A Perfect Hell: The True Story of the Black Devils, the Forefathers of the Special Forces



In 1942, one of the world’s first commando units, the First Special Service Force, or FSSF, was assembled from hand-picked Canadian and American soldiers.  The all-volunteer unit assembled at Fort Harrison near Helena, Montana.  The soldiers were trained in parachuting, mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and cold-weather survival. They were also taught how to handle explosives, how to operate nearly every field weapon in the American and German arsenals, and hand-to-hand combat skills for killing with their bare hands and their unique V-42 stiletto combat knife.

The FSSF was sent to Italy and given its first test — to seize a key German mountain-top position which had repelled allied divisions for over a month. The FSSF took the twin peaks Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea by storming the supposedly unclimbable rock face at the rear of the German position, which opened the way for the Fifth Army’s campaign to take Rome.

Later, the FSSF held one-quarter of the Anzio beachhead perimeter against a vastly superior German force for ninety-nine days without relief; a force of only 1,200 commandos doing the work assigned other full divisions. Though badly outnumbered, the FSSF took the fight to the Germans, sending nighttime patrols behind enemy lines, setting booby traps and taking prisoners. It was here that they became known among the anxious Germans as “Schwartzer Teufel” (“Black Devils”) for their black face-paint and their terrifying tactic of appearing silently out of the darkness to kill German sentries with their deadly V-42 stilettos.  They earned their nickname through the captured diary of a German officer at Anzio who wrote, “The black devils are all around us every time we come into line and we never hear them.”

Canadian author John Nadler vividly captures the savagery of the Italian campaign, fought as it was at close quarters and steep, cold mountain slopes.  He frankly describes the harrowing experiences of the individual soldiers called upon to fight and risk their lives there.  Based on extensive archival research and interviews with FSSF veterans, A Perfect Hell is an honest account of the lives and battlefield exploits of the men who are justifiably considered the predecessors of today’s U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) and Canada’s Special Operations soldiers.