On Saturday 28th June at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Damian Lewis discussed his experiences of being a part of the critically acclaimed HBO WW2 mini-series Band of Brothers.
All ten episodes of the series were shot in England on a highly adaptable set. Huge dykes and earth works were constructed, as well as a whole town which could quickly be transformed to make it look as if you were in France the one minute, then in Holland in the next.
Damian Lewis was cast the role of playing future US millionaire and chicken farmer, Lt. Richard D. Winters in the series. And, as part of the process of preparing himself for this and to try and get a better understanding of the man he would be portraying, he was flown out to America and stayed with Richard ‘Dick’ Winters on his farm in Hershel, Pennsylvania where the two men forged a lasting friendship.
Watch the Band of Brothers official trailer
Not only were the actors immersed in various writings about this period, including Lewis having access to Winter’s own personnel diaries, Damian along with the rest of the cast, were put through 2 weeks of basic training.
Lewis recalled how it was a difficult process of trying to get out of Winters exactly how he felt going through the war, most of his recollections were ‘practical, methodical memories of operational detail.’ Which summed up a lot about the man Lewis would be playing. Both humble and confident in his own ability, it was crystal clear that Winter was a leader of men.
He was the ‘complete soldier,’ Lewis commented. Winter clearly had the gift of leadership and he tried to convey this in his portrayal. He was revered amongst his men who looked up to him and never questioned his famous catch phrase ‘follow me.’ They could see he was a man that would get the job done and get them out alive, as he was able to make quick and 99% of the time the correct decisions, under very difficult circumstances.
Like many of these young men, Winters had joined the US paratroopers because he wanted to be the best soldier he could be. Lewis joked, obviously the extra $50 a month jump payment helped, but for most of them it was pride at being apart of an elite unit. And their unique dress was a status symbol, with the jump boots and being able to tuck their trousers into these.
For many it was the 1st time they had been in a plane and here they were having to jump out of it. Lewis recounted a brilliant story of one veteran after the war who had been flying with his family on holiday, and this was the first time he had ever landed in a plane which he said scared him more than jumping out of it at 2000 ft.
Winters was 25 – 26 years old when he jumped on the 6th June. The not knowing of what awaited them understandably caused a lot of trepidation and nervousness among the men. And the reality was that the operation did not go 100% to plan. Initially delayed due to fog over the Channel, the pilots, many of whom were flying into enemy flak for the very first time were faced with a difficult decision. Hitting a huge cloud bank, both wings of the air armada split up, losing any visual contact. Many also cracked the engines to speed up as well as changed their altitudes to avoid the flak, so the reality was that many men were jumping at much lower heights (500 ft and below) and higher speeds (150 mph) than they were meant to be.
Lewis gave the example of Winter’s best friend, who jumped at just 230 feet with over 80 lbs of additional kit, some men were even carrying up to 150 lbs. The only thing that saved his life was the plane below him getting hit and the blast from this blew him back across the sky, giving him another 50-60 feet. This was the harsh reality of what was happening.
There was also the issue that now men were being scattered all over Normandy, in some cases miles from their drop zones, many of which were weaponless and alone. Some even curled up and feel asleep because of the air sickness pills that General Taylor had given them.
The glue for any army is the three man relationship, you, the man on your left and the man on the right, and that is what you fight for. Band of Brothers is a brilliant portrayal of this vicious reality.
Very quickly the series was taken up by the military, with Lewis reveling that the far reaching and much loved series was used by both the British and US Armies at Sandhurst and Westpoint as part of officer training. The assault by Lt Winters and Easy Company to take the 4, 105 mm guns shelling Omaha is used as a brilliant example of how a smaller unit could succeed in taking its objectives against a much larger well entrenched defensive force.
What these men achieved on D-Day in the chaos of war should never be under-estimated.
WW2 historian, author and organiser of CVHF, James Holland asked a rather intriguing question, one that many of us have probably longed to know the answer to, of whether we could potentially see a British version of Band of Brothers in the future and whether Damian would be interested in playing a role in that. The actors response was a resounding ‘Yes & Yes.’ Keep your eyes and ears open, there could potentially be something in the works, so watch this space ladies and gentlemen.
Both the Chalke Valley History Festival and Damian Lewis must be commended for this talk, it really was one of the highlights of the day. Fascinating and insightful, Lewis brilliantly portrayed what it was like to be a part of Band of Brothers as well as the bitter realities of those men who actually went through those fateful events that helped change the course of the Second World War.
For anyone interested, you can check out the photos from the rest of the day by clicking here.