Few years ago, while visiting in Italy, I booked a talented guide to visit Monte Cassino and its vicinity. As I left the train, upon arriving in the bucolic town whose name is associated to one of the most famous battles of World War II, I was struck by the breathtaking landscape. Up above a steep mountain, the famous Benedictine Abbey lays towering over the surrounding valley.
I immediately wondered what kind of soldiers could conquer such a hostile environment and dislodge the Germans, ferociously guarding the impregnable summits forming the Winter Line set up to block the Allies on their way up North to the Eternal City, Rome.
Some years later and thanks to renowned military historian Saul David, I finally found the answer between the covers of the book The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. Assembled from scratch with Canadian and American soldiers in the summer of 1942 “for a top mission behind enemy lines”, the First Special Service Force was initially trained to operate in winter conditions with a new snow vehicle.
The mission of the unit soon became the object of turf wars and power plays between British and American top brass and politicians. While Churchill – who had a “”particular interest” in the Force” jealously fought toe and nails to reserve these exceptional warriors for an eventual foray in Norway (operation Jupiter), US Army chief of staff George Marshall considered such a venture to be a sideshow. The American warlord was certainly frustrated to exclude such a powerful tool from a vital theater of operations.
In the first half of the book, I grew impatient with the fact that the unit’s constant and difficult training never seemed to be associated with a real fight. After all, there was a war going on and aren’t soldiers trained to fight? But this had to do with the internecine politics of war and the fact that British leaders were dragging their feet to keep them up the Allies sleeves for another day.
The elite soldiers were finally offered battle experience at the end of 1943 when the Allies needed to capture Monte La Difensa. The men would need to reach the summit, through the unprotected flank of the mountain, “an approach that the German defenders ha[d] discounted as too difficult and one that would be […] largely unprotected.” But “such a climb would be […] difficult enough in daylight and unopposed; at night, with an enemy waiting on top, it would be nothing less than “Herculean.””
Unsurprisingly, men like these “did not make good spit-and-polish soldiers.” They were brawlers, sometimes had a hard time with discipline, but they were fascinating characters. I notably think about Larry Piette who “[…] despite the scarcity of water, insisted on shaving each morning on Difensa as an example to the men”, Captain Ed Borders who “had polio as a child and fought off the disability by constant exercise”, or Captain Tom MacWilliam who “did not raise his voice with soldiers who messed up, rather making them feel that they had offended him personally.” Powerful leadership and perseverance lessons for everyone to see.
This being said, I was personally touched by a passage where Saul David writes about the commanding officer who received a letter “[…] from a concerned Quebec lady who informed him that one of his men […] had, on a recent furlough, got her maid pregnant.”
Certainly not anecdotic, this type of situation was undoubtedly very common during World War II. Many years later, companies based on DNA are used to unravel the mysterious origins of so many war children. Including both my parents, born and adopted during the war. How many times did I hear them mention they were “war children”. I remember my father actively searching to discover the identity of his natural parents. The answer might lay in such a letter sent to a commanding officer, unlocking the secrets of my real origins. I certainly would have wanted to know how that story unfolded, but obviously, it was not the topic of the book.
Whether you are interested in discovering the roots of the Green Berets or the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, learning more about the battles waged on the Winter Line (Italy) or if you are looking for an excellent military history book, you will enjoy Saul David’s tome.
On the last page, he quotes a speech from Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, in which the Republican politician mentions that the actions of those men “[…] would have made James Bond Blush.” And he is entirely right. Reality sometimes surpasses fiction. There is no doubt that the men depicted in this page-turning book could easily report for duty to the fictional character of “M” in any of the movies.
I’m now looking forward to Saul David’s next book.
Saul David, The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible, New York, Hachette Books, 2019, 360 pages.