Badass paratrooper or war criminal?

Ronald „Sparky” Speirs

Speirs in one of the most iconic scenes in Band of Brothers (Photo: HBO)

Lieutenant Colonel Ronald „Sparky” Speirs was one of the most iconic and controversial characters of the 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division depicted in the Band of Brothers book and the miniseries of the same title. He showcased extraordinary, sometimes almost suicidal, bravery and military skills. At the same time, his achievements were overshadowed by rumors such as atrocities committed against defenseless enemies. In today’s article, we will look at his life and try to shed light on some of the most debated events of his life.
 
Ronald Speirs was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1920. His family moved to the U.S. when he was four years old. He grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. After attending military school and receiving his commission as 2nd lieutenant, he volunteered for the airborne and became a platoon leader in Dog Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. After shipping off to Britain in 1943, he met and married a woman from Aldbourne. She had a son from him who joined the British armed forces later. She divorced him after the war, feeling unable to separate from her family and move to America. Nevertheless, Speirs continued to care deeply for her and criticized the book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries for the false depiction of his first wife (for instance, she was not a widow, etc.). Speirs married five times in his life. His last marriage started in 1987 at the age of 67. Due to the inaccuracies in the book and the series, Speirs said, “someone should have verified the facts with me before printing.” As a result, he never gave any interviews in relation to the book and the series. In the miniseries, Speirs was played by actor Matthew Settle and, despite the inaccuracies, became one of the fan favorites.

Men from the 2nd Battalion at Speirs' wedding (crouching on the left), 1944 (Photo: The Gettysburg Museum of History)
Men from the 2nd Battalion at Speirs's wedding (crouching on the left), 1944 (Photo: The Gettysburg Museum of History)

Jumping into Normandy on D-Day, he participated in the assault on Brécourt Manor (Read our earlier article – Dick Winters' first battle) and contributed to the successful destruction of the German battery tasked to bombard Utah Beach. Charging into the last gun emplacement, he noticed a primed grenade left behind by fleeing Germans. He quickly pushed it under some mud with his foot just as it exploded, shredding his boot but leaving him and his men uninjured. He also led a bayonet attack and was wounded several times on the week following D-Day. He refused to be evacuated and insisted on leading his platoon.

Speirs in England in 1944 (Photo: ronaldspeirs.com)
Speirs in England in 1944 (Photo: ronaldspeirs.com)

It was also around this time that rumors started circulating about Speirs’s alleged killing of prisoners of war (POW). According to the story, before the attack on Brécourt Manor, he lined up a group of German POWs, offered them cigarettes, then shot all but one. For a very long time, no direct eyewitness has stepped forward. Decades later, Major Dick Winters told in an interview that Stephen Ambrose and the publishing company, Simon & Schuster were worried about potential lawsuits because of a number of issues, including Speirs’s case, after the publishing the Band of Brothers book. Winters asked Speirs whether the rumors were true. Speirs said yes and even wrote it down in a letter.

Major Dick Winters talking about Speirs killing German POWs (Video: YouTube)

Another controversial action, this one witnessed, was the shooting of a U.S. sergeant during the attack on Saint-Côme-du-Mont. Given orders to halt his assault and wait for a creeping artillery barrage, Speirs told his men to hold position, but a drunken sergeant, eager to rush the enemy, refused to obey. After a second ignored order, Speirs told the man to go back to the rear. The sergeant reached for his rifle and leveled it at Speirs, who, after a final warning, shot the man in self-defense. He immediately notified his superior, Captain Gross, who examined the scene and deemed the shooting justified. Gross was killed in action the next day, and the incident was never investigated. The sergeant was eventually buried nearby in the Normandy American Cemetery listed as killed in action.
 
Speirs established a reputation as an aggressive, competent commander, who was liked by fellow officers and equally respected and feared by his men. Dick Winters held the opinion that Speirs was one of the “natural killers” of his unit. During the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands in September 1944, he went on a lone dawn recon trip, crossing the Lower Rhine on boat, noting the position of machine gun nests and the German HQ and then swimming back to the Allied side despite getting shot in the buttocks and hip. His men found their wounded commander. He was evacuated to a hospital in England for recovery. For his achievements and wounds in Normandy and the Netherlands, he received two Purple Hearts and Bronze Star Medals in addition to a Silver Star Medal.

Ronald Speirs during the war (Photo: Public domain)
Ronald Speirs during the war (Photo: Public domain)

Speirs's finest hour came during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive on the Western Front launched on December 16, 1944. Going on the offensive, 2nd Battalion of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment was ordered to take the town of Foy. The attack in the snow, headed by Easy Company and commanded by Lieutenant Norman Dike, started off well enough, but soon devolved into near-disaster. The men got pinned down behind haystacks and started taking casualties from sniper fire, while “I” Company was stranded on the other side of the village without a radio. According to some accounts (as depicted in the HBO miniseries also), Dike simply fell apart; according to others, he was hit in the shoulder and the wound distracted him from proper command. Whatever the truth may be, Dike was transferred to the 506th Regimental Headquarters after the attack on Foy and later became an aide to General Maxwell Taylor, Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division.
 
Either way, Major Winters, Easy Company's former commander, saw what was happening from a distance and told the first officer he saw to go and take over – that officer happened to be Speirs. He ran across open ground, was apprised of the situation and gave orders to the men, who, spirits lifted by his decisive leadership, went on the offensive. To reach I Company, Speirs sprinted directly through enemy lines and across the village, surprising the German soldiers and tanks so much that most of them forgot to shoot at him. Then, once he gave his orders to I Company, he did it all over again: charged back across the lines, earning an official promotion to command Easy Company. About the German reaction to his unexpected action Speirs mentioned in a letter, “A German 88 artillery piece was fired at me when I crossed the open area alone. That impressed me.”

Dramatization of the battle of Foy and Speirs’s heroism in Band of Brothers (Video: YouTube)

The winding down of the war in Europe saw Speirs and Easy Company having a relaxed time in Germany and Austria. During the occupation of Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest, two sergeants from the Company found Hermann Göring's deluxe Mercedes, which Speirs promptly took for a spin around the countryside. It wasn't just rest & recreation, though. The war was still raging in Asia, and the 101st was slated to be transferred. Despite having enough points to go home, Speirs chose to stay with the Company, though the decision was made moot by Japan's capitulation. The 101st Airborne Division was inactivated on November 30, 1945. Like thousands of other American soldiers, he returned to the U.S. on board of the Queen Mary in January 1946 (Read our earlier article - Operation Magic Carpet). He was now a Company Commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Speirs stayed with the Army after the war. Still, he only went to a couple of reunions and did not even give interviews.

Ronald Speirs with Easy Company in Austria, 1945 (Photo: U.S. Army)
Ronald Speirs with Easy Company in Austria, 1945 (Photo: U.S. Army)

He first fought in the Korean War and participated in two combat jumps. Then, he learned Russian and served as a liaison officer to the Red Army in East Germany. In 1957, he became the American Director of Spandau prison in Berlin (the position changed between the Americans, Russians, British and the French on a rotating basis), where prominent Nazi war criminals like Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer were held. The latter described him as a “hard-nosed, irritating American Commandant.” In the early 60s and at the rank of lieutenant colonel, he served with the U.S. Mission in the Laotian Civil War as advisor, which segued into the Vietnam War, supporting the government's actions against communist insurgency. His success at training and revitalizing the Royal Lao Army's junior leadership earned him acclaim from his superiors. Following his last position in the Planning and Policy Division at the Pentagon, he retired from the Army in 1964, after 22 years of service. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 86.

Speirs in Berlin as the American Director of Spandau prison (Photo: ronaldspeirs.com)
Speirs in Berlin as the American Director of Spandau prison (Photo: ronaldspeirs.com)

If you want to read more about Speirs’s life, look for the recently published book titled Fierce Valor: The True Story of Ronald Speirs and his Band of Brothers. Based on the Ronald Speirs Collection at The Gettysburg Museum of History, it was written by historians Jared Frederick and Erik Dorr. More importantly, if you want to visit the most iconic sites where Ronald Speirs led his men to battle, join us on our tours going through Normandy and Belgium!

The cover of Fierce Valor: The True Story of Ronald Speirs and his Band of Brothers (Photo: Regnery History)
The cover of Fierce Valor: The True Story of Ronald Speirs and his Band of Brothers (Photo: Regnery History)

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Please remember that our 2022 list prices are 10% lower than in 2023, so if you book your tour for this year, you can still enjoy the hotel and bus transportation services we purchased before inflation came. If you are planning to travel in 2023 or 2024 for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, but still want to save 10% from our list price, book now by paying the registration fee and the tour price together. 

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