A Perfect Hell: The True Story of the FSSF, Forgotten Commandos of the Second World War

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9780385661409: A Perfect Hell: The True Story of the FSSF, Forgotten Commandos of the Second World War

It’s 1942 and Hitler’s armies stand astride Europe like a colossus. Germany is winning on every front. This is the story of how one of the world’s first commando units, put together for the invasion of Norway, helped turn the tide in Italy.
1942. When the British generals recommend an audacious plan to parachute a small elite commando unit into Norway in a bid to put Nazi Germany on the defensive, Winston Churchill is intrigued. But Britain, fighting for its life, can’t spare the manpower to participate. So William Lyon MacKenzie King is contacted and asked to commit Canadian troops to the bold plan. King, determined to join Roosevelt and Churchill as an equal leader in the Allied war effort, agrees.

One of the world’s first commando units, the First Special Service Force, or FSSF, is assembled from hand-picked soldiers from Canadian and American regiments. Any troops sent into Norway will have to be rugged, self-sufficient, brave, and weather-hardened. Canada has such men in ample supply.

The all-volunteer FSSF comprises outdoorsmen — trappers, rangers, prospectors, miners, loggers. Assembled at an isolated base in Helena, Montana, and given only five months to train before the invasion, they are schooled in parachuting, mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and cold-weather survival. They are taught how to handle explosives, how to operate nearly every field weapon in the American and German arsenals, and how to kill with their bare hands.

After the Norway plan is scrapped, the FSSF is dispatched to Italy and given its first test — to seize a key German mountain-top position which had repelled the brunt of the Allied armies for over a month. In a reprise of the audacity and careful planning that won Vimy Ridge for the Canadians in WWI, the FSSF takes the twin peaks Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea by storming the supposedly unscalable rock face at the rear of the German position, and opens the way through the mountains.

Later, the FSSF will hold one-quarter of the Anzio beachhead against a vastly superior German force for ninety-nine days; a force of only 1,200 commandos does the work of a full division of over 17,000 troops. Though badly outnumbered, the FSSF takes the fight to the Germans, sending nighttime patrols behind enemy lines and taking prisoners. It is here that they come to be known among the dispirited Germans as Schwartzer Teufel (“Black Devils”) for their black camouflage face-paint and their terrifying tactic of appearing out of the darkness.

John Nadler vividly captures the savagery of the Italian campaign, fought as it was at close quarters and with desperate resolve, and the deeply human experiences of the individual men called upon to fight it. Based on extensive archival research and interviews with veterans, A Perfect Hell is an important contribution to Canadian military history and an indispensable account of the lives and battlefield exploits of the men who turned the tide of the Second World War.

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About the Author:

John Nadler is a contributing correspondent to CanWest Newspapers, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, and writes for Variety magazine. His articles have appeared in TIME, Maclean’s, Canadian Business, the Ottawa Citizen, The Gazette (Montreal), the National Post, and The Independent in the UK. He lives in Hungary.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

In June 2004, I travelled to Rome as a journalist to cover the sixtieth anniversary of the city’s liberation by Allied armies during the Second World War. At first the assignment seemed little more than a pleasant excuse to visit Italy in early summer. The articles I would be writing would most certainly be relegated to the features sections of newspapers, and then ignored, I assumed, when the commemorations marking the Normandy landings began in France. Sixty years later, there was still no bigger story than D-Day.

In Rome, I made arrangements to meet with a group of Canadian and American veterans who had fought together in a single unit, and were the first soldiers to enter the capital in the wake of the retreating German armies. Bill Story, the executive director of the unit’s veterans association, had arranged for me to join a reunion tour, and visit the old battlefields with the former soldiers and their families. This was my first face-to-face meeting with the men of First Special Service Force (FSSF), or, as the Germans called them, the “Black Devils.” And from the beginning, I was amazed.

I had heard of these men. As a kid I saw the movie The Devil’s Brigade, Hollywood’s exciting if distorted interpretation of the unit and its history. I had spoken to veterans over the phone, and even written one or two commemorative articles about their exploits. At first I was interested in this unit because it had been made up of Canadians and Americans who served under a single command and wore the same uniforms: the only time in the history of both Canada and the U.S. that such a military partnership has happened. In addition, the First Special Service Force was credited with being one of the first of the world’s special operations units, and I was intrigued that Canada was a pioneer in this type of warfare.

“Not very many people in this world get a chance to start something,” one veteran told me. This is true, and in this sense the veterans of the FSSF hold a unique place in military history. They helped develop a revolutionary mode of warfare that is being fought on the front lines of today’s struggle against international terrorism.

In obscure Second World War battlefields such as Monte la Difensa, Monte Majo, and Anzio, these men, who numbered fewer than two thousand, changed the course of the war in Italy. And in the process they tallied an unprecedented record of accomplishment that I found literally stunning when I first heard it mentioned in Daring to Die, a television documentary written and co-directed by a grandson of an FSSF veteran. In only a year of combat, for every Force man who fell in battle, the unit killed 25 of the enemy; for every Force man taken prisoner, the FSSF captured 235 of the enemy.

Their campaign history was just as impressive. The FSSF’s first battle and victory in December 1943 on the central Italian peak of Monte la Difensa broke a month-long stalemate on the Winter Line that had halted the advance of the entire U.S. Fifth Army. Later, at the Anzio beachhead, the Force, depleted by casualties to a mere 68 officers and 1,165 enlisted men, did the work of a division more than ten times its size, guarding thirteen kilometres of the front line for almost one hundred days.

These accomplishments went largely unnoticed, for two reasons: first, the Force was considered a classified weapon, and its victories often went unpublicized; and second, the Pyrrhic Allied victories of the Italian war tended to obscure the unit’s contributions. The Force’s feat on Monte la Difensa was immediately eclipsed by the agonizing Allied campaign to break through the Gustav Line at Cassino; their robust defence of the Anzio beachhead was overshadowed by the fact that the Anzio operation itself was a strategic failure; and their role as the first liberators of Rome was forgotten amid the deafening commotion of the invasion of Normandy two days later. The Force endured tremendous losses, but even this suffering became obscured. After their first battle the Force endured a 30 percent casualty rate; after their first six weeks in combat, their casualty rate rose to 60 percent. This ratio was abnormally high, but because of the Force’s small size its losses represented 1,400 killed, wounded, and missing men – a number that may seem small when set beside the 25,264 casualties Canada withstood in the Italian war.

But despite all the things that set the FSSF apart, in the end it makes most sense to see them as exemplars of the resolve and courage of the Allied war effort, and in particular of the Canadian contribution to it. As it had done in the First World War, Canada fought the Second with the punching power of a much larger nation, fielding whole armies in two theatres of the war, and earning a reputation among friends and enemies alike for doggedness and ferocity. As had been the case in the trenches of France and Belgium in the Great War, the Germans dreaded squaring off against Canadian regiments the second time war engulfed Europe. And long after the guns have fallen silent, the echoes of battle resonate through our culture. Though the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917 did not break the stalemate of the Western front, the gallantry of Canadian troops under Canadian command, and their success where others had failed, marked that battle as a moment when their nation could take its place as an equal at the councils of the great powers. The achievements of the Canadian armies against Hitler’s forces, to say nothing of the Royal Canadian Navy guarding the Atlantic shipping lanes, or the Royal Canadian Air Force contesting the skies against the Luftwaffe, marked Canada as a country willing to match deeds to words in a moment of historical crisis. It is in this light that we should see the Canadians of the FSSF. They were Canada’s best, teamed up with the best of the United States. Fighting at each others’ sides, they were nearly invincible.

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