Last years of the Second World War were marked by one of the most intensive aerial warfare campaigns in history. Armadas comprising hundreds of allied aircraft dropped thousands of bombs on crucial military and industrial sites of the Axis countries.
They were countered by deadly flak fire and fierce fighter attacks. Lots of crews perished during those raids, some on their first mission. That is why safely completing 25 missions was considered a significant milestone, after which the crew could fly back to the U.S. to take a break.
Precisely keeping track of missions completed by a specific crew was not always easy in tumultuous war times, given that sometimes crews got new aircraft, some crew members were put out of commission, etc.
Still, it is quite reliably known that there were three bomber crews who managed to get past the 25-mission benchmark at roughly the same time. These were B-24 Liberator Hot Stuff, B-17 Flying Fortress Hell’s Angels, and B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle.
Hot Stuff was first deployed to North Africa in 1942 and its 25th mission was a raid on Naples on February 7, 1943. It had completed a total of 31 missions when it was sent back home so that the crew could have some rest and also participate in a publicity tour to sell war bonds. Unfortunately, Hot Stuff crashed into a mountain slope in Iceland, where it was trying to land for refueling on its journey to the US.
Hell’s Angels was deployed overseas at just about the same time as Hot Stuff, in November 1942. On May 13, 1943 they completed their 25th mission, bombing an aircraft factory at Meaulte, France. However, they didn’t fly to the US at the time, because individually crewmembers still lacked several missions each to complete their tour-of-duty.
They would fly home later one by one, and the bomber would be used by different crews. However, the ground crew servicing it always stayed the same, and it was the ground crew that was selected by the command to go home with Hell’s Angels upon it successfully completing 48th combat mission. In the US they embarked on an industrial morale tour to encourage factory workers to toil harder for the victory.
Memphis Belle flew its first combat mission on November 7, 1942 (to Brest, France) and completed its 25th mission on May 17, 1943, bombing a German submarine base in Lorient, France. Right after that Memphis Belle crew was sent home to the US. Despite not being the first to reach that milestone, Memphis Belle is the best known of these three aircraft, because it was ultimately chosen to participate in the War Bonds Drive, and later starred in a 1944 documentary titled “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”, and a 1990 feature film “Memphis Belle”.