In 2019, archaeologists and military veteran volunteers from Operation Nightingale excavated part of the hut camp of ‘Easy Company’ – the famous D-Day paratroopers better known as the ‘Band of Brothers’ – in Aldbourne, Wiltshire (see CA 354). The remains we uncovered were illuminating, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted investigations – until last year, when the team returned to search for further traces of this legendary American unit.
In our wildest dreams, we didn’t think there was much chance of equalling the finds made in the previous excavation – after all, if you are looking for paratroopers, it is difficult to beat the discovery of an emergency parachute handle and part of a parachute itself – but our field strategy was broadly the same as the one developed in 2019: to use geophysical survey to pinpoint possible hut locations, and to examine what survived of structures used by members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne – both from ‘Easy’ and, we think, ‘Fox’ Companies. These investigations were augmented by a splendid set of contemporary aerial photographs that vividly illustrated the bustling and cramped nature of the site in the 1940s – a situation far removed from the open football pitch that stands over it today. Our main aim was to discover more about the camp’s American inhabitants, but we also hoped to see if structures differed across the site, whether we could locate traces of the British soldiers who had been based here before the US troops arrived, and to search for signs of the villagers who had returned post-war.
All the work was to be done by hand (apart from back-filling, which was taken on – thank goodness! – by a local farmer with his tractor), so we marked out a carefully targeted excavation area to de-turf. We thought this would be directly over the location of a hut used by the ‘other ranks’ (ORs; personnel who are not commissioned officers) of ‘Easy’ Company, towards one of the modern goalposts. Along the football pitch’s halfway line, we set up a grid for both ground-penetrating radar and metal-detecting survey, which we intended to explore further with test-pits, should the results be promising.
It was not only long-buried objects that we hoped to recover, however. One of the most exciting parts of this project has been the link to people’s memories, to local stories, and to sepia-toned photographs of past lives. In 2022, we were searching for a structure that had provided the backdrop for some of the playful pictures taken by soldiers in 1944, men who had survived D-Day but are no longer around to tell their tales. These photos would not look out of place on modern social media platforms, with paratroopers making humorous use of perspective or larking around on bicycles – and yet they were taken by and of some of the more famous soldiers of the war, including Sergeant Forrest Guth, one of the original members of ‘Easy’ Company.
British troops and civilians
As soon as we removed the turf from our chosen location, we started to see the distinctive concrete post-pad foundations of a Nissen hut, much as we had in 2019. These small squares each held an iron bar on to which the curved corrugated iron sheets of the buildings would have been fixed. Good for structural integrity; splendid for geophysical signal. Unlike during previous work, though, we did find a large sheet of corrugated iron: it had been pushed towards the building’s back door, presumably when the land was levelled post-war. Originally, there would have been 16 post-pads, but this same levelling meant that we were left with only 11: the south-east corner of the building was missing. We did, however, find a series of linked ceramic drainage pipes, which hinted at some of the hut’s other structural elements, as well as traces of its tar-paper waterproofing course, which connected the surviving concrete squares in a darker rectangle within the chalky soil.
Army hut buildings are generally pretty ephemeral, with very shallow foundations and flimsy superstructure. Nevertheless, in addition to the post-pads, we uncovered many elements of the building within the rectangular area demarcated by these concrete items. There were roof nails aplenty, with curved rectangular metal washers – perfect for the corrugations of the sheets of the hut walls – still adhering. Shards of window glass with metallic reinforcement filaments were excavated too, along with a metal latch handle. In the place where the front door would have stood, the team found a door latch, the escutcheon for the keyhole, and even a key – though, sadly, these last two finds did not fit together.
Some of our discoveries hinted at the hut’s original occupants: a British military button and a pull-through (part of a rifle cleaning kit), as well as a badge belonging to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British Army in the Second World War. What this was doing here is open to the imagination. We found elements of a British shaving kit, too, including a ‘Shavex’ shaving-cream tube and the remains of a shaving brush. Writing on the latter proudly declared that it was ‘free from Anthrax’ – which was a relief. A British ‘General Service’ button provided further evidence of a military presence before the arrival of the Americans although, sadly, other than the ATS badge there was no insignia of a specific unit. Nevertheless, these artefacts (along with some .303 rounds and a charger found by the metal-detectorists) ensured we had met one component of our research design.
Our hopes of revealing evidence of post-war civilian use for the huts were also realised. The structures had been inhabited by so-called ‘squatters’: people whose homes had been bombed, and who were allocated these buildings prior to being given council housing. Archaeological echoes of these individuals included parts of a mirror, a toothbrush, knives, a spoon, and marbles. This latter find hinted at the presence of children, who are often absent or overlooked in the archaeological record. Rather charmingly, we uncovered a small lead pig as well, which had, presumably, originated as part of a toy farm or similar.
Enter the Americans
While excavation was progressing on one side of the pitch, how was the survey component of our project coming along? To help us in our work, we had a sketch map produced by one of the veterans of ‘Easy’ Company, which suggested that this was the location for the lines of ‘Fox’ Company’s huts. These structures stood out clearly on the aerial photographs too, but the flat nature of the present pitch yielded no surface clues. Dave Sabin of Archaeological Surveys had picked up some good readings with his towed-array magnetometer, though, so he decided to use this part of the site to explore the efficacy of the ground-penetrating radar (GPR). Sure enough, on the edge of the row on the halfway line, one building proved to have an exceptionally good signal, perhaps indicating the survival in situ of concrete flooring, and we aim to verify this in 2023. An American account of these structures hints that, if the preservation is good, such fieldwork might be quite a colourful experience.
As Bill Brown and Terry Poyser write in Fighting Fox Company: the battling flank of the Band of Brothers (see ‘Further information’ on p.45), ‘Located on a swampy skirt of town, the Nissen huts were concrete slab-floored shelters with roofs and walls made of an overlapping half circle of corrugated steel. There were doors on each end, as well as a pair of windows. To the untrained eye, it looked identical to the American version, the Quonset hut. Sixteen men shared a hut, which contained eight wooden double bunk beds and a small stove.’
Accounts also indicate that these could be quite garish, as the authors (both veterans of the Second World War, albeit US Navy) note: ‘Hut interiors were painted in the limited four color [sic] choices available… the Second Platoon’s interior was as red as a whorehouse, and the Third Platoon’s preference was dark blue walls with a sky-blue ceiling. Battling cold weather and rainy days, Gus Patruno led a group in laying bricks in front of the huts and building walkways to keep their boots and the troops from the soggy ground. Cabinet-style radios were privately purchased in nearby Swindon for the barracks, and a few pinup pictures were put up.’
Having pinpointed where we thought the southerly huts were, and after positioning our metal-detecting grid accordingly, the detectorists in the team (almost all of them military veterans) were tasked with examining each grid square to establish the distribution of material, as well as any in situ building-fittings. Could they find anything linked to ‘Fox’ Company, or indeed the Anglo/American units that had been present on either side of 1944, followed by ‘squatters’? Almost immediately, the detectorists found some big metal spikes, very similar to those used as tie-downs for the huts in Trench 1. When we opened small trenches around these readings, however, it soon became apparent that the metal ties were fixed into brick footings that looked very sturdy and were altogether different to the huts on the other side of the field, much as the veteran with the sketch map had described.
These huts yielded evidence of a demonstrable American presence: in contrast to the British button found at the other end of the field, here we recovered a large greatcoat button marked with the American eagle. There was also a 1¢ coin, and all manner of buckles and harness fittings that were part of US equipment webbing during the Second World War, as well as spoons from American mess kits, a large number of Garand rifle rounds and clips from the main infantry weapon of the age, and even the tops of two smoke grenades. These objects all reflected the troops’ training, but we also know that they were avid socialisers – so much so that the floor of the local dance hall was worn out, and the Americans paid for a new one post-war. Perhaps reflecting their interactions with Aldbourne’s more permanent residents, we had found a woman’s stocking in the hut that we dug in 2019. There will have been more relaxed moments in the huts as well, though – the reed of a harmonica evoked images of troops enjoying their downtime, and we found an unused bus token (valid for one journey) for a company in Atlanta, Georgia. Given that the main training base for the 101st Airborne was at Toccoa in Georgia, it seems likely that this last object was simply something that a paratrooper had brought with him, unable to use it before dropping into the European maelstrom.
Although we had not yet found an object to rival the parachute pull recovered in 2019, at this point in the project we were satisfied that our results stood up to those from the previous dig. Little did we know that things were about to take a dramatic turn, with the emergence of objects that screamed of D-Day itself and its participants. The first of these was an item that was familiar to most of our team, even if its condition initially concealed its appearance. If you have ever watched the film The Longest Day, or indeed the relevant D-Day episode of the TV series Band of Brothers, then you are probably aware that American paratroopers were issued an item called a ‘cricket’ – a clicking children’s toy – to distinguish friend from foe. For those in the know, one click was to be answered with two. Many such toys were made by Acme, but they were only issued in a military context during the D-Day landings – even by the time of ‘Easy’ Company’s second action at Arnhem, they were no longer in use. Imagine our delight, then, when Adrian – one of our veteran volunteers – found a clicker in the area supposedly used by ‘Fox’ Company. It was immediately identified by Jack, another veteran and a ‘Band of Brothers’ fanatic, and pretty much all work stopped across the site as everyone flocked to see this wonderful find.
Not long after this development, there was much whooping and shouting as Paul – formerly of The Rifles – called us over to inspect another military find: a dog tag. These small, unprepossessing plates of metal represent a tangible link directly to a specific person – almost the best thing you can get in archaeology. This tag was the ID of a Catholic soldier called Richard Blake, who had his service number, religion, and inoculation history stamped on to it. Richard had been 21 years old on D-Day, and was one of the men who parachuted in on the morning of 6 June 1944 with another part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment: ‘Able’ Company. He jumped at Arnhem, too, during Operation Market Garden, where he received a hand wound that meant that his war was over.
Incredibly, not long after this, another member of the team – Cassie – shouted that she too had found a tag. It almost looked in too good condition to be true, and yet it was the real deal. This example had belonged to a Protestant soldier called Carl Fenstermaker. It had been bent and discarded – possibly because the inoculation data was out of date, or because Carl’s middle initial had been given incorrectly – and on-site research swiftly revealed Carl’s identity. He was one of the fabled ‘Band of Brothers’ from ‘Easy’ Company itself. More than that, he was one of their two pathfinders, jumping into action before everyone else in order to mark out the drop zones.
Carl had taken part in D-Day, but his Dakota aircraft was shot down and he landed in the sea, coming ashore with the infantry instead. He also took part in Operation Market Garden, and then became the leading combat jumper of ‘Easy’ Company with a third mission into Bastogne when the 101st Airborne had been surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Only 20 paratroopers made this third jump. Although he is not depicted in the Band of Brothers television series, Carl is one of the men discussed in the original Stephen Ambrose book on which the programmes were based – and we felt we were adding a brother to the band with this discovery, helping to tell Carl’s story and keep his memory alive.
In another link to the site, Carl was a great friend of Rod Strohl and Forrest Guth – the man photographed in front of the hut that we had excavated at the top of the field – because they had worked in the same shipyard and signed up together. He also knew ‘Wild’ Bill Guarnere and the leader of the Company, Dick Winters, as they were all Pennsylvanians. To have a small artefact in our finds tray that linked to D-Day, the Americans, ‘Easy’ Company itself, and to the lives of these soldiers in Wiltshire and beyond really did send shivers down the spine. In many ways, the dog tag is one of the most powerful items that we have excavated in any Operation Nightingale project, as it holds many memories similar to those of our participants who are former service personnel.
After his combat missions, Carl – who spoke German – acted as a translator for Ed Shames, one of the officers of ‘Easy’ Company, when they were part of the group that first encountered the horrors of Dachau concentration camp. As Ian Gardner records in Airborne: the combat story of Ed Shames of Easy Company (see ‘Further information’), Shames later wrote: ‘The stench and horror of that place will stay with me for as long as I live. I met up with [Carl] Fenstermaker, and Gutty [Forrest Guth] in Fogelsville at Rod Strohl’s house in December 1947, which was a sort of mini-reunion with our wives. During those two days, Carl and I tried to discuss our experience, but in the end agreed that what we did and saw at Dachau could never be properly told, as it was much too horrible for anyone to comprehend.’ Carl survived the war, but died in 1988, aged just 65. As his friend Forrest Guth recalled, Carl was deeply affected by the war and bore emotional scars – ‘he couldn’t hold down a job’, he notes in Larry Alexander’s In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers. Many Operation Nightingale volunteers have survived physical or mental injuries from their military service and, to me, Carl’s dog tag epitomises what we are trying to achieve by involving these individuals in archaeological fieldwork.
I want to end with a memory from the project’s open day, when we were joined by a special visitor. One of the locals who had lived through the war was Colin Shaw-Stewart, and as a child he had owned a toy monkey called ‘Switzy’. The American troops had clearly been much taken with this small English boy, giving him a couple of badges: an ‘Airborne’ and a ‘Screaming Eagle’ patch of the 101st – which were proudly added to Switzy’s little knitted jacket. Both Colin and Switzy came to our site in 2022, and in the latter’s jacket pocket there now also lives a newspaper obituary to Dick Winters, ‘Easy’ Company’s Commanding Officer, who died in 2011. Archaeology is about people, memories, and stories, and our special guests encapsulated, I think, the importance of this project and of the remembrance of those people of the wartime years.
Richard Osgood discusses the finds at the Aldbourne camp in more detail on an episode of The PastCast. Listen here.
All Images: Harvey Mills Photography, unless otherwise stated
Further information To read more about the excavations at Aldbourne, see www.breakingground heritage.org.uk/about-1/digging-band-of-brothers.html. L Alexander (2010) In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers (London: Penguin). B Brown and T Poyser (2019) Fighting Fox Company: the battling flank of the Band of Brothers (Oxford: Casemate). I Gardner (2015) Airborne: the combat story of Ed Shames of Easy Company (Oxford: Osprey).