Band of Brothers (full title Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle Nest) was one of the rare occasions where I saw the TV adaptation first and then read the book. And though the TV series is in this case superior in terms of visuals and the storytelling pace (due to the distinction of being produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as well as an adaptation where the author had an active advisory role in the making of the series), the book by itself stands up remarkably well.
One of the main reasons is that the book isn’t historic fiction per se. It is a real-life documentation of the experiences of the men from the Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, as narrated to the author Stephen E. Ambrose in a series of Interviews. In 1988, Ambrose spoke with many of the Easy Company Men during their annual reunion, and from those conversations was the book born. In fact, Ambrose himself credits the creation of the book to all the surviving members of Easy Company who went through all the drafts diligently – adding, correcting, giving first person experiences where they could – and said of the book, “We have come as close to the true story of Easy Company as possible.”
The reason for the interviews was a project to collect oral histories of D-Day for the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans; given his credentials, Ambrose was a natural choice to conduct them. He was a historian of note and had been the official biographer to two US Presidents – Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He had authored many books on the topics of the American Civil War and WWII. He was named the Boyd Professor of History in 1989, an honour given only to faculty of the University of New Orleans who attain “national or international distinction for outstanding teaching, research or other creative achievement”. In 1998, he would serve as the historical consultant for the war movie Saving Private Ryan, which was based off an incident that occurred with one of the men in Easy Company itself (although in not such a dramatic manner as shown in the movie). All in all, Ambrose was a man to do justice to the stories Easy Company had to tell.
The book begins at Camp Toccoa, which was the training grounds for the 101st Airborne. The Paratroopers were an all-volunteer unit, and nearly 4 out of 5 volunteers either dropped out or were rejected, so brutal was the training regime. Into this were thrown the volunteers, coming from mostly civilian backgrounds. This is a consistent theme in almost all the books written about the World Wars, about how armies were raised by training ordinary people with ordinary backgrounds and moulded into soldiers. The men of Easy Company were no different – farmers, coal miners, middle class servicemen, college graduates, and very few old army – they all were put through the grinder together. And they all agree that it was just one man who put them through that grinder.
All Easy Company men speak about the one man who was universally hated by every person in the Company, but also universally credited with the formation of the Company into the tough fighting unit that it was – Captain Herbert Sobel. He was the Commanding Officer of Easy Company and wanted to make it the best unit in the Regiment; which came at the cost of pushing the men to and beyond their limits of endurance. He is described as a strict authoritarian and a stickler for rules, but also as a person prone to holding grudges and resenting anyone in the unit who got more attention than him. He is said to have assigned Major Richard “Dick” Winters (then a First Lieutenant) to a month’s Kitchen Duty, merely because the Regimental Commander noticed him doing a good job and promoted him to First Lieutenant without consulting or informing Sobel. He would go through the men’s belongings and punish the entire unit for seemingly minor infractions. All this would have still been bearable to the unit if it hadn’t been for the fact that he lacked the basic skills a combat tactician of an elite unit like the 101st required – flexibility, ability to improvise, thinking on one’s feet. If a plan was devised, if the textbook said do something in a certain way, Sobel refused to budge an inch from official word. This was noticeable to everyone from the ranks up and became a severe disadvantage during the combat training the unit underwent. As combat drew nearer, there were bets being made on who would shoot Sobel first, the Germans or his own men.
Every one of the Easy Company men agree that Sobel was an entirely wrong kind of leader to be taking the team into combat; but almost to a man, they also agree that Easy Company wouldn’t have been Easy Company without him. At the same time, the leadership void created by him was slowly, quietly and competently being filled by Richard “Dick” Winters. He is described as a quiet, private person, not given to overt theatrics, wouldn’t shout at the men, wouldn’t force them to do something he wouldn’t do. But despite that, or maybe because of that, the men followed him. As mentioned by one of them, “Major Winters demanded the best you had to give and wouldn’t settle for anything less. And he was so nice about it that you really didn’t want to let him down, so you ended up giving your best.” This was of course noticed by Sobel, who viewed it as a threat to his position, and looked for ways real or contrived to create incidents that would keep Winters in “his place”.
The book describes how things came to a head in England before the unit was to take part in the D-Day offensive. Sobel forced Winters hand, Winters called his bluff, and somehow the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) of Easy Company also got involved in the whole thing. The upshot of the incident was Sobel being transferred to a Training School and being replaced with a more competent officer. This was good news for Easy Company, because now they could take a break from the internal strife and wholeheartedly focus on the main conflict at heart.
Ambrose talks here of the NCOs of Easy Company (also because most of the interviewees were the same NCOs). He makes specific mention of the fact that by the time Easy Company was ready for deployment, all the NCOs were enlisted men risen through the ranks. The earlier assigned NCOs who were Old Army simply couldn’t take the harsh training the 101st underwent and were part of those who dropped out on the way. These new NCOs, because they came from the ranks, had the respect and trust of the men to a much higher degree; this would prove to be a vital factor in a lot of combat situations for them in the future. They were also responsible for keeping the unit as a cohesive whole, talking with their men, providing guidance to the new replacements and taking the lead in dangerous situations. To a man, they were all respected and looked up to. Even Winters admits that his role as Commanding Officer was that much easier because he could trust the NCOs and count on them when needed.
We are then taken through the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) and the various fronts Easy Company served on. This can be divided into two phases based on the distinct set of emotions the men had towards combat. The first phase is that of excitement, the eagerness to face the as yet unseen enemy, and the idealism of fighting for a higher cause. These emotions carried Easy Company through the Normandy Campaign, where they were dropped behind enemy lines on the night before D-Day, and Operation Market Garden in Holland, where they were the advance troops for an operation that ultimately proved to be a costly blunder for the Allies. In both these places, the 101st Airborne was used as it was meant to – a lightly equipped (carrying weapons, ammunition, 2-3 days rations, a basic change of socks and underwear) fast attack behind-the-lines strike force – and delivered the results they were trained to deliver. In fact, the mission carried out by Winters to destroy a battery of guns that were trained on Utah beach in Normandy was such a clean textbook execution of tactics that it is taught as an example of a small force defeating a larger entrenched enemy with minimal loss of life even today (and is also a playable arena in the very first Call of Duty video game, for those of you who remember!). This incident also highlighted Winters’ leadership skills and he was promoted to Captain and the Commanding Officer of Easy company after this (the Commanding Officer who replaced Sobel never even made it to Normandy, the plane he was in was blown up mid-air by German anti-aircraft guns).
Operation Market Garden saw a shift in both the attitude of the men of Easy Company towards war and in how they were deployed. It was the last time they were dropped behind enemy lines for the entirety of the war, as well as the last time they had an assignment that merely lasted days instead of weeks or months. After the initial thrust into Holland, an exemplary invasion and protection against counterattack of the town of Arnhem, the front settled down into a form of trench warfare more reminiscent of the First World War than the Second. As the situation gradually developed into a stalemate of sorts, it was here that the first phase of emotions gradually gave way to the second. Excitement gave way to caution, eagerness was replaced by weariness, and idealism was tempered by the reality of watching friends and foe alike die for a few metres of ground. The book talks of how most of the talk among the men now was about returning home.
But they wouldn’t be going home yet; not for a while.
Ambrose takes us from here to the Ardennes Forest, Belgium where one of the biggest and last post invasion counteroffensives was launched by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st was sent to Bastogne to hold the line against overwhelming odds, the least of which were the Germans. In December 1944, the men of Easy Company and the other Companies were thrust into sub-zero temperatures with inadequate winter clothing, very little ammunition or artillery support, and in the case of Easy Company under the command of an inexperienced and uninvolved CO (Winters having been transferred to Command HQ as Executive Officer) and tasked with defending the line against artillery as well as tanks. We are given a front seat view of how the 101st overcame all these odds at the cost of a lot of good men and earned themselves the moniker “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne”. And, after the beleaguered 101st was relieved by General Patton’s division breaking through the encirclement, their insistence to a man (even in the interviews in 1988) that they never “needed to be rescued!”
After Bastogne, the 101st Airborne is shown to be operating mostly as a garrison force. It is also around this period where the leadership qualities of a lot of men from Easy Company is highlighted. Winters gets promoted to Major, a lot of the NCOs (part of the original unit from Camp Toccoa) get promoted with one of them getting a battlefield commission to Lieutenant. Ambrose gives us a glimpse here of how men from non-military backgrounds sometimes have the innate sense and instinct required to lead people during stressful situations. It is during this time that they have their first view of a German concentration camp where Jews have been imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The feeling of the men upon seeing the dead bodies stacked up like firewood, the gratitude of those still living serve as a visceral impetus for defeating the Germans. As Winters remarks in his interview, “For me, the question of why we fight was answered that day.”
The last major incident Easy Company is involved in, and one of the ones they are well known for, is that they were the first Company to enter Hitler’s Eagle Nest, his retreat in the Bavarian Alps which was a gift for him and was to be the place for his supposed last stand before he killed himself. The men describe how there were unfounded fears of resistance among the mountains, and how they literally “ran up the mountain” to capture Eagle’s Nest. Ambrose here also highlights the habit of the conquering forces to behave like all other conquerors in the past and loot anything that might have actual or perceived value. Everything from Nazi flags to Luger pistols to silverware embossed with Nazi insignia to even photo albums were up for grabs, and not even the usually straitlaced Winters was immune to this. He also mentions a surprising habit of the men of Easy Company lining up to pay for haircuts. He says, “The men might take what they wanted when it came to food or anything else, but they paid for services.” Taking over Eagle’s Nest allowed Easy Company to liberate many works of art as well, stolen by the Nazi Party bigwigs like Goering and Borman from the Occupied Countries and stashed in their homes close by.
The book concludes with the brief period between Victory in Europe and the final surrender of Japan, where the tired men just wanted to go home but had to have a certain number of points to be eligible to do so. It talks about their desperation, their helplessness in face of bureaucracy and the final elation after the surrender of Japan when everyone would get to go home regardless of points. Ambrose also gives us a glimpse into the post war activities of the interviewees. A lot of the men, specially those who had been officers or NCOs would go on to become successful managers, heads of companies, public figures; but just as many went back to their regular lives and regular jobs and seemed content with their lot. After an entire book where you are reading about people who perform extraordinary feats in the face of danger, watching them go back to their pre-war jobs of being cab drivers, construction supervisors, or just not being able to make it in civilian life is a bit anti-climactic. But it also comes as a reminder that real life is not fiction – not everyone gets a happy ending.
Band of Brothers may be a book about war, but its title itself says it is more than just that. As a historian, Ambrose would have been lauded had he merely stated the facts as they were and published them as a book. But what makes this a read that transcends history and facts is the human element present throughout the book. The joys and the sorrows, the shared moments of doubt and uncertainty, the trials and the pranks that brought them together as not just men in a unit but as lifelong friends that stayed in touch for decades after moving away; all this gives a perspective of events which did not just happen somewhere some time ago but happened to living, breathing people.
The book captures perfectly the spirit of Easy Company’s rallying cry, “Currahee” (the name of the mountain trail behind Camp Toccoa where the Company was taken for forced marches). The name means “We stand alone”. But Easy Company changed it and made it the essence of who and what they were. “We stand alone, together.”