The Bridgebusters: The True Story of the Catch-22 Bomb Wing
By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Hardcover in dustjacket, illustrated, 288 pages
Published by Regnery History, May 2016
Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
During the Second World War the USAAF’s 57th Bomb Wing flew B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from airfields in Corsica. Their mission was the interdiction of German supply routes supporting the Axis armies fighting in Italy. While medium bomber units are not as well documented as those flying fighters or heavy bombers, the 57th has achieved some notoriety as the inspiration for Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.
Bridgebusters follows a template familiar to readers of military aviation histories – specifics of the missions are detailed giving dates, places, participating units, and personal anecdotes. Research is thorough and the writing style keeps the reader engaged. I found the ordeals of downed aircrew particularly interesting, the situation on the ground in Italy was complicated as the population at any given location could be aligned with either side (or both!).
Where author Tom Cleaver really shines lies in providing strategic context for the efforts of the 57th Bomb Group and the Italian Campaign in general. There is an old military axiom which states that “Captains discuss tactics, Generals discuss supply”. The 57th’s primary focus was interdiction of German supply routes through the Brenner Pass and cutting off the German Armies in the field. Severing road and rail networks becomes a contest first between the bombers and Luftwaffe flak gunners, and then the amount of damage caused versus the speed of the repair crews. When the weather is good the bombers cut more of the supply routes, when the weather is bad the repair crews complete more repairs to the lines. Bridges are obvious targets to both the attacker and the defender. Cleaver’s writing supplies the “why” to the aerial campaign and counter efforts, often missing in aviation books.
Issues on the ground are also detailed. While their duties were not as hazardous as combat aircrew, the work of arming and servicing the aircraft was far from safe and hardships were shared by all. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was an unusual event which destroyed more of the Group’s aircraft than the Germans did. The USAAF employed a rotation system where aircrews could return home after completing a certain number of missions, but when the mission requirements were increased incrementally from 50 to the eventual 70 due to lack of replacements, the effects on morale were predictable. This is where Cleaver provides some insights into Heller’s experiences and their influence on his novel.
Overall a very enjoyable read, one of the better written aviation histories. This book provides insights into medium bomber operations and the Italian Campaign, neither of which are covered very extensively in aviation literature. It also provides useful insights into Heller’s experiences, so read this one first if you plan on reading Catch-22.