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Book Reviews

Snow Plough and The Jupiter Deception: The Story ff the 1st Special Service Force and the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, 1942-1945 

by Kenneth Joyce

St. Catharines: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2006
320 pages, 300 b/w photos, maps. $49.95 (hard cover)

Reviewed by Colonel Bernd Horn

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Book CoverThe First Special Service Force (FSSF) is a popular subject. It has been the target of numerous books, articles, documentaries, and even a Hollywood epic, The Devil’s Brigade. But then, why not? As a unit it was truly an anomaly – it was the first and only actual joint US/Canadian combat unit to date. Americans and Canadians served shoulder-to-shoulder, mixed throughout the formation, and they wore the same uniform. The FSSF’s origins began in Britain in the early stages of the war, when the Allies were reeling under a seemingly unstoppable German onslaught. Largely on the defensive, the Allies were looking for a means to strike back at the Germans, and the shadowy world of special operations appeared to be one of the most practical means of achieving this end. Legendary figures such as Winston Churchill, Lord Mountbatten, Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as an eccentric scientist, Geoffrey Pyke, were all involved in its conception. And the FSSF created its own mythology, due to its larger-than-life characters, its exploits on the battlefield, and its unsurpassed combat record. All told, it is not surprising that yet another volume has been written about this fabled unit. 

The recent volume is a worthy addition. The author, Kenneth Joyce, a museum technologist and amateur historian, spent the last 10 years researching and writing this treatment of the subject. At first glance, the book immediately captures the reader’s attention. It is a well designed and put together volume with an attractive and eye-catching dust jacket. A cursory look through the book also reveals a wealth of photographs, many of which have never before been published. The author clearly spent a considerable amount of time culling images from official archival repositories, but significantly, he also pulled many from private collections, which allows the reader to gain a more personal and less staged visual perspective of the Force. Similarly, the maps provided are large, detailed, and clear. They easily allow the reader to follow events documented in the text, and they add to understanding the significance of the FSSF’s achievements. 

Equally impressive is the author’s research. The endnotes are almost exclusively based upon primary sources from such institutions as the Library Archives Canada, the Directorate of History and Heritage, the National Archives in Britain, and the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. The latter is a significant source, since that institution is the repository for the papers of the FSSF commander, Colonel (later Major-General) Robert Frederick, as well as those of the Force’s intelligence officer, Major Robert Burhans. The author’s in-depth research provides a wealth of detail throughout the book. He fills in many previous gaps in Force documentation, particularly with respect to the Canadian participation, including clarity about training, reinforcement issues, and frictions that existed within this joint formation. 

Notwithstanding the impeccable credentials of the sources, the detailed information and research is not always woven well into a seamless story. The first part of the book is jumpy, and, at times, superficial. The author tries to address the myriad complex issues, themes, and plans that characterize the early part of the war. At the time, the Allies struggled to strike back at the Germans, and to develop a strategy upon which all three major powers (i.e. the British, the Soviets, and the Americans) could agree. However, the multitude of plans, operations, schemes, and objectives are not addressed in sufficient detail, or with adequate linkage. As a result, any reader without a working knowledge of some of the early events and issues of the war may find the text difficult to follow. 

Joyce has placed an enormous amount of emphasis upon the FSSF and its linkage to wartime Norway. The dynamism of history is arguably rooted in differences of interpretation. This is what makes the discipline provocative and spirited. The study of documentary evidence is key, as it provides a written record of decisions, plans and ideas. But equally important is intent, the nuance of power struggle, alliance politics, and the impact of personalities, such as that of Winston Churchill – the politician, warlord, adventurer, soldier, and writer. Churchill held an almost abstract fascination with the offensive, and he loved daring schemes. However, in the words of one of his top generals, Churchill was ‘like a child with matches,’ and one had to take great care that the great man did not burn his fingers. As such, his generals at times obstructed, or at least tried to ignore, those initiatives they felt were counter to the efficient prosecution of the war. All this is to say that it is important to bleed all these factors into an analysis in order to determine what are the fundamental truths. Often, a simple statement in the documentary record does not reflect a state of affairs accurately, and clearly, this could impact the interpretation of events. As such, most would argue that the FSSF’s cancelled role in Norway, early in the unit’s existence, ended downstream consideration of its employment in that theatre. The exiled Norwegian government’s rejection of any type of guerrilla warfare on its soil due to fear of German reprisals on the Norwegian population, and to ongoing SOE and commando operations against key installations in that country, as well as to the growing Allied momentum in the war on numerous fronts, negated further consideration of the FSSF’s involvement in Norway. Furthermore, once the initial mission was cancelled and the FSSF became rooted in the American order of battle, the British did not exert much influence over the Force’s combat employment.

This criticism aside, the author really hits his stride once he begins to recount the operational history of the FSSF. His description of the struggle at La Difensa is one of the best narrations of that epic battle. Joyce weaves excerpts from the war diary, the official reports, and from interviews of veterans into a fast moving and very vibrant description of the regiment’s most famous victory. His depiction of the tenacious and legendary defensive battle at Anzio is similarly illuminating. In both cases, he provides details and frank insight not found elsewhere. The subsequent chapters follow in a similar style, and in sum, they provide an excellent account of the FSSF at war. 

In all, the book is a very valuable addition to the body of literature dealing with the FSSF and the Canadian special operations forces. It is a definite ‘must buy’ for history and military buffs, as well as for those interested in the study of war itself. It is also strongly recommended for military members in general, as it provides excellent perspectives on command and leadership, particularly as those elements apply in battle. 

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