Making James Bond Blush

TheForce_SaulDavidFew 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.

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Saul David, The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible, New York, Hachette Books, 2019, 360 pages.

Le génie en guerre

ClaudeQuetelOperationsWW2« La guerre n’est jamais avare de nouvelles inventions », d’écrire l’historien Claude Quétel dans son dernier livre Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. J’oserais pousser la note en ajoutant « et d’audace » à cette formule, tellement les stratèges et leurs exécutants y sont allés de prouesses souvent inimaginables durant ces hostilités.

Ces 400 pages m’ont donné l’impression que l’auteur a pris la plume spécialement pour moi. D’abord parce que je suis un fan fini de Ian Fleming et de James Bond, j’ai toujours été fasciné par tout ce qui entoure les opérations spéciales et j’ai eu le privilège de visiter certains lieux décrits entre les couvertures du livre.

Je conserverai toujours un souvenir impérissable de cette journée d’été passée à Zagan, localité polonaise située à environ 200 km de Berlin et 400 km de Varsovie, lien emblématique où était localisé le célèbre camp allemand de prisonniers de guerre Stalag Luft III – immortalisé dans le long métrage La grand évasion (The Great Escape) (1963), mettant en vedette Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson et James Donald pour ne citer que ces noms-là.

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Photo prise au-dessus du nom du Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, lors de ma visite à Zagan à l’été 2015.

Effectuer de nos jours le court parcours du tunnel Harry offre au visiteur la possibilité de mieux comprendre la détermination, l’esprit de sacrifice et la maestria de ces braves hommes qui n’avaient rien perdu de leur volonté de croiser le fer avec la horde nazie. Leur quête d’évasion était d’ailleurs une manière très imaginative de poursuivre ce combat. Et que dire de l’émotion ressentie à la vue du nom de Roger Bushell (le fameux Roger interprété par Richard Attenborough dans le film) inscrit sur l’une des stèles de granit alignées, immortalisant le point de départ, le parcours très étroit, l’effondrement du tunnel et le point de sortie creusé et emprunté par les valeureux fugitifs.

Et que dire que la visite privée qui nous avait été généreusement offerte il y a de cela quelques années par un officier britannique à la retraite plus tôt à travers les tunnels creusés pendant le conflit mondial dans le roc de Gibraltar et sillonnés par nul autre qu’Eisenhower. J’imaginais les tractations et décisions à prendre par le grand homme en sillonnant ces passages interdits au grand public. Si seulement le rocher pouvait parler…

Vous l’aurez compris, j’ai une appétence passionnée pour le sujet. Et les 32 chapitres du livre ont dépassé mes attentes, notamment grâce au style de l’auteur. Les formules du genre « Le pacifisme et son cousin le défaitisme sévissent dans la troupe » ou « Dans le domaine de l’imagination, des trouvailles en tous genres et des idées baroques, la Grande-Bretagne en guerre mérite incontestablement la palme. Ces insulaires ont une psychologie d’éternels assiégés » émaillent le propos et agrémentent la lecture.

On croise aussi fréquemment un « grand amateur d’opérations spéciales » nommé Winston Churchill et d’une Écosse véritable pépinière des forces spéciales britanniques – un héritage notamment commémoré par l’impressionnant Mémorial des commandos situé à Spean Bridge en plein cœur des Highlands (une heure environ au sud-ouest du Loch Ness) et surplombant la région où les combattants appelés à accomplir des faits d’armes légendaires s’entraînaient inlassablement. Ce qui n’a rien pour me déplaire, bien au contraire.

Bref, si vous nourrissez un intérêt pour les batailles de l’ombre durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, il serait tristement regrettable que vous passiez à côté de ces excellentes pages. J’aurais pratiquement même envie de les qualifier de délicieuses, tellement je suis gourmand du genre.

Avec tout ce qu’elle comporte de barbarie, de souffrances et souvent de stupidité, la guerre est champ de l’activité humaine qui fait aussi souvent appel à ce que l’être humain a de plus précieux pour son avancement, son génie.

En trois mots, le dernier livre de Claude Quétel est un pur délice.

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Claude Quétel, Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris, Perrin, 2019, 400 pages.

Je tiens à exprimer ma profonde reconnaissance envers Interforum Canada de m’avoir gracieusement offert un exemplaire du livre.

Moshe Dayan – the Israeli Iron Man

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Moshe Dayan figurine by King & Country (IDF001) photographed on Professor Mark Raider’s article about the legendary Israeli warlord.

In May 2017, King & Country (the world’s most notorious toy soldier collectibles company) released a new series about the Six-Days War, featuring Moshe Dayan as its first figure (IDF001). From what I heard, this collection has met with lots of interest and success. And I will admit that I started collecting the IDF figurines and the legendary eye-patched General is my favorite, for the good reason that he never left me indifferent and I developed a profound admiration for him.

Back when I visited Israel in 2008, I purchased a poster of the famous picture of Uzi Narkis, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin entering Jerusalem in June 1967. And I hanged it proudly on the wall, in front of my bookshelves.

So what is it with a Canadian guy like me admiring this Israeli icon?

I have to admit that, since I’ve always been a staunch defender and supporter of Israel, I never really questioned myself about the phenomenon.

Up until I saw that Professor Mark A. Raider from the University of Cincinnati had written an article about it, pertinently titled “Moshe Dayan: “Israel’s No. 1 Hero” (in America)”.

And what a great treat it was. Trust me, I’ve read my faire share of boredom-summoning papers since my University days. But Mark Raider’s article is not among that lot.

In a nutshell, the author explains that the reason why Dayan became so popular in the United States is directly related to the fact that “he meshed seamlessly with the American faith in military heroes who became statesmen.” You can think of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Andrew Jackson or – one of my very favorites – Theodore Roosevelt here.

“In short, by the 1970s the cultural myth surrounding Dayan – cultivated by his promoters, embraced by his admirers, and encouraged by Dayan himself – not only conformed to the American hero pattern but became an indelible feature of American popular culture.”

So, that’s how and why Moshe Dayan became a heroic figure like Tony Stark or James Bond – “[…] safeguarding Western values and ideals […]” in my psyche.

I guess you can predict that, in such great company, Moshe Dayan’s fame and resonance as a member of the “[…] pantheon of the West’s outstanding war heroes […]” has a very bright future ahead.

And I truly hope that Professor Raider will decide to write a book on this fascinating subject. Under such an eloquent analytic pen, it would be a bestseller – no doubt about it.