In his first book, a British journalist tells the story of the airmen who reduced the Third Reich to ashes.
On the 8th Air Force’s dangerous missions, which consisted of persistent daytime bombing of the European continent, 26,000 flyers would die. Targeting airfields, transportation centers, industrial sites, and refineries, the 8th alone dropped 714,000 tons of bombs on Europe between April 1942 and 1945 and, together with the Royal Air Force, killed 593,000 civilians in the bomber offensive. Relying heavily on diaries, letters, journals, and interviews, Wilson tracks the air campaign from the months before D-Day to the fall of Berlin. Chronicling numerous significant raids, his account abounds with arresting detail—the widespread heavy use of Benzedrine to fight tiredness, the frustrating performance of the electric suits designed to keep flyers warm at 28,000 feet—and features broader discussions about air combat—e.g., the role of sheer luck in determining who lived or died and the shockingly high risk of collision. Famous names pop up: European commander Carl Spaatz and, of course, the 8th’s fabled Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. Wilson also touches on the midair explosion that killed young Joe Kennedy, the heroics of Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart, the first “kill” of future legend Chuck Yeager, and the mysterious, deadly plane crash of band leader Maj. Glenn Miller. Mostly, though, Wilson focuses on the everyday pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners, their exploits in the air, and their lives in Britain, a nation whose social life their presence transformed. The American flyboys—“over paid, oversexed, and over here”—married 41,000 British girls, fathering 14,000 babies. Even as their planes regularly fell out of the sky, scarring the countryside and cities, the airmen busied themselves with small cultural revolutions—e.g., introducing swing music to teenagers and peanut butter to schoolboys.
An intimate, often affecting look back at a group of young men who established an American air superiority that persists to this day.