The First Special Service Force was a unique bi-national commando unit comprised of soldiers from the US and Canadian armies that was raised during WWII.
The First Special Service Force was activated on 9 July 1942 as a joint Canadian-U.S. force of three infantry battalions and a service battalion. Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Montana was chosen as the primary training location, due to its flat terrain for airborne training and its close proximity to mountains for ski and winter training. Following its initial training period in Montana, the FSSF relocated to Camp Bradford, Virginia, on 15 April 1943, and to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, on 23 May 1943.
Members of ‘The Force’ conducting parachute training at Ft. William Henry Harrison. Public domain copyright, Wikipedia
On 10 July the Devil’s Brigade sailed for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. On 15 August 1943, 1st SSF was part of the invasion force of the island of Kiska, but after discovering the island was recently evacuated by Japanese forces, it re-embarked and left ship at Camp Stoneman, California, and returned to Fort Ethan Allen, arriving 9 September 1943.
They then planned for an operation codenamed “Project Plough,” which was a mission to parachute into German-held Norway to knock out strategic targets such as hydroelectric power plants. This mission was ultimately abandoned and in October 1943, the commander of the Fifth United States Army, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, brought the 1st Special Service Force to Italy where its members demonstrated the value of their unique skills and training first in the successful assault on two heavily fortified German positions in the Italian mountains (taking a very high percentage of casualties in the process), and later in support of the breakthrough from the landings at Anzio.
Artwork from Osprey Publishing’s RAID Series #48, depicting the assault on Monte La Defensa. Copyright Osprey Publishing
On 14 August 1944, the FSSF landed on the islands of Port Cros and Îles d’Hyères during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. They fought the Battle of Port Cros in which they captured the five forts on the islands from the German Army. After this the Force became part of the 1st Airborne Task Force, a provisional Seventh Army airborne division. On 7 September it moved with the 1st Airborne Task Force to defensive positions on the Franco-Italian border, and then was disbanded 5 December 1944 in a field near Menton, on the extreme southeast Mediterranean coast France.
Members of the First Special Service Force being briefed before a patrol – Anzio beachhead. Public domain copyright, Wikipedia
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.
The First Special Service Force was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Silver-Gilt Star, as well as the Distinguished Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism. A large number of the “Devil’s Brigade” members were honored for their acts of valor, including Tommy Prince, Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldier of World War II. Also, U.S. member Wendell C. Johnson (Fifth Company, Third Regiment), who risked his life to save a fellow Black Devil, by walking into a minefield to bring his comrade to safety. Wendell later declined to accept a medal for his heroism, saying, “Give it to the man who lost his leg”.
In September 1999, Alberta Highway 4 and Interstate 15 in Montana, being the main highway between the cities of Lethbridge, Alberta Canada and Helena, Montana in the United States, was renamed the “First Special Service Force Memorial Highway”. This highway was chosen because it was the route taken in 1942 by the Canadian volunteers to join their American counterparts for training at Fort Harrison.
The First Special Service Force is honored in the lineage of both the US Army Special Forces and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment.
The crest of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment features the V-42 Commando knife designed for and carried by members of the First Special Service Force.
Source: Canadian Military Journal, Vol 13, No 3
Today, another honor was added to the history of the First Special Service Force as the US Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of The Force.
Eugene Gutierrez Jr., second from left, and Charles Mann from Canada, second from right, is applauded by Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the members of the First Special Service Force during Feb. 3 a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
(Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
The story of The Force’s assault on Monte La Defensa is also the subject of a soon-to-be-published book in the RAID Series from Osprey Publishing. See more details here.
For a full look at the history of The Force, check out this volume previously published in Osprey’s ELITE series.