“Churchill’s Band of Brothers: WWII’s Most Daring D-Day Mission and the Hunt to Take Down Hitler’s Fugitive War Criminals” by Damien Lewis, Citadel Press, 410 pages, $27.
True tales of the heroism and atrocities encountered in World War II have a lingering fascination for individuals like this reviewer who were born during that conflict. Books examining the motivations and personalities of a small group of soldiers engaged in a dangerous wartime mission inevitably attract readers who believe history does shape human behavior.
Stephan Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers” and Hampton Sides' “Ghost Soldiers” are examples of this genre. Ambrose follows a company of the 101st Airborne through Europe, and Sides relates a rescue mission behind Japanese lines in the Philippines. “Churchill’s Band of Brothers” by Damien Lewis presents a similar format from the viewpoint of one of the United States’ allies.
Lewis, a military historian and author of a dozen World War II books who resides in London, uses diaries, memoirs and unpublished files from his National Archives to chronicle the secret exploits of the British Special Air Service. These specially trained troops carried out clandestine missions against the Axis enemy forces. Winston Churchill had purposely formed the SAS to initiate a “reign of terror” behind enemy lines.
The book follows a 12-man unit parachuted into occupied France through a successful sabotage mission and into a disastrous failure resulting in the capture of most of the men. Utilizing both available war records and memories of surviving relatives, Lewis humanizes each man and enables readers to recognize the strengths and foibles of each member of the team.
As the harrowing details of the capture, imprisonment and torture by the SS and Gestapo are revealed, even the peculiarities of the German captors become familiar, thereby making the ultimate fates of the captives more horrific.
After the war officially ended, the SAS, with the covert approval of Churchill, was responsible for the search and of arrest of perpetrators of war crimes upon the ill-fated unit while avoiding detection by their erstwhile Russian and American allies. By the book’s end most of the old scores have been settled, and the post-war fates of the survivors are also documented.
In summary, any reader desiring a fresh, non-American perspective of World War II should enjoy this reminder that courage and valor were not limited to our own armed forces.
J. Kemper Campbell, M.D., is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who continues to honor the passing of his parents’ generation.