteworthy. They won numerous awards, but other groups won more. They didn’t fly the most missions, drop the most bombs, or even suffer the most casualties. So where did the legend of the Bloody Hundredth come from? To find the answer we have to go back to Army Air Base Headquarters in Kearney, Nebraska.

It was here, in May 1943, that Special Order number 103 was issued directing the aircrews of the 100th Bombardment Group to begin their journey to England. After seven months of training, the 100th would finally be joining the fight as part of the Eighth Air Force.

None of the 35 crews – totalling 350 men - could have known that only a handful of their group would make it through their required 25 missions. By this time, the Eighth Air Force had been waging a daylight bombing campaign on targets in occupied Europe for nine months and had paid a heavy price.

The Eighth’s commander, General Ira Eaker, believed that the only way to deliver the “round-the-clock" bombing campaign he’d promised Allied leaders was to drastically increase the Eighth’s fighting strength. The 100th was among an armada of bomber and fighter groups to arrive in England to bolster he flagging formations of the Eighth. 

These arrivals took up homes at newly-constructed airfields in East Anglia. On the 9th June, the 35 crews of the 100th landed at Station 139, named Thorpe Abbotts after the nearby village. This Norfolk base, surrounded by rural farmland, would be the departure and return point for the 100th's missions into occupied Europe that summer. All except one – Regensburg. This long-distance mission into the heart of Germany would require the 100th to drop their bombs on Messerschmitt factories, before heading south to North Africa.

The mission was part of a two-pronged raid, with the Eighth’s strength split between the ball-bearing production plants at Schweinfurt and the factories of Regensburg.

On the morning of the 17th August, the 21 bombers of the 100th took their place as the last and lowest group in the formation – a dangerous
place to be. They weren’t over enemy territory long before waves of Focke Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt 109s wreaked havoc on the bomber stream, seemingly concentrating their fire on the planes of the 100th.

The sky was strewn with disintegrating B-17s, enemy fighters, and parachutes. This assault continued for an hour and a half, until the 100th finally reached the target. Dropping their bombs accurately on the factory complex, the battered B-17s made their way to North Africa.

The 100th had lost nine aircraft – almost half the strength that had taken off from Thorpe Abbotts. However, the worst was yet to come.

On 10th October 1943, the crews of the 100th prepared for another mission deep into Germany. But their target wasn’t factories, U-Boat pens, or airfields. This time they’d be dropping their bombs on the centre of the historic cathedral city of Munster and the railway workers who resided in it.

As the thirteen aircraft of the 100th approached the Ruhr, they were met with a defending force of over 350 German fighters. Frank Murphy recalled, “The fighters came on at tremendous closing speed, with complete disregard for the curtain of defensive fire from our guns, the leading edges of their wings twinkling and glittering as they fired. Exploding cannon shells walked through our formation.”

As the Fortresses neared the target, anti-aircraft fire tore holes in the bombers. Anti-aircraft guns provided Germany with a potent line of defence. When an 88mm projectile exploded at altitude, it sent out jagged metal fragments that tore through nearby aircraft. It also left a characteristic black cloud hanging in the sky. This shrapnel was known as flak and it could easily punch through the thin metal skin of a B-17 and lodge itself in an unfortunate victim.

Introduced in the spring of 1943, this AN-H-15 helmet was the standard light-weight helmet for the Army Air Forces

The original crews of the 100th Bomb Group would have worn helmets like this during their missions in the summer of 1943. The helmet was fitted with earphones so that the crew could communicate with each other wherever they were on the bomber. They did this using a throat mic which picked up the vibrations from the speaker’s throat. However this lightweight fabric obviously offers no protection against flak and the bulky earphones meant that conventional steel infantry helmets could not be worn over the flying helmets.

That was until January 1943 when men of the 306th Bomb Group modified helmets to enable them to be worn directly over flying helmets fitted with earphones. This local modification gained acceptance and was formally adopted as standard issue in early 1944, and designated the M3. The M3 Helmet permitted the flying helmet, goggles and oxygen mask to be worn with relative comfort and was painted with a coating of flocked paint of olive green colour that had the texture of velvet, enabling the helmet to be touched by bare skin at high altitude without sticking to the fingers.

Back in the skies over Munster, the flak-riddled planes of the 100th dropped their payloads and devastated the city centre. But the ordeal wasn’t over yet. As they made their way home, the six remaining B-17s in the group were set upon by Luftwaffe fighters. Back at Thorpe Abbotts, the ground contingent anxiously awaited the return of their bombers.

Of the thirteen aircraft that took off that morning, only one reappeared in the sky. Royal Flush, piloted by Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, had two engines out, a gaping hole in one wing, and three injured gunners. Rosie, a Brooklyn lawyer, had performed a series of aggressive evasive manoeuvres to bring the crippled bomber back to base. Rosenthal would become one of the most famous members of the 100th Bomb Group, not only for his mastery of the air, but also for his dedication to flying combat missions.

When asked why he kept on flying, he replied: “Everything I’ve done or hope to do is because I hate persecution. A human being has to look out for other human beings or there’s no civilisation.”

By the 14 October, exactly 109 days after their initiation into aerial warfare, 27 of the original 35 crews had been lost - and the Bloody Hundredth legend had been born. For the rest of the war, replacement aircrew would groan when they found out that their destination was the 100th Bomb Group.

But while there would be plenty of dark days ahead for the 100th, the concentration of losses never matched the slaughter of the first three months of operations. New leadership, improved discipline, and the introduction of longer-range escorts improved survival rates. The 100th Bomb Group was also involved in one of the strangest incidents of the air war – creating a double decker B-17. In January 1945, Lt Rojohn of the 100th was piloting his B-17 through a fierce aerial battle when a thump resounded through the aircraft.

To his horror, another 100th B-17 had collided with the bottom of his plane, its top turret becoming lodged in the belly of Rojohn’s B-17. Rojohn and his co-pilot concentrated on steering the double-stacked aircraft towards land, giving time for both crews to bail out of the planes.

Both survived the ordeal unscathed and were taken as Prisoners of War. They would be joining hundreds of other 100th Bomb Group aircrew languishing in German Prisoner of War camps, many of whom had been there since the summer of 1943. One man who evaded that fate was Robert Rosenthal. In total, Rosenthal flew fifty-two combat missions – double his required number – and was shot down twice, evading capture on both occasions.

Still searching for justice, Rosenthal returned to Germany after the war to take part in the Nuremberg Trials. For the personnel of the 100th Bomb Group, the war would end on a high note. On the 23rd April 1945, a convoy of lorries made their way through Norfolk’s narrow lanes towards Thorpe Abbotts.

They were not carrying bombs, they were carrying food. Between the 1st and 7th May, 1945, B-17s of the 100th dropped supplies into occupied Holland, helping to relieve the starving population. The airmen could see the Dutch people waving on the streets as they passed overhead, some even spelling out ‘thank you’ in tulips. Many veterans of what was codenamed the “Chowhound” missions described it as their most satisfying contribution to the war.

During 22 months of combat, 732 airmen had been declared killed or missing in action. A further 923 had been taken prisoner and hundreds more had been wounded. These weren’t the highest losses in the Eighth Air Force. The 91st Bomb Group, which had been in combat almost a year more than the 100th, suffered the most casualties of any 8th Air Force Bomb Group.

While the 100th had lost 12 aircraft at Munster and 15 over Berlin in March ‘44, the 445th Bomb Group lost 25 B-24s on one mission to Kassel – the highest single mission loss in Eighth Air Force history. The legend of the Bloody Hundredth was born not from the number of losses, as high as they were, but in the concentration of casualties over a handful of missions. At a time when airmen tried to find reason in the randomness of air combat, the idea that there were unlucky groups provided an explanation for the unfathomable losses. But the longevity of the legend is thanks to the work of the 100th Bomb Group veterans, and their descendants, who wear the nickname as a badge of honour.

Even in today’s US Air Force, the legacy lives on. The 100th Air Refuelling Wing, based at Mildenhall in Suffolk, have inherited the name the Bloody Hundredth, ensuring that the losses of the war continue to be remembered."

Masters of the Air: IWM Duxford

Promotional Still from Apple TV's Masters of the Air: Austin Butler as Gale Gleven standing in front of B-17 Flying Fortress
©Apple TV+

Delve deeper and explore the stories depicted in the hit Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air at IWM Duxford, which premieres on 26 January 2024.

Get up close to our B-17 bomber in the American Air Museum; the iconic plane seen in the show, and walk in the footsteps of the inspiring US Army Air Force 78th Fighter Group who were based at Duxford airfield. 

Find out more about Masters of the Air at IWM Duxford.  

 

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