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D-Day from the Air
Historian Ian Gardner discusses his book, Airborne, and tells the story of Edward Shames – one of the Band of Brothers
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Thank you for your time Ian. As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, its great to have the chance to talk to you about your book, Airborne. Your book focuses on the story of Ed Shames, one of the Band of Brothers. Did it help to look at the history of D-Day through the perspective of one soldier's story?
Most who are interested in the history of WW2 understand the big picture and therefore during my career as a writer I have concentrated on events such as D-Day from the perspective of the soldiers themselves ... not the generals. I was a once a paratrooper which probably explains why. Ed's story was the perfect vehicle for a combat biography for several reasons. He was ambitious, clever and often put his own personal safety behind getting the job done. Either you liked Ed or you hated him ... and I have, as a people person, always found this deeply interesting. Set that against the background of war and I think it gives the reader a great insight into the workings of the American Paratroopers on D-Day and beyond.
Ed and his colleagues landed at Liverpool in 1943, before being based near the village of Ramsbury in the Kennet Valley. What was life like for American soldiers stationed in the UK?
When 3/506 assembled for their first parade at Camp Ramsbury on September 16th 1943 they had no idea what was in store for them. To the locals it seemed like they had come from another planet. Senior ranks like Ed Shames were given private rooms in the village, which in many cases had been previously used by the British. The process of integration did not take long and pretty soon many of the guys were dating local women, some of whom had husbands who were POWs in North Africa. For the troopers, food and money were usually in good supply but poaching was frowned upon and those who got caught faced heavy fines. When the guys got time off they partied hard in places like Swindon and Reading but London was always the goal! So I think outside of training the guys made their off duty hours as pleasurable as they could possibly afford. Many stayed in touch with host families for the rest of their lives and some like Ed came back many times over the years to see Tommy and Gwenn, the couple who treated him like one of the family.
What kind of training did Ed and other members of the 101st Airborne Division undertake to prepare for D-Day?
Training was constant and included a lot of fitness and ramped up during the spring of '44 with major parachute drops and excercises simulating the upcoming divisional tasks in France. This included capturing, holding and defending bridges and culminated in a full scale dress rehearsal a couple of weeks before D-Day. Each battalion was sent to its designated marshaling area, where everything, except the final target, was replicated for the real thing.
In Chapter 3 of your book, you discuss the Division's experiences in Exeter, ahead of D-Day. What would the weeks / days ahead of D-Day been like for the US troops?
Initially when the guys returned to Exeter a couple of weeks after their previous visit, everything was as they had left it ... and they still were not sure if this was the real thing or just another training excercise? Consequently most were quite relaxed during the first few days of "lock in." However, that sooned changed when the battalion objectives were revealed and suddenly everyone began to think about their own future, which to them was now closing in fast. Generally, everyone kept their thoughts to themselves but some manifested a kind of bravado that made their colleagues smile ... like one sergeant who told his platoon, 'never let yourself be taken alive'! Of course he was one of the first to be captured. Generally it was a matter of attending lectures and briefings at squad, platoon and company level, checking, re-checking and checking again all personal equipment and weapons.
What was the role of the US Paratroopers who flew into France ahead of the naval assault?
The primary role of the 101st Airborne Division was to protect the left hand flank of the seaborne invasion by securing designated exits along Utah Beach, capture and hold vital bridges and road junctions, destroy artillery batteries and to disrupt and prevent enemy from staging a counter attack.
Did researching and writing the book change your understanding of D-Day?
D-Day was made up of thousands of small skirmishes, some ended well like the random ambush of the German Commander Wilhelm Falley, whose 91st Luftlande Division controlled the defence of the Normandy Peninsula. His death on June 6th undoubtedly influenced and changed the outcome of the battle. My research also showed that individual decisions made by Ed and some of his closest colleagues had consequences both positive and negative. That skills and drills are everything. Unlike the Germans our airborne troops could operate without an officer and even the lowest rank had great map reading skills. June 6th was a day of confusion for both sides but our paratroopers had the upper hand and fully understood what needed to be done.
What happened to Ed after D-Day?
Because of his actions and quick thinking during the battle to defend Carentan on June 13 (which was also Ed's 22nd birthday) he became the first enlisted man from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment to receive a Battlefield Commission. Following the Regiment's return to the UK Shames, now a Second Lieutenant, was posted to 2nd Bn as assistant intelligence officer (S2) to Captain Lewis Nixon. Ed hated the post and asked the commander of the 506th, Bob Sink, if he could be re-assigned. Sink was not best pleased with Ed's unorthodox request but as he was the one who had promoted Ed in the first place, he agreed and sent Ed to assist his Regimental Operations Officer (S3) Major Clarence Hester. At the beginning of Market Garden in September, Shames was posted back to 2nd Bn where he joined the legendary Ron Speirs who was then head of the battalion operations department. Shortly after the drop, Eddie was handed a new role by Sink as liason officer to the local Dutch Resistance and bravely worked behind enemy lines for several weeks with their leader John van Kooijk. Scroll forward to October 1944, due to the high casualty figures, Shames was posted to E Co and spent the last year of the war running their 3rd Platoon alongside the likes of Shifty Powers, Earl McClung and Skinny Sisk who all became household names due to the incredible success of Band of Brothers.
Your book tells the amazing story of one particular US soldier. As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, what would your advice be to others who want to protect the memory of all those stories of soldiers who fought for freedom in WW2?
I would say do it for the right reasons and always question what you are told either by the old boys themselves or anyone else for that matter. Allow yourself to remain neutral in everything you do ... and do not get used as a weapon by that individual to give word space to any personal vendettas or rhetoric ... which could have easily been the case with Airborne. Make sure you understand the subject inside and out...and then and only then - you might be able to do a half decent job ... but time is running out for the men who fought in WW2 and my books are sadly going to be the very last of their kind ... but time will not wait so do it NOW.
Airborne, by Ian Gardner, is the combat story of Edward Shames, a member of the legendary Band of Brothers who was involved in some of the most important battles of World War II, including D-Day and Operation Market Garden. The book was published by Osprey Publishing.
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