It’s been 73 years since the Battle of the Bulge, the last significant engagement of opposing ground forces in Europe in World War II.
What is most remembered about this specific battle was General Anthony McAuliffe’s message to the German commander who had demanded the surrender of American troops defending the surrounded Belgian town of Bastogne. McAuliffe responded with “NUTS!”
According to Stephen E. Ambrose, author of “Band of Brothers,” the Battle of the Bulge was the biggest single battle on the Western front, involving 600,000 American soldiers. Of those, almost 20,000 were killed, another 20,000 were captured and 40,000 more were wounded.
One unit sent into the battle was Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. At full strength, Easy Company consisted of 140 men, no one older than thirty.
The unit formed in mid-1942, dropping behind Utah Beach as D-Day began, fighting in Normandy, and parachuting into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. The unit was resting, recovering and refitting close to Paris when word came that the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes Forest.
The Allies had two competitive advantages. The first, overwhelming air superiority, was negated by bad weather. The second was the caliber of the men under arms.
Those in Easy Company did not volunteer to become paratroopers for the extra $50 a month they got paid. They did so out of pride; they would be in combat and they wanted to be flanked by those they could depend on. They thought of themselves as the best and wanted to be recognized as such.
The initial training was so arduous that it took 500 volunteers to produce the 148 officers who started with the regiment and 5,300 enlisted men to get 1,800 qualified parachutists.
Heading into their fourth significant battle in less than six months, Easy Company was down to 98 men. They were short on ammunition, food, and medical supplies, and lacked winter gear or clothing. They confronted blizzard-like bitterly cold and some of the most battle-hardened troops in the German army.
That as many men had survived to this point and lived through the Battle of the Bulge was a credit to their commanding officer. Easy Company was led by Captain Dick Winters. He had been with the unit from the start. Promoted up through the ranks by virtue of his leadership skills, Winters’s men trusted him; they knew he would do his best to get them back home alive and uninjured.
What made Captain Winters different? The first thing that stands out was his attitude: “Leaders go first.” He didn’t mean going to the front of the chow line; he meant that leaders were to go into battle first, to show the way for their men. This was leading by example.
The second point of difference was Captain Winters’s tone. Winters knew what was essential and what wasn’t; he did not order his men to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. He treated his men with respect and dignity; looking out for their health and wellbeing, being extra alert to the extended time spent in combat. According to interviews of the men he commanded for the book, Captain Winters never once raised his voice as commander.
A third key point was that Captain Winters was a teacher. Prior to the jump in Normandy, almost none of the men had combat experience. As untested replacements arrived to replace the veterans that had been killed or wounded, Winters took what time he had to teach the new men what they needed to know to survive and to support one another in combat.
Why is this important? No matter what is going on in your company today, the need still exists for those who lead from the front, by example, with the right tone, teaching and showing people how to get things done just as it was back in those dark, cold days of December 1944.
Are you providing the leadership your organization needs?
Ken Keller is a syndicated business columnist focused on the leadership needs of small and midsize closely held companies. Contact him at [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of this media outlet.