On Saturday 28th June 2014 at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Damian Lewis discussed his experiences of being a part of the critically acclaimed HBO WW2 mini-series, Band of Brothers.
Based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers follows the incredible story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division as they fight to survive in the chaos of war.
The mini-series follows the company from their training in Aldbourne in England through to their jump into Normandy on 6th June 1944 and the vicious fighting that proceeds this as the Allies battle their way through France and into Germany.
All ten episodes of the series were shot in England on a highly adaptable set. Huge dykes and earth works were constructed, as well as a whole town which could quickly be transformed to make it look as if you were in France the one minute, then in Holland in the next.
Damian Lewis was cast the role of playing degree educated future US millionaire (with his recipe for chicken feed) Lt. Richard D. Winters in the series. And, as part of the process of preparing himself for this and to try and get a better understanding of the man he would be portraying, he was flown out to America and stayed with Richard ‘Dick’ Winters (photographed below) on his farm in Hershel, Pennsylvania where the two men forged a lasting friendship.
Not only were the actors immersed in various writings about this period, including Lewis having access to Winter’s own personnel diaries, Damian along with the rest of the cast were put through 2 weeks of intensive basic training with Captain Dale Dye who taught them how to move and fight as a unit.
Lewis recalled how it was a difficult process of trying to get out of Winters exactly how he felt going through the war, most of his recollections were ‘practical, methodical memories of operational detail.’ Which summed up a lot about the man Lewis would be playing. Both humble and confident in his own ability, it was crystal clear that Winter was a leader of men.
He was the ‘complete soldier,’ Lewis commented. Winter clearly had the gift of leadership and he tried to convey this in his portrayal. He was revered amongst his men who looked up to him and never questioned his famous catch phrase ‘follow me.’ They could see he was a man that would get the job done and get them out alive, as he was able to make quick and 99% of the time the correct decisions, under very difficult circumstances.
Like many of these young men, Winters had joined the US paratroopers because he wanted to be the best soldier he could be. Lewis joked, obviously the extra $50 a month jump payment helped, but for most of them it was pride at being apart of an elite unit. And their unique dress was a status symbol, with the jump boots and being able to tuck their trousers into these.
For many it was the 1st time they had been in a plane and here they were having to jump out of it. Lewis recounted a brilliant story of one veteran after the war who had been flying with his family on holiday, and this was the first time he had ever landed in a plane which he said scared him more than jumping out of it at 2000 ft.
Winters was 25 – 26 years old when he jumped on the 6th June. The not knowing of what awaited them understandably caused a lot of trepidation and nervousness among the men. And the reality was that the operation did not go 100% to plan. Initially delayed due to fog over the Channel, the pilots, many of whom were flying into enemy flak for the very first time were faced with a difficult decision. Hitting a huge cloud bank, both wings of the air armada split up, losing any visual contact. Many also cracked the engines to speed up as well as changed their altitudes to avoid the flak, so the reality was that many men were jumping at much lower heights (500 ft and below) and higher speeds (150 mph) than they were meant to be.
Lewis gave the example of Winter’s best friend, 1st Lt Harry Welsh, who jumped at just 230 feet with over 80 lbs of additional kit, some men were even carrying up to a whopping 150 lbs of extra kit. The only thing that saved his life was the plane below him getting hit and the blast from this blew him back across the sky, giving him another 50-60 feet. This was the harsh reality of what was happening all over Normandy.
The pilots understandably wanted to drop their men and get the hell out of there and owing to the increased speeds many men also quickly lost their infamous leg bags. Designed to carry either the mens’ weapons or extra kit, which would float down via rope 20 feet below the men and alleviate some of the landing weight as the men hit the ground. Instead what actually happened was that as many of the men jumped out the C47’s door over Normandy on the 6th June the propellor blast ripped the leg bags clean off.
So not only were men being scattered all over Normandy, in some cases miles away from their intended drop zones, many were also weaponless and alone in a foreign field in the middle of the night surrounded by the enemy. Dick Winters was one of these hundreds of men. Having lost his M1 rifle in the jump, he was only armed with his trusty boot knife which he always insisted on carrying concealed in his left boot.
This is how the first few hours of the invasion started. In utter chaos men struggled to find one another in the middle of the night and try and achieve their D-Day objectives. Some men even curled up and feel asleep because of the air sickness pills that General Taylor had given them.
The glue for any army is the three man relationship, you, the man on your left and the man on the right, and that is what you fight for. Band of Brothers is a brilliant portrayal of this vicious reality.
Very quickly the series was taken up by the military, with Lewis reveling that the far reaching and much loved series was used by both the British and US Armies at Sandhurst and Westpoint as part of officer training. The assault by Lt Winters and Easy Company to take the four 105 mm guns shelling Utah beach is used as a brilliant example of how a smaller unit could succeed in taking its objectives against a much larger well entrenched defensive force.
WW2 historian, author and organiser of CVHF, James Holland asked a rather intriguing question, one that many of us have probably longed to know the answer to, of whether we could potentially see a British version of Band of Brothers in the future and whether Damian would be interested in playing a role in that. The actors response was a resounding ‘Yes & Yes.’ Keep your eyes and ears open, there could potentially be something in the works, so watch this space ladies and gentlemen.
Both the Chalke Valley History Festival and Damian Lewis must be commended for this talk, it really was one of the highlights of the day. Fascinating and insightful, Lewis brilliantly portrayed what it was like to be a part of Band of Brothers as well as the bitter realities of those men who actually went through those fateful events that helped change the course of the Second World War.
This year’s Chalke Valley History Festival is taking place between Monday 22nd – Sunday 28th June and I for one cannot wait to see what they have lined up as I very much enjoyed the 2014 event!
Hopefully see some of you there.
Thanks for reading.
“What these men achieved on D-Day in the chaos of war should never be under-estimated.”
Photo Attributions: Major Dick Winters in 2004, D-Day Commemorations by Geoff Collins, Men of 2nd Btn, 506th Parachute Regt. of the 101st Airborne Divsion, A member of the 101st Airborne Division standing guard over German prisoners, The 101st in Carentan, General Eisenhower talking to members of the 101st Airborne Division prior to D-Day, James Holland & Damien Lewis at the CVHF 2014.