Review: Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers has been much praised and I want to add my praise to that chorus. It is the story of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from their training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia to the capture of Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Bavaria. Ambrose pulls from Shakespeare to title his work and capture the closeness of these fighting men: "From this day to the ending of the World... we in it shall be remembered... we band of brothers." Easy Company entered the Second World War in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944, being responsible for clearing the way for the landings at Utah Beach. They fought through the Normany Breakout and were then pulled out for a period of R&R. They then made a second combat jump in the ultimately doomed Operation Market Garden. When the Germans attacked in December 1944-the Battle of the Bulge-, the 101st Airborne was moved in place to hold the line at Bastogne, Belgium. Easy Company was at the very front of the line and held the line for days against the best of the German Army while running low on ammunition and without proper winter gear through deep snow and freezing temperatures. They then participated in the counterattacks to eliminate the bulge in the line and on through the crossing of the Rhine. Late in the war they were moved into Bavaria, by which time the German Army had largely lost its will to fight. They were there to uncover parts of the Dachau concentration camp. At the very end of the war they were ordered to lead the way into Berchtesgaden, the town in the Bavarian Alps where the leaders of the Nazi party met and had homes and stored a great deal of personal artifacts, art, and wealth. At the top of the mountain was the famed Eagle's Nest-the retreat of Hitler himself, and they were the first ones in.
By the end of the war, Easy Company had spent well over 120 days on the very front lines in combat conditions. The size of the company at full-strength was 140 men. Of the men who fought in the unit, 48 were killed in action, and over 100 wounded, some wounded multiple times. Numerous awards were given to the men of Easy Company.
Much of the story revolves around the leaders of Easy Company. Lt. Herbert Sobel, despite his harshness, put an indelible stamp on the unit as the company commander during training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Dick Winters led the company in Normandy and through Operation Market Garden. Winters is the tactical field commander par excellence, capable to lead in the midst of battle, and connects with the men. He won the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership in battle. And eventually the company again found good leadership in the bold Captain Ronald Speirs.
Several themes run through the story. One of them is the tight camaradery of soldiers fighting side-by-side: "Comrades are closer than friends, closer than brothers" (p. 19). Pvt. Kurt Gabel described this phenomenon:
"Groups of threes and fours, usually from the same squads or sections, core elements within the families that were the small units, were readily recognized as entities.... This sharing...evolved never to be relinquished, never to be repeated. Often three such entities would make up a squad, with incredible results in combat. They would literally insist on going hungry for one another, freezing for one another, dying for one another." (p. 19)
Ambrose quotes J. Glen Gray to say:
"Organization for a common and conrete goal in peacetime organizations does not evoke anything like the degree of comradeship commonly known in war....At its height, this sense of comradeship is an ecstasy....Men are true comrades only when each is ready to give up his life for the other, without reflection and without thought of personal loss." - p. 20
Another is the vital role of leadership in battle. While the soldiers of Easy Company were exemplary, much depended on the company commander whose personal leadership directly affected the morale and effectiveness of the whole unit. Dick Winters, commenting on Sobel's brutal style said, "You lead by fear or you lead by example. We were being lead by fear" (p. 24). Winters had a very different style and shared Lt. Harry Welsh's opinion: "officers go first" (p. 36). That was Winters style and it was recognized by all:
"He made one right decision after another, sometimes instinctively, sometimes after careful deliberation.... He provided not only brains but personal leadership. 'Follow me' was his code. He personally killed more Germans and took more risks than anyone else." (p. 155).
One should not assume that Ambrose is denigrating any other unit that saw action in the key battles Easy Company participated in. Rather, understand that he is providing a view into the experiences and actions of combat for the American soldiers of the Second World War through the eyes of a small-unit that fought in numerous key engagements of the war and proved their mettle in battle through their leadership, comradeship, lives, and blood.
I commend to you Band of Brothers. it is well-written, flows easily, and is a wonderful testament to the American fighting men of the Second World War. It renewed and deepened my appreciation and thanksgiving for the men and women who fought to end the evil that was the Nazi Empire. Such evil doesn't run up a white-flag of surrender at the behest of flower-toting envoys of peace. It is not in the nature of evil to do so. There is a reason that the Nazi Swastika does not fly over the capitols of Europe today and it is in large part due to the willingness of warriors like the men of Easy Company. Citizens who loved peace and yet responded to the call to arms. They were willing to pick up a rifle and learn to stop the enemy and drive him back. And in battle, when home was distant and ideals driven from the mind, they always found a reason to stand, fight, and sacrifice if for nothing else but the brother standing next to them.