19 March 2007

Book review of Wood's We move only forward

This is the second review I’ve completed of a recent Vanwell Publishing Limited book on Canadian military history. This time around, the book is James A. Wood’s We move only forward: Canada, the United States and the First Special Service Force 1942-1944 (Vanwell, 2006).

Some might argue that Canadian-American military cooperation has never been as close as it is now, particularly in the naval task forces of the past fifteen years in the Arabian Gulf or in the United Nations and NATO missions in Afghanistan since 2001. In some ways, that may be true. However, one unit formed during the Second World War – the First Special Service Force – was, as James Wood puts it “largely without parallel and stands today as an anomaly in US-Canadian military cooperation. Prior to this, Canadian soldiers had never served in such close association with the United States Army, and throughout and after the long Cold War, continuing military cooperation between Canada and the United States has resulted in no similar examples of such near-complete integration” (p.10).

In brief, the First Special Service Force (FSSF) was formed by officers and men from both Canada and the United States as a “North American” military unit “in which soldiers from the two armies served together without regard for nationality” (p.10). Initially formed in 1942 for a mission in Norway which was ultimately cancelled, the FSSF was reorganized, reequipped and retrained for a more sustained combat role, a role which it undertook in Italy and southern France in 1943 and 1944, before its disbandment in December 1944. Between 1942 and 1944 about 1,500 Canadian soldiers served in the force, 155 being killed in the fighting in Italy and France.

It is the intention of James A. Wood to retell “the history of the First Special Service Force from a Canadian perspective, focusing in particular on the issues surrounding the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, the official designation given to the Canadian element of the FSSF” (p.11). The author, currently a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, has reworked his master’s thesis (“The Canadian Army and the First Special Service Force, 1942-1944”, University of New Brunswick, 2003) into this published version.

Wood contends that the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion was really an administrative entity, mostly created for the purposes of differences in pay and discipline. Canadian and American soldiers were scattered throughout the FSSF, using the same weapons, wearing the same (American) uniforms, and serving under the same officers. As a result, the Canadian battalion was a “paper unit” (p.11). However, it was also an entity which “became the subject of a disproportionate amount of high-level consideration” (p.11) at military headquarters in Ottawa, London, Washington and in the field in Italy. As Wood notes: “Were it possible to gauge the success of a paper unit by the volume of letters, official reports and telegrams it generated, the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion would have to be judged a resounding success” (p.11).

This is not really an operational history of the FSSF, although operations are definitely discussed. It is also not a book of individual stories on the members of the FSSF. It is, to be honest, an administrative history of the Canadian component of the FSSF. Wood notes that while the Force was successful operationally “their achievements in the field were often set against a background of frustrating miscommunication and bureaucratic tangles in Ottawa, Washington and overseas” (p.15). He wants to explore how the “bi-national composition” of the unit made its existence more difficult, may have led ultimately to its disbandment, and why such an “experiment” had not been repeated since.

The first chapter, “The Talented Mr Pyke”, deals with the background to the formation of the FSSF as a whole. This includes discussion of the efforts of a very eccentric British civilian official, and his relations with the American military and the Canadian Army. Originally designated “Operation PLOUGH”, the idea for the FSSF evolved from a plan to create winter warfare capable commando detachments which could used in snow-covered areas of Nazi-occupied Europe. Even though the initial plan to use the force collapsed, Canadian interest in the force – as a combined American-Canadian military formation – remained strong, and the creation of the FSSF proceeded.

By chapter two, “Being Special in Helena, Montana”, the FSSF had been authorized, and was now getting down to the business of being formed. Administrative questions quickly arose. Would Canadian troops have to be released from the Canadian Army to serve in the American Army? Was the FSSF to be a joint American-Canadian unit or really just an American one? Compromises were found to these and other questions, resulting in all soldiers swearing allegiance to their officers, not to either country. Canadian troops would also receive their pay and pensions from Canada, their lodgings, rations and equipment from the United States.

The structure of the FSSF was determined, officers were assigned, weapons and unarmed combat training initiated. Canadian soldiers seemed to be settling in well to the training and the location, one officer noting: “The relationship between Canadian and American personnel is most satisfactory” (p.40). At the same time, some administrative complaints were arising, such as the fact that Canadian soldiers were being paid much less than their American counterparts.

Despite the cancellation of its initial campaign, the FSSF, as outlined in chapter 3, “Finding a Mission in 1943” continued “maintaining its emphasis on skiing, mountain climbing, and living in cold climates, albeit with increasing amounts of time spent on battle drill and weapons use” (p.56). The truth was, the Force’s role was now uncertain. Nevertheless, leadership attempted to maintain its early training while initiating training to help meet an expected transition of the FSSF to “an assault infantry role”.

It was during this period that the first major Canadian administrative problem arose, a problem which Wood places at the top of the list throughout the existence of the FSSF. During the initial training period personnel losses due to injury or soldiers simply failing the course were reducing the Canadian presence in the FSSF. This brought up the issue of reinforcements. The American commanding officer of the Force still saw it being used in a single major operation and, therefore, refused to allow Canadian reinforcements at this point. The difficulty with this decision was that if the FSSF was altered to fill a more permanent, assault infantry role, there would be no mechanism in place to provide Canadian reinforcements. This issue formed part of the background at the FSSF set off to participate in the Kiska landings in August 1943.

By chapter 4, “A ‘Special’ Reinforcements Crisis”, the reinforcement problem for the Canadian portion of the FSSF had become a “crisis”. The FSSF had arrived in Italy in November 1943, and began combat operations the following month. The Canadians alone lost twenty-seven soldiers killed, eighty-six wounded and forty-one losses due to fatigue by the end of the year. As Wood writes: “Although some of the exhaustion cases were already beginning to recover and many of the wounded could be expected back eventually, it became painfully obvious that without reinforcements the Force would not survive many similar missions” (p.87).

By late January 1944 the situation regarding Canadian troop strength had deteriorated further, with nearly half of the original Canadian element dead or wounded. Meanwhile, the Americans had begun to provided reinforcements for their portion of the FSSF. This decision – a definite reversal in the American policy – “exasperated” the leadership of the Canadian Army.

Further examination into the Canadian position on the FSSF led to consideration of pulling the Canadians out entirely and using them as reinforcements for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Wood notes: “After spending an entire year in training, the Force was, arguably, being squandered by the US Fifth Army – employed as ‘glorified infantry’ with ‘all the special training going by the boards, except possibly mountain climbing’” (p.96).

The Canadian decision to approach the Americans and suggest the withdrawal of the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion came too late. Predicated on the FSSF not being involved in active operations, the request to pull the Canadians out was no longer feasible as the entire Force was now on its way to join the defence of the Anzio bridgehead.

The FSSF spent February to May 1944 in the Anzio bridgehead. As chapter 5, “Punch-Drunk: The Anzio Bridgehead”, describes, this type of combat only reinforced the Canadian perception that the Force was not fighting the type of war for which it had originally been designed, equipped and trained. Forced into a corner, Canadian Military Headquarters authorized reinforcements for the Canadian element in the FSSF in March 1944, bringing in personnel from reinforcement pools in Italy. Chapter 6, “Reorganization Under Fire”, describes this process and how the FSSF increasingly came to resemble an American Ranger type unit, fighting convention infantry operations in the bridgehead, during the breakout, and in the advance into Rome.

As described in chapter 7, “Disbandment in Southern France”, by June 1944 even the American officer commanding the FSSF was requesting it be reorganized as a normal infantry regiment. He seems “to have finally given up hope that the Force might be employed in a role similar to the one for which it had originally been organized and trained” (p.160). Nonetheless, in August 1944 the FSSF was landed in Southern France as part of Operation DRAGOON. Earlier that month, Canadian military authorities made it clear there would be no more Canadian reinforcements for its portion of the FSSF. Requirements in Italy and North West Europe were making infantry reinforcements a scarce commodity, and none were going to be provided for the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion. The Americans, meanwhile, had thought the matter over, and General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, ordered the FSSF to be disbanded. That action was carried out on December 5, 1944.

Wood concludes:

From the Winter Line to the Mussolini Canal, Artena and Rome, the Force had established an enviable combat record – and did so despite the many difficulties encountered along the way. The problems had been of an administrative nature, particularly in regard to planning and communication, between the nations involved. They should not, and have not, overshadowed the achievement of the Canadian and American soldiers who carried on in the field regardless of the events at headquarters. (p.185)

This is an interesting work on the administrative/political/structural side of the story of the Canadian contribution to the First Special Service Force. The author’s claims to structural difficulties undermining the FSSF seem quite strong, and provide an interesting take on the subject.

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