Band of Brothers: WW2’s Most Daring D-Day Mission and the Hunt to Take Down Hitler’s War Criminals
© 2021 Damien Lewis
A few months back, I read D-Day Girls, a history of SOE operatives who prepared the way for Operation Overlord by arming resistance cells, passing information along to the Allies, and helping to wreak havoc on the ground in France. Churchill’s Band of Brothers tells another part of that story – how airborne commandos, the Special Air Services men, were dropped deep into occupied France in connection with the invasion to destroy infrastructure, with the object being to slow down the Wehrmacht’s response to the invasion as much as possible. Having previously been frustrated by commando raids, however, Hitler had issued orders for any potential readers to be executed as spies – uniform or no — with tragic results for the men involved here. Churchill’s Band of Brothers is an exciting look into Britain’s use of airborne units, and their determination to see justice done on behalf of their fallen comrades.
Band of Brothers follows one unit of SAS agents across two missions: the first is a success, and its retelling is made complete with an escape right out of Hollywood, the men dashing to make their pickup on a Nazi airfield, klaxons wailing. As mentioned in D-Day Girls, however, the ancillary SOE operation in France was badly compromised by Nazi counterintelligence, and the second drop here goes catastrophically wrong. The men land in an ambush, and several are killed outright while a few others attempt to escape. Although the entire party wasn’t killed or captured, most of them were, and the second half of the book largely addresses their treatment as prisoners of war, and all that followed, including a late war crime. The narrative isn’t completely straightforward: Lewis revisits the operatives’ training to demonstrate how unusual and autonomous agents were. While most soldiers are treated as members of a military machine — fully equipped by it, and expected to act in obedience with its orders — SAS operatives needed to be able to act on the fly, reading the situation on the ground and making the best of opportunities that presented themselves, without any communication with authorities in England at all. Accordingly, in their training they had to scavenge or steal materials to create their own training camp, and their final challenge was to tour the whole of Britain, signing visitor’s books at a series of checkpoints and evading police the entire way, without a pound to their names. Many a Briton’s vehicle or chickens went missing during such exercises!
Churchill’s Band of Brothers offers a spotlight into an important but sometimes overlooked area of Britain’s fight against the Nazi menace. By its nature it can’t help but be exciting, especially in its coverage of the first mission and the initial aftermath of the second, and Lewis’ inclusion of the men’s dogged attempts to bring the men who abused them and murdered their brothers-in-arms made the book more than just a real-life adventure.
More in this vein to follow, with Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, about a SAS operation against Germany’s radar system.