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A PERFECT HELL (Book Review)


Army.ca Fixture
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They were conceived as part of plan by an eccentric scientist to use a new military vehicle on a secret mission. They were recruited from the best available from not one country but two. They were trained to impossibly high standards, for a mission that was cancelled as soon as they were ready for it. In their first battle they achieved the impossible. In their second battle they became legends, feared by the enemy. At the height of their success they were disbanded, but their triumphs would live on. They were the First Special Service Force, The Black Devils or The Devils Brigade, or as they preferred to refer to themselves, the Force.

John Nadler didn’t start out to write a history of the First Special Service Force. In 2004 he was in Rome as a journalist covering the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Liberation of Rome in 1944. While there he met a group of Canadian and American veterans of the Italian Campaign and joined with them on a pilgrimage to some old battle sites. Over the next few days he was welcomed by this group, who shared some of their stories with him. Out of that came A Perfect Hell.

The First Special Service Force was formally stood up July 20, 1942 at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena Montana. The Force was to be used to parachute into German occupied Norway and attack strategic targets such as hydroelectric plants and possibly heavy water installations. They would utilize a new snow mobile type vehicle developed by the British scientist Geoffrey Pyke, who had also developed the special bombs used to destroy the Ruhr Valley damns.

The mission was coded named Project Plough and as no British troops were available a decision was made to recruit a mixed force of Americans and Canadians. The initial commander was Lt. Col. R. T Frederick (later promoted to Brigadier General) a regular US Army officer and West Point Graduate who was serving in a staff position when chosen.

Frederick recruited the FSSF, from volunteers in both the American and Canadian Armies, requesting soldiers who had previous experience as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters, game wardens, and similar outdoor professions. He wanted soldiers both toughened to the elements and individuals able to think on their own. The FSSF was unique in its formation and organization for two reasons. First it’s multi national make up with approximately a third of the initial 1800 members being Canadian and the remaining two thirds American.

Secondly was in the fact that every member of the force was a fighting soldier. The 1800 members were organized into three Regiments of 600 men each. Each of these was divided into two Battalions of 300, and these in turn into three rifle companies of approximately.

There was no support or logistics troops in the Force at all. A separate US Army Logistics Battalion was assigned to the FSSF to provide all the normal required service support. There were also no heavy or support weapons, artillery in the FSSF. Everything was man packed, the perfect lightly equipped raiding force.

The training at Helena Montana was intensive; especially considering each member was already a trained soldier. Everyone was put through the basic military parachutist course to start. Following that was extensive training on field craft, patrolling and small unit tactics and weapons handling including some unique weapons the Frederick found to equip the Force with.

Everyone also received intensive hand-to-hand combat training and silent killing techniques and became experts with the V-42 Commando dagger designed especially for the FSSF by Frederick.

Mountain and winter training including skiing, snowshoeing, survival skills and how to maintain and operate their new snowmobiles followed in the nearby Rocky Mountains. In May 1943 the FSSF was sent to the Atlantic coast of the United States for further training in amphibious operations, then to Vermont for more training in small boats operations and demolition and sabotage skills.

After all the training was completed, a US Army Inspector General team was brought in to assess the FSSF. The standard tests then in use to determine the combat readiness of a unit were totally useless in regards to the FSSF, with average scores on all tests well above 100% and in some cases reaching 140%. The FSSF was ready for their mission

The problem was there was no mission. Project Plough had been cancelled. Both Canadian and American military leaders were demanding that the Force be disbanded and the troops returned to their old units. Fortunately Frederick was able to find a role for them.

In early 1942 the Japanese had captured the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. In 1943 a combined American and Canadian effort to recapture them was undertaken. The savage defence the Japanese garrison put up on Attu in May 1943 suggested that a specially trained force well versed in operating in a harsh winter climate might be of use in the upcoming invasion of Kiska.

The FSSF departed from San Francisco in July 1943 and took part in the invasion of Kiska August 15. 1943. The invasion was anti climactic, as the Japanese had managed to withdraw their entire garrison from the island in secret prior to the invasion. Still unbloodied the FSSF returned to the Continental US.

They would not remain there long. Lt. General Mark Clark commanding the US Fifth Army in Italy had desperate need of a unit trained in mountain warfare. The FSSF arrived in Italy in November 1943.

The FSSF’s first battle was the capture of the German positions on the Monte la Defensa. British and American troops had failed to dislodge the defenders of this impregnable mountain fortress and suffered severe casualties in the attempt. The FSSF launched a night attack on December 3, 1943 climbing an impossible cliff behind the enemy lines and attacking the Germans from the rear. In three days of desperate fighting they captured the mountain and beat off numerous counter attacks.

Not pausing to rest the FSSF immediately attacked the nearby Monte la Remetana on December 6, 1943 and then in turn Monte Sammurco and Monte Vischiataro. Finally relieved from their continuous mountain battles in early January 1944 the FSSF was sent to regroup in the rear. In one months fighting they had suffered 77% casualties from the elements and the enemy.

Any other unit that had suffered such devastating casualties would have been unfit for further duty for some time. The FSSF were back in action within a month.

On January 22 1944 the British and Americans conducted an invasion of the Italian coast near the town of Anzio just south of Rome. The operation was intended to try and outflank the German mountain defences south of the Italian capital and hopefully capture /liberate it. The landings were a complete surprise however the Allies were slow to exploit their success and soon 50,000 troops were stuck defending a narrow beachhead against superior German forces.

More troops were needed to hold Anzio until a breakout could be organized either there or south at Monte Cassino. On February 1, 1944 the FSSF landed at Anzio and soon took up positions along the Mussolini Canal in the south sector of the beachhead. Some of the casualties from the previous month including many of the non battle ones, exposure and frost bite cases, had returned to service, including more than a few who had done so with out the official paperwork from the hospital.

In addition Frederick had a new source of replacements. The 3rd and the US Ranger Battalions had been almost destroyed in the early days of the Anzio campaign. Several hundred survivors were quickly incorporated into the FSSF. Frederick and Colonel W. Darby the officer who had created the Rangers were classmates at West point and fortunately their view on training and capabilities were similar. The Rangers training and skills were similar to those of the Force and they were quickly integrated into the under strength FSSF units.

Even with these reinforcements though there were less than 2,000 effective combat troops in the FSSF and the sector they were assigned should have been held by a Division with five times as many troops. Rather then sit passively on the defensive Frederick and the Force went on the offensive.

Every night aggressive fighting patrols of the Force crossed over no mans land and attacked the German positions. Sometimes it was small parties who killed or captured sentries in isolated outposts. Other times it was larger bodies of troops conducting elaborate raids far in the enemy’s rear. All had the desired effect, rather than press the over stretched FSSF front lines the Germans opposite kept withdrawing until the gap between the front lines was over half a mile wide.

It was at Anzio that the FSSF earned their nicknames. The Germans began to call them Die schwarzen Teufel, “The Black Devils” because the FSSF members used boot polish to blacken their faces prior to going out on raids. This later became “The Devils Brigade.”

The Black Devils also developed their own unique form of psychological warfare at Anzio. Patrols would leave their special calling card on the bodies of enemy’s soldiers to be found by their comrades the next morning. The calling cards were stickers with the unique FSSF red arrowhead unit flash and the words “Das Dicke Ende kommt noch," translated “The Worst is yet to Come.” Like the patrols the stickers had a negative effect on the Germans moral and effectiveness in this sector.

In May 1944 the allies were in a position to break out of the Anzio beachhead. The FSSF led the way launching assaults at German positions on Monte Arrestino and Rocca Massima on Amy 25th and 27th. Later they would lead the armoured columns north to Rome. On the night of June 4, 1944 elements of the FSSF infiltrated behind German lines and captured seven vital bridges in and around Rome before they could be destroyed. In doing sdo they became the first allied troops to enter Rome.

The FSSF final campaign began two months later. On August 14, 1944 elements of the Force preceded the main invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon, by capturing the three fortified islands of άes d'Hy貥s. After the main force landed on August 22, 1944 the FSSF was attached to the Seventh Army as part of the 1st Airborne Taskforce and continued advancing through southern France towards the Italian border.

On December 5, 1944 in a small French field the unit was formally disbanded. The Canadians were shipped north to join the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and other units of the Canadian Army. The Americans were scattered about their army mostly to Airborne and other elite units.

During their brief existence the 1800 men of the FSSF incurred some 12,000 German casualties and captured 7,000 prisoners. While doing so they sustained a casualty and attrition rate of 600%

Nadler’s book covers the entire 30 odd month history of the Force from their initial recruiting and training through the savage battles in the Italian mountains and the marshes south of Anzio. He also follows up on what became of some of those after the force was disbanded. Frederick would be promoted to Major General and would go on to command first the 1st Airborne Taskforce and later the 45th Infantry Division. Other members of the Force would also go on to high commands and/or glory while some faded into obscurity.

Most of Nadler’s book is a verbal history of events rather than a dry official history. In it one can see how it began as a journalist listening to old soldiers reminisce about battles fought 60 years earlier. All the horror and heroics of combat is here, but also tales of the training in Montana and of the many love affairs with the women of Helena. Not surprisingly many members of the Force settled down here after the war irregardless of what side of the border they were originally from.

There are many humorous anecdotes too, especially those involving how the Forcemen managed to get around the fact that they were never officially issued any vehicles, the experimental snowmobiles, which never left Montana aside. By the time the FSSF reached Rome it had more vehicles than a unit twice its size, most the result of a “midnight requisition.”

Nadler’s easy clear and concise writing style make A Perfect Hell easy to read. Mind the subject matter also helps. At times it is hard to remember one is reading about the exploits of a real military unit and individuals and not something from the pages of a Holly wood screenplay. The book is richly illustrated with battle maps and black and white photographs including many of the commander and other principle characters of the FSSF.

Nadler dispel s several myths about the FSSF, most a result of the 1968 movie The Devils Brigade .

First the American contingent were not recruited from jails and stockades and/or all thrown out of other units. All were volunteers and Frederick was able to pick and choose whom he wanted, especially among the junior officers. Some may have been more free spirited or unorthodox than conventional military units wanted, but that was what the FSSF was looking for.

The Canadians were not combat veterans. The only Canadian troops to have seen combat by July 1942 were the two battalions destroyed at Hong Kong, obviously none of them were able to volunteer for this duty.

There was very little inter national rivalry at least after the initial grouping of the Force, The Canadians and Americans were totally integrated although both national groups did share a common dislike for the local lumberjacks and miners that frequented the bars of Helena Montana. Bar rivals aside the Forcemen got along famously with the residents of Helena.

Incidentally while the Canadians made up no more than a third of the Force, and a special depot was established in Canada to ensure a supply of trained replacements, they occupied a disproportionate amount of command positions. Most of the senior appointments, Company, Battalion and Regimental Commanders were at least initially Canadians.

The First Special Service Force was formally disbanded on December 5, 1944. Their legacy however lives on both sides of the border. When the Canadian Airborne Regiment was established in 1968 it traced its lineage to both the Canadian Parachute Battalion of World War Two and the FSSF. Later the Airborne would become part of the Special Service Force (SSF) established in 1976 as quick reaction Brigade for service at home and abroad. The SSF also traced its lineage to the FSSF.

After the Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded in 1944, the Canadian legacy of the FSSF was carried on with the JTF2 special anti terrorist commando unit and the recently raised Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR).

South of the 49th Parallel the FSSF lives on too. In 1952 Colonel Aaron Bank a veteran of the wartime OSS envisioned and created a new type of unit for the US Army. As a model he used the training techniques and exploits and capabilities of the FSSF. His new unit would soon create it’s own legends. The unit eventually became the US Army Special Forces, the Green Berets.

The Force also lives on its veterans; fewer in number now, but still holding reunions as old soldiers often due, often in Helena Montana. It also lives on in its deeds.

“… the Force never in all its service yielded an inch of ground nor left a battle with an indecisive conclusion. The Force won everything it fought for…”

The Independent Record, Helena, Montana – Sunday, August 7, 1955, page 6


At times it is hard to remember one is reading about the exploits of a real military unit and individuals and not something from the pages of a Holly wood screenplay.


Seem really interesting.

I wonder what the soldiers that left the army did as job after...
Mmm, with th ehelp of google, I would say yes, since november 2005 :)!

MedTech said:
Sorry... but is the book out already? :|

A bit hard to write the review otherwise. I picked mine up from the MBC several months ago.