Major Dick Winters would have been just another decorated Second World War veteran had the historian Stephen Ambrose not met him at a reunion in 1988. Ambrose recounted the exploits of Winters and his men in the 1992 bestseller Band Of Brothers, which became a successful television mini-series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with the British actor Damian Lewis starring as Winters. He discounted his own heroism as being typical rather than unusual, but as commander of a company, and later a battalion, of paratroopers in the American 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles, Winters and his men were key players in some of the most crucial and heavily mythologised battles of the war: D-Day, Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. Each time, Winters led from the front while making crucial tactical decisions that achieved their objectives against sometimes overwhelming odds. And when fighting ended in Europe they had just captured Berchtesgarden, Hitler's mountain retreat.
Winters' progress to the command of E (or Easy) Company of the 2nd battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was anything but direct. Richard Winters grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in a strict Lutheran family, and graduated with a degree in business from the local Franklin and Marshall College. Two months later, in August 1941, he enlisted in the army, hoping to serve only the one year required of volunteers. This turned out to be an optimistic miscalculation.
His leadership ability was spotted during basic training, and he remained at Camp Croft to instruct draftees. This led to officer candidate school at Fort Benning, where he met Lewis Nixon (played in Band Of Brothers by Ron Livingston) who became his closest friend and the battalion's intelligence officer. After commissioning as a second lieutenant, he volunteered for the parachute infantry and was assigned to Easy Company, commanded by Lt Herbert Sobel, who supervised a demanding winnowing process designed to fail some two-thirds of the volunteers.
After the 506 was attached to the 101st division and assigned to Aldbourne, in Wiltshire, tension between Sobel and Winters, his second-in-command, erupted into scenes which were among the most dramatic in the Band of Brothers adaptation. Sobel (played by David Schwimmer) was a tough training officer but lacked field command skills, and the company looked to Winters as their leader. Sobel brought Winters up on charges of disobedience, but when Winters demanded a court martial, their battalion commander set them aside. Sobel brought more charges the next day. The platoon's non-commissioned officers sided formally with Winters. Eventually Sobel was transferred back to training, and Winters returned to his platoon under a new company commander.
On D-Day, the new commander's plane was shot down before reaching the parachute drop, while Winters was separated from the company, landing at Ste-Mère-Eglise with only a few men. Gathering more lost soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, he reached their assigned objective. The next day he was shot in the leg as he took, with only 13 men, a heavily defended battery of howitzers protecting the causeways that were the prime exits from Utah Beach; the Brecourt Manor Assault is still taught as a textbook example of taking a fixed position. He was promoted to captain and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America's second-highest decoration; the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded on a quota system, and the 101st's quota had already been filled.
Now commander of Easy Company, Winters again distinguished himself during Market Garden, Montgomery's famed "bridge too far". As the 101st took four bridges around Nijmegen, Winters discovered a German position overlooking a key crossroads dyke. With one platoon he led an assault which took a position defended by more than 300 Germans, and lost only one of his 35 men.
Soon afterwards he became battalion executive officer. After the defence of Bastogne, which the 101st held against some 15 German divisions, and the taking of the town of Foy, Winters was promoted to major and given command of the battalion. On 5 May 1945, meeting little resistance, they captured Berchtesgarden; Nixon led the officers in taking his choice of Goering's wine cellar. Three days later VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe. Winters declined a permanent commission, but stayed in Europe until November.
He became general manager of Nixon's family business, a nitration works in Edison, New Jersey. In 1951, and married to his wife Ethel, he was recalled to duty for the Korean War. He made a personal request to General Anthony McAuliffe – who as commander of the 101st at Bastogne had famously answered the German demand for surrender with "nuts to you" – to keep him out of combat, saying he had seen enough of war. Assigned to training, he was so disappointed in his recruits he volunteered for Ranger school. But while on assignment to Korea he was offered the chance to resign, and did.
Over the next 20 years Winters managed a New Jersey adhesive factory. In 1972 he moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania, starting a business selling animal feed. He retired in 1997. After the celebrity brought by the television show he was the subject of a biography, The Biggest Brother (2005), by Larry Alexander, and wrote his own memoir, Beyond Band Of Brothers (2006), with the military historian Colonel Cole Kingseed. His new fame led to a campaign to award him the Medal Of Honor, but Winters took no part, remaining modest about his achievements. In Band Of Brothers, he recounts a story attributed to a friend that could apply just as easily to him. A grandson asks if his grandad was a hero during the war, and the grandfather answers, "No, but I served in a company of heroes."
Richard Winters, soldier and businessman: born Ephrata, Pennsylvania 21 January 1918; married Ethel (one son, one daughter); died Campbelltown, Pennsylvania 2 January 2011.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies