Air War

Thomas McMillan was a radio operator in the 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Airforce. His relative, Tim Richards tells part of his story in this great clip . It’s easy to pass by some facts such as the unit name and that they had a tough time – even that the 306th was the inspiration for 12 O’Clock High. I thought that I could honor Thomas and his comrades by adding some flesh to the outline.

The 306th was not just another unit – it was the longest serving unit in the 8th and learned all the lessons the hard way. They were based in Thurleigh – about 5 miles from Bedford right in the middle of England. Here is a full history of the base and a short history of the unit.

The group flew the B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, and remained at Thurleigh until 1 December 1945. That was the longest tenure of any U.S. air group at a UK base.

Thomas Mitchell and the 306th learned the hard way that the Flying Fortress could not get though and back safely relying only on their own guns. This was the original doctrine of the 8th. Massive losses sapped morale badly – leading to a change in command and also a drive to find a fighter that could go all the way – the Mustang.

The film 12 O’ Clock High starring Gregory Peck was based on the story of the 306th during this terrible time. The real General who took over the 306th was Frank Armstrong.

As a “trouble-shooter” for General Eaker, on July 31, 1942, Armstrong relieved the commander of the inadequately-trained 97th Bomb Group, the first group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers sent to England, and put it through an intensive training period at RAF Polebrook. He then led it in combat on six of its first 10 missions from August 17 to September 2, 1942. Colonel Armstrong led the first daylight raid ever made by the U.S. Army Air Force over Axis territory, receiving the Silver Star and an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross for the initial mission, the first U.S. officer to be so honored. Because he had not yet been checked out as a combat pilot in the B-17, Armstrong led the first mission as a co-pilot on a bomber piloted by Major Paul W. Tibbets.

Armstrong returned to the staff of Bomber Command and in January, 1943, was again used by Eaker to rebuild another bomb group performing well below standards. From January 4 to February 17, 1943, Armstrong commanded the 306th Bomb Group at Thurleigh, England, and led the first mission by the Eighth Air Force to bomb Nazi Germany. His experiences with the 97th and 306th groups became the basis of Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr.‘s novel and film Twelve O’Clock High. While in command of the 306th, Armstrong led the Eighth Air Force on its first mission to attack a target in Germany on January 27, 1943.

It was only after the introduction of the Mustang that losses became acceptable. So Thomas McMillan served during a very hard time and was indeed a hero – his chances of getting back were very slim. Tim tells us that he was shot down but not if he lived.

Here is a clip from the film where Peck tells the men that the only way to cope is to accept the fact that you are already dead.

Imagine that that you are in the briefing room hearing that. Of course as the film progresses the Peck character falls in love with his men and cannot keep sending them out to certain death – the fault of the man he replaced at the film’s outset.

The film – made in 1949 – is elegiac and opens with the staff officer walking around the abandoned field after the war. Like the Dambusters – it is not sentimental and is emotionally very realistic and like the Dambusters – has wonderful footage of the B17.

Here finally is a very good short film that will take you around one of the few B17’s still airworthy – filmed in Dayton Ohio


I came to England in the fall of 1954. Rationing was just ending, the house next door was a bomb site and the war seemed as if it had just ended. London was still a mess – most cars and clothes were pre war and everyone was very poor. Everyone had a war story. My Nanny told me of the Blitz and watching dogfights in the English summer sky. My Grandfather talked of how he had smuggled his dog over to England in the drum of the band. It was in the mid 1950’s that a number of great films came out. There was enough time I think to get perspective but the war was still close enough for the emotional truth to be first hand for much of the audience.

The 1956 film with Richard Todd still stands as one of the best war movies ever made. It is very realistic emotionally – people really were like that. There is also some great footage of Lancasters and the supporting routine of flying. (Here is the RCAF Lanc at Hamilton taking off today)  Todd is exceptional as is Redgrave who plays Barnes Wallis. I am pleased to say that Richard Todd is still alive and very youthful. He was a para in WWII and was in action at Pegasus Bridge on the night of June 5.

This is my favourite scene – where I always cry – the men are biding their time and then Todd/Gibson tells them that it is time to go. As the board the trucks, Eric Coates music swells into the full theme. Nothing is said – it’s all the routine of going out to the plane. You the viewer know that many will never return.

The film ends with complete heartbreak as we see routine again of getting home and then … the empty rooms, the empty chairs in the dining hall – it’s very subtle and so different from what you might expect.

The entire film is available thanks to Henry V Keiper who has a number of great war films up – including my other WWII fave Twelve O’Clock High with the incomparable Gregory Peck as the driving new base commander. Gibson was very much like the Peck character – he was very tough and not popular.  Gibson was killed later in the war – he could not stay away from action. While on his book tour in the US after the raid he was asked how many trips he had taken (As a US Pilot you could leave after 25 – he replied 174) Keiper also has the Battle Of Britain that starts here.

You Tube has all of the 1956 film available plus an outstanding documentary in 6 parts posted by GD Houston who has put up a truly wonderful selection of excellent documentaries. Here is part 1

Houston is  a real find – he has over 400 videos on his channel. You can order the DVD at Amazon here. Here is a link to the history of the raid. Here is a link to a well reviewed book on the making of the film.  Here is a link to the book and the author who captured the war for my boyhood – Paul Brickhill.

Now it looks certain that Peter Jackson is about to make a remake. I wonder how he will approach it – The screen writer is Stephen Frye who I have a lot of confidence in to get the period right. R C Sheriff, who wrote Journey’s End, wrote the original screenplay.

I wonder if they will focus more on the character of Joe McCarthy, the very popular American who flew on the raid who had a very distinguished career. His son is in the documentary with Joe’s bomb aimer who clearly thought the world of his skipper. Joe had a very significant part in the raid – it was his plane that would not start and he and his crew took the spare and did much of the raid alone and very exposed.