- A Perfect Hell: The Forgotten Story of the Canadian Commandos of the Second World War
A Perfect Hell is John Nadler's history of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), a combined US-Canadian special operations unit of the Second WorldWar that fought in the Aleutian Islands, Italy, and southern France. Originally formed in the summer of 1942 to conduct sabotage missions in occupied Europe, the FSSF was composed of soldiers from both Canada and the United States, making it a unique development in the history of both nations – it was the first and only example of a completely integrated 'North American' military formation. Within the force, Canadian and American soldiers were virtually indistinguishable and served together without much regard for nationality. They used the same weapons, wore identical uniforms, and developed a unique sense of pride and esprit de corps that characterized the unit throughout its existence. Although the intended sabotage mission never materialized and the force was ultimately reorganized as an elite light infantry brigade, its unique binational composition survived and remained intact until the unit was disbanded in late 1944. For that reason, the force is today remembered as the proudly shared inheritance of both Canada and the United States; it has been the subject of several books and a feature-length Hollywood film, and has even been commemorated by a memorial highway between Montana and Alberta. While it would therefore be difficult to maintain that this famed unit has been in any way 'forgotten,' Nadler's account draws on personal interviews with its veterans and extensive archival research to provide valuable insight into the spirit and character of its soldiers.
Earlier histories of the force have all drawn attention to its distinguished combat record and the reputation its soldiers won at such great cost during the defence of the Anzio beachhead and the difficult mountain fighting on the approaches to Cassino. Nadler's account, however, will appeal for its clarity of description and the author's use of personal interviews with force veterans to convey a sense of how these soldiers experienced the war. A Perfect Hell matches and often exceeds the thoroughness of operational detail provided by Robert D. Burhans in his classic The First Special Service Force: A War History of the North Americans (1947), yet Nadler has also succeeded in developing the character and personalities of several key figures in the narrative. Feelings of homesickness and the pain of those who were [End Page 391] wounded, or who lost friends, are thereby recounted in very personal detail, and A Perfect Hell also does much to explain the unique sense of pride and comradeship that characterized this US-Canadian force during its brief existence. A journalist by profession, Nadler has written a history of the First Special Service Force that reads like a novel, but that is all the more absorbing when the reader remembers that he is recounting the experiences of real-life individuals and events.
A Perfect Hell is directed towards a general audience seeking to appreciate stories of courage and achievement, and perhaps for that reason it exhibits several of the characteristics that typically frustrate academic readers. These include a scarcity of references, averaging one per page. On more than one occasion Nadler leaves an otherwise fascinating detail unreferenced and unsupported, such as when he suggests that Robert T. Frederick, the commander of the FSSF, was infuriated by a decision made by the commanding general of the US 36th Division that inadvertently left his soldiers exposed during the attack on Monte la Remetanea. Frederick is said to have later intimated to his men that he would never allow them to be 'wasted by an outside officer again.' If this was indeed the case, it would place the unit's involvement in the breakout from Anzio in a new and rather tragic perspective. These cavils aside, the index is excellent, the maps are useful, and the photographs were well selected and their sources referenced. Further, and most importantly, Nadler's narrative style allows...