The TV mini-series The Band of Brothers was so influential and highly acclaimed that you might forget that it ran for only 10 episodes. The stories were epic, the characters engaging and the acting powerful, and it contained a whopper of an A-list cast. Now, The Real Band of Brothers tells the real stories behind the men at the heart of the action, the 101st Airborne Division, through archive film, interviews, letters and diaries.
The division fought in some of the biggest battles of the Second World War and earned themselves the nickname of the Screaming Eagles. In the Vietnam war, the next generation of soldiers found themselves again fighting epically tough engagements. If, like most of us, most of your knowledge of military history comes through war films, you’ll probably know about some of this already.
Split into three 40 minute episodes, the DVDs lets the old soldiers tell of fighting for their lives and the lives of their buddies against a ruthless enemy. These guys might have left the battlefield 60-odd years ago, but they can still tell a gripping story.
The documentaries kick off with the troops parachute training in the USA, and it becomes clear that the dangers started even before they got to Europe. Letters home contain vivid descriptions of the fear and exhilaration of learning how to drop out of a plane in the middle of the night into a country full of heavily armed enemy soldiers.
The Normandy landing parachute jumps themselves are disorganised and chaotic. German anti-aircraft had forced the planes to scatter from their tight formations and no one seemed to know where they were. Each man’s story is fascinating – there are close calls, bad luck and bizarre twists of fate. The gallows humour necessary to get through such an ordeal still gets some of the old guys chuckling away even now.
After Normandy, the second episode covers the division’s key role in Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation of all time, immortalised in the classic and star-studded 70s movie A Bridge Too Far. This was an attempt to use parachutists and gliders to cross the great natural fortification protecting Germany, the river Rhine, and finish the war in 1944.
After the slightly disastrous operation, the 101st next play a key role in the bloodiest battle of the whole war for American forces: the Battle of the Bulge. They have to defend the isolated town of Bastogne against a German counter-offensive with ammunition and food running out. The veterans tell of fear and horror, the sorrow of having to shoot young teenagers fighting in the Hitler Youth.
The last episode takes the story into the complex battleground and counter-insurgency in Vietnam. Again the men fought in deadly battles including the fight for Hill 937, immortalised in the film Hamburger Hill. Once more the stories are surprising, shocking and fascinating. If you have any interest in military history or the back story of The Band of Brothers, this is a fascinating insight in men who gave so much.
The Real Band of Brothers is currently available at Amazon.co.uk.