Immortalised in the television series ‘Band of Brothers’, Dick Winters and the men of E (generally known as Easy) Company, part of the 2nd battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, were rightly acclaimed for their bravery and daring, as well as their loyalty to each other.
The loyalty element was born in the summer of 1942 during their early training at Toccoa, Georgia, in the shadow of Mount Currahee. The name Currahee came from a Cherokee word meaning ‘Stand Alone’, which became the motto of the 506th who were also nicknamed ‘The Currahees’.
As a parachute regiment, it was intended that the 506th should be an elite fighting force so the training was extremely tough but it turned raw recruits into soldiers capable of pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance and beyond in the most adverse circumstances.
This ability, coupled with their amazing drive, largely born out of an unwillingness to let down their compatriots, led to a ‘one for all’ spirit which saw the men of Easy Company regularly overcome enemy forces even in the face of overwhelming odds.
After further training at Aldbourne in Wiltshire, men from the 101st Airborne Division boarded planes at RAF Upottery in Devon on 5 June 1944 and were dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy as part of the D-day invasion. Unfortunately, the intended plan of action soon went awry. Many missed their appointed drop zone but, even with men scattered widely, they succeeded in causing havoc, not least since attacks in so many different areas convinced the Germans that they were under attack from a vastly superior force.
As the Allied forces attempted to consolidate their position on Utah beach on 6 June a handful of men under Lt Richard Winters captured and destroyed four German 105mm guns, an action which undoubtedly saved many lives.
The following day, Easy Company were instrumental in taking the town of Carentan and preventing it being recaptured when the Germans counter attacked.
Such heroism was not without cost however as out of the 139 0fficers and men who jumped on 6 June only 74 were left when they were eventually pulled out on 29 June.
Holding ‘Hell’s Highway’
Easy Company then returned to England before being parachuted into Europe again on 17 September as part of Operation Market-Garden, the Allies’ attempt to capture bridges over the lower Rhine and open the way to Berlin.
A measure of the ‘band of brothers’ effect can be gleaned from the fact that several soldiers, wounded in the Normandy action, ‘discharged’ themselves from hospitals and clinics in order to rejoin their comrades.
Much of the action centred on possession of the road between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, nicknamed ‘Hell’s Highway’, which was a crucial artery for supplying the Allied forces.
The initial objective of Market-Garden, capturing the bridge at Arnhem, had failed, so it was imperative that control of Hell’s Highway was not lost. Despite being surrounded, Easy Company played an important role in retaining possession of the road.
Operation Market-Garden was unsuccessful but the determination of the men of Easy Company had prevented it from descending into complete disaster.
Easy Company then found itself engaged in an action more akin to the trenches of WWI as a battle began for possession of a strip of land between the Rhine to the north and the Waal River to the south, an area which became known as ‘The Island’. On 2 October the men of Easy Company found themselves, a force of just 130 men, defending 3 kilometres of front line.
Just days later a German attack in their sector was repelled by thirty five men, again led by Winters, who routed two German companies, some 300 strong, losing only one of their own in the process. Shortly afterwards Winters was promoted to become executive officer of the 2nd battalion.
On 16 December Hitler launched his final offensive in the Ardennes, an action which caught the Allies totally by surprise. The men of the 101st were resting and General Eisenhower sent them in an effort to hold the strategically important city of Bastogne.
By mid December, Easy found itself part of a defensive ring around Bastogne, again surrounded by enemy troops. This never appeared to faze the men of Easy Company and when a message was sent by the German commander to the city, inviting the US forces to surrender, he received a single word reply, NUTS!, despite the fact that the soldiers of the 101st were short of ammunition and other necessary equipment, and were unable to count on artillery or air support.
No company could have been better equipped mentally and physically for such an action and they held on until relief came from General Patton. The bravery of Easy Company and their fellows caught the mood of the American nation and the press labelled them; ‘The Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne’.
In May 1945, the men of Easy Company, certainly one of the finest fighting forces of WWII, captured Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden where they celebrated by drinking the Fuehrer’s champagne. They certainly deserved it!
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