A Perfect Hell by John Nadler

I just finished A Perfect Hell by John Nadler. It is yet another popular history of a World War II combat unit, the First Special Service Force, that I have enjoyed. The Force, alternatively known as the Devil’s Brigade or the Black Brigade, was the precursor to the modern Special Forces with a twist – it was comprised of Americans and Canadians.

The Force was organized in 1942 for offensive operations against Nazi-occupied Norway. Following an intensive training period, the men were not sent to combat in the frozen lands of Norway, but to the frozen lands of Alaska and then to Italy. The men fought in what some would say was the harshest fighting environment of World War II – the mountains of Italy. Following a major detour to Anzio and Rome, the men took part in Operation Dragoon – the invasion of southern France – and then fought throughout southern France until their disbanding in late 1944.

As go with most popular histories, the focus is on the men and their individual experiences, not on an objective view of a battle. I say this with no undue respect to these types of histories, but as a warning to someone who wants to read a blow-by-blow account of the unit’s actions. Nadler is an excellent artisan in explaining the lives of the men, both professionally and personally. He takes you through the men’s induction into the unit, their escapades with the locals of Helena, Montana (where the Force trained), and sometimes their death.

Nadler captures the feelings and emotions of the men in the Force, as they first taste combat and the heart-wrenching loss of close friends. You sense their exhilaration and excitement in finally getting to fight the Germans and then feel for them as they become hardened to the realities of war. You gain a respect for them and understand why the Germans called them the Black Devils because of their fierce night operations.

You also sense the bitterness that the men feel about being a “sideshow” once the D-Day invasion of Normandy began. These men fought and died for their country, and yet they were cast aside once the “real” war in Europe started in the hedgerows of Normandy.

This book is an excellent beginning in the education of the American public on how hard our boys and allies fought in Italy. As mentioned by Nadler, the men who fought in Italy fought in a time when the war was still in the balance and the Wehrmacht was not a shadow of itself – as it was in Normandy. Any person who wants a general idea of how ruthless and bitter the fighting was in Italy, read Nadler’s book.

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