Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Courage under fire: Ronald Speirs and Easy Company at the Battle of Foy

I  try to occasionally post something that shows a particularly brave action from some time and place in military history. For example, I previously wrote about Medal of Honor winner Michael Murphy in 2011. Last year, his story was told more widely in the movie “Lone Survivor”, which I recommend to everyone. Today I want to highlight another hero: Ronald Speirs.

It is January 1945 and the famous “Screaming Eagles”, the 101st Airborne division, are about to turn the tide of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne.

Let’s read about the Battle of Foy courtesy of a scenario description from the wargame “Flames of War”. (Note: LMG = light machine gun, in this case, a .30 caliber machine gun)

Excerpt:

E or ‘Easy’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, like the rest of the division, was ordered on to the attack on 9 January 1945 as part of a general offensive to drive back the Germans from Bastogne. In the following days the 506th Regiment, along with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, cleared the forests around the town of Foy and pushed the Germans out. Their next objective was to take Foy to allow the 11th Armored Division to attack from Foy across the fields northeast towards Noville.

[…]At 0900 hours on 13 January Easy Company attacked along the western edge of Foy, along the road. The new year had brought heavy snow and the it blanketed the ground and had reduced temperatures to well below zero. 2nd Battalion commander, Captain Dick Winters, had two section of LMGs deployed on the edge of the woods facing Foy to give Easy Company covering fire while they crossed the 250 yards of open field between the forest and Foy’s buildings. There were just a few scattered trees and haystacks to give cover. As Easy Company advance the covering fire did its job, limiting the fire on the paratroopers to sporadic rifle shots. The approach on Foy made good pace under the cover of the LMG fire, but about 75 yards out from the edge of the village the skirmish line halted and the paratroopers hunkered down in the snow. Captain Winters stared in disbelief, wondering what was going on.

Lieutenant Dike, who was commanding Easy Company, had been overwhelmed with indecision. It became obvious to Winters that Dike didn’t know what he was doing, or had had a failure of confidence. His immediate impulse was to take command himself, but he noticed Lieutenant Ronald Speirs, a capable platoon commander from D Company, standing nearby. Winters ordered Speirs to take command of Easy Company and get the attack moving again. What Speirs did next amazed many of the paratroopers who witnessed it.

On receiving his orders from Winters, Speirs immediately ran at full speed down to where Dike and his HQ had taken cover behind a haystack and told Dike his orders, ‘I’m here to take over’. After quickly being told of the situation by the NCOs he ran off towards Foy. The men of Easy Company immediately followed. On reaching the outskirt buildings of Foy, Speirs immediately sought to link up with I Company of 3rd Battalion who, despite only having 25 men, were supporting the attack from the other flank of Foy. He set off running again, through the German lines, to find I Company’s commander. After consulting with its commander, Captain Gene Brown, he turned around and dashed back through Foy and the surprised Germans. Through all this the enemy fired on him with machine-guns, rifles and guns, but not a single shot hit its mark.

Now with all that said, watch the two clips below, and pay close attention the faces of the men under Lieutenant Dike, and then later under Lieutenant Speirs. Pay close attention to how Speirs’ courage inspires the men under him to also be courageous. Especially First Sergeant Lipton, who later risks his own life to draw fire from a German sniper so that Shifty Powers can prevent any other troops from being killed by the sniper.

The two clips are from “Band of Brothers”, the episode entitled “The Breaking Point“. There is some coarse language, but no sexual language in it. Really, if you are squeamish, do not watch it. However, if you can handle it, then buy the whole DVD set. It will inspire you, and help you to do things that you didn’t think were possible. If you really want to understand the men of E Company, you can read a book by Stephen E. Ambrose called Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (New York, 1992).

Low resolution clip, includes briefing at the beginning

This video is lower resolution, but show Winters reflecting on how Lipton had asked him not to let Dike lead the attack the night before, and also Winters carefully explaining to Dike that the American attack has to keep moving or they will get pinned down by machine guns and zeroed-in by mortars and destroyed.

I like that one because it shows the briefing, but the next clip is in 720HD.

High resolution clip, does not include briefing

This is a higher resolution version that is only 8.5 minutes long, but doesn’t have the briefing.

If you listen closely when Speirs explains what everyone is going to do, you can here one of the NCOs say “thank God” as he pats the other on the back.

Leadership

To be a good military leader, you have to know many things. A knowledge of strategy and tactics, a knowledge of military history, the ability to see the battlefield, knowledge of your opponent, knowledge of weapons, and so on. But surely the greatest of these is courage. As Von Clausewitz says in his famous book “On War”, “War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior.” Nothing inspires troops like a commander who is willing to take on the same risks that he asks his troops to take.

Take a look at this article from the Ivey School of Business journal, which talks about the characteristics of Canadian generals in Afghanistan.

Excerpt:

A leader must be in front of subordinates.  This takes courage.  Leadership from the front encapsulates the adage, never ask a subordinate to do something that you, the leader, wouldn’t do.  In Afghanistan, the leader must not only be in front, but he or she must be seen to be in front.  Subordinates seek this reassurance from their leaders at all levels.  Though they may be tentative, leaders must demonstrate character and moral strength.  Their credibility is inextricably dependent on their ability to do so..  During his frequent visits to Afghanistan, former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Rick Hillier, made a point of visiting troops that were situated in some of the most IED-laden areas of the Canadian sector.  Through his demonstrated courage, he inspired leaders of all levels.  “If the CDS goes there, so can I” was the resulting mindset.  The current CDS, General Walt Natynczyk, has successfully continued this practice.

[…]All leaders need courage. It is the lynchpin of effective leadership.  No one respects a wimp who will buy in to any idea no matter how inane it might be.  Courage is having the strength of character to persist and hold on to ideas in the face of opposition.  Here, I’m not restricting my treatment of courage as it relates to fear.  It’s also about strength of character and devotion to causes and ideas.

As Christians, we have a leader who led by example. We all need to learn to not be so concerned with looking out for ourselves and our happiness first, but to instead be willing to take risks and sacrifice ourselves to do the right thing. We Christians should all be courageous, because we are led by a courageous leader.

That doesn’t necessarily mean going halfway across the world, it can mean reaching out to someone right there next to you who needs your help and support. Maybe that person has been running on an empty tank for a long time, but still trying to do the right thing. You never know when the opportunity to do something amazing will arise, but you won’t take it if you keep thinking of how you might get hurt. You have to reconcile yourself that you are not here to avoid every possible kind of suffering. It doesn’t mean that you take unnecessary risks, but it does mean not letting fear stop you from doing the right thing.

Now get out there and take that attack on in.

Filed under: Mentoring, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday night movie: Cloak and Dagger (1946)

Here’s tonight’s movie:

IMDB mean rating: [6.7/10]

IMDB median rating: [7/10]

Description:

Inspired by actual events, Cloak and Dagger was first major “atomic power” melodrama of the postwar era. Gary Cooper stars as bookish physics professor Alvah Jesper, a character obviously based on A-bomb codeveloper J. Robert Oppenheimer. Pressed into service by the OSS in the last months of WW2, Jasper is sent to Europe in search of Dr. Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), an atomic scientist held captive by the Nazis.

This is directed by Fritz Lang.

Happy Friday!

Filed under: Videos, , ,

Friday night movie: One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Here’s tonight’s movie:

IMDB rating: [7.2/10]

Description:

During the Allied Bombing offensive of World War II the public was often informed that “A raid took place last night over …, One (or often more) of Our Aircraft Is Missing”. Behind these sombre words hid tales of death, destruction and derring-do. This is the story of one such bomber crew who were shot down and the brave Dutch patriots who helped them home.

The bomber in the movie that they start with is called a  Vickers Wellington. It’s not very good, but the four-engine Avro Lancaster they get at the end of the movie is as good or better than the B-17 bomber used by the Americans during the war. Most people think that the Avro Lancaster was the best bomber of World War 2 on either side. My Canadian readers will be thrilled to know that Avro Canada constructed many Avro Lancasters to help with the war effort. You can still see an intact Lancaster in Alberta,  Canada.

Happy Friday!

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Friday night movie: The Enemy Below (1957)

Here’s tonight’s movie:

IMDB mean rating: [7.8/10]

IMDB median rating: [8/10]

Description:

The Enemy Below is a study of submarine warfare from the vantage point of both sides. Robert Mitchum plays the captain of an American destroyer, who despite having lost his family in the war endeavors to let his head rule his heart in combat. Curt Jurgens co-stars as a German U-boat commander, depicted as being as honorable and compassionate as Mitchum. The two men develop a grudging mutual respect as they pursue one another throughout the North Atlantic. Based on a novel by D. A. Rayner.

This is my favorite World War 2 submarine movie. It shows both sides, and the plot is plausible and realistic. Normally, a single destroyer would be at a disadvantage pursing a lone submarine. But this submarine is committed to a single course and keeps coming back to it, and the destroyer has a faster surface speed and better surface armament, which means it can outrun the sub if it knows (or can guess) where the sub is going.

This movie is based on a true story battle between the USS Buckley (Buckley class escort destroyer) and the U-66 (Type IXC U-boat). The Buckley class destroyer escort is designed to conduct anti-submarine warfare in teams, and is definitely the underdog in this one-on-one fight.

I really recommend this movie! Great actors, very realistic, lots of action.

DE Buckley class destroyer escort

GENERAL INFORMATION

  • Length: “Long hull” 306′ 0″ x 300′ 0″
  • Displacement: 1,400 long tons standard; 1,740 full load.
  • Crew: Officers, 15; Enlisted, 198.
  • Speed: 23.5 knots.
  • Screws: Two.
  • Rudders: Two.
  • Stack: One.

ARMAMENT

  • Gun battery: 3 x 3-inch/50 caliber dual purpose guns.
  • Initial: 1 x twin 40mm Bofors.
  • Later: 3 x twin 40mm Bofors.
  • Short range: 9 x single 20mm Oerlikon.
  • Anti-submarine battery: 2 x depth charge tracks, 8 x depth charge projectors, 1 x Hedgehog.

SS Type IXC U-Boat

GENERAL INFORMATION

  • Displacement: (tons) 1120 (surface) 1232 (submerged)
  • Length: (m) 76,76 oa 58,75 ph
  • Power: (hp) 4400 (surface) 1000 (submerged)
  • Speed: (knots) 18,3 (surface) 7,3 (submerged)
  • Range: (miles / knots) 13450/10 (surface) 63/4 (submerged)
  • Crew: 48-56 men
  • Max depth: ca. 230 m (755 feet)

ARMAMENT

  • Torpedoes: 22 4/2 (bow / stern tubes)
  • Mines: 44 TMA

Happy Friday!

Filed under: Videos, , , , ,

On wargames, history and heroes: “this story shall the good man teach his son”

Memoir '44: Pegasus Bridge setup

Memoir ’44: Pegasus Bridge setup

Reposting this old post because Dina and I spent Friday night playing games again! And this is one of my favorite posts. Last night was Portal 2 and Orcs Must Die! 2.

Last night, I played through the Pegasus Bridge scenario from the Memoir ’44 wargame with Dina a few times. We actually played the online version of the game, using Steam. She was very gracious to play a wargame with me, which I don’t think is necessarily the first thing on most women’s lists of things to do on a Thursday night! I appreciated her agreeing to learn how to play and then playing with me several times. I think that Christians need to plan and execute more “together” activities like that – activities that involve interaction, co-operation, communication and engagement. We try to avoid doing things where we are both spectators. Playing wargames is not the only thing we do – we also do Bible study and cooking lessons (for me), for example.

Anyway, the point of this post is to express the deeper meaning behind playing wargames. I think that it is important to recognize and celebrate those who have demonstrated good character, whether it be now, or in the past. I think that it is important for us to search out the best role models ourselves, so that they will influence the way we act in our own lives. The second world war was a clear example of good versus evil. Anyone on the Allied side who demonstrated bravery and courage should be celebrated for safeguarding the security, liberty and prosperity that we enjoy today. In the case of Pegasus bridge, the hero is Major John Howard of the British paratroops.

Here is a quick re-cap of his exploits that day from the New York Times:

Maj. John Howard, the commander of glider-borne British infantrymen who seized the strategically vital Pegasus Bridge in the first battle of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, died Wednesday in a hospital in Surrey, England. He was 86 and had lived in Burford, near Oxford.

Under cover of night on June 6, 1944, six gliders carrying 181 officers and men of the Second Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed on the eastern flank of a 60-mile invasion front on the northern coast of France. The regiment had a heritage going back to the battles of Bunker Hill and New Orleans, to Waterloo and to World War I. Now its soldiers were in the vanguard of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe.

Major Howard’s D Company was ordered to seize two bridges, one over the Caen Canal and the other spanning the parallel Orne River. If the Germans held on to those bridges, panzer units could move across them in a counterattack isolating 10,000 British paratroopers jumping behind the British invasion beach known as Sword, where infantry forces would arrive at daybreak. And Major Howard’s men sought to strike swiftly to prevent the Germans from blowing up the bridges if they were overwhelmed; the British needed those bridges to resupply their airborne units.

British Halifax bombers towed the gliders over the English Channel, then cut them loose.

Major Howard’s lead glider landed at 12:16 A.M., only 50 yards from the Caen Canal bridge, but the glider’s nose collapsed on impact, knocking everybody aboard unconscious for a few seconds. The soldiers quickly emerged, and over the next five minutes the men directly under Major Howard killed the surprised German defenders.

The nearby Orne River bridge was captured by other troops in Major Howard’s unit, and soon the words ”Ham and Jam,” signifying mission accomplished, were radioed to the airborne.

Two British soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in the operation.

Over the next 12 hours, British paratroopers and commandos reinforced Major Howard’s men, and British forces were able to move toward the city of Caen, their flank having been protected by the capture of the bridges.

On July 16, Major Howard received the Distinguished Service Order, Britain’s second-highest award for valor. On the 10th anniversary of D-Day, he received the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme from the French Government, which had renamed the Caen Canal span Pegasus Bridge, for the flying horse symbolizing the British airborne. The road crossing the bridge was later renamed Esplanade Major John Howard.

Why is this important? Well, it’s important to think on the things that are excellent. There are so many things in the culture that are not excellent that we are confronted with every day. We have to make it our business to do things together where goodness is celebrated. Especially when manly virtues like courage are celebrated. We don’t do that much anymore. And I think there’s a connection between wargames and Christian apologetics that we need to deliberately encourage.

Here’s an excellent passage from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” that makes the point:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3.43)

This is from the famous speech in which King Henry charges his men to fight well before the famous Battle of Agincourt.

You can read more about the history of the British Airborne division and Pegasus bridge. The famous historian of the second world war Stephen E. Ambrose also wrote a history of the Pegasus bridge battle, called “Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944“. You won’t find many military historians better than Stephen E. Ambrose!

You might be surprised how many men are interested in military history and wargames, precisely because men instinctively look up to men like John Howard who embody qualities like bravery and courage. We have a dearth of moral character in this society. And we don’t do much to teach young men about manly virtues, even in the church. I think that it is important for us to think of creative ways for us to present good character to our young men. Young women should also learn about good character, because they must separate out the good men from the bad when they are courting.

Thanks to Dina for helping me to edit this post!

Filed under: Mentoring, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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