I’m proud to publish Re:war’s first guest blog, written by Lindsey Bannister (UK). Lindsey and I share a love for the HBO show Band of Brothers, which follows a company of US paratroopers from D-day to VE-day. Lindsey and her friend Jo have been touring significant locations from World War II for years, following in the footsteps of the soldiers portrayed in the show.
The show’s focus on the soldiers’ emotional experience of the war, rather than sequential events has gained it millions of fans worldwide, setting the tone for the way audiences engage with the war in the 21st century. The locations from Band of Brothers have become prime tourist destinations with annual festivals, such as the D-Day Festival in Normandy and the “Nuts” Weekend in Bastogne, which commemorates the Battle of the Bulge. Lindsey and Jo even followed the paratroopers all the way back to their training camp in Toccoa, Georgia, where they scaled Mount Currahee for charity, testing their mettle like the soldiers did all those years ago. When I heard about this amazing feat, I asked her if she wanted to share something about this experience, and she happily agreed.
In the footsteps of Band of Brothers
By Lindsey Bannister
I’ve always had an interest in history, whether you’re talking about kings and queens, Vikings or Romans, but World War II has always been even more of a fascination – perhaps because it seemed to be only just beyond my grasp. My grandparents all lived through the war, and I’d spoken to them about their experiences. It’s history, but it’s recent history, and traces of it are far easier to find than traces of a lot of other periods in history.
When Band of Brothers aired in 2001, I was about to embark on a year of world travel before I settled down and started doing boring adult things. I watched the first few episodes before I left home, but sporadic access to TV meant that it was some time later before I got to watch the whole thing. I started from the beginning again, reading the book as I watched the series. Something about it just grabbed me. The period of the war from D-Day until VE day is so perfectly encapsulated by the story of Easy Company, and there was such a wealth of material about the men who formed the company.
Eventually, after years of rewatching the show, I finally got the chance to go to a charity event in Devon, organised to fund the erection of a statue of Richard Winters in Normandy. Several of the Band of Brothers actors would be attending the event, and part of it would take place at the airfield in Upottery where Easy Company boarded the C-47s that would take them to Normandy for D-Day. I was actually due to be in Paris that weekend with my mum, but she could see how disappointed I was to be missing it, so she rearranged the whole trip to enable me to go, and I’m eternally thankful to her, because it kick-started a series of trips which would take me across two continents.
I got a real buzz from being in the exact place where Easy Company had embarked on their part of what was one of the most ambitious and audacious military operations in history. The airfield was so ordinary, just a big patch of grass, yet it played such an important part in history.
I turned up to Upottery with one friend and left with two more, and the four of us were to reunite on several more trips to places with Easy Company history. After Upottery came Normandy, and for anyone who has never visited the landing beaches, the gun emplacements and the hedgerows where Allied forces fought should make a point to take the trip. The landing beaches are particularly poignant places with an almost supernatural quality to them. Watching the sunset on Omaha Beach on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day will remain one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
After two visits to Normandy, we definitely had the bug. We needed to visit the other places steeped in Easy Company history. With my best friend, partner in crime and chauffeur, Jo, we set out on an Easy Company road trip, taking in Eindhoven, Bastogne, Zell am See, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest and Dachau concentration camp.
It’s all very well reading books, watching Band of Brothers, and watching documentaries, but it’s only visiting these places that gives you as true an understanding of what happened there as it is possible to get. Seeing how grateful the residents of Normandy still are for the men who fought for their freedom fills me with a pride in my country and its allies that I never knew I had. How else can you appreciate how close the German lines really were to the American lines in Bastogne unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes? If you haven’t stood in the Bois Jacques in December, how can you possibly imagine how cold the men must have been? Seeing the horrors of Dachau demonstrates so plainly why it was so important for the Allied forces to win the war. If you never see the beauty of Zell am See, how can you fully understand how relieved the men were to be posted there after surviving what they’d been through? I can never truly understand the experience of these men, but visiting the places where they fought is the closest I can ever come to truly comprehending.
There was one big place we had yet to tick off our list – Currahee, the mountain in Georgia that became synonymous with the 101st Airborne. Last year, Jo and I decided to visit Toccoa and make the daunting climb up Currahee. We did it on Memorial Day, because it seemed fitting, and we decided to ask friends and family to sponsor us to complete the climb. One of our chosen charities were the WWII Foundation, which has been behind organising most of the Band of Brothers events that took us to these incredible places. They aim to preserve the stories of WWII, which is so important. Our second charity was the British Legion, who support veterans in the UK. Being British, we wanted some of the funds we raised to help British veterans. We walked up, rather than running like Easy Company did as part of their training, but it was still tough in the Georgia heat. This was only one part of the men’s training, but I felt like conquering that peak brought me one tiny step closer to understanding who Easy Company were and what incredible soldiers were created right there on that mountain.
What I’m trying to explain is something that PFC David Webster says in one sentence in [Band of Brothers episode 7] “The Last Patrol”:
“How could anyone ever know of the price paid by soldiers in terror, agony and bloodshed if they’d never been to places like Normandy, Bastogne or Hagenau?”
Indeed. How could they?