Nowadays it’s not hard to imagine special military units in any of the nation’s armed conflicts. After all, the US Army Special Forces have been seen in films such as John Wayne’s 1968 film The Green Berets (based off a novel by Robin Moore), Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (himself a Green Beret in Vietnam) wrote a song about them in 1966, and let’s not forget the Green Beret everyone thinks of: John Rambo, himself a fictional creation of David Morrell). That’s not to include the numerous books and movies that have been done about the US Navy SEALs.
The US Special Forces, however, owe their lineage to two significant organizations. The first being the Jedburgh teams of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA, of which the Special Forces founder had been a part of, and the First Special Service Force, a joint US-Canadian fighting force that was small enough to go behind enemy lines for sabotage missions and the like. Ideally they would be trained for winter conditions, due to the nature of the war.
In 1942 the US had entered the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and, following shortly after, Germany’s declaration of war against the US. The intent of the US had to just go to war against the Japanese Empire, but now with Germany declaring war it would be a war fought on two parts of the globe. It was indeed a world war.
In mid-1942, among arguments between US and England about a cross-channel invasion from the UK to the European mainland, Geoffrey Pyke devised a plan for a small elite force to wreak havoc on the enemy infrastructure in three key areas: Norway, Romania, and the Italian Alps. Their primary objective would be hydroelectric plants, which the Germans used in their atomic research, and oil fields, which fueled the German war machine.
Pyke, an English journalist, educationalist, and an inventor, proposed his idea to Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations Headquarters, which Pyke worked for at the time. This was in March 1942. Pyke’s plan would consist of Allied commando parachuting into Norway to establish a covert base on the Jostedals breen (large glacier plateau). His plan also called for a special tracked vehicle to be used in snow.
This is very similar to US Special Operation units in Afghanistan using four-wheelers to get to target areas quickly in the mountainous region. What made Norway so critical was in Rjukan, where the Germans were researching atomic weapons (imagine if they had perfected the A-bomb) and the power stations supplied 49% of power.
In the same month (March), the plan was passed on to the US due to demands on Mountbatten and British industry. This was at the Chequers Conference where Chief of Staff General George Marshall accepted the suggestion. The next month, the US government asked automobile manufacturers to come up with the design of Pyke’s tracked vehicle, since nothing like it existed at this point. Studebaker came up with the T-15 cargo carrier, which would then become the M29 Weasel.
What was known as Project Plough was scrutinized by Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick in the Operations Division of the Chief of Staff, when the concept papers came through. He had deemed the small number of elite soldiers proposed in the plan as too small to do any real damage, so opted to propose strategic bombing, instead. Generals Marshall and Eisenhower, however, were unwilling to compromise the chance to open an European front. They then used Plough to create an allied effort to shift to the Pacific theater of war.
Lieutenant Colonel Howard R. Johnson was the first officer chosen to command the force, but had several strikes against him. He didn’t get along with Pyke and argued with Eisenhower and Mountbatten about the feasability of Plough, and so was transferred out. Ironically, the man that took over after him was none other than the man that thought strategic bombing would be more effective.
Robert T. Frederick took over after Mountbatten suggested the lieutenant colonel for the job. Eisenhower approved it and Frederick, after being promoted to colonel, set to work to create a fighting force. It was originally supposed to be three parts Canadian-American-Norwegian, but the shortage of Norwegians left it Canadian-American.
In July 1942, the unit was activated into a three regiment force. The Canadian Minister of Defence approved 697 officers and enlisted men to be recruited. They did so under the guise of forming Canada’s first airborne unit, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. These Canadian volunteers were referred to as the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion. The actual parachute unit was not official until April-May 1943 under the title 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion.
The Canadian portion of the First Special Service Force was to remain part of the Canadian army, as far as payroll was concerned, but their travel and gear was paid for by the US Army. The agreement was made that the second-in-command, one-half of the officers, and one-third of the enlisted men would be Canadian.
As far as the Americans were concerned, the initial volunteers came from Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Fort Benning, Georgia. More came through after letters of recruitment were posted in the southwest and on the Pacific Coast. What the recruiters were looking for were:
- Men aged 21-35.
- Three or more years of grammar school.
- Preferred occupations of rangers, lumberjacks, northwoodsmen, hunters, prospectors, explorers and game wardens.
Inspection teams scoured the western camps for those ideal candidates. Those recruited were often told they had been chosen to form a parachute unit. This was only half a lie. Indeed, the secrecy of the mission was so vital that the windows of the trains were blacked out so they didn’t know where they were going until they got there. They were, however, parachuting within 48 hours of arriving at the fort.
Another interesting point, the forming of such a group, even a parachute unit, was not posted in the Daily Inter Lake, which was the main newspaper in the Flathead Valley. There was, however, on July 9, 1942, a draftee group of 120 leaving for Missoula for hearing tests. It’d be interesting if any of them was snagged for the Force.
The force was trained at Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Montana. The former mining town was chosen as a primary training location for flat terrain for airborne training, and close proximity to rugged mountains, perfect for winter training, which included skiing.
The training schedule was set for the duration of August-October the men were parachuting, weapons training, demo usage, small unit tactics, and physical training. The two months of October and November were spent training on unit tactics and physical training. The rest of the first year of their existence was spent from November to July skiing, rock climbing, adaptation to cold climates and operation of the M29 Weasel.
Near the end of November 1942, during a training patrol to McDonald Pass, the Force first tried out the M-Ration. The Mountain ration was to be used with troops in high-altitude or mountainous regions of the European Theater of War, but it was strongly disliked by the men. It was scraped, despite being very filling.
The force was split into three regiments, with each regiment being commanded by a lieutenant colonel. They had a total of 32 officers and a force of 385 men. The regiments were further broken down into two battalions, with three companies of men, and three platoons in each company. Each platoon would be further broken into two sections.
Aleutian Islands (Alaska)
After their initial training period, the force moved to Camp Bedford, Virginia, on April 15, 1943, and then to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, on May 23, 1943. Only two months later, the First Special Service Force found themselves at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation on July 4, 1943.
At the island of Kiska in the Aleutian chain of islands off of Alaska, Japanese had a presence that the US couldn’t allow. So, on August 15, 1943, the First Special Service Force was a part of the invasion force. It was not a great battle, as the Japanese had evacuated earlier, but the US sustained 313 casualties due to friendly fire.
With Kiska over, the Force returned to the States only to be sent to Italy in late 1943. By now, Operation PLOUGH was abandoned, but the US V Army commander, Lieutenant General Mark Clark, brought the Force to Italy by way of French Morocco. They arrived at the Italian Front on November 19, 1943.
Attached to the US 36th Infantry Division, the Force were given the objectives of Monte La Difensa and Monte La Remetanea, which were both heavily fortified German positions. These fortifications, controlled by the 140th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, were the last entrenched line before the main German defense at the Gustav Line. Once the Allies broke through, it would enable them to move to the overall Italian objective of Rome much quicker.
The plan to take La Difensa consisted of regiments in First Company to scale an almost vertical escarpment over the night of the hill mass. Before the attack, the Force was to remove all identifications, except their dog tags. One soldier referred to the Allied shelling they received as cover to look like “as if we were marching into Hell. The whole mountain was being shelled and the whole mountain seemed to be on fire.”
They succeeded in the mission and was replaced by the 142nd Infantry. By that time, however, they had suffered 77% casualties: 511 total, 91 dead, 9 missing, 313 wounded with 116 exhaustion cases. It wouldn’t be until fighting in Anzio in 1944 that they earned their nickname, Devil’s Brigade. They were referred to as “black” devils due to the black shoe polish they wore on their face for their covert operations.
During Anzio, they fought for 99 days without relief, but had come up with their trademarked stickers depicting the unit patch and the slogan, “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” colliqually translated to “The worst is yet to come,” and literally to, “The thick end is coming soon,” which insinuates a larger force coming.
On the night of June 4, members of the Devil’s Brigade entered Rome, one of the first Allied soldiers to do so. They still continued their chase of Germans.
The invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is well-known and recognized by most of the people in the world. What few people are aware of is the invasion of Southern France, known as Operation Dragoon (originally Operation Anvil). In fact, this operation was meant to coincide with Operation Overlord, which had the original name of Sledgehammer, but was unable to due to lack of supplies.
On August 14, 1944, the Devil’s Brigade landed on the islands of Port Cros and Le Levant as a preliminary attack before the main invasion force touched down. At Port Cros, the Force captured a total of five forts from the German Army in five days. On August 22, they were attached to 1st Airborne Task Force, where they eventually made up a part of the task force.
The liberation of Paris occurred August 25, 1944, much quicker than Allied planners expected, and the day after they had one of their hardest times capturing a village at the southeast of France called Menton, a place that would be significant later on. In early September they moved with their Task Force to defensive positions on the Franco-Italian border.
A little after a month later, the First Special Service Force was disbanded. On December 5, 1944, in a field near Menton, they were broken up with the American commander holding a parade honoring the unit. At the end of this parade, the Canadian elements were dismissed by being honored by the American troops with a Pass and Review, eyes right, officers salute.
After the disbandment, the Canadian forces went in as reinforcements to units of their country (most to the 1st Canadian Parachute Regiment), and the American soldiers were disbursed to Ranger battalions (of which there was much need), airborne divisions, or some formed the 474th Infantry Regiment to serve occupation duty in Norway.
The Devil’s Brigade numbered to about 1800 men, yet accounted for approximately 12,000 German casualties, captured around seven thousand, and sustained a turnover rate of 600%. The lessons learned and tactics used by the Force were implemented in the forming of the Special Forces by Colonel Aaron Bank.
The legacy is so great that the Special Forces celebrate Menton Day every December 5 with Canadian military comrades and surviving members of the Force. There is usually a parachute jump, Pass in Review, and a formal ball.
Montana Interstate 15, which connects Helena and Sweet Grass, was renamed “First Special Service Force Memorial Highway” in 1996. Not coincidentally, the highway was the route chosen to take the recruits to train outside Helena in 1942. The entirety of Alberta Highway 4 followed in 1999.
As with anything, the spec op guys that are romanticized and popularized in video games and movies in the US had their beginnings with 1800 men in maybe one of the few places to think about: rural Montana. They were the rugged men of the mountains and camps where less civilized people wanted to go. In a way, it is fitting that such a group of men became The Devil’s Brigade.
Ethan H. Gaines is the owner of Last Best Press, LLC, which publishes the private magazine of northern Kalispell, Northside Neighbors. He is the author of Tears of the Saint, Apache Pass, and Sagebrush Kid. He writes westerns under the pen name Ryatt Eddie Cash. Mr. Gaines lives in Kalispell, MT, with his wife and three children.