The invasion of Normandy in 1944 was originally scheduled for 5 June. However, bad weather forced a one-day postponement. The HBO series Band of Brothers is based on the book by Stephen Ambrose. The series begins on 4 June 1944, and we see American troops of the 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Division, preparing to board their planes for the jump into France. Here is one getting a Mohawk haircut. They are scared but definitely in a fighting spirit.
One plays with his combat knife, twirling it about. He figures when he needs to use it some valuable instincts will kick in.
But Easy Company Commander First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan calls the men together and tells them to stand down for 24 hours.
The plot flashes back to 1942, when Easy Company forms up in basic training. One of the men from Easy Company, interviewed for the series, explains that bunches of people were signing up for military duty following our entry into the war, and nobody wanted any part of the Airborne when it was explained they would have to jump out of airplanes. But then it was explained there was $50 per month extra, and people clamored to get in. It has been explained the intense training was also a draw. People knew they were going into deadly combat and everybody wanted to know the person fighting beside him was trained and highly motivated.
But first they had to get past Lieutenant Sobel. The word martinet was coined for Sobel. Airborne troops needed tougher training and stricter standards, but we see Sobel applying discipline and retribution unnecessarily. He is shown as petty and vengeful. The men come to despise him.
He tricks his men into thinking they will have a day off, and he orders up a sumptuous meal. Halfway through the meal he orders the company to run the Currahee course, three miles up Currahee Hill and three miles back. A smudge on a gun sight costs a soldier his weekend pass. In fact, passes are canceled for entire company.
The men come out of training hating Sobel, but hardened. They make the required five jumps in one day and pin on their Airborne badges.
During field exercises Sobel’s lack of leadership ability shines through. He ignores the advice of cooler heads, such as Lieutenant Richard Winters, and orders his men forward, out of a concealed position. They are immediately confronted by “enemy” troops in ambush.
Then it’s to New York, where the men board a troop ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. At sea the men continue to discuss Sobel, and one observes Sobel is a Jew. Private Liebgott objects, noting that he is himself a Jew. The men of Easy Company are going to need to learn to get along.
In England intense combat training commences. The men are learning to kill.
Sobel, now a captain, continues to fail as a leader. Here the squad he is leading encounters a fence that is not supposed to be there. He is one grid square off his position. One of his men plays a cruel joke and shouts from concealment, imitating the voice of a commanding major. He orders Sobel to cut the fence, which Sobel does.
Winters’ squad reaches the the problem objective first, a T intersection in a road. Sobel’s squad comes trotting up late.
Sobel is reprimanded for cutting the fence. He is also informed the supposed major was in London at the time. His response is to take it out on Lieutenant Winters. He issues a change in schedule for a meeting, which change Winters does not receive. Then he prepares to discipline Winters for disobeying the order. Winters can lose a 48-hour pass in lieu of a court martial. Winters calls his bluff and prepares to confront Sobel in a military courtroom.
Non-commissioned officers in Easy Company rebel at this treatment, and they resign their ranks. It is an action that can earn them a firing squad. The 506th commanding officer, Colonel Sink, disciplines the rebels and expels one from the regiment.
But justice comes down like a hammer. Sink calls Sobel in and tells him he is being assigned to a jump training school.
Lieutenant Meehan assumes command of Easy Company, and jump training in England resumes. Winters returns from an exercise and brings Meehan into his confidence. He took a compass along in the previous exercise, and together the two plot the course of the flight. They figure the target, just a few days off, will be Normandy.
Sergeant Guarnere’s brother has been killed in fighting in Italy, and he learns about it on the night of 4 June. He develops an intense hatred for the enemy soldiers, a hatred that will spell out on invasion night.
It is the 5th of June, and in the fading light Lieutenant Winters helps each of his men in turn to their feet as they board the transport plane.
The sun sets late in England in June, and it is still daylight as the planes climb toward France.
Episode two of the series tells the story of the night parachute drop and the 6th of June. It begins with an interview with Richard Winters.
In the fading light the planes cross the Channel and into clouds over the target area. The men will jump just past midnight. Men who have never seen a shot fired in anger begin to witness shellfire coming up into the clouds.
Planes are hit and men die. Lieutenant Meehan’s plane is seen crashing into a hedgerow. There were no survivors.
We see Winters’ plane also hit, and the pilot switches on the green jump light to get the men out.
THEY JUMPED MUCH TOO LOW from planes that were flying much too fast. They were carrying far too much equipment and using an untested technique that turned out to be a major mistake. As they left the plane, the leg bags tore loose and hurtled to the ground, in nearly every case never to be seen again. Simultaneously, the prop blast tossed them this way and that. With all the extra weight and all the extra speed, when the chutes opened, the shock was more than they had ever experienced. Jumping at 500 feet, and even less, they hit the ground within seconds of the opening of the chute, so they hit hard. The men were black and blue for a week or more afterward as a result.
In a diary entry written a few days later, Lieutenant Winters tried to re-create his thoughts in those few seconds he was in the air: “We’re doing 150 MPH. O.K., let’s go. G-D, there goes my leg pack and every bit of equipment I have. Watch it, boy! Watch it! J-C, they’re trying to pick me up with those machine-guns. Slip, slip, try and keep close to that leg pack. There it lands beside the hedge. G-D that machine-gun. There’s a road, trees— hope I don’t [hit] them. Thump, well that wasn’t too bad, now let’s get out of this chute.”
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 95-96). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The first person Winters encounters on the ground is someone from another company.
Winters had come down on the edge of Ste. Mère-Eglise. He could see the big fire near the church, hear the church bell calling out the citizens to fight the fire. He could not find his leg bag. The only weapon he had was his bayonet, stuck into his boot. His first thought was to get away from the machine-gun and small arms fire in the church square. Just as he started off, a trooper landed close by. Winters helped him out of his chute, got a grenade from him, and said, “Let’s go back and find my leg bag.” The trooper hesitated. “Follow me,” Winters ordered and started off. A machine-gun opened up on them. “To hell with the bag,” Winters said. He set out to the north to bypass Ste. Mère-Eglise before turning east to the coast. In a few minutes, he saw some figures and used his cricket. He got a reassuring double click-clack from Sergeant Lipton.
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 103). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Slowly the men of Easy Company come together. In the darkness they hear German soldiers approaching in a column with four horse-drawn wagons. Winters orders an ambush. But Guarnere, consumed by hatred, does not wait for the order to open fire. He rips into the unsuspecting Germans with his Thompson machine gun, and there is a melee of gunfire. No American troops are lost, but the attack takes a grim toll on the Germans.
“Good,” Winters answered. “I know where that is. I can take it from here.” He set out at the head of the group, objective Ste. Marie-du-Mont. They joined a bunch from the 502d. About 0300 hours they spotted a German patrol, four wagons coming down the road. They set up an ambush, and there Guarnere got his first revenge for his brother, as he blasted the lead wagons. The other two got away, but E Company took a few prisoners.
A German machine-gun opened fire on the group. When it did, the prisoners tried to jump the Americans. Guarnere shot them with his pistol. “No remorse,” he said when describing the incident forty-seven years later. “No pity. It was as easy as stepping on a bug.” After a pause, he added, “We are different people now than we were then.”
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 104-105). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The 6th of June was like any other day. Eventually the dawn breaks, and we see the men of Easy Company scouting about, dodging Germans, and looking to hook up.
The grim side of war comes to them, as they encounter the first dead American soldiers. There is no hesitating. They loot the bodies of weapons and ammunition, leaving the rest for graves registration.
We hear what sounds like freight trains passing overhead. These are shells from ships in the Channel. The beach invasion has started.
German soldiers are taken prisoner. One is from Eugene, Oregon. Don Malarkey is thunderstruck. He is from Astoria, about 100 miles away. How did a boy from Eugene wind up in the Wehrmacht? His family moved back to Germany, and he joined up in 1941.
Later we see Lieutenant Speirs walking back to where the prisoners were being held, and we hear machine gun fire. This is not something that is in the book.
With Meehan presumed dead, Winters takes over Easy company. We hear the sounds of heavy guns nearby. Just 200 yards away a German gun emplacement is pounding American troops on Utah Beach. Winters is to take a contingent and neutralize the guns.
It is an intense battle, and the first thing viewers are going to wonder is what was going on. Sixty Germans are manning a gun emplacement, gunners plus solders to mount guard. And nobody is sending out scouts to see if a company of American paratroopers is just beyond the trees? Anyhow, Winters positions his men, and they prepare to give the Germans a nasty surprise.
It is several intense minutes of close-quarter fighting. Americans are firing from behind bushes and from perches in trees, and machine gun fire from the Germans is stripping bark and twigs off the trees and kicking up dirt around the attackers. Winters draws first blood.
Winters placed his machine-guns (manned by Pvts. John Plesha and Walter Hendrix on one gun, Cleveland Petty and Joe Liebgott on the other) along the hedge leading up to the objective, with instructions to lay down covering fire. As Winters crawled forward to the jump-off position, he spotted a German helmet— the man was moving down the trench, crouched over, with only his head above ground. Winters took aim with his M-1 and squeezed off two shots, killing the Jerry.
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 109). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Here the training paid off. “We fought as a team without standout stars,” Lipton said. “We were like a machine. We didn’t have anyone who leaped up and charged a machine-gun. We knocked it out or made it withdraw by maneuver and teamwork or mortar fire. We were smart; there weren’t many flashy heroics. We had learned that heroics was the way to get killed without getting the job done, and getting the job done was more important.”
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 110). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
But we see Malarkey in search of a Luger pistol. With bullets flying all over the place he dashes into open where a German soldier lies dead. No Luger. He makes it back to safety with bullets kicking up dirt around him.
It was here Winters lost his first man:
Pvt. John D. Hall of A Company joined the group. Winters ordered a charge on the third gun. Hall led the way, and got killed, but the gun was taken. Winters had three of his men secure it. With eleven men, he now controlled three 105s.
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 115). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
We see one of the unfathomable events that happen in combat. In the middle of the raging gunfight a luckless Andrew Hill stopped to ask directions.
Warrant Officer Andrew Hill, from regimental HQ, came up behind Lipton. “Where’s regimental HQ?” he shouted. “Back that way,” Lipton said, pointing to the rear. Hill raised his head to look. A bullet hit him in the forehead and came out behind his ear, killing him instantly.
Ambrose, Stephen E.. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 113-114). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The 6th of June was like any other day. The sun came up, and the sun went down. The planet continued to spin on its axis oblivious of human foibles. That evening Lieutenant Winters gathered with some of his men in the back of a truck.
Utah Beach, unlike Omaha Beach, had seen few American casualties, less than 200. Shortly tanks, Jeeps, and trucks were rolling through. The fighting had just begun.
The series has ten episodes. Here are links to previous reviews: