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Masters of the Air: The Friendly Invasion of Norfolk

Apple TV+ have produced the $275m Masters of the Air drama, based on Donald L Miller’s book. Like sister series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it has been made by Tom Hanks’ Playtone and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. It will be streamed from January 26, 2024 and stars BAFTA and Golden Globe Best Actor and Oscar-nominated Elvis actor Austin Butler, Barry Keoghan from Dunkirk, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Batman and the Gladiator sequel, Callum Turner from the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Jude Law’s son Raff in his first major role, and the new Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa. Cary Fukunaga, director of Daniel Craig’s James Bond swansong No Time To Die directs the first three episodes.

How to watch Masters of the Air

Lasting legacy of The Friendly Invasion

At the height of the Second World War, Norfolk was the setting for a ‘Friendly Invasion’ which transformed the rural landscape and left a lasting legacy. The invaders were thousands of young Americans, part of the United States Army Air Force’s vast contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive being waged against Nazi-occupied Europe – the longest battle of the war.

By 1944, Norfolk echoed to the roar of B24 Liberators and B17 Flying Fortresses as huge aerial armadas took to the skies from a countryside so freckled with bomber bases that it became known as ‘Little America’.

Read The Friendly Invasion e-magazine, with forewords by HRH Prince William, The Prince of Wales, and Tom Hanks.

Friendly Invasion e-magazine cover

Thorpe Abbotts

Control Tower, Thorpe Abbotts.

The arrival of Coca Cola and bubble gum

It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of 50,000 US servicemen in Norfolk in 1942 had the biggest cultural and landscape impact of any event since the Norman Conquest.

Hundreds of miles of concrete runway were laid in a matter of months (it took 250,000 tonnes of concrete to build one runway), and there was the introduction to our rationed region of peanut butter, donuts, chewing gum, popcorn and Coca Cola – all great news for dentists! Oh, and there were nylons, swing and the jitterbug too – although baseball didn’t catch on with the locals.

The Americans also brought their own pets, including a grizzly bear and a monkey!

Segregation in Norfolk

The Americans also brought with them segregation. It is shocking to us today, but Diss was a town that only black servicemen were allowed, and in Harleston there were alternate days for black and white.

Hethel Museum

Hethel Museum.

Did the fact that black servicemen were served by white people here, and were given equality by East Anglians, help ferment the American civil rights movement?

Of course, this was very much a Friendly Invasion! Not only did we give the Americans a warm welcome, there was also the matter of around 40,000 women who went to the United States at the end of war! In fact, two cruise liners had to be requisitioned to sail them.

Fighting for independence

February 20, 1942 was the day that the first US general, Brigadier General Ira C Eaker, arrived in the UK to form and organise the bomber command of the prospective Eighth Air Force – the guys who would be based here in what was before a very sleepy Norfolk. If the county was monochrome when they arrived, it was soon turned technicolour – just like The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, the first year of the war!

2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich

2nd Air Division Memorial Library, Norwich Forum.

The American Air Force’s first mission was on July 4, 1942. They were determined to go on that date for symbolic and propaganda reasons. What a message it would send – wanting to help Europe regain its independence from Nazism on their own Independence Day. Trouble is, their planes hadn’t turned up – so they had to use RAF bombers instead!

The Mighty Eighth’s 17 bases in Norfolk

The 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the ‘Mighty Eighth’ Air Force occupied no fewer than 17 bases throughout the county: Attlebridge, Bodney, Deopham Green, East Wretham, Hardwick, Hethel, Horsham St Faith, North Pickenham, Old Buckenham, Rackheath, Seething, Shipdham, Snetterton Heath, Thorpe Abbotts, Tibenham, Watton and Wendling. Their contribution to the war effort was immense, and so was their sacrifice. Around 6,300 men from the exclusively Norfolk-based 2nd Division lost their lives in the relentless bombing campaign.

The 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts will be the main focal point of the upcoming Apple TV+ mini-series Masters of the Air.

In total, 350,000 US servicemen transitioned through East Anglia during the war’s longest battle – 26,000 of them losing their lives.

Old Buckenham

Old Buckenham.

But no less telling than their combat endeavours was the impact that they made on their hosts. The vitality and generosity displayed by legions of young Yanks helped forge a special relationship with the people of Norfolk that endured as one of the shining legacies of that most terrible of conflicts.

Hollywood Royalty in Norfolk

As peace returned, the ghostly bases were the scenes of countless commemorations and reunions and among the many who returned to pay homage to the men who never came back was the man known as ‘the tall drawl’, Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart, who flew out of Old Buckenham and Tibenham before serving as a staff officer at Ketteringham Hall.

Stewart was one of the few base commanders who actually led his men into combat, stating that he wouldn’t ask the servicemen to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And bear in mind the Americans flew daring daytime missions.

The first film he made on his return to America was ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, featuring a decorated American flyer wearing the uniform of the Mighty Eighth!

Hollywood actors Clark Gable and Walter Matthau also served here.

Thorpe Abbotts

View from the Control Tower at Thorpe Abbotts.

The man who should have been American President

One of the most poignant stories of the time was that of the man who should have become President of the United States, Joe Kennedy jnr. Flying out of Fersfield in Norfolk on a secret bombing mission, he was tragically killed in action over Blythburgh Church when the plane he was flying exploded mid-air.

Another plane on the mission was flown by Colonel Roosevelt, the son of the US President at the time.

Norfolk’s Living Memorial

Today, over 70 years after the war’s end, the trans-Atlantic ties remain strong and a grand alliance born of a common cause and shared sacrifice is kept alive by volunteer-run, control tower museums at Seething and Thorpe Abbotts and through the unique ‘living memorial’ that is the peerless 2nd Air Division Memorial Library housed in Norwich’s grand central Forum.

If you have a family connection and want to know more, or are interested in finding out about the history of the US Army Air Force in Norfolk during the second world war, contact the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in Norwich.