The First Special Service Force

Eighty years ago, July 1942, the history of US and Canadian Special Forces began at Ft. Harrison MT with the creation of the First Special Service Force. The story of this amazing unit, who they were, and the legacy they left transcends state and international borders. Theirs is the untold story of two nations creating a unique WWII fighting force made up of the hand-picked best from across North America who set the standard for today’s Special Forces. This legacy continues today with lineage to United States and Canadian Special Operation Force (SOF) active-duty units. Former and active-duty SOF soldiers from both countries would like to honor the FSSF by hosting this anniversary event at Ft. Harrison, where the Force trained in 1942/1943.

The First Special Service Force (FSSF) was formed in 1942 as a top-secret unit made up of US and Canadian soldiers. The FSSF spearheaded the Italian Campaign, taking on the impossible task of clearing the Nazis from the mountains of the Winter Line. They entered combat on December 3, 1943 with a strength of 1,800 men, and completed their mission on January 17, 1944 with fewer than 500 men. The Force’s success in clearing the mountain tops was crucial to the control of the main north/south highway to Rome. The FSSF was then moved to the Anzio beachhead, where it was assigned over 8 miles of the right flank with fewer than 1,100 men, facing a full division of 10,000 Nazi soldiers. For 99 days the Force conducted continuous patrols and night raids into enemy territory at a cost of 106 killed or missing and over 300 wounded. This is where the Force was given the name “The Black Devils” by the Germans, because of their blackened faces and stealth in combat. Again, the Force was the tip of the spear on the drive to Rome, and is credited with being the first Allied patrol to enter Rome on June 4, 1944. Following the liberation of Rome, the Force was given the assignment of leading the landings on Southern France, fighting their way to the Franco-Italian border. In 251 days of combat, the Force suffered 2,314 casualties, 134% of combat strength, captured over 30,000 prisoners, won five US campaign stars, eight Canadian battle honors, and never failed a mission.

Geoffrey Pyke

The Inception

The idea behind the First Special Service Force was proposed by Englishman Geoffrey Pyke, an original thinker on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations HQ. His plan, code named Operation Plough, proposed the creation and training of a small force of highly mobile soldiers that could be inserted into Norway to destroy 14 hydro-electric dams supplying power for Hitler’s nuclear weapons development program. Pyke also envisioned that the commandos could keep much larger forces of conventional German troops occupied thus pulling them away from possible Allied invasion sights.

Mountbatten liked the idea as did Prime Minister Winston Churchill and it was proposed to President Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall. The plan for Operation Plough was given to Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower and ended up on the desk of one of his staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick who reviewed it and reported to Eisenhower that it was militarily unworkable. Because of the high level of interest from both British and American leaders the Army adopted the plan and placed Frederick in charge because he was the man most familiar with the details. He was given carte blanche to recruit men for the unit and requisition whatever supplies and equipment necessary.

B.G. Robert T. Frederick

He named his new command the First Special Service Force (FSSF) with the thought the unusual name might suggest to German spies it was merely an entertainment troupe to raise the morale of soldiers. He selected Fort William Henry Harrison just west of Helena, Montana, as the training venue. Its location in the southwestern portion of the wide, flat, Helena valley provided lots of clear space for airborne troops in training to practice safe parachute landings. The surrounding mountains, some with peaks up to 9,000 feet high and many with rugged cliffs, proved excellent for training in mountaineering. The Montana winter could be counted on to provide plenty of snow for ski and snowshoe training while the frigid temperatures, often plunging to sub-zero temperatures, Fahrenheit, for days at a time, would acclimate the troops for what lay ahead. The unit was activated at Fort Harrison on 20 July 1942.

Canadian Recruitment

In July 1942, the Canadian Minister of National Defense, James Ralston, approved the assignment of 697 officers and enlisted men for Project Plough, under the guise that they were forming Canada’s first airborne unit, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB).

Due to a decision to raise an actual Canadian parachute battalion, the Canadian volunteers for Project Plough were also sometimes known unofficially as the “2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion.” While its members remained part of the Canadian Army, subject to its code of discipline and paid by the Canadian government, they were to be supplied with uniforms, equipment, food, shelter and travel expenses by the U.S. Army. It was agreed that a Canadian would serve as second in command of the Force and that half of the officers and one third of the enlisted men would be Canadian. After Lieutenant Colonel McQueen, the senior Canadian member broke his leg during parachute training, the highest ranking Canadian in the Force was Lieutenant Colonel Don Williamson, who commanded the 2nd Regiment.

U.S. Recruitment

The U.S. volunteers for the force consisted initially of officers from Forts Belvoir and Benning. Letters of recruitment were posted to all U.S. Army units in the Southwest and on the Pacific coast. The letters called for single men, aged 21–35 with three or more years of grammar school. Occupations preferred: rangers, lumberjacks, northwoodsmen, hunters, prospectors, explorers and game wardens. Inspection teams also scoured the western camps for ideal candidates. Those chosen, owing to the secrecy of the mission, were often told that they had been selected to undergo training for a parachute unit. Indeed, the unit was so secretive, that many soldiers did not know where they were when they arrived in Helena for training, as the windows of the trains carrying the troops were painted black.

Hollywood Version of U.S. Recruitment

The recruiting method of the U.S. contingent is the most glaring difference between the real Force and that portrayed in the 1968 MGM movie “The Devil’s Brigade”, and one reason many Forcemen didn’t care for it. The movie portrays the Americans as ne’er-do-wells scraped together from Army post stockades (jails) and offered the choice of the Force in lieu of prison. By contrast the Canadians are portrayed as spit and polish professionals who view with disdain the undisciplined yanks. This may have been to play off the box office success of MGM’s 1967 movie, “The Dirty Dozen”, which used a similar recruiting theme.

Name, Insignia & Uniforms

American members of the Force arrived for training in Helena in standard U.S. Army attire: green twill coveralls, some wearing khaki pants and fatigue hats. Others were dressed in trousers and green uniform jackets and wore green caps. Ultimately, however, the American uniforms did not differ widely from one another. The Canadian troops, however, arrived in all different manners of uniform: some wore kilts, others tartan trousers (trews) and others khaki shorts. Headgear differed just as widely, depending on where the soldier was from – wedge caps for some, black berets for troops taken from armoured regiments and large khaki tam o’ shanters for soldiers from Scots regiments. Under the Williamson-Wickham agreement, Canadian soldiers were issued and wore American uniforms. Eventually, it was decided that the uniforms would come from an American supplier and olive drab trousers and blouses were issued. Two uniform elements differentiated an American from a Canadian Force member:

1) the collar insignia had either U.S. or Canada above the crossed arrows;
2) the identification disc, aka “dog tags” worn by the soldier (Americans wore American metal ID tags and Canadians wore Canadian ID discs).

For mountain warfare, the men were given baggy ski pants, parkas and a helmet. Standard boots were originally the same as those issued to parachuting regiments, but these were substituted with infantry combat boots in Italy.

Colonel Frederick worried from the outset that the soldiers from both countries would have trouble forming a cohesive unit. On a base level, the techniques and commands used by each army were confusing to the other. Commands for marching, for example, had to be homogenized in order for the unit to operate in the field effectively. In order to satisfy the men from both countries, compromises were made. Canadian bagpipers were put into American unit marching bands to play “Reveille” every morning. The marching styles and commands of the American and Canadian armies were mixed and uniforms were made identical. In the end, Frederick’s fears were unfounded as the men bonded through training and dedication to the Force.

Organization, Training and Equipment

Frederick developed the first Table of Organization for the FSSF, what the modern Army calls a Table of Organization and Equipment. The combat force was to be made up of three regiments. Each regiment was led by a lieutenant colonel and 32 officers and boasted a force of 385 men. The regiments were divided into two battalions with three companies in each battalion and three platoons in each company. The platoon was then broken up into two sections. In a departure from the Army’s normal organizational procedure, he established a separate Service Battalion to support the combat regiments. This allowed the combat units to focus on training while the Service Battalion handled work details, maintenance, administration, food services, etc. The men of the Service Battalion received high level infantry and physical training and the parachute riggers had airborne training. None however, had the advanced mountaineering, demolition and weapons skills training of the combat units.

Training time was limited, so an abbreviated airborne training program was carried out at both Fort Harrison and the Helena airport. This training was completed before any other because it was believed that if all the soldiers earned their jumping badges simultaneously a sense of camaraderie would develop within the camp. Helena citizens adopted the Forcemen as their own and loved to watch the airborne training when they had the time. The weekly training schedule comprised reveille at 0430 from Monday to Saturday followed by calisthenics and then breakfast at 0630. The obstacle course was run by 0800 four times a week followed by the day’s training, which differed depending on the month. Soldiers were expected to march double time between training exercises in order to adhere to the strict schedule. Training lectures were given by veterans of overseas wars in the evenings from Monday to Friday. Soldiers were given Saturday evenings and Sundays off. Most of the men went into Helena to relax on their days off.

Marches were done on a 60-mile (97 km) course, the record for which was held by Colonel Marshall’s First Regiment, which completed it in 20 hours. The Force trained with enemy weapons, taking them apart, reassembling and shooting them until they were as proficient with them as with their own. The hand-to-hand combat instructor was Dermot (Pat) O’Neill, an ex-Shanghai International Police Officer, who was an expert at unarmed combat. O’Neill was well-versed in several forms of martial arts as well as knife fighting tactics and taught the men the skills that would serve them in good stead on the battlefield.

Ski training, taught by Norwegian instructors, began in December. The men received lectures and demonstrations on skiing techniques and most had mastered the basics in two weeks. At this point the men were made to ski cross-country in formation from dawn until dusk with all of their equipment until they were up to Norwegian army standards. As a light infantry unit destined for alpine or winter combat, various items of non-standard clothing, equipment and rations, including skis, parkas, haversacks and the mountain ration were issued.

Forcemen with "Johnny Gun"
Forcemen were armed with a variety weapons, both standard issue and otherwise. In the latter category, they had obtained a substantial amount of the latest plastic explosive available for demolition training, far more than they could possibly use. They wanted a replacement for the twenty plus pound Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), a cumbersome weapon for a man to carry in the mountains along with his regular gear. They found that the Marine Raiders needed more explosives and had a large quantity of the M1941 Johnson light machine gun not well suited for their operations. The Johnson weighed about half as much as a BAR, so in classic military style they traded the Marines several hundred pounds of plastic explosive for 800 of the Johnsons. Called the “Johnny Gun” by Forcemen, the Johnson greatly increased the firepower of the unit and was highly regarded by those who used it in combat. Frederick himself participated in the design of a fighting knife made exclusively for the Force called the V-42, a derivative of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife.

The Farewell

In the nearly nine months spent training at Fort Harrison, the members of the Force from both nations were adopted by the citizens of Helena who were proud to have such a unit training in their own backyard. “The Devil’s Brigade” movie highlighted a minor local legend, the “fight with the lumberjacks” at the Gold Bar in downtown Helena (spoiler alert, the lumberjacks lose). It stands out only for being the exception to the norm. The Forcemen were young men far from home and, unlike soldiers and sailors in larger historically military cities, which often cater to the baser desires, in Helena they found a welcome worthy of the prodigal son. They were taken in to families and some forty of the surviving original Forcemen, Canadian and U.S. alike, returned to Montana’s Capital City following the war to marry and build families, businesses, even careers in the Montana National Guard.

As the training at Fort Harrison neared its end there were tearful farewells from Helena families, some likely as heartfelt as those for their own husbands, fathers, sons and daughters. As a “thank you” to the community that had embraced them, Colonel Frederick arranged a farewell parade on 6 April 1943 to honor Helena’s citizens. Thousands of Helenans turned out to line both sides of Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s main street, as the members of the Force marched north, by company. A reviewing stand was set up at the intersection with Sixth Avenue for local and state government leaders and military officers and each company rendered honors with “eyes right” as it passed.

The FSSF left Helena on 13 April 1943 and traveled by rail to Camp Bradford, Virginia for amphibious operations training at which they excelled. In May the Force transferred to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, where their infantry and mountain combat training were evaluated by the Army Ground Forces staff prior to overseas deployment.
Farewell Parade (colorized) by Les Jorud

Campaigns

On 27 February 1943, Norwegian commandos destroyed the deuterium (heavy water) production facility at the Vermook hydro-electric plant at Rjukan Falls in Telemark County, Norway. This was the original goal Project Plough was designed to undertake, and with that the First Special Service Force lost its mission. It was decided the cold weather operations training the Force had received would be valuable in support of Operation Cottage, the planned assault against Japanese forces occupying a portion of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. With a new mission, the Force departed Fort Ethan Allen for San Francisco, arriving at the Port of Embarkation on Independence Day 1943 and on 10 July they sailed north.

On 15 August 1943, the FSSF joined the invasion forces marshaled off the island of Kiska. Ironically, Japanese forces had abandoned the islands due to lack of support from the Imperial Navy shortly before. They left most of their arms and equipment behind. Nevertheless, the few days spent combing the islands for remaining enemy troops, battling the weather and muskeg while avoiding friendly fire from trigger happy American troops they were supposed to be leading validated their intense training and is a story in itself.

On 18 August, 1943, Colonel Frederick received the following message: HIGHEST AUTHORITY DIRECTS THAT YOU RETURN SPECIAL SERVICE FORCE TO SAN FRANCISCO WITHOUT DELAY – NIMITZ. With that, the FSSF re-embarked troopships heading for San Francisco, arriving on 30 August and 1 September. They left ship at Camp Stoneman, California, and returned to Fort Ethan Allen for additional training and testing, arriving on 9 September.


In October 1943, the commander of the United States Fifth Army, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark ordered the FSSF to Italy where its members demonstrated the value of their unique skills and training. The Force arrived in Casablanca in French Morocco in November 1943 and quickly moved to the Italian front arriving at Naples on 19 November and immediately going into the line with the U.S. 36th Infantry Division.

The Force was tasked with taking two heavily fortified German positions in the Italian mountains; one at Monte La Difensa and the other at Monte La Remetanea. These positions were controlled by the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment with the Herman Goering Panzer Division in reserve (the former an infantry formation, and the latter an armored division). The importance of these mountains lay in their position relative to Hitler’s Gustav Line. That is, the German winter line positioned on La Difensa and Remetanea were the last entrenched lines before the Gustav and an allied push through the mountains would enable them to advance closer to Rome. Strategically, the mountains provided a commanding view of the countryside and highway, giving German artillery on the mountain control of the surrounding area. The German artillery atop La Defensa were also using a new weapon – the Nebelwerfer, a multi-tube rocket launcher that the Allied troops nicknamed the “Screaming Meemie” and “Moaning Minnie” due to the unique sound. The paths leading up La Difensa were heavily scouted by the Force prior to their attack and it was reported to Lieutenant Colonel T.C. MacWilliam (who would lead the 2nd Regiment’s assault on Remetanea) believed that the best way to approach the entrenched enemy was up an almost vertical escarpment over the right of the hill mass. In doing this, the Force hoped to catch the Germans off guard, as previous allied attacks on the mountain had met the enemy head on.

The assault was planned for 2 December, while the men were trained in mountain climbing and fighting tactics at their temporary barracks at Santa Maria. The plan was as follows (all Regiments were in the 1st Company): At 16:30 hours on 1 December, 2nd Regiment would be trucked to within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the base of the mountain and march the rest of the way to La Difensa (6-hour march). 1st Regiment, coupled with U.S. 36th Infantry Division would be the reserve units for the 2nd Regiment. Third Regiment would be split in two, half to supply the 2nd Regiment following the initial assault and the other half to be reserves with the 1st Regiment and 36th Infantry Division. All identification on Force soldiers was to be removed except their dog tags.

After reaching the base of the mountain and having had a single night’s rest, 2nd Regiment (600 men total) began their ascent of La Difensa on 2 December at dusk under cover of a heavy artillery barrage. One soldier recalls the severity of the shelling: “It looked as if we were marching into Hell. The whole mountain was being shelled and the whole mountain seemed to be on fire”.

The soldiers of the 2nd Regiment came within range of the German positions at midnight and began to climb the final cliff, which jutted steeply upwards for 1,000 feet (300 m). The men climbed with ropes tied to one another in the freezing rain. Upon reaching the top, MacWilliam signaled his men to move forward into a depression in front of the German entrenchment. Initially, the soldiers were given the order to hold their fire until 0600, but the Germans were made aware of the allied positions after members of the Force tripped over loose gravel while moving along the mountaintop. The Germans shot flares into the air and the battle began. Through gun and mortar fire, the men of the 2nd Regiment managed to set up machine guns and return fire, surprising and overwhelming the Germans. The 5th Army Staff had guessed that the battle would last between 4–5 days, but within two hours, the Germans on La Difensa had retreated to La Remetanea.

Previously, American and British forces had suffered many casualties in futile attempts to take the important Camino Ridge. The FSSF was successful in taking their initial objective of La Difensa but were delayed in obtaining their actual objective of Monte La Remetanea (Hill 907). The attack on 907 was halted after the death of the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel T.C. MacWilliam. While he desired that the Force momentum continue, Frederick ordered a halt in the advance on 907 in order to wait for reinforcements and supplies. The Force dug in at Difensa, anticipating a German counterattack.

However, massive allied artillery barrages and the flooding of both the Rapido and Garigliano rivers prevented the Germans from reforming. While waiting for the orders to attack Remetanea, the 2nd Regiment were resupplied by the 1st and 3rd Regiments, who brought them whiskey and condoms (to keep the barrels of their guns dry in the rain). Once the British forces broke through the German lines at Monte Camino, the Force was ordered to attack their primary objective (Hill 907). The successful assault on Difensa was the basis for the 1968 motion picture titled The Devil’s Brigade.

The FSSF immediately continued its attack, assaulting Monte La Remetanea from 6 to 9 December. It captured Hill 720, starting from Monte Sammucro on 25 December, and after difficulties assaulted Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro almost simultaneously on 8 January 1944.

During the mountain campaign the FSSF suffered 77% casualties: 511 total, 91 dead, 9 missing, 313 wounded with 116 exhaustion cases. They were relieved by the 142nd Infantry.

Following the Québec Conference in August 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was moved to London to plan for the Normandy landings. Command of the Mediterranean Theater was given to British General Henry Maitland Wilson. General Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied Armies in Italy, had formulated the plan to land Allied troops at Anzio in order to outflank German positions in the area. German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring commanded the four German divisions at Anzio, which included the Hermann Goering Division and the 35th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS Division. Combined German and Italian strength at Anzio was an estimated 70,000 men.

The Special Force brigade was withdrawn from the mountains in January and on 1 February was landed at the beachhead created by Operation Shingle at Anzio, south of Rome, replacing the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, which had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Cisterna. Their task was to hold and raid from the right-hand flank of the beachhead marked by the Mussolini Canal/Pontine Marshes. First Regiment was positioned on the Force’s right front, which comprised one-third of the entire line, while the 3rd Regiment guarded the remaining two-thirds of the line. Second Regiment, which had been reduced to three companies following the attacks on La Difensa, Sammucio and Majo, were tasked with running night patrols into Axis territory. Shortly after the FSSF took over the Mussolini Canal sector, German units pulled back up to 0.5 miles (0.80 km) to avoid their aggressive patrols. The Force’s constant night raids forced Kesselring to fortify the German positions in their area with more men than he had originally planned. Reconnaissance missions performed by the Devil’s often went as deep as 1,500 feet (460 m) behind enemy lines.

Frederick was greatly admired by the soldiers of the FSSF for his willingness to fight alongside the men in battle. On the beachhead in Anzio, for example, a nighttime Force patrol walked into a German minefield and was pinned down by machine gun fire. Colonel Frederick ran into battle and assisted the litter bearers in clearing the wounded Force members.

German prisoners were often surprised at how few men the Force actually contained. A captured German lieutenant admitted to being under the assumption that the Force was a division. Indeed, General Frederick ordered several trucks to move around the Forces area in order to give the enemy the impression that the Force comprised more men than it actually did. An order was found on another prisoner that stated that the Germans in Anzio would be “fighting an elite Canadian-American Force. They are treacherous, unmerciful and clever. You cannot afford to relax. The first soldier or group of soldiers capturing one of these men will be given a 10-day furlough.”

It was at Anzio that the Germans dubbed the FSSF the “Black Devils.” There is no record of any German ever referring to the Force as “The Devil’s Brigade.” They were referred to as “black” devils because the Brigade’s members smeared their faces with black boot polish for their covert operations in the dark of the night. During Anzio, the FSSF fought for 99 days without relief. It was also at Anzio that the FSSF used their trademark stickers; during night patrols soldiers would carry stickers depicting the unit patch and a slogan written in German: “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” said to translate colloquially to “The worst is yet to come”. They placed these stickers on the bodies of German soldiers as well as fortifications. Canadian and American members of the Force who lost their lives are buried near the beach in the Commonwealth Anzio War Cemetery and the American Cemetery in Nettuno, just east of Anzio.

When the U.S. Fifth Army’s breakout offensive began on 25 May 1944, the FSSF was sent against Monte Arrestino, and attacked Rocca Massima on 27 May. The FSSF was given the assignment of capturing seven bridges in the city to prevent their demolition by the withdrawing Wehrmacht. During the night of 4 June, members of the FSSF entered Rome, the first Allied unit to do so. After they secured the bridges, they quickly moved north in pursuit of the retreating Germans.
In August 1944 FSSF came under the command of Colonel Edwin Walker when Brigadier General Frederick, who had commanded the Force since its earliest days, left on promotion to major general to command the 1st Airborne Task Force.

A Force patrol returns to their lines on the
Anzio beachhead after a successful ambush.

Jubilant Roman citizens surround Captain Mark Radcliffe’s (passenger seat with rifle) Jeep.
On 14 August 1944, the FSSF landed on the islands of Port Cros and Île duLevant during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. They fought the small Battle of Port Cros in which they captured the five forts on the islands from the German Army. Nine men were killed in action or died of wounds received in combat. On 22 August it was attached to the 1st Airborne Task Force, a provisional Seventh Army airborne division, and later made part of the Task Force. On 7 September it moved with the 1st Airborne Task Force to defensive positions on the Franco-Italian border. During the war the 1,800-man unit accounted for some 12,000 German casualties, captured some 7,000 prisoners, and sustained an attrition rate of over 600%.

Disbandment, 1944

First Special Service Force memorial at Memorial Park in Helena, Montana early 1950s
The FSSF was disbanded 5 December 1944 in a field near [Villeneuve-Loubet], on the extreme southeast Mediterranean coast of France. Villeneuve-Loubet holds a special place in the history of the Force, not only because the unit was broken up there, but also because it is one of the villages that the FSSF had the hardest time capturing in southern France, on 26 August 1944. The day the unit was disbanded, the American commander held a parade honouring the unit. To end the ceremony, the Canadian elements were dismissed by being honoured by the American troops with a Pass in Review, eyes right, officer’s salute. After the unit’s break up, the Canadians were sent to other Canadian units (most of them became replacements for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion). Some American members were sent to airborne divisions as replacements, others to ranger battalions, and still others formed the 474th Infantry Regiment, which served with the Third United States Army and performed occupation duty in Norway. United States Army Special Forces Groups (lineal descendants of FSSF) celebrate Menton Day every 5 December with their Canadian military comrades and surviving members of the Force. Usually there is a combined parachute jump, a pass in review, and a formal ball.

Additional Resources

The pages are printed with permission from: Big Sky Guardian: The Quarterly Magazine for the Montana National Guard, Spring 2013, (now defunct).