I’ve been dancing around this post for several days now, waiting for my thoughts to coalesce into one nice straight train. When has that ever happened? Part of my problem is having too much to say about the topic and around the book, and working in an actual discussion of the book itself. So how about we do that?
The army gave Major Winters two Bronze Stars, but I think he deserves at least four for Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. In his memoir, Winters recollects his journey, and the journey of the men with whom he served, through their training, D Day, operations in Europe to VE day, the occupation of Europe and their return home.
One thing I like about Winters is his honesty and fairness, his integrity in everything he does, including his own writing and opinion of himself, as well as others. While I found him very easy to read, I don’t think he’s about to win any prizes for literature. His stated purpose for writing is to tell some of the stories that remained untold in Stephen Ambrose’s novel Band of Brothers, which many of you might be more familiar with in its dramatisation as a miniseries by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. As such Winters’ narrative is not exclusively his own recollections, but also draws on the Ambrose’s collected notes from interviews with other members of Easy company.
The narrative is broken into four parts: “Band of Brothers” dealing with events up to D-Day, “In the Time of Achilles” on D-Day and operations in Normandy and Holland, “In War’s Dark Crucible” detailing his view of the Battle of the Bulge through VE Day, and “Finding Peace After A Lifetime of War” covering post-VE Day occupation of Austria, eventual return home and life after the war.
Winters begins with a short exposition of his childhood and entry into the army, before Pearl Harbour, experiences at OCS and his entry into the paratroopers. Particularly interesting is Winters’ first-hand description of events and personalities in Easy company and its leadership, starting with their training at Camp Toccoa. Ambrose’s account has a lot of quotations, but Winters’ consistent first person prose is an engaging read and excellent complement to Ambrose’s novel. Winters gives a personal perspective on what it meant to be an officer, commander and general leader of men in the Airborne, the various duties and responsibilities enshrined in the ranks and positions he held.
As Easy company moved into action on D-Day, and indeed through the rest of the war, Winters’ first person narrative and excellent analysis continues. His recount of the events of D-Day make a riveting read. He becomes commander of Easy that morning, as Lt Meehan’s plane had gone down in the landings with him and most of Easy’s HQ company inside. I very much enjoyed reading Winters’ experiences on that day which so many books and movies have depicted, but one thing he does well (throughout the book) is to communicate at least some of the overall ‘bigger picture’ tactical situation along with his own experiences.
Next, rather obviously if you’ve seen the mini-series, read any accounts of the company in action, or are generally familiar with the Normandy campaign and the war in Europe, Winters follows with his account of the company’s action on the peninsula following D-Day and the capture of Carentan, action in Holland as part of operation Market Garden, and his promotion to battalion XO.
After his promotion there follows a period of “Interlude” between Market Garden and the division’s plunge into the breach to block the Germans’ advance in the Battle of the Bulge. Winters’ gives a very interesting look into the mechanisms of how he became company XO, essentially a chess game of reorganisation due to casualties and promotions in the upper ranks of the battalion and division. This is another characteristic of Winters’ writing that I, and many others, particularly enjoy. One could read his memoirs as a sort of leadership manual, for both civilians and the military. Throughout the book Winters examines and critiques both his and others’ leadership, both in the tactical military sense, and in the simple management and leadership of people. Not only is this an enlightening and healthy thing (at least for me personally) to read when one is looking at history like this and, even if only subconsciously, judging the actions of men whose shoes we’ve never been in. I have to admit I do this myself – having played many video games, both first person shooters and strategy games where you play third person omniscient and move men into position and tell them to attack – I find myself criticising Winters’ (and others’) tactical decisions, when after reading his account of leading men in combat, I find myself much more charitable in my judgement. I found Winters’ story from this perspective both fascinating and inspirational.
One somewhat humorous episode during the Battle of the Bulge demonstrates this – around dawn on the second day a somewhat lost German soldier wanders past the battalion command post, squats to relieve himself, and is then captured. Winters’ comments are a perspective I would never have thought of: “That sure was some line of defense we had that first night! Now, think of the problem this lone soldier created for the poor German’s first sergeant. How did he carry this guy on his morning report?” (p 178).
Winters’ account of the Battle is as bleak and appalling as one might expect of the horrendous conditions and high casualties the 101st faced in Bastogne. He provides insights both into leadership under such conditions, and into the psychology of men under such stress.
After being relieved at Bastogne the 101st are moved almost immediately east to block another German advance (Operation Nordwind), and the last few instances of active combat the battalion saw in the war. He also vividly describes the horrific scenes in the liberation of Buchloe, contrast with the beauty of the Bavarian countryside. There is a change here, with Winters and the men observing the war nearing its end, thinking about the future and not wanting to take undue risks at such a late stage in the war. This is observed in 2b battalion’s careful capture of Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s famed Eagle’s Nest in the Bavarian Alps. Although Winters’ account does not contain any of the mini-series’ bluster about outflanking the French in order to get there first, he does speculate about the French “looting their way through Germany” (p 217) which may have been motivation for his orders.
There they remained after VE-Day as occupation forces, until their relocation to Zell am See in Austria. Occupation, and the tragedy of soldiers being killed in careless ways, administration and looking forward to the future preoccupy Winters’ thoughts about this stage of the war/peace. We also witness Winters’ compassion towards the German people, and his great respect for the Wehrmacht as soldiers. Winters’ further reflects on “coming home” – both the unit’s travels and transfers back to the States, and his own personal journey home and return to civilian life. He writes a brief account of his very short recall during the Korean War, being excused from deployment at his option because of his previous service.
The final chapters of the book are among the most interestingly. Winters recounts his memories and participation in the conception of and contributions to Ambrose’s novel Band of Brothers, and the later miniseries. Apparently Winters and Ambrose became close friends. Considerable fame, and mail, followed this exposure, and Winters includes some excerpts from letters he has received, as well as some biography on the lives of some of the men he served with following the war.
What I love, and why I enjoyed the book so much is that this book is another work in the ongoing dialogue about this group of men and their remarkable story Ambrose books, mini series, various other memoirs I’ve read. I think I read Beyond Band of Brothers in a matter of a couple of sittings, enjoying the mental cross-references I made between Winters’ recollections and other tellings of the events he recounts. If you love seeing different perspectives on stories you’ve heard, and you enjoyed the Band of Brothers miniseries or novel then you will greatly enjoy Winters memoir.