Seven Days in Hell: Canada’s Battle for Normandy and the Rise of the Black Watch Snipers, by David O’Keefe, Harper Perennial, Toronto, 2019, $29.99
During World War II Canada’s 1st Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), seemed cursed. The unit’s first battle was the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid. On “Black Friday” (Oct. 13, 1944), during the Scheldt campaign, the battalion launched an attack that saw all four company commanders killed and one company of 90 men reduced to four. However, the unit’s worst day was July 25, 1944. Seven Days in Hell tells that story.
David O’Keefe relates a fascinating perspective, centering on the dozen sniper-scouts of the battalion’s support company. It is a story the author is more than qualified to tell, having served in the regiment some 30 years ago. He knows its men, and they know him and have shared their remembrances with him. In his introduction the author acknowledges, “Memory, of course, is a fickle beast,” noting that personal recollections provide “tone and atmosphere” but must be “cross-referenced with the archival record to verify historical accuracy.”
Following his own military service, O’Keefe spent a dozen years working for the Canadian Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage. More recently, he has conducted battlefield tours and collaborated on 15 documentaries for producers from the UKTV network to the History channel, hosting War Junk on the latter. He preceded Seven Days in Hell with the award-winning docudrama Black Watch Snipers (2015).
His new book relates the Battle of Verrières Ridge with meticulous accuracy, driven by an emotional and evocative narrative, in which “themes of heroism, courage, determination, resilience and friendship walk hand in hand with cowardice, frailty, chaos and horror.” Spoiler alert: 325 highlanders set off up Verrières Ridge that July morning, and only 15 survived. Seven Days in Hell is a tragic tale told well.
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