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Book Reviews

A Perfect Hell – The Forgotten Story of the Canadian Commandos of the Second World War

by John Nadler

Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2005
402 pages, $34.95, Hard Cover

Reviewed by Colonel Bernd Horn

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Book Cover War, for those who have experienced it, is a very personal endeavour. It is neither adventurous nor romantic. Rather, it is brutal, unforgiving, violent, and life altering. However, not all regimental histories reflect this reality. Often, they catalogue dates, events, and, particularly, major achievements. Moreover, they record key commanders and their decisions, especially within the context of great battlefield successes, as well as failures. But seldom do they capture the essence of the soldiers, much less their loved ones. A Perfect Hell breaks this mould.

John Nadler, a contributing correspondent to CanWest newspapers, and a writer for Variety magazine as well as numerous other mainline journals, combines his journalistic skills with his talent for recounting history. The result is a fast-paced, very personal and dramatic account of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), which was a unique, joint American/ Canadian special operations force formation that earned a reputation for daring and courage during the Second World War.

The book establishes the tone, if not the thesis, within the first few pages. The author explains that the FSSF was not only a very distinctive and inimitable organization, but it was extremely effective, albeit at a heavy cost. For instance, in its first year of combat, it established a 1:25 ‘kill ratio’ – that is, its members killed 25 enemy soldiers for every loss they suffered. In addition, they captured 235 prisoners for every one of their own taken. Their first battle on the ragged peak at La Difensa on 3 December 1943 etched their name into regimental lore, and it demonstrated their tenacity and courage. The German-held position had repeatedly repelled the onslaughts of the US Fifth Army and had thwarted the Allied advance. However, it fell to the daring assault by the FSSF on that unit’s first attempt. Later, on the blood-soaked beaches of Anzio, the FSSF held a 13-kilometre sector of frontline for 100 days, an assignment normally given to a division 10 times the size. In the process, it forged a reputation for aggressiveness and ferociousness that terrified the enemy and earned them the moniker, the ‘Black Devils’. Although the FSSF continually established its prowess and courage in battle, it did so at great cost. In its first battle, it suffered a 30 percent casualty rate, and after its first six weeks of frontline service, this rose to 60 percent losses.

But this in itself is not new. Many books have been written on the FSSF. What makes this new addition stand out is its crisp, fast-paced writing, which reads more like an action novel then a regimental history. This is largely the result of Nadler’s decision to recount the formation’s history in a very personal manner by focusing not only on a core of key characters, but also on their loved ones. He covers the fabled unit’s story in this manner, from their selection and training in the summer of 1942, through their brutal campaigning in Italy and France, to their final disbandment at Menton, France, in December 1944. In addition, he includes a lengthy wrap-up by way of a chapter on their homecoming, and an epilogue that brings closure to many of the personal stories to which the reader has been introduced.

Additionally, he builds suspense by weaving a series of events integrally together, at times suspending conclusion of certain key outcomes until the larger story has unravelled. The end result is a very ‘grass roots’ personal history that breathes life into the FSSF’s short but very auspicious existence. Mirroring his title, through his focus on individuals rather than on a faceless formation entity, Nadler brings out the suffering, stoicism, and camaraderie of soldiers who face the horror of war together. Moreover, he makes the important linkages between them and their loved ones at home, who, although distant from the sounds of battle, share the suffering of war.

Although Nadler achieves his aim, for the consummate historian the book has some shortfalls. First, individuals hoping for detailed endnotes will be disappointed. It appears that he has relied primarily on secondary sources for the contextual history, and heavily on personal interviews and unpublished personal memoirs and manuscripts to develop his ‘grass roots’ narration. He does, however, make note of references taken from the Public Record Office in the United Kingdom and from the Library and Archives of Canada. However, the sparse references and the lack of detail in regard to many of the specific administrative and political intricacies of the FSSF’s creation and continued existence belie the lack of in-depth primary research in this area. Nonetheless, in all fairness to Nadler, this was not the apparent intent of the book, and his history of the FSSF is accurate and still fairly complete. In short, he has masterfully told the story he set out to tell.

Another minor criticism is his sub-title – “The Forgotten Story of the Canadian Commandos of the Second World War.” This is deceiving and inaccurate. First, the FSSF was a joint US/Canadian organization and he tells their story as such, not from a purely Canadian standpoint. Second, he makes no mention of the other Canadian commandos, namely, Viking Force and the Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commandos. Third, it is arguable whether the FSSF is ‘forgotten’ in the first place. Within the last several years alone, at least three books have been published or re-printed dealing with the FSSF, and a one-hour documentary has been produced and aired on the History Channel.

Minor criticisms aside, Nadler’s bibliography is very good, and it considers all the best books on the subject available. In addition, he made extensive use of Major-General Robert T. Frederick’s papers, as well as the personal accounts of others who served. The index is comprehensive and accurate, and the maps, although not exceptionally detailed, provide the necessary information for the reader to place events in a geographic and tactical context. Finally, 16 pages of black and white photographs put faces to names and add some visual support to the images of men, equipment and battlefields that are described in the text.

In all, the book is an excellent read – it is well written and fast paced, and it provides a very personal dimension of the FSSF history. It is a definite ‘must buy’ for history and military buffs, as well as those interested in the study of war, particularly the human dimension of war. It is also strongly recommended for the military member, as it provides valuable lessons on leadership and the conduct of men in battle.

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Bernd Horn, an infantry officer, is currently Director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.