‘Easy Company’, the American paratroopers also known as the ‘Band of Brothers’, is one of the best-known Allied units involved in the D-Day landings. Less well known is the fact that they trained for the campaign in Wiltshire. Richard Osgood describes a recent excavation of their camp.
Aldbourne resident Nancy Barrett is quoted in Larry Alexander’s In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers:
I can see it in my mind as plain as day. I can see the huts, the jeeps, the uniforms, the soldiers eating lardy cakes. I can see Dick Winters walking down the Butts toward the field in his dress uniform, brasses shining, and the face of the young GIs knocking on my door and asking if I could wash their pants. The men that left Aldbourne… to lay down their lives were my neighbors [sic]… I can’t imagine how any of those men ever came back alive. Just what they went through and how they survived is quite unbelievable…
Thanks to a plethora of publications on the subject, as well as a 2001 TV series, the young men to whom Nancy refers are perhaps the most famous Allied military unit involved in D-Day. ‘Easy Company’, of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, US Army, were the so-called ‘Band of Brothers’ who parachuted into Normandy in the early hours of 6 June with the objective of securing locations and destroying enemy positions that might hinder the landings, particularly at Utah Beach.
Their exploits became legendary, fighting through Normandy, in the Netherlands, and at the Battles of Arnhem and Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge), before finally ending at Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ in Berchtesgaden. But what is less well known is the presence of these paratroopers, also known as the ‘Screaming Eagles’, in Wiltshire, both before and after the landings in Europe. This summer, Operation Nightingale set out to see what traces survived in this rural corner of England.
AMERICANS IN ALDBOURNE
The American soldiers who were involved in D-Day did much of their final preparation for the campaign on the UK military estate. Like numerous other troops from around the globe, many of them were based in Wiltshire due to the proximity of the Salisbury Plain training area. (This was also the case during the First World War – see, for example, CA 343 for more on the archaeological legacy of Anzac troops on the Plain.) We can still see their traces today, from carvings etched into trees by GIs and fired rifle-cases of American manufacture to the occasional find of sun-cream tins and other bottles.
As for the 101st Airborne, they carried out their exercises near training features to the east of the Plain, marching to and from their camp in the idyllic Wiltshire village of Aldbourne. It was this camp that formed the focus of our recent investigation. Operation Nightingale, an MoD programme that uses archaeological fieldwork to aid the recovery of wounded military personnel, has enjoyed great success in excavating former military sites in the past, as they have a particular resonance for the participants: an expression of kinship, of shared experience and knowledge. But where should we start our search for Easy Company?
From 1943, they were based in several locations in Aldbourne – in stable blocks or local homes around the village green and church (a setting so picturesque that one of the unit, David Webster, ‘thought I’d passed out on a Hollywood movie set’) through to the Quonset huts corralled around the local football pitch. Our target, though, was one specific hut within the area of this latter sports field. It had been used by the Sergeants of the Band of Brothers – some of the most celebrated and decorated individuals of D-Day – and, unlike in some more traditional archaeological excavations, here we had a wealth of historical sources to guide our search, including a photograph of some of these soldiers, fronted by Sergeant Carwood Lipton, standing on parade outside the very building we were looking for. What would our hunt reveal?
With no surface undulations visible in the sports field to hint at the hut’s location, our project began with a visit to the Historic Environment Record in Chippenham, and an examination of air photography at the Historic England Archives (conveniently located around ten miles away in Swindon). Based on this information, the next step was to carry out a geophysical survey that would hopefully show whether any elements of the structure still survived below the surface – work that took place against a background of some trepidation, as the site had been dismantled in the 1950s, accompanied by a certain amount of levelling of the area. Yet these fears soon proved to be unfounded – indeed, the results that Dave Sabin of Archaeological Surveys produced were astonishing. They not only revealed elements of the football ground and cables for its lighting system, but the footings of a number of huts could also clearly be discerned – the old haunts of Easy Company. We were in the perfect position to start excavation, and for the following week our team of archaeologists and veterans busied themselves exploring these remains.
Given that much of the site had been demolished shortly after the war, a surprisingly large amount remained to be uncovered – allowing us to test our research design to the full. Our first target was an intriguing linear anomaly that had stood out on the geophysical survey, located just outside the line of ‘huts’. When we opened a small trench over it, we found traces of one of the many paths that would once have connected all the elements of the camp, although it was now reduced to a base layer of iron slag on which, we presume, concrete slabs had once been laid.
Similar foundations were present in the area of the hut we were examining, built with slag and a small amount of sharp sand, and as investigations continued, other components of the footings of this Quonset hut soon became apparent too. These were square pads of concrete with iron reinforcement, over which the hut’s superstructure – made from curved sheets of corrugated iron – sat. Bitumen sheets of the damp-proofing course adhered to the pads and some bricks, with the occasional maker’s stamp, were also still in situ. Bit by bit, we were able to piece the barracks back together in our imaginations, as the site yielded copious quantities of corrugated iron and roofing nails (often with the retaining plates used to hold the sheets of iron in place still attached), and a range of brackets, nuts, bolts, screws, and hinges, as well as a fair amount of safety-window glass.
In his book Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose discusses the unit’s arrival in Aldbourne on 16 September 1943: ‘They got to their barracks, which were Nissen huts heated by twin pot-bellied stoves, were given mattress covers and shown the straw they could stuff into them, along with heavy wool blankets that itched, and went to bed.’ We did not find any evidence for such stoves in the structure we were investigating, but our discoveries did enable us to discern its method of construction and its final shape, beyond that provided on the wartime photos.
What were these buildings like to live in? Although some of the American veterans who had been based in the stables around the village green claimed that these were some of the best billets they had had in the war, their comrades in the huts of Camp Aldbourne were not always quite so complimentary about their accommodation. Larry Alexander provides a damning verdict from a soldier called Williams from Headquarters Company:
A gloomy light was shining through an open door of a Quonset hut. We entered and found wooden double-deck bunks lined down both sides. The hut was of corrugated iron construction and not insulated… I got into bed, dog-tired, and could not stop shivering. The cold air came up through the mattress and it was impossible to sleep. I found some old newspapers and put them under the mattress, which made things marginally better. Awake at 0600 the next morning, we headed for the mess hall. I got my first view of the camp and I was not impressed. Shaving in cold water and sitting on a stinking honey-bucket in the latrines on a cold September day was not my idea of fun. This was, however, to be our home for the next year, so we simply got on and made the best of it.