One of the most famous American bombers of the Second World War flew its 25th and final mission over Nazi-occupied Europe on May 17th, 1943, with parts of the mission filmed for a morale-boosting documentary.
The ‘Memphis Belle’ was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress piloted by Captain Robert K. Morgan and his nine-man crew. Like other heavy bombers, the large and relatively slow-moving aircraft was vulnerable to being shot down, both by ground-based gun crews and fast-moving enemy fighters.
It meant the long-term survival rate for big bombers and their crews was bleak, even for heavily armed aircraft like the B-17, which had 11 on-board 0.50-calibre machine guns. As a result, the US Army Air Force (USAAF) devised a scheme to give hope and a goal to its hard-pressed bomber crews; those aircraft and crews which survived 25 combat missions intact would return to the US, where they would tour the States as heroes to sell war bonds and boost recruitment drives.
Memphis Belle was the first bomber to achieve this feat, and also the ‘star’ of the classic wartime documentary – “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” – highlighting the constant dangers to American bombers and their heroic crews.
The morale-building 40-minute documentary featured actual colour footage of real-life airborne battles between American bombers and enemy aircraft. In one compelling scene a B17 flying alongside Memphis Belle is shot down, most of its crew parachuting out as the aircraft begins to disintegrate and plummet to the ground.
Although apparently documenting Memphis Belle’s final mission, the film was actually shot over several missions, including footage from inside Memphis Belle and external shots of it taken from other aircraft. One of its four cinematographers was killed when the bomber he was in, flying parallel to Memphis Belle, was shot down over France on April 16th, 1943.
Key parts of the film were shot during Memphis Belle’s penultimate mission, a high-risk long-range bombing raid on Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Its final mission, on May 17th, 1943, targeted a submarine base at Lorient, in France, where the bombers faced lighter opposition.
By then, with the documentary almost ‘in the can’, it was vital that the Memphis Belle completed her 25-mission tour and returned to the States prior to the stirring film’s cinema release. The stress on Memphis Belle’s crew is almost tangible in the film as they near their 25-mission goal. Some even considered the filming a jinx, as bomber crews were notoriously superstitious.
But they did make it home, returning as heroes, especially after the film was released. Captain Morgan, who had named his B-17 after his sweetheart in Memphis, Tennessee, piloted it with his crew on a 31-city war bonds tour of the States. When flying over his home town of Asheville, North Carolina, he decided to ‘buzz’ the main street in a “goodbye salute”. He flew so low that he had to dip his left wing to pass between the two tallest buildings, the courthouse and city hall, which were only 50 feet apart.
After the war, Memphis Belle was saved from being scrapped when she was bought by the City of Memphis for $350, at the instigation if its Mayor. She was put on open air display near the city’s fairgrounds for 40 years, into the 1980s, gradually deteriorating from the effects of the weather and vandalism by souvenir hunters.
However, a successful 1990 feature film, “Memphis Belle”, produced by David Puttnam and loosely based on the story of the real B-17 bomber and her crew, again raised the profile of the historic aircraft and prompted calls for its rescue. In 2005 it was moved to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, near Dayton, Ohio, to undergo a ground-up restoration.
Taking over a decade, the work was completed in time for the fully restored Memphis Belle (pictured above) to be unveiled in the museum’s WWII gallery on May 17th, 2018 – exactly 75 years after flying its final mission.
Captain Morgan, later promoted to colonel in the US Air Force, flew another 26 wartime combat missions in a B-29 Superfortress in the campaign against Japan in the Pacific. He died peacefully in his home town on May 15th, 2004, at the age of 85.
• You can watch the original 1944 Memphis Belle documentary in full by clicking here.