The Bomber Mafia (2021) by the New York writer Malcolm Gladwell examines the concept of ‘precision bombing’ developed by the USAAF prior to the Second World War and put into practice from 1942 in Europe. Gladwell has become well-known for a series of books that explore ideas and especially new ways of looking at familiar questions. His first book was The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in 2000. The Bomber Mafia marks a change of direction for Gladwell, moving into much more controversial and ‘political’ territory by exploring a historical issue that relates directly to American military strategy and provokes strong personal memories. Large numbers of civilians died in bombing raids in Europe and significant numbers of young airmen were killed or traumatised during the bombing campaigns of 1942-5 and subsequent wars. Gladwell mentions a couple of Hollywood films that refer directly to these bombing campaigns. Twelve O’Clock High offers a narrative that adheres closely to the ideas and events Gladwell explores, though it largely avoids using the real names of those involved. I should note here that Gladwell’s work has many critics who see him as plagiarising other writers and researching topics in insufficient depth. I picked up his book cheaply and was intrigued by the subject though I did have some problems with his analysis. I’m simply using his book here as a springboard to look at an interesting film about the men who flew the Flying Fortresses from the UK across Occupied Europe in 1942-44.
With the onset of The Cold War and the development of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the 1950s, military strategy was dominated by the idea of the nuclear deterrent. Each nuclear power has since developed the capacity to retaliate against any attack with lethal force, assuring the complete annihilation of both sides in any war. In the 1930s, however, each of the possible combatants in the approaching conflict had different ideas about how to use their resources for aerial warfare. This included the British and the American air forces which took very different approaches to the same question – how to bomb German and Italian targets in Europe. Eventually the two air forces agreed on a complementary approach. The RAF quickly moved towards night-time bombing after suffering heavy losses on day-time raids but the USAAF arrived in the UK determined to carry out ‘precision bombing’ in daylight. The B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ was a heavily armoured bomber, bristling with defensive firepower, that was to be flown at high altitude in large formations. It was also designed to have a very long range capability. Hitting a target depended on a revolutionary bomb-aiming device – the key technology addressed by Gladwell. The scientific breakthrough that delivered this technology to the USAAF was a major step in the new policy which was resisted by many senior military figures who didn’t see the coming importance of aerial warfare. This meant that its supporters knew they had to make it work to ensure that their new approach became accepted.
The bomb-aiming device worked very well in tests but proved rather more difficult to manage in combat situations and especially in the context of the weather conditions in Europe. The major test for the strategy came with the attempt to destroy ball-bearing production, essential to all military equipment supply, at the factory in Schweinfurt, Bavaria in August 1943. This target was so far away that the bombers would be over Germany for around three hours without any form of fighter protection. The raid involved 376 bombers plus fighter escorts that could get no further than Belgium. These numbers include a force attacking a ‘diversionary target’ in Regensburg. Overall the two bomber formations lost some 60 aircraft and over 550 aircrew. There was a follow-up raid in October 1943 with even heavier losses and the strategy was halted until long-range fighter escorts (e.g. the P51 Mustang) became operational in early 1944.
12 O’Clock High was first a 1948 novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom had experience of the bombing campaign – Lay flew on the Regensburg raid. The rights were acquired by Twentieth Century Fox and the film was shot largely in the US with some second unit work in the UK during 1949. It went on general release in North America in January 1950. The production was able to use B17s still flying and also actual combat footage. The resulting film is now considered one of the most accurate and realistic in its portrayal of the bomber groups. The lead role of Lt-General Frank Savage was played by Gregory Peck (in the photo above he seems to be a ‘one star general’). As is often the case, it’s hard to imagine the film with someone else in the role, but he was by no means the first choice. Fortunately he turned out to be excellent in the role. The film was directed by Henry King who would then team up with Peck for three further films in the 1950s. Peck was only 33 when he played Savage but his deep voice and imposing stature gave him authority. King was Fox’s ‘go to’ director for all kinds of films in the 1940s and 1950s. He is listed with over 100 credits for directing as well as a similar number for acting and his career lasted from the 1910s to 1962. In some ways he was Fox’s answer to Michael Curtiz at Warners. Neither were taken up by the French critics as auteurs but both were highly dependable and consistently made highly-rated films. Twelve O’Clock High was shot by Leon Shamroy with music by Alfred Newman. It ran for well over two hours and for a Hollywood war picture was very ‘talky’. The only combat sequence occurs in the last section of the film.
The narrative is constructed to ask the questions about how far young men can be pushed to fly enough missions to become proficient – and whether the precision bombing approach could be made to work. But the latter isn’t really a question that could be contained in a 1949 narrative. History has shown us that it is a long and complex story about technological development in wartime and a whole range of philosophical, economic, political and ideological issues that still concern us today. The real concern in Twelve O’Clock High is the human story about the flyers. The narrative begins with an American in contemporary London who spots an old Toby jug in an antique shop. He buys it and travels to a village in Eastern England which turns out to be close to an abandoned airfield named Alconbury (RAF Alconbury was a USAAF base from 1942). As the character thinks back, the story of the Eighth Air Force bomber groups unrolls as a long flashback. We first meet bombers coming back from a raid, some shot up and one making a crash landing. The group leader is Lt. Colonel Davenport (played by Gary Merrill), a man who clearly cares for his crews and is ‘hands on’, flying himself. He is also emotionally involved and perhaps suffering from burnout. General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) decides Davenport must be replaced and selects his own staff officer Frank Savage. Savage is sent in to literally re-build the group (constituting 21 plus aircraft crews or 200 plus men).
Savage decides to take the opposite path to his friend Davenport, increasing training exercises, demoting flyers he sees as undisciplined and using humiliation and shaming to create discipline. At the crunch point he appears to have antagonised virtually all his men with just the base adjutant Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) recognising what he is doing and why. Stovall (the man in the opening whose flashback starts the story) is a First World War veteran. The drama then becomes focused on whether Savage can keep the group together and whether his methods make the men more effective on bombing raids. The more well-trained and disciplined they are, the less likely they are to make mistakes and to jeopardise the safety of the whole group. The group flies in formation so anyone ‘breaking away’ threatens the integrity of group defence. How Savage achieves his aims and what costs his men (and Savage himself) have to pay are the issues that make up the bulk of the narrative. This is a narrative about leadership and the plot revolves around Savage’s relationships with two men in particular. One is Lt. Col. Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) the putative leader who must be disciplined and the other is Lt. Bishop (Robert Patten) the young pilot who has already deceived a citation for bravery.
This is a difficult role for Peck, seemingly opposite to his usual ‘good guy’ roles. The narrative might be a form of male melodrama. There are no women in the cast whatsoever, apart from a glimpse of a nurse in the base hospital. However, it is only a melodrama in structural terms, there are only limited uses of music and visual expressionist devices. We learn nothing of Savage’s background but we do get to see how the psychological pressure affects him. On the whole this is an unsentimental film with little of the leavening effect of (dark) humour. The French poster (above) captures the mood of the film, as it often does, compared to the US title. It’s a testament to Henry King’s skill and the performances he draws from his cast that we become so engaged with the lives of these flyers. Surprisingly, Peck didn’t get the Oscar in 1950 but Dean Jagger did win best support. The relationship to Gladwell’s book about the bombsight and the precision bombing strategy is tenuous but what it does do is make clear the human cost of the daylight-bombing strategy in the wartime conditions over Germany. Later, during the Cold War and in the modern era of drone attacks on very specific targets, the safety of aircrew has become much less of an issue. In this respect, the one reference I noted was to Curtis Le May, a central figure in Gladwell’s book and a major figure in operations in the Pacific War and afterwards as the name everyone from my generation will remember from the bombing strategies of the Vietnam War – “Bombs Away with Curt Le May”.
I was taken aback to stumble across a blog posting about this film which attempted to use it to call for more determined leadership of the far right cause in the US today. Gregory Peck would have been appalled by this as he remained a staunch liberal Democrat throughout his career as far as I am aware. In some ways the ideological base of the bomber operation is completely collective – the crews survive because they stick together. Anyone who disobeys and breaks out of formation threatens the safety of all. The idea of a strong leader is, however, more controversial. His job is to push the men to make more and more successful flights, improving bombing accuracy. To do this, the aircraft had to fly on a dead straight course with the bomb-aimer taking control of the aircraft. This made the aircraft more vulnerable to both anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. This isn’t a gung-ho film – celebrating success would have to wait until the Mustangs arrived, but it does show the impact on Savage and his crews.
Just to be clear, Malcolm Gladwell’s book is about the technology of the bomb-aiming device, the bombing strategy and how it was applied in Europe and the Pacific. This film is about what happened in practice when crews flew to Germany and dropped bombs. The link is slight but of key importance in exploring the psychological terrain of aerial warfare.j
Twelve O’Clock High is available on all the main streaming platforms in the UK. There is also a TV series from 1964 with the same title, so be careful if you go looking for it.