Archive for France

Jan
29

Sunset at Pont Neuf, Toulouse

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The French city of Toulouse is not one of the more high profile tourist destinations in France but like many European cities, it offers plenty of wonderful buildings to photograph. The Garonne River runs through the heart of the city from its source in the Pyrenees on its  way to Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean.

The most spectacular of the bridges spanning the Garonne in Toulouse is without doubt Pont Neuf. Built between 1542 – 1632 (quite a long time to build a bridge), Pont Neuf is made with 7 arches giving a total length of 220m.

I’d previously seen some stunning “blue hour” photos of Pont Neuf so decided that this would be my shot. At this point, the Garonne runs south-north so looking along the bridge from east to west puts the sunset in the perfect position for a sunset shot.

Setting up a shot is easy. There is a wide footpath along the river with plenty of space so you won’t get crowded out.

My intention was end up with 2 shots to blend; the sunset blended with the bridge being lit up once the sun had gone down. When I arrived at Pont Neuf, the sky had clouded over and was completely grey so I wasn’t hopeful of anything special. However, nature can turn in a moment as sunset drew closer, the sky just exploded in colour. The red, orange and purple mix was stunning and I had the sky I wanted for my blend.

At this stage, the lights on the bridge weren’t on so it was a matter of waiting. I was in luck as the lights came on while the colour was still in the sky. This meant, I had everything in a single shot, making the post production work a lot more straightforward.

I didn’t need to do anything with the water. It was perfectly still with no wind or current. The final result is below:

Pont Neuf at sunset in Toulouse

This was a single shot image taken with the following settings:

  • ISO 100
  • f/22
  • 20mm focal length
  • 2 seconds exposure

 

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Fontainebleau CastleApart from the ever romantically famous Eiffel Tower, France is known for its wildlife and forest attractions. Fontainebleau Castle and Forest has been noted to have 13 million visitors yearly, surpassing the Eiffel Tower, with only 6 million visitors. Fontainebleau Forest is protected by France’s Office National des Forets which has 25,000 hectares of forest surrounding the vicinity of Fontainebleau and its neighbouring villages. The place is a former royal hunting park that is often visited by walkers and horse riders. Several sport activities are said to be perfect in this neighbourhood. Card games, Tennis, and rock climbing are the usual sports of the people residing in this area.

Card Games in the Castle 

Blackjack and poker are popularly played card games throughout Fontainebleau, France. In fact, poker uses a 52-card deck of French cards, which is said to have originated in France. The card game’s popularity in France is on the rise as it made numerous French poker players known in land based and online based casinos worldwide. One famous French poker player, Vanessa Rousso, extended her overwhelming excellent poker skills and strategic gameplays at online poker websites like partypoker français. Aside from playing poker as a sport, poker can be a relaxing alternative to those who have been working excessively. Online poker gaming websites developed their downloadable mobile applications, providing online poker enthusiasts an easy way to play through their mobile phones anywhere – even in the courtyards of Fontainebleau. Furthermore, visitors can share their great strolling experiences in Fontainebleau with their friends at online gaming portals. The Royal Courtyards listed below are also some of the most visited historical places in Fontainebleau which visitors can boast about online.

Fontainebleau Castle

Royal Courtyards 
The Real Tennis Room is known to be the oldest of the three remaining historical rooms in France. The place is normally a tennis place, and known for its popular old saying “the game of kings, the king of games.” The Real Tennis room is now a place of regular tournaments and promotes all tennis enthusiasts to play the sport all year long.

The Palace buildings are composed of five main courtyards, popular to due to its complicated infrastructures. Each area has several names according to different periods. The Court of the White Horse is prominent by its high-roofed pavilions that date back to the 16th century. Its famous double horse-shoe staircase was built in 1963 by Jean Androuet Du Cerceau.

The Ballroom is built under Francois I and then had its building completion under Henri II by Philibert Delorme. Its luxuriously gold and silver ceiling decoration never fails to be adored by its recent and regular visitors.

(PHOTO: Guilhem Vellut)

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Jan
29

Travelling As An England Football Fan

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Later this year, Poland and Ukrane will host the 2012 European Football Championships. It is argueably the second biggest football tournament after the World Cup. My first England game was back in 1987 at the old Wembley Stadium. I stood behind the goal in a crowd of 100,000 as England drew 1-1 with Brazil. Gary Lineker gave England the lead before Mirandinha equalised. That goal prompted Newcastle United to sign him and he became the first Brazilian to play in England.

 

My first England away game in Durban, South Africa

 

Over the following years, I went to various games but never to away matches. That changed after the World Cup in 2002 when I booked a week in KwaZulu Natal as England travelled to South Africa to play a friendly international in Durban. At the time, I didn’t really know anyway else travelling to watch the game so I just went by myself. I booked a few days diving up in Sodwana Bay in the north of the province before heading back to Durban for a couple of nights to watch the match. The lads I met were fantastic and I had a great time. I managed to get a lift to and from the old ABSA stadium on a coach and inside the stadium, a group of us were giving some beer by some South African fans. It was a great trip and I even saw Emile Heskey AND Gareth Southgate score.

From then, I decided I was going to go whereever possible and the following year, I went to my first tournament in Portugal. By now, I was meeting friends I’d made either to travel with or catching up once we arrived.

 

An England game during Euro 2004 in Lisbon

 

I travelled with a friend and we stayed in the beautiful city of Porto, travelling to Coimbra and Lisbon (three times) for the 4 England games. It was a superb time to be there with loads of happy people, sunshine, football and plenty of great memories. Since then, I’ve met some great people, many of whom are now very good friends. I’ve travelled to a long list of countries and places, many of which I would never have considered going to.

Naturally with so many trips, there are plenty of stories too. One of the few trips I missed was the away match in Baku, Azerbaijan. I really wanted to go but circumstances conspired against me. Everyone I speak to who went had a great time. Naturally, when husbands and boyfriends go away for a few days, they usually spend their last bit of local currency at the departure airport on some perfume for the wife or girlfriend. However, that was a bit too obvious for one England fan. Instead of a bottle of scent, he decided to take back an Azeri steam iron complete without English instructions.

My favourite away trip was the 2 match tour to the United States in 2005 which saw England play USA at Soldier Field in Chicago followed a few days later against Columbia at the Giants stadium in New York. It was my first visit to Chicago and I loved it.

 

England visit Soldier Field in Chicago

 

The game was played on the Saturday so we took the opportunity for a bit of sightseeing on the Sunday ahead of our early morning flight to Newark. A friend and I took a Gangster tour to see the old haunts of Capone and Dillinger. The tour was excellent and dropped us off outside a bar at about 3pm. Conscious of our early start, we just went in for a quick drink. We got back to the hotel around 1am ready for our 5am pickup. Somehow, we got up and made it down to the car who whisked us off to the airport. After a while, the driver announced we were getting close to O’Hare. Unfortunately, we were flying from Midway which resulted in a sharp U-turn and some liberal interpretations of the speed limits. We just made our flight and I’d never been more grateful to get into a hotel room early when we finally got to Jersey City.

The next day was an early start at the local pub for a full English breakfast and an early-ish departure to the Giants Stadium for my first tailgating experience. The pub very kindly provided us with a keg of beer which was easily consumed before the game.

A few years ago, England supporters had a terrible (and well deserved) reputation but today, it is very different. Despite travelling in huge numbers, there are hardly any arrests. This is mainly due to the tight controls on getting tickets for away matches. Unless you are a member of the official supporters club, you don’t have a chance. Even then, matches do get over-subscribed but a loyalty scheme ensures the regulars get tickets while also allowing new comers access to some tickets.

Depending on the destination, the biggest challenge is booking travel and accommodation. There is one fan I know who refuses to fly. Luckily, he is retired and goes to many of the games by train. The furthest away trip he took was to Almaty for the World Cup 2010 qualifying in Kazakhstan along the old Silk route. It took something like 5 days to get there and another 5 to get back. I haven’t travelled to an away game entirely by train yet but it was be a wonderfully relaxing option compared to tackling airports.

A couple of years ago, I drove to Paris for a game. I left a couple of days ahead of the match to take in the Battlefields around Ypres and the Somme. They were well worth visiting and I’m sure I’ll go back again someday. My SatNav was invalueable in finding all the little villages and memorials. In 2006 ahead of England’s first game in the World Cup, I was told the story of one fan who really should have bought a SatNav or at least learned how to read a map. This lad from Hull had bought a cheap camper van…and I do mean cheap. The headlights didn’t even work but this was in the middle of summer so it shouldn’t have been a problem. Our intrepid fan made his way to Frankfurt in his little van, parked up and found a bar. He casually said to the barman

“Its pretty quiet in town considering England are playing here tomorrow”

The barman was puzzled as this little town on the German / Polish border wasn’t a World Cup venue. It soon became clear, our friend from Hull had gone to the wrong Frankfurt. Now he had to get right across Germany in his old campervan, without any headlights. Thankfully, he made it and he had learned his lesson. The most important thing was that England also beat Paraguay 1-0.

 

Most England fans went to the correct Frankfurt in 2006

 

 

However, the majority of fans do fly and many prefer to travel independently rather than use the more expensive day trips. Airlines don’t tend to add extra capacity so the seats that are available are generally sold quickly. The prices appear to go up quickly and some accuse the airlines of hiking prices. I don’t believe this is the case, its simply a matter of the cheaper seats being sold a lot more quickly than normal.

Groups of fans who travel together will plan their travel ahead of the seats being released. Sometimes, delaying by even a few minutes can result in fares in some cases doubling or more. Its not all expensive though. I know some fans who travelled to Geneva to watch England play Argentina in a friendly a few years ago who paid just £32. They caught a flight on the morning of the game with the return late in the evening. There was no need for a hotel on this trip.

 

Kiev - Host city for Euro 2012

 

This summer, England and Ireland will take part in the Euro 2012 Finals. Ireland will play their matches in Poland while England fans will have to travel further to Ukraine with games in Donetsk and Kiev. Travelling to Donetsk is especially tricky due to the distance from Kiev and relative lack of accommodation in the city. This summer, I’ll travel to the games for the first time on day trips. Its not a tournament I’m particularly excited about and in 2013, England will return to Ukraine to play a 2014 World Cup qualifier. I’ve already been to Kiev once with England so in 2013, I’ll aim to see the sights I missed last time round.

As with the area close to Ypres, there are so many cemeteries, repeatedly down small, muddy roads. My 1st intended destination was the Hawthorn Crater. This was one of the mines which was detonated below the German front line at the outset of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The explosion was recorded on film and is routinely shown in documentaries about the Battle of the Somme. After driving around for a little bit, I came across the Newfoundland Park Memorial & Visitors Centre and stopped to have a look.

This is a portion of the British and Canadian Lines on 1st July 1916 when the Battle of the Somme began. Some of the trenches are very well maintained and from the Caribou Monument, you’re able to get an excellent understanding of the landscape and the direction of assault. It’s also frighteningly apparent how far the troopers were expected to move over open ground in the face of cannon and machine guns.

At Newfoundland Park, I was given directions to help me locate the Hawthorn Crater and as it happened I’d driven right by it. It wasn’t long before I got back and found the access point via a muddy field. Initially I was hesitant but decided it was a part of the experience. I got to the lip of the crater but it was very over grown so I didn’t venture too far and I was soon going to my next point of interest, Ulster Tower. This is a memorial to the Ulster Regiments that conducted themselves so well on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Nearby is the Thiepval Memorial which is the largest British War Memorial on earth. Every 1st July, an important commemoration is held here in memory of the dead. The memorial can be seen from quite a distance and addititionally there is a motivating visitors centre with information regarding the battles fought here.

Some distance away is the South African Memorial at Delville Wood. It was dedicated to all South African battles, not just those in The Great War. As with all the memorials, Delville Wood is sacred ground but I found it in particular to be very serene and appropriate. I’m not really sure what made Delville Wood stand out for me but for me, there was just something a bit distinctive about this spot.

My last stop of the day was a quick one at the place to the east of Amiens where the Red Baron was shot down. There isn’t really much to see apart from a little notice board by the side of the road. The site is situated by a local factory with a prominent chimney. The story of the Red Baron is certainly one of the very first I heard about regarding The Great War hence despite the fact that there wasn’t very much to look at, it had been something that I wanted to do. The Red Baron was a German fighter ace called Baron Manfred von Richthofen. From 1916 – 1918, he shot down a total of 80 Allied aircraft and was finally shot down but ground fire from an Australian unit on 21 April 1918.

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Nov
13

The Only Victoria Cross of 6th June 1944

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6th June 1944 saw the biggest invasion force of all time land on the beaches at Normandy just a couple of hours after a large number of paratroopers had dropped in German occupied France. D-Day was eventually underway.

1000s of Allied soldiers landed at the five beaches of Normandy; Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah. There were countless acts of bravery but yet there was simply one single Victoria Cross granted on D-Day. It was granted to CSM Stan Hollis who landed on Gold Beach.

Hollis was an experienced veteran who had already been in combat at Dunkirk, El Alamein and Sciliy. He’d previously been captured by the Afrika Korps but managed to get away to rejoin the war.

Self-discipline wise, Hollis was not really a model soldier yet on D-Day, there was no doubting his expertise as a soldier. He had already been recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal while in action in Italy and it was as part of the assault on the Mont Fleury Battery that Hollis earned his Victoria Cross fighting with the Green Howards regiment.

While his company, advanced away from the coast, he observed 2 pillboxes had been missed. As Hollis went over to look at, the Nazis within began shooting. Hollis assaulted the Germans and cleared both pillboxes acquiring a lot of prisoners in the process. This made it possible for the main exit from the beachfront to remain open.

Later in the same day outside of the village of Crepon, Hollis engaged the enemy with his Bren gun to free two British soldiers who were cornered in a building. He successfully saved both soldiers. The courage shown by Hollis in Normandy on D-Day saved many British lives and he was given the Victoria Cross. He was wounded in Sept of that year and the following month was awarded his medal by King George VI. Now, his medal is on display at the Green Howards Museum in Yorkshire along with a handful of other Victoria Cross accorded in combat to other soldiers of the same regiment.

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Despite the fact that it was technically formed in July 1940, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had been created in 1938 with the merger of 3 existing, key sections just after Germany annexed Austria. Churchill’s Secret Army was told to “Set Europe Ablaze”.

SOE agents were directed to many different Nazi occupied countries to both cause havoc behind German lines and at the same time make an effort to come across local resistance groups they would quite possibly work with as the occasion for invasion was here. Theatres of Operation included France, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Abyssinia and the Far East.

As agents had to operate deep in Nazi held nations and they were chosen from a range of social class and background. The primary criteria was that the probable operative had exhaustive understanding of the region they would operate in and would pass as a native of that country. That is why, operatives in possession of dual nationality were highly sought-after.

The renowned airplane utilised by the Special Operations Executives in France was the Westland Lysander. It was a small airplane which meant it was so much more tough to see and was strong enough to land on makeshift landing strips. It was used to transport operatives to and from the United Kingdom together with lifting individuals who had to be debriefed in London. Airmen who had been shot down were also at times brought back to the Britain by Lysander.

Amid the Special Operations Executive group were a number of female agents and around 30% of the female agents routed into France from Section F, did not come back. The types of missions in each region were wide ranging. For example, in Poland, there was little need to encourage the local population as there was already general hate of the Germans. This was in contrast to areas such as Vichy France which worked with with the occupying forces and the possibility of SOE agents being betrayed was greatly increased.

For the duration of World War II, the SOE had utilised around 13,000 people who directly backed or provided somewhere in the region of 1 million agents.

Sep
27

Xmas Ceasefire of December 1914

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Following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, a good number of people imagined it would be settled by Christmas. Loyal teenage men were anxious to join the army as soon as possible as they feared they would lose out on the action. Of course, history has highlighted that their optimism was misguided as the war would not conclude right up until 1918. The German advance was stopped at the 1st Battle of Marne and the race for the sea began as the Allies and Germans both dug in. It was the beginning of the trench warfare of the Western Front.

The end result was lines of trenches winding down from the North Sea to Switzerland along a 440 mile front. The battle lines moved hardly at all as a struggle of attrition broke out. Original trenches weren’t well built and were prone to cave in. Even by trench warfare standards, 1914 was pretty horrific. As winter neared, the men on the front line realised that the war would not be over by Xmas after all.

The Western Front ran through both Belgium and France with soldiers from France, Belgium and Great Britain manning a range of sectors. In some parts, the German trenches were no more than 30 yards away. Being in such close proximity allowed the infantry to call to their opponents or even hold up signs. On the German belt buckles was the inscription “Gott Mitt Uns” (God is with us). The British reply was “We’ve got mittens too”. Some of the shouting matches were a bit more black humour. A volley of shots would get the shout “Missed” or “Left a bit”.

Nevertheless, it was these exchanges that laid the foundations of a few astonishing scenes along the Western Front on 24th December 1914. The Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th as opposed to United Kingdom and France who celebrate on the 25th). The weather had improved and on the 24th, the sounds from the German trenches were different. They began singing carols and placed Xmas Trees on their trenches. Men began calling to each other and after a while, some ventured into no mans land where they talked and exchanged cigarettes, food and souvenirs. Stories of the truce varies as there were actually a handful of truces up and down the lines. They were mostly in the sectors manned by the British as the Germans were occupying Belgium and French land so the Christmas spirit was less in evidence amongst these men.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was unofficial but as many as 100,000 men were thought to have been involved. As well as fraternisation, the chance was also taken to reclaim and bury the dead. One of the most widely known parts of the truce was the football match between the British and Germans. There are a number of inconsistant reports in relation to the game with a number of finals scores. This would suggest there were several games at various locations.

The duration the ceasefire lasted also varied but generally, it was over on Christmas Day. More often than not, hostilities started again by mutual arrangement. In one case, on the morning of the 26th December 1914, Captain Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers fired into the air and stood above the parapet. His opposite number in the German trench also stood up, they saluted and stepped down. Captain Stockwell heard the German fire a couple of shots into the air and World War I started again. Never the less, the Christmas Truce was very much against the wishes of British commanders and in the following years, artillery barrages were ordered for Xmas Eve.

In 2008, a plaque to the Christmas Truce on the Western Front was unveiled at the village on Frelinghen and was the 1st memorial to the events of Christmas 1914. The legacy the truce left behind is appreciable with several books being written and published and it was also the inspiration for quite a few songs.

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1st July 1916 saw the Allies launched an extensive offensive along a 25 mile section of the Western Front. The attack took place to the north of the River Somme in rural France. Little villages are littered throughout the region along with the town of Albert. It was to be the battle that for plenty of people, characterized the horrors of the trench warfare of The Great War.

The Battle of the Somme lasted nearly 4 months with very little reward for Britain and her Allies. The casualties endured by each side were horrific; the British Army sustained 420,000 killed and wounded, the French 200,000 and the Germans roughly half a million.

The German soldiers were dug in deep and strategically held the more favourable ground hence it was obvious an enormous effort would be essential to make inroads into their lines. The plan was to lay down an artillery bombardment for seven days leading up to the attack. Furthermore, plenty of mines were laid beneath the German lines. It was predicted that the mines and artillery would bring about such destruction, Britain and her Allies would only need to advance over no mans land and occupy the trenches. Disastrously, this was definitely not the case.

For 7 days just before the assault, a thunderous barrage was laid down by the Alllies firing 1.7m shells. Bear in mind, the German trenches were dug deep into the earth delivering them with relative safety from the barrage. The mines did lead to deaths and injuries as intended but generally, the Germans had enough time to gear up their defences after the artillery ceased and the Allies went over the top.

All along the line, the story was the same. Brave men went over the top and were mown down before getting anywhere close to their objectives. At Beaumont Hamel, only 68 of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, ended the day unharmed out of around 800 men. At La Boisselle, the Tyneside Irish was almost destroyed as it tried to move forward more than 1 mile over open ground in full sight of German machine guns.

Nevertheless, there were some successes. The French soliders had made progress in the north and south of the lines. The 36th Ulster advanced on and took the Schwaben Redoubt consequently becoming undoubtedly one of the few to get to their objective. However, running short on ammunition, German counter attacks made the Ulstermen to withdraw later that night.

The 1st day of the Somme had cost the British almost 54,000 casualties, 21,000 of those being killed. Today, the site of the Schwaben Redoubt is marked by the Ulster Tower and not far away at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing commemorates the names of about 70,000 soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme.

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Sep
25

The Disaster of Exercise Tiger

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Throughout the build up to the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944, a terrific deal of groundwork and organizing was required. Information was consistently being gathered by a community of agents while products and machines were being ferried to England. These would be essential during and after what was and still is the largest invasion force of all time.

Preparation and proper training was a necessary part of the plans. Rangers who were to attack Point du Hoc trained by climbing cliffs and troops made practice beach landings. A big component of the operation of secrecy and the people of Britain were counted upon to play their part. In Devon, an area called Slapton Sands was picked as an ideal practice area on account of the similarities with the Utah landing beach in Normandy.

Exercises for the landings began in late 1943 with the main invasion plotted for June 1944. Over 3,000 residents were relocated from the region around Slapton Sands. A number of exercises were organised and undoubtedly one of the most significant was Operation Tiger involving close to 30,000 men (approximately a 3rd of the existing strength of the British Army) were to be involved.

Exercise Tiger took place in late April 1944. The initial practice landings were executed without any troubles but throughout the exercise scheduled for the early hours of 28th April 1944, disaster hit. German E-Boats operating from Cherbourg came across a convoy of 8 LST (Landing ships). They aimed torpedoes at the LSTs and desperate men jumped into the frozen waters to get away the sinking ships. A number of hadn’t been told how to put on their life preservers and drowned.

Additionally to the E-Boat attacks, more men died on the shores themselves. Using live ammunition had been authorised and together with the fatalities in the sea, there were further casualties by friendly fire after they strayed into the wrong sections of the beaches.

In total well over nine hundred men died all through Exercise Tiger and it was nearly 40 years before the facts were made public. Ironically, only about 200 men died on Utah Beach throughout the real landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944. These days, a Sherman Tank is on show at Slapton Sands as a memorial to the men who perished all through Exercise Tiger.

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The TV mini series Band of Brothers is regarded as one of the recommended war motion pictures ever created. Based upon the book by Stephen Ambrose, the 10 parts follow the history from the soldiers of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Regiment of the American 101st Airborne. Episode one starts off with Easy Companies basic training at Toccoa, Georgia before being transferred to the United Kingdom while they prepare for a part with the D-Day Assault in Northern France.

Each episode gets going by filming original soldiers of Easy. The veterans discuss their war time ordeals that the episode relates to however at this stage, the men are not revealed. While the veterans aren’t identified, the episodes familiarizes you with the people early on and the actors are superbly cast making it uncomplicated to connect with them from the very start.

Even if the action scenes are filmed brilliantly, why Band of Brothers stand out from various different war movies is the fact that it brings forth the individual stories so effectively. As an example, in episode two simply prior to Easy Company are set to leap into Northern France, without doubt one of the soldiers, Bill Guarnere, learns his brother was killed at Montecassino.

The 10 episodes show the stories of Easy Company beginning with their basic training just before heading into battle in Northern France and to the village of Carentan. Episode four sees the introduction of replacement men into Easy and illustrates the difficulty they have being accepted by the Normandy veterans as Easy Company take part in Operation Market Garden.

The following two episodes cover the run up along with the fighting at Bastogne for the duration of the Battle of the Bulge. By now several of Easy Company are at breaking point and this is actually the topic of episode 7. While the war in Europe nears the conclusion, there is a final patrol for Easy Company. The horrors of war are brought to the forefront the moment the men locate a concentration camp. The final episode sees Easy Company head into Austria where they capture the Eagle’s Nest high in the mountains at Berchtesgaden.

The series finishes with interviews with the men of Easy Company and eventually identifies the men that audiences have learned to know throughout the 10 episodes of Band of Brothers.