Vanguard of the Crusade
Contributor: Thomas Houlihan
Review Date: 14 Apr 2007
Full title: Vanguard of the Crusade: The 101st Airborne Division in World War II
This is an excellent work, telling the story of the "Screaming Eagles" from their origins at Fort Bragg, through the end of the war. The story is told in small segments, that make for quick reading. It is hard to put down.
Following the short chapter on the origins of the division is a chapter that discusses their time in England preparing for the invasion of Normandy. Much is to be learned in this section, such as location and types of billets, training, and even illicit 'grocery shopping,' poaching deer and hand-grenading trout in local streams. The evolution of the Pathfinders is also to be found here, as are the "Filthy Thirteen." This chapter also includes an interesting breakdown that will assist researchers. Each airfield and the Troop Carrier Groups that launched out of them is listed. Their serials are described, as are the individual Squadrons and their markings. The 101st units that they carried are also broken down here.
From here, the rest of the 52 chapters are virtually scenarios. Chapter 3 is just about the landings in Normandy, as they were supposed to be, and as they actually were. This is followed by St. Marcouf, Ravenoville, Foucarville, and St. Germain de Varreville. Smit's Pond in Haut Fornel, and Staff Sergeant Summers at Objective XYZ. The artillery battery near Brecourt Manor, made famous in "Band of Brothers" is illustrated as well. The final chapter relating to France is devoted to men who had been captured, including Joe Beyerle, the only American soldier who has more combat time with the Red Army!
In July 1944, the division returned to England. After receiving new men and new equipment, the men began training for their next mission. This was to be Operation Market Garden. Again, the tale is presented in small segments. The flight to the drop zones, and movement to the objectives. Fierce combat, and a bottle of milk from a local farmer. Valor and fear. Sacrifice and foolish mistakes. The men of the 101st faced determined opponents in Holland, and it is made clear in these paragraphs.
It was after a brief interlude at the rest camp in Mourmelon that the division was sent to the site of their most heroic defense, Bastogne. That the Germans caught the Allies unaware is made very evident here, as men are sent to the front line with no weapons, and improper clothing. The men found themselves taking weapons and even vehicles from other fleeing Americans, then thrown into the best positions they could find to defend the city. The reader will find that their experience in this area would test even the hardest of men, even without factoring in the combat.
Shortly after the events of Bastogne, the 101st was moved to an entirely different area, to counter a threat that is not well known. Right on the heels of Operation Wacht am Rhein, the Germans launched Operation Nordwind in the Vosges Mountain region of France. Known as the "Bitche Bulge," this area was not heavily defended. Again the 101st found itself shuttled into a defensive battle. While not as bad as Bastogne, the men still fought and died, holding back yet another offensive.
After a brief respite, the division was sent to Dusseldorf, to help hold the western side of the Ruhr Pocket. From here, they participated in the closing actions of the war. One company liberated the concentration camp at Landsberg. Soon after, they raced the French 2nd Armored Division to Berchtesgaden. There, they spent some time relaxing, touring Hitlerís retreat, and 'liberating' souvenirs.
The book closes out with appendices that cover airborne equipment, and the major opponents faced by the 101st.
This book is not well structured for an orderly review. The text is presented in short bursts, much like the real action. The strength of this book is not the story of the 101st, though it is well told. During the course of his research, Bando has had the opportunity to interview over 900 veterans of these campaigns. Throughout the book, he has managed to incorporate the stories and anecdotes of many of these men, in their own words.
The photographs are another very strong point. Most of the photos are from the author's collection. They show the men at play, at rest, and fighting for their lives. They show the enemy. They show the reality of death. They show brief images of what the division endured throughout the war.
I have had the privilege of visiting with the author, and have seen his collection of uniforms and equipment from both Americans and Germans. It is impressive, to say the least. I will state that though I am exercising as much objectivity as I can muster, I participated in the production of this book, having produced the maps. Even so, I can honestly recommend this book to anyone interested in the 101st, or airborne troops in general.
I would note that as of January 2007, this book is no longer currently in print.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939