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.

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Ronald Reagan’s 40th anniversary D-Day speech: the boys of Pointe du Hoc

June 6, 1944 D-Day Normandy Invasion Map

June 6, 1944 D-Day Normandy Invasion Map

It’s June 6th, today, and it’s the anniversary of D-Day: the Allied invasion of northern France – the beginning of the end of World War 2. One of the most pivotal events of that day was the assault on German gun emplacements by members of the Army Rangers at a fortified position called “Pointe du Hoc”.

President Ronald Reagan recognized the soldiers who attacked Pointe du Hoc back in 1984:

You can read the full transcript of that speech here.

Ronald Reagan also made the case for gratitude and vigilance:

Here’s the hymn that starts to play at the end:

The Boys of Pointe du Hoc

Here’s a summary of the Pointe du Hoc mission:

[Lt. Col. James Earl] Rudder took part in the D-Day landings as Commanding Officer of the United States Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion. His U.S. Army Rangers stormed the beach at Pointe du Hoc and, under constant enemy fire, scaled 100-foot (30 meter) cliffs to reach and destroy German gun batteries. The battalion’s casualty rate for this perilous mission was greater than 50 percent. Rudder himself was wounded twice during the course of the fighting. In spite of this, they dug in and fought off German counter-attacks for two days until relieved. He and his men helped to successfully establish a beachhead for the Allied forces.

You can watch a three-clip documentary on it, too: part 1, part 2, part 3.

You can read the complete story about their successful effort to destroy the 6 155mm German guns here on Military History Online. Although initially, the Rangers did not find the guns where they had expected them, they did find them further back behind the cliffs and destroyed them there, removing a threat to the forces that would be landing later.

What does D-Day mean to Christians in particular?

A female Christian friend asked me what she should be thinking about when I sent her one of the videos above, and so I wrote her this to explain why I sent her the video:

To make you close your eyes and think in a more practical way about what it means for someone to sacrifice their lives to save you, of course. What it means to look up cliffs at machine guns, barbed wire and mortars raining death on you and to take a rope in your hands and to climb up a sheer cliff, under heavy fire, in order to save generations yet unborn and freedom itself.

To think about a concrete example helps us to be able to appreciate what Christ did for us in giving his life for us so that we could be free of sin, as well.

This is the insight that drives my entire interest in war and military history, in fact.

What does this mean: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The more you know about D-Day, the more fearful what Jesus did appears, and the more you can be grateful.

Bullets and shrapnel are scary… and so are nails and lashes. Why on Earth would anyone endure either for me? And what should my response be to it?

I think it is helpful to explain Christianity to those who are not yet Christian, and for Christians to fully appreciate what Christianity is all about.

We were in peril. And now we have been saved. But at a cost.

I think that it’s important for Christians to look to history, art, poetry and music to help them to reflect and comprehend the sacrifice that Christ made for us in dying on the cross to protect us from peril. What must the cross have looked like to Jesus? It must have been something like what the Omaha beach looked like to the Americans landing in Normandy. Jesus saw whips, thorns and nails, and the heroes of Normandy saw 88 mm AT guns, 81 mm mortars and MG42 machine guns. How should you feel about people who face death on your behalf? Think about it.

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Friday night soldiers: two episodes of Combat!

Tonight we have two episodes of the hit TV show Combat! from the 1960s.

Episode 1: Finest Hour

Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:

IMDB mean rating: [9.1/10]

IMDB median rating: [9.5/10]

Description:

While on a scouting mission, Lt. Hanley, Caje, and another GI run into a German machine gun nest. Lt. Hanley is wounded. A local Frenchman takes them to the château of Count and Countess De Roy. The good news is the Countess had medical experience treating wounded in WW1; the bad news is the Chateau is occupied by the Germans. The Countess can treat the wounded Hanley, but it has to be done without the Germans knowing.

Episode 1 features more dialog and suspense.

Episode 2: The Leader

Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 3 of 3:

IMDB mean rating: [8.8/10]

IMDB median rating: [9/10]

Description:

Kirby, who is given command of the squad in Saunders’s absence, learns a lesson in leadership.

Episode 2 has more fighting and action.

Happy Friday!

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Friday night movie: The Dam Busters (1955)

Here’s tonight’s movie:

IMDB mean rating: [7.6/10]

IMDB median rating: [8/10]

Description:

The Dam Busters is a 1955 British Second World War war film starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd and directed by Michael Anderson. The film recreates the true story of Operation Chastise when in 1943 the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany with Wallis’s “bouncing bomb”. The film was based on the books The Dam Busters (1951) by Paul Brickhill and Enemy Coast Ahead (1946) by Guy Gibson.

The film falls into two parts. The first part involves Wallis struggling to develop a means of attacking Germany’s dams in the hope of crippling German heavy industry. Working for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, as well as doing his own job at Vickers, he works feverishly to make practical his theory of a bouncing bomb which would skip over the water to avoid protective torpedo nets. When it came into contact with the dam, it would sink before exploding, making it much more destructive.

WARNING: the Lancaster pilots have a dog for their mascot and the dog has a name that may be offensive to some viewers. (It’s the n-word). So, don’t watch the movie if you can’t handle that. But this is a World War 2 classic.

Map:

Ruhr dam raid map: click for larger image

Ruhr dam raid map: click for larger image

The Lancaster bomber:

AVRO Lancaster Heavy Bomber

AVRO Lancaster Heavy Bomber

AVRO Lancaster specifications:

General

  • Length: 69 ft. 5 in.
  • Wingspan: 102 ft.
  • Height: 19 ft. 7 in.
  • Wing Area: 1,300 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 36,828 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 63,000 lbs.
  • Crew: 7

Performance

  • 4 × Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V12 engines, 1,280 hp each
  • Range: 3,000 miles
  • Max Speed: 280 mph
  • Ceiling: 23,500 ft.

Armament

  • Guns: 8 × .30 in (7.7 mm) machine guns
  • Bombs: 14,000 lbs. depending on range, 1 x 22,000-lb. Grand Slam bomb

It’s one of my favorite war movies about the best-regarded heavy bomber of the war, on either side. (The B-17 is a close second)

Happy Friday!

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Friday night movie: Sink the Bismarck! (1960)

Here’s tonight’s movie:

IMDB mean rating: [7.4/10]

IMDB median rating: [7/10]

Description:

In 1939, the Nazi Germany’s largest and most powerful battleship, Bismarck, is launched in a ceremony at Hamburg with Adolf Hitler attending. The launching of the hull is seen as the beginning of an era of German sea power. Two years later, in 1941,British convoys are being ravaged by U-boats and surface raider attacks which cut off supplies which Britain needs to continue the war. In May, British intelligence discovers the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen are about to break into theNorth Atlantic to attack convoys.

The man assigned to coordinate the hunt is the Admiralty’s chief of operations, Captain Jonathan Shepard (Kenneth More), who has been distraught over the death of his wife in an air raid and the sinking of his ship by German ships commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens (Karel Štěpánek). Upon receiving his new post, Shepard discovers Lütjens is the fleet commander on the Bismarck. Shepard’s experience of conflict with the German Navy and his understanding of Lütjens allow him to predict theBismarck‘s movements. Shepard is aggressive to his staff but comes increasingly to rely on the coolness and skill of his assistant, WREN Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter).

Below are the combatants.

The German battleship Bismarck:

The Bismarck (click for larger image)

The Bismarck (click for larger image)

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal:

HMS Ark Royal (click for larger image)

HMS Ark Royal (click for larger image)

I had some fun on Thursday night watching military documentaries, which is one of my favorite things to do. In addition to watching a documentary about my beloved Challenger 2 tank and a clip on reactive armor, I found this documentary on battleship evolution from World War 1 to World War 2, and this documentary on the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck and this documentary on the German battleship Tirpitz. The documentary on battleship evolution even mentioned Army Air Service Brig. Gen.  Billy Mitchell, the air force pioneer who warned American military planners that battleships were being eclipsed by aircraft carriers. And he was right about that, though no one listened to him. No one, that is, except one Douglas MacArthur! If you watch nothing else, click through and read the story of Billy Mitchell and how he bravely spoke out in favor of air power, and took his lumps for it.

So why did battleships become extinct? Well, you can get a lot more range and striking power out of several squadrons of bombers and torpedo bombers than you can out of 16 or even 18 inch guns. In fact, you’ll see the torpedo bombers of the HMS Ark Royal face off against the Bismarck in the movie. Today, naval warfare is conducted with surface-to-surface missiles like the Tomahawk and the SS-N-27 Sizzler, etc. as well as air-to-surface missiles fired from land and carrier based strike aircraft. The range of these missiles is far greater than the range of the deck guns on any battleship. However, there is work being done on rail guns which may force a return to conventional deck guns, especially for operations like shore bombardments where you want to use cheaper munitions!

Happy Friday!

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