21 July 2012

Special Delivery: the FSSF at 70

On 20 July 1942, a joint American-Canadian commando force was activated. The force would be delivered by air or sea, and conduct special operations behind enemy lines. It was an unusual experiment.
What follows is the first of a two-part series. The first part is wholly historical. If you find history dry, I recommend that you skip ahead to the second part. The second post examines the subject matter below through the lens of ASL.
American and Canadian citizens have routinely served in the armed forces of their neighbours. Following the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, for example, an estimated 40,000 Americans joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and sailed for Europe—three years before the United States declared war on Imperial Germany.1 But what I am talking about was radically different, a first for both nations.
The grounds for the creation of a binational force arguably had little to do with the signing of the Ogdensburg Agreement, a de facto mutual-defense pact, two years earlier.2 Instead, the impetus for creating such a force came, oddly enough, from the United Kingdom, which had criticized the establishment of an American-Canadian Permanent Joint Board of Defence. 
The British Army was spread thin in 1942. But this did not dampen the enthusiasm of an eccentric British scientist for his pet project. Geoffrey Pyke had hatched a scheme for his superiors in Combined Operations Command (COC). He urged them to send commandos behind enemy lines in order to sabotage strategic targets such as a Norwegian heavy water plant. While the head of COC liked the idea, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten simply did not have resources to spare. Instead, the British offered the role to the Americans. Practical as this decision was, it was also an astute political move, yet another way to get American soldiers fighting in Europe rather than the Pacific. 
The Norway mission was to be carried out during the winter. Therefore, the initial force structure envisioned a three-way split among American, Canadian, and Norwegian volunteers. Due to the lack of suitable Norwegian candidates, the Canadians would instead comprise half of the fighting echelon. In practice, it was closer to 60-40, with Americans predominating. The new formation was designated the 1st Special Service Force (FSSF), and an American Colonel, Robert Tryon Frederick, was given command.
The Force, in essence a light-brigade, would eventually consist of three 650-man Regiments, each containing two 300-strong battalions. Each regiment had a supply platoon and a small medical detachment. There was also a separate support battalion, manned exclusively by Americans, which provided the lion’s share of administrative, supply, and maintenance services, as well as an intelligence section and parachute riggers.
Planners anticipated that the Force would have to enter Norway either by parachute or by sea, and thereafter operate effectively in a mountainous, winter environment. Training began in earnest in August 1942 at Fort William Henry Harrison, just outside Helena, Montana. The base was ideal for training such a force. It had an airstrip that could accommodate the C-47 Dakota aircraft used for jump training. The largely uninhabited countryside permitted extended cross-country route marches, while vast open areas provided a multitude of drop zones for paratroops. Further afield, but still within marching distance, were mountain ranges that offered a variety of challenges for budding mountaineers. And during the winter, the rugged terrain west of the camp, with its plentiful snowfall and cold temperatures, allowed instructors to mimic the conditions in Norway. 
The first two months were dedicated to parachute training, physical fitness, weapons, demolitions, and small-unit exercises. The accelerated parachute course was conducted immediately and served to separate the bold from the merely adventurous. Weapons training included live-fire exercises, the use of enemy small arms, and hand-to-hand combat. During much of October and November, the Force ran larger-scale training exercises. The remainder of the year focussed on basic mountaineering, and winter warfare skills, especially skiing—taught by Norwegian instructors, as well as the use of Pyke’s prototype snow vehicle, the Weasel.


Change of plans
When the mission to Norway was cancelled, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, directed Frederick to continue forging his men into a specialized strike force. Frederick took the opportunity to expand the FSSF marginally and increase the overall firepower of the Force. At the platoon and section level, he added the .30 calibre Browning light machine gun (LMG), the 60mm mortar, and the state-of-the-art American rocket launcher, soon to be dubbed the “bazooka,” and which his men had field tested.3 Frederick also convinced the US Marine Corps to part with more than 100 Johnson LMG in exchange for two tons of a new plastic explosive issued to the FSSF.4


In April 1943, the Force left Montana for Norfolk, Virginia. On the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay, the Force practiced amphibious operations. Training included transferring between vessels at sea, maneuvering inflatable boats, and scaling cliffs upon coming to shore. As with everything else they did, the men of the FSSF surpassed the expectations of their instructors, be they Norwegian telemarkers, or US Navy Ensigns.5
Off to war
The first operational deployment of the Force came only a few months later in August, when the FSSF participated in a large-scale amphibious assault on the Aleutian Island chain off the coast of Alaska. However, the Japanese had withdrawn from US territory three weeks earlier. One potential bloodbath avoided, the FSSF embarked for the Mediterranean in late September. 
The Force arrived in Naples on 19 November. Two weeks later the men of the FSSF would earn a lasting reputation for their first encounter with the enemy at Monte la Difensa (Hill 960), in central Italy. In the early hours of 3 December, the 2nd Regiment avoided detection while they scaled the cliffs of this imposing feature. In the two hours of brutal fighting that followed, they threw the Germans off the summit. 
Monte la Difensa was one of several prominent summits on the Monte Camino hill mass, which formed part of the Winter Line. The Winter Line consisted of the main Gustav Line—anchored in the west on Monte Cassino, the fallback Hitler Line, and the Bernhardt Line, which shielded the western portion of the Gustav Line. The Bernhardt Line was only intended to delay the Allies. It worked. The FSSF arrived just as the Allies were planning to take a second crack at the Mignano Gap, through which Highway 6 threaded its way toward Rome. 
German and American commanders alike were taken aback by the rapidity and the success of the FSSF assault on la Difensa. The Germans reacted with accurate mortar and artillery fire from neighbouring peaks. On 5 December, the 1st and 2nd Regiments took one of these peaks, Monte la Remetanea. The British, in turn, finally secured Monte Camino, a month after their first attempt on 6 November. In six days of intense combat, the Force suffered more than 500 casualties.6
On Christmas Eve, the Force was back at it again. During Christmas Day, the 1st Regiment swept the remaining Germans from their toe-hold on Monte Sammucro (Sambúcaro). The other regiments followed suit in January. The 2nd Regiment, together with elements of 1st Regiment, cleared the village of Radicosa on 4 January. 
The next day, the 3rd Regiment attempted to give the Germans atop Monte Majo the same treatment. German resistance stiffened, and the situation grew desperate. The 1st Regiment moved up in support. When ammunition ran out, Forcemen used captured weapons to keep the enemy at bay. The Germans counterattacked more than 25 times. The FSSF not only held its ground, but within a few days also had swept the Germans from Monte Vischiataro and the surrounding hills. By mid January, when the Force withdrew into reserve, it mustered roughly 1200 all ranks, half of its authorized strength.
Ninety-nine days
After a brief respite, the Force was thrown into the cauldron at Anzio on 2 February. The Germans were mounting fierce counterattacks and Allied commanders feared that the beachhead would be overrun without the immediate commitment of reinforcements. And so it was that the FSSF found itself employed in a defensive operation lasting more than three months. The Force was not ideal for this type of work, partly because it lacked heavier weapons and equipment. It was also understrength. Remnants of Colonel William O. Darby’s Rangers, which had suffered appalling casualties during an attempt to take the nearby town of Cisterna only days early, fleshed out the depleted ranks of the Force.7
The FSSF was assigned about eight miles of frontage along the Mussolini Canal, south of the Conca-Sessano Road. Much has been made of the fact that the Force was tasked with a stretch of the front line normally assigned to a regular infantry division. However, the area opposite the canal—the Pontine Marshes—was the least suitable terrain to mount an attack over. A notorious breeding ground for malaria-caring mosquitoes, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had ordered the marshes drained during the 1930s. In their desperation to contain the landings at Anzio, the Germans had flooded much of the area. Allied commanders correctly assumed that this portion of the line would remain relatively static. 
Although their perimeter remained static, the men of the FSSF proved to be anything but. From their first night on the line, Forcemen patrolled aggressively inside the enemy’s forward positions. Within a week, the Force had wrested the initiative from the Germans and driven enemy outposts back by as much as a mile. Over the course of the next three months, the Force would earn a fearsome reputation for raiding enemy lines around the clock. It was during this period that the men of the Force became known as the “The Black Devils,” after an entry found in the diary of a dead German.8 The Force also famously left “calling cards” on the bodies of its victims. Loosely translated, the stickers warned the Germans that “the worst is yet to come.”9
The Eternal City
In the third week of May, the Allies finally burst out of the Anzio beachhead. The race for Rome was on. When the US 3rd Infantry Division was held up in Cisterna, the FSSF almost suffered the same fate as Darby’s Rangers four months earlier. On 23 May, the FSSF struck out for Highway 7, the 3rd Division on its left. Upon reaching its initial objectives, the lead elements of 1st Regiment began digging in. The Germans hit them hard with artillery, heavy tanks and infantry. Forcemen tried to hold their ground, but the giant Tiger tanks appeared impervious to bazookas, the only practical anti-tank weapon available to the lightly-armed Force after its accompanying armour was destroyed. 
The three companies of the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment bore the brunt of the counterattack. Casualties mounted, and two companies were overrun. The day would prove only second to the battle of la Difensa in terms of lives lost.10 It was an important lesson. Subsequently, the FSSF would work closer with columns of the US 1st Armored Division, as various American formations competed for the prestige of entering the Eternal City first. 
The debate continues to this day as to who reached the Italian capital first. The FSSF was unquestionably among the vanguard on 4 June, the day Allied Forces entered Rome. However, the privilege cost the Force some 40 percent of its strength during the two-weeks it took to advance some 50 kilometres from its start line on the Mussolini Canal. While recuperating at the Vatican summer palace on Lake Albano, the men of the FSSF learned that their commander was to leave them. Brigadier-General Frederick was to take command of the newly created 1st Airborne Task Force (1 ATF) for the invasion of southern France.11
Alaskan anniversary
One might have expected the FSSF to be part of this task force. After all, during the first phase of their training at Fort Harrison, Forcemen had qualified as parachutists. A proposed combat jump at Kiska had been canceled, and therefore, the Force had yet to put their jump training into practice. Moreover, the US Army was chronically short of paratroopers following the D-Day landings in Normandy—so short, in fact, that a British parachute brigade was attached to 1 ATF. US Army planners undoubtedly would have welcomed more paratroopers.12 But the US Navy had other plans. 
Naval commanders were understandably apprehensive about the threat that enemy coastal batteries posed to an amphibious landing—not least their capital ships. The coast of southern France was positively populated with coastal artillery, much of it emplaced in concrete, or protected by the stout walls of old fortresses. One area of concern was the Îles d’Hyères. This group of islands lay five to ten kilometres off the coast of the Côte d’ Azur, or the French Riviera. The Allied plan was to land in an area 20-60 kilometres northeast of these islands in order to avoid the heavier coastal artillery near Toulon and Marseilles. Gun batteries on the Hyeres Islands would threaten the landing of the US 3rd Infantry Division near Cavalaire, as well as the ships stationed offshore as fire support.13 Commando elements of Sitka Force would eliminate these threats.14
On 15 August—a year to the hour after the Kiska landings—the 1st Regiment, FSSF paddled ashore Île Port-Cros. The regiment arrived undetected. But as it cleared the eastern portion of the four-kilometre long island, the German garrison gradually fell back into several old forts that dotted the island. The imposing Fort de l’Eminence stopped the veteran Forcemen cold. It took the intervention of a British battleship on 17 August to finally persuade the defenders that their war was over. It was a frustrating experience for the 1st Regiment, which lost about ten killed.15
Closed for the season
The other regiments of the FSSF fared better on the larger Îsle du Levant, or Titan, as it is sometimes called. At about 0130 on 15 August, the 2nd Regiment made landfall and began scaling the 80-foot cliffs at the water’s edge. The 1st Battalion then headed north toward tiny Port de l’Avis. Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion set off for Fort Arbousier, which overlooked the pre-war nudist village of Heliopolis. When this latter battalion ran into an enemy pillbox, the ensuing firefight alerted the German garrison. 
Navy brass had been worried about a battery of three 164mm guns not far from the lighthouse on Cap du Pauvre Louis, the northeastern most point of Levant.16 They need not have been. At about 0140, the 3rd Regiment, together with Force Headquarters, landed on the island. Soon after, the 3rd Regiment’s 1st Battalion struck out for the Cape. Dense vegetation impeded progress more than enemy resistance. However, when lead elements reached the cape, they discovered that the guns were elaborate wooden mock-ups. By daybreak, the 3rd Regiment had cleared the convent and old French fortifications on the eastern half of the island. Further west, approximately 100 Germans at Port de l’Avis surrendered in the forenoon, after an hour-long firefight with men of the 2nd Regiment. At 2234 that evening, the Force reported the island secure.17
And the band played on
With its offshore mission complete, the FSSF joined the “Champagne Campaign” on mainland France. Soldiers who fought elsewhere often deride the invasion of southern France as a picnic, complete with champagne and winsome French women. There is no question that the campaign was less costly in terms of lives and materiel than other theatres were. However, men still fought and died in the “sunny” south. 
On 22 August, the Force was reunited with its former commander, Major-General Frederick, when it replaced the British 2nd Parachute Brigade in the 1 ABTF. The bulk of the Seventh US Army had wheeled west to take Toulon and Marseilles, or raced north to link up with the US Third Army. Frederick’s Task Force was relegated to the less glamourous role of pushing the Germans back to the Franco-Italian frontier. Upon reaching the border, 1 ABTF went over to the defensive. 
The FSSF faced a numerically superior enemy along a 10-mile frontage in the Alpes Maritime. Intermittent shelling, occasional, but sharp, small-unit actions, and the cold, damp weather of autumn sapped morale. Three months earlier, the Force had endured 99 days in the line at Anzio. After more than four weeks in the rugged terrain of Provence, cracks were beginning to show, particularly among the “originals” of the Force.18 More Forcemen would loose their lives. But thankfully the costly battles of Italy were behind them. 

The US 442nd Infantry Regiment, began relieving the FSSF on 26 November.19 By the end of the month the Force had seen the last of the front line. At 1400 on 5 December, the FSSF paraded near the town of Villeneuve Loubet, outside Nice. Following a memorial service for their fallen, the men were told that the Force was no more. The FSSF was to be broken up. Men would be reassigned to units in their respective national armies. The Force Commander tried to soften the blow. He explained that the FSSF was not the only special unit being disbanded. It was happening throughout the army. He added that it was probably best that the Force be broken up now with an exemplary combat reputation than allow it to be wiped out, as the Rangers had been at Anzio. 
The Canadians fell out, and reformed as a national contingent. The band of the 442nd played, as the Canadians marched past their American comrades-in-arms. Sixteen months had passed since the FSSF had first set off to war. The operational history of the Force began in the Pacific, on islands devoid of a Japanese foe. The operational history of the Force ended in the Mediterranean. It ended to the drumbeat of a Japanese-American regimental band.
The experiment had ended. By January, many of the Canadians remaining in the FSSF would be serving in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. This made sense. A number of volunteers had come directly from this unit. A few were actually recruited while undergoing jump training at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1942.20 Other Canadians were reassigned to training schools, where they could pass on lessons learned. Still others attended officer training, or lent their expertise to various command and staff positions throughout the Canadian Army. 
474th Patch

The majority of the jump-qualified American soldiers found themselves reassigned to US Airborne divisions. Most of the remaining, including the commander of the FSSF at the time—Colonel Edwin A. Walker—joined the newly formed 474th Infantry Regiment.
In spite of their training, the FSSF never parachuted into battle. On 24 March 1945, several former Canadian Forcemen finally got their first (and last) combat drop of the war when they jumped into Germany during Operation Varsity. In another ironic twist, the 474th would end the war in Norway on occupation duty. The FSSF was never used to carry out the intended missions for which it had been raised, and had trained so hard. Nevertheless, its contributions to the war, particularly in Italy, secured the Force a place in military history.
Maj-Gen R. T. Frederick
At least 295 Americans and 155 Canadians were killed in action while serving with the Force. A great many more were wounded and maimed. Robert T. Frederick, the most celebrated commander of the Force, was awarded the Purple Heart eight times. Service in the Force was not for the faint of heart. Having survived the rigours and dangers of combat together, it is understandable why the bonds between veterans of the Force remain strong 70 years after the fact. 
Balance sheet
Historians have generally praised the operational record of the FSSF. Historians have been less kind to the senior commanders and politicians who committed the FSSF to battle. There is something to be said for each of these impressions. The Force did perform well in battle. It had setbacks too. But these reverses were minor, especially when contrasted with the operational balance sheet of the Force. The FSSF outperformed many larger formations in terms of casualties inflicted, prisoners captured, and objectives taken and held. And so it should have. It was a handpicked force. The selection process weeded out the unfit. An arduous and highly physical training regime hardened those who remained. The Force trained hard, and fought hard. But it was a special force without a special mission. 
Canadian Paras in the Ardennes
The lack of a clear role invariably led field commanders to commit the FSSF to actions for which it was not suited. This in turn led to high casualties. However, the FSSF was not the only light-infantry force used to plug a gap, or hold an extended perimeter for an extended period. Paratroopers, marine commandos, and other specialized troops found themselves in similar circumstances.21 For the most part these deployments were the result of some crisis, not the deliberate misuse of a light-infantry force. 
The other thing to bear in mind is that the FSSF was raised as a throwaway force, a one-shot wonder. No one at the senior command levels in either the United States or Canada expected the Force to exist after its first mission, let alone after a year in combat. In fact, staff officers had written off the FSSF before it landed on Kiska. Fortunately for the men of the FSSF, the Japanese were not on Kiska to greet them, and the Force lasted much longer than the two days it was expected to last once it made contact with the Japanese. That the Force was able to survive as long as it did in spite of its losses, let alone a definitive mission, is remarkable. However, the unanticipated longevity of the Force probably tells us as much about Allied shortages in front-line infantry as the tenacity of the men who made up the Force. In fact, it was arguably a widespread shortage of trained infantrymen replacements that gave the Force a role, a role, which paradoxically hastened the demise of the FSSF. It began with the battles of the Bernhardt Line in December 1943. 
German defensive lines between Naples and Rome, 1943-44
The FSSF arrived in Italy on 19 November 1943 and joined the Fifth US Army. By the first week of December, the Fifth Army was ready to renew its attack on the Bernhardt Line. Although a secondary defensive line, it was positioned atop a number of imposing peaks. Trained and equipped for mountain and winter warfare, the FSSF was a natural fit, especially given the time of the year. The Force took all of its objectives during the course of the next six weeks. The cost was significant. During its first engagement (3-9 December), the Force sustained more than 500 casualties. Mortar and artillery fire accounted for the bulk of these losses. Twenty percent of casualties nevertheless were attributable to the rigours of combat in a cold, wet, and windy environment—this despite the fact the Force was the only Allied formation during Operation Raincoat clothed in  parkas and windproof trousers. 
Attrition was a problem for all combat formations. It was especially problematic for the FSSF, which mustered only 500 combat-capable officers and men in mid January 1944. More problematic, the FSSF did not have a contingency for replacements.22 There was no training depot in the United States (or Canada) molding new recruits into FSSF commandos. Consequently, when the FSSF was thrown into the line at Anzio, its ranks were leavened with Rangers—an expedient measure for a desperate time. The Rangers were unhappy about this transfer. They could not fathom why they had not been allowed to join other Ranger battalions forming in Britain. In contrast, 255 Canadian volunteers—drawn from reinforcement pools in the Mediterranean Theatre—were eager to join the Force as replacements, such was the reputation of the FSSF in Canadian eyes. After two weeks of familiarization training on American weapons, the Canadians joined the Force at Anzio on 27 April.23 
The butcher's bill at Anzio
Combat and front-line duty would continue to denude the Force of its “originals.” The break out from Anzio led to significant and irreplaceable losses among veteran Forcemen. If I had to point to a time when the Force was “misused,” this might be it. But take this armchair general’s opinion for what it is worth, very little. At this stage in the operational history of the FSSF, I doubt that senior commanders on the ground troubled themselves with the longer term viability of the Force. It was a useful asset, but only useful if used. Keep in mind too that the Force had been cooped up in the bridgehead for 99 days. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe that some Forcemen were eager to be on the offensive again. Having said that, and considering the time and expense it had taken to train the Force to a high calibre, it seems a bit extravagant to use a commando force to perform the work of a typical infantry formation.
After the fall of Rome, the Force was able to provide some training for its hodgepodge of (American) replacements, before undertaking refresher amphibious training in preparation for the invasion of southern France. Force numbers were boosted additionally by the return to duty of previously wounded Forcemen. To my knowledge Canadians killed in action, or who died of wounds, were not replaced. Fortunately, operations on the Îles d’Hyères resulted in low casualty rates, leaving the overall combat effectiveness of the Force intact. Unfortunately, for the men of the FSSF, their combat readiness only earned them more combat duty in a forgotten corner of a forgotten front.24
2nd Platoon, 4-2 France, October 1944 [Arthur M. Shawley of Jenner, PA can be seen kneeling at the extreme left of the photograph]
Perhaps, if Allied commanders had had a strategic plan for the FSSF, the Force would have been withdrawn following the assaults on Port-Cros and Levant. This may have allowed the force to be reconstituted once more into a highly trained and motivated commando force. But in 1944 there was no need for a strategic asset with these special skill sets. The end of the war was in sight. What was needed most at this stage of the war in Europe was conventional, all-purpose infantry.25 The die was cast. 
Forcemen of 6-3 in Southern France
Factors other than the lack of a specific mission also hastened the end of the Force. For instance, there were the inevitable administrative issues associated with a binational force—lower rates of pay being a particular sore point among Canadian Forcemen.26 Each national contingent was also subject to its own code of service discipline. But is was the lack of operational flexibility that was a more serious concern for the American Army, which was picking up the tab for the experiment. Because Canadian agreement was required in advance of any operational deployment of the Force, Canadian interests, sensitivities, and political considerations had to be factored into any plans to use the Force.27 
Bob Kesterke (Eau Claire, MI) 3-3, Leroy Rablin (San Jose, CA) 3-3, and John Kures (Cleveland, OH) 4-2 in southern France, autumn 1944
These strategic impediments notwithstanding, the end of the Force was preordained. The absence of a formal recruitment and training process was telling. The FSSF had been raised in order to carry out a strategic mission of some importance. Even after it became clear that the Force would not carry out a one-off “suicide” mission, no concerted effort was made to provide the Force with trained replacements. Indeed, as Frederick had argued on more than one occasion, there was simply no way that an abridged training period in theatre could bring replacements up to the same standard as those who had joined the unit in 1942. The sad irony is that while the Force was not provided with trained replacements, its highly trained and experienced members became replacements for other units.
Forcemen of 4-3 in the Alpes Maritime, October 1944
While in the line at Anzio, Brigadier-General Frederick drafted a lengthy memorandum outlining the difficulties associated with the binational nature of his Force. On 19 February 1944, he recommended that: 
For the sake of United States and Canadian relations, it may be best to let this unit pass out of existence while it is still in its prime, rather than to sustain it through a period when it will be remembered only for its faults and defects. 
When the FSSF was disbanded in December 1944, it was no longer in its prime. Yet the accomplishments of the FSSF continue to be celebrated. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the public perception of the Force has remained overwhelmingly positive since 1945. The exploits of the FSSF were undoubtedly popularized (and coloured) by the release of the film The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But in light of what Frederick wrote, it is remarkable just how much the Force did accomplish during its brief operational career. Be that as it may, the greatest legacy of the FSSF is arguably the precedent that it set. The Force would lead directly, and indirectly, to the development of modern Special Forces in North America. American and Canadian Special Forces are beyond the scope of this post. However, it is interesting to note that the V-42 commando knife issued to the combat elements of the FSSF features prominently in the design of today’s American and Canadian Special Forces Commands. The First Special Service Force may be history, but the esprit de corps of the Force lives on in the traditions perpetuated by Special Forces units on either side of the 49th parallel. The spirit and memories of the Force also live on in the hearts of minds of veterans, their families, and their friends.
Passing of the Guard
After the war, some former Forcemen remained in army. Most, however, returned to civilian life. Some returned to Helena, Montana. Many like Canadian Joe Glass viewed the birthplace of the FSSF as their true home. War brides from Helena undoubtedly drew some men back to Montana. More than two hundred men of the Force had married local women. I nevertheless suspect that the time spent training and bonding in Montana was a formative period in the lives of many men of the Force. Helena offered veterans of the Force familiar surroundings and familiar faces during their transition from war to peace. 
Joseph M. Glass was instructing recruits in the finer points of bayonet fighting when word reached him in Ottawa—Canada’s capital—that volunteers were wanted for a “suicide mission.” Lured by the promise of early combat, he volunteered for the FSSF. Although it probably never occurred to him at the time, his decision marked a turning point in his life. 
Bayonet drill at Fort William Harrison, note the squared-toes ski/mountain boots
Joe, or “Buddy,” as he was sometimes called, was born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1920. He had worked as a deckhand—aboard a steamboat on the Great Lakes—before joining the Canadian Army in 1940. At Fort William Harrison, he became best friends with Lorin Waling, a Westerner from Alberta. During breaks in training, he also fell in love with a local girl. But there was a war to fight, and the end of 1943 found him in Italy, atop Monte la Difensa. The German defenders were not happy to see him, and fired back. Sergeant Glass was with 1-2 (1st Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment), among the first to scale the cliffs of la Difensa. He was wounded in the hand and the face during the close-in fighting and fearsome mortar fire that ensued. Fortunately, his wounds were not severe, and he soon returned to frontline duty.
Anzio proved more hazardous. The 2nd Regiment remained understrength following operations along the Winter Line. Brigadier-General Frederick had therefore placed Joe’s regiment in reserve. But Joe was hardly out of the fight. When not firing a 60mm mortar like a man possessed, Sergeant Glass was patrolling and raiding enemy positions with the rest of his platoon. Then his luck ran out. A hunk of steel from a mortar bomb tore into his chest. The fragment broke most of his ribs, separating them from his spine, before tearing a whole in his back. A lung collapsed, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. When he began coughing blood, he asked a friend at his side to say goodbye to his wife and child.
Black Devil Victory Mail
While Joe was being transported back to the aid station, another bomb fragment struck his arm. His prospects improved as soon as he arrived at the hospital in the rear. Surgeons repaired his lung after removing a rib, and wired his remaining ribs to his backbone. By August, he was on his feet again, but unfit for combat duty. Joe would remain in the rear doing what he could for to support his buddies in the field. 
He recalled with fondness a chance encounter with his former commander in France. Major-General Frederick was commanding the 1st Airborne Task Force at the time. While driving in his jeep through Nice, he spotted a Forceman limping along the street. He ordered his driver to stop. The young general got out, shook Joe’s hand, and asked him how he was doing. It meant a lot to Joe.
Although he never fully recovered from his wounds—he was considered to be 50 percent disabled upon discharge—Joe lived a full life. He and his wife Dorothy raised a family in Helena. Joe held a variety of jobs, ran small businesses, and kept in touch with other veterans of the Force. Helping him stay in touch, was another veteran, Mark Radcliffe.  
The bloody battles of Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea were still fresh in Colonel Frederick’s mind when, on 13 December 1943, he penned a letter to the mayor of Helena, Montana. Frederick wanted to raise a modest monument the fallen of the FSSF. In view of the strong bonds that existed between his men and the citizens of Helena, he asked the city council to consider erecting a monument in the heart of city, rather than on nearby Fort William Harrison. The day before, Frederick had broached the subject with his men. They had agreed that Helena was the most appropriate place to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. The town council felt the same. A great many more names would be added to the roll of honour by the time the memorial was unveiled on 16 August 1947.28
FSSF Memorial in Helena, Montana
Cheerio Lounge, Helena
The date also coincided with the first reunion of the Force. Some 600 people from Canada and the United States attended the reunion. Mark Radcliffe, chairman of the event, organized the homecoming. Herb Goodwin was one of several FSSF veterans to lend a hand. In fact, he was elected Treasurer of the FSSF Association on 16 August 1947. Radcliffe and Goodwin had served as captains in the FSSF. After the war, they settled in Helena where they had fallen in love with local girls. 
During his first furlough into town, Canadian Herb Goodwin was drawn to the chic Cheerio Lounge, in Placer’s Hotel. There he met Doris Porten of East Helena. Their relationship developed slower than most. It was almost a year before the couple married in Vermont, just as the Force was completing its training.
Mark Radcliffe, a native of Kansas, tied the knot rather quick by comparison. In August 1943 he attended a dance in the local Armory. A fellow officer ribbed him about a particular girl, and dared him to approach her. So he did. He asked her for a dance. Edith Bauer gave him her hand, and it was love at first dance. Edith and Mark were married the next month. The couple raised two children, and in 2002, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary within walking distance of where they had first met.
Radcliffe kick-started what would become an annual reunion of the Force. The venue alternated between east and west, and Canada and the United States. Radcliffe was also the first President of the FSSF Association. In 2006, Radcliffe turned 88. The Association decided that its 60th reunion in 2006 would be its last. Most veterans of the Force were by this time octogenarians. In light of the work required to organize these events, not to mention the failing health of many veterans, the reunions were bound cease at some point. However, that point is yet to come. Upon hearing that the veterans could no longer manage the reunions on their own, their families and friends stepped in to help. The 2007 reunion was held in Ottawa, Ontario the following year. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota hosted the 2008 reunion, and Halifax, Nova Scotia followed suit in 2009. The annual event returned to Helena, Montana in 2010, and headed north to Edmonton, Alberta the next year.29 This September, the FSSF will hold its 66th Annual Reunion in Arlington, Virginia and Washington DC.
However, the last two veterans of the FSSF to reside in Helena will miss the reunion in the US capital. The pair passed away within twelve hours of each other on 1 April 2012. Joe Glass was 92. The organizer of the first FSSF reunion, Mark Radcliffe, was 94. 
Bill Woon is the son of the late J. David Woon, 2-2. Like Joe Glass and Mark Radcliffe, Bill’s father had married a girl from Helena. After the war, “Davie” Woon settled in Cut Bank Montana, near the Canadian border. Bill’s father has been gone for almost a decade now. But Bill’s interest in the FSSF has not waned with his father’s passing. He is currently President of the FSSF Association. He had this to say when he heard of Glass and Radcliffe’s passing:
Mark and Joe were two of the original members of the First Special Service Force, and it’s appropriate that they were the last two survivors in the state [of Montana]. It is also appropriate that they were an American and a Canadian.
Approximately 3,300 men of the FSSF survived the war. Roughly 200 veterans remain. If you have thought about taking time to meet a member of the Force, that time is now. A number of veterans remain surprisingly active. And if William “Sam” Magge, 6-3 (see spread below) is any example, you are bound to get an earful from a veteran of the Force.30 Start by asking an FSSF vet how he feels about being able to add the post-nominal letters “BS” after his name. 
The second part of this two-part series takes a look at the FSSF in ASL. Until then, raise your glass to the men of the First Special Service Force, the Black Devils of Anzio. Thanks for reading.  
Notes
1. This relationship is by no means one-sided. For example, some historians—including a former chief historian at the Canadian War Museum—estimate that upwards of 30,000 Canadians fought in Vietnam. In the past, government officials in Canada have dismissed this (apparently embarrassing) figure, claiming that no more than 3,000 actually served in Vietnam. We may never know how many Canadians fought and died in Indochina. Official casualty figures are only in the hundreds.  However, the fact remains that some Canadians did fight alongside their American and Australian brethren in what was the bloodiest war of the Cold War. There are some private associations for veterans in Canada. Here is one in Quebec, and another in Manitoba. But by and large, most veterans appear to have remained in, or returned to, the US following their service in Vietnam. 
2. After the Fall of France in June 1940, Canada lost confidence in the ability of Britain to defend itself, let alone other members of the Commonwealth. In fact, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was quite prepared to sacrifice Australia in order to preserve India, and other more important imperial interests such as the Suez Canal. In August 1940, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King met in the village of Heuvelton, just outside of the border town of Ogdensburg, New York. The agreed to form a permanent board to oversee the defence of both nations.
"Bazooka" Bob Burns
3. The new weapon bore a slight resemblance to a musical instrument, a kind of sliding trombone, invented and popularized by the American musician Bob Burns, during the 1930s.
4. I suspect that the explosive was Composition C, a forerunner of today’s C-4, that was more powerful and stable than TNT. Many Canadians viewed the Johnson LMG as more versatile than the Browning Automatic Rifle, which was also issued to the FSSF. The Johnson weighed less, and unlike the BAR, could fire single shots.
5. After six weeks training, the Norwegian ski instructors had pronounced the FSSF a ski-capable, military force. In May 1943, the Force was tested for its proficiency testing at the Amphibious School with flying colours. Part of the training consisted of simulated landings and cross-loading to smaller watercraft before heading to shore. A naval ensign who witnessed some of these tests gushed: “The best Army division averages about one minute per platoon load. ...The Marines did it in 52 seconds, which is the best we had seen until then. But these guys did it in 35 seconds, with absolute silence, a minimum of commands, and carrying full combat loads.” Robert Adleman and George Walton, The Devil’s Brigade (New York: Chilton Books, 1966): 33. The Navy would not be disappointed. The FSSF would be involved in several successful amphibious operations during its short operational life.  
6. According to the FSSF After-Action Report for the period 17 November 1943 to 1 February 1944, the Force suffered 511 casualties in six days: 73 dead, 9 missing, 313 wounded or injured, and 116 hospitalized for exhaustion.
7. The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions at Cisterna were destroyed during a violent German counterattack on the town. Only six men returned from the failed bid to take the Cisterna. The 4th Ranger Battalion was not spared. The battalion sustained heavy losses in preventing the enemy counterattack from overrunning the beachhead. It was primarily the younger Rangers, those with less time overseas, who joined the FSSF in February.
8. In an oft repeated version of this story, the German diarist is said to have derived this discription from the fact that the raiders used black shoe polish (or burnt cork from wine bottles) to darken their faces at night. In the absence of a scanned copy of the diary, I cannot dispute this. However, die schwarze Teufeln may simply have been a pejorative remark, a linguistic holdover from Germany’s short-lived colonial experience in Africa in general, and its ruthless suppression of a rebellion in German Southwest Africa in particular (1904-08). I have come across at least one case where a German used the same term to describe a desert raider of the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa. Whatever the case, the FSSF quickly capitalized on the psychological benefits of the moniker, and publicly embraced it.
9. Some 22 years later, the Force would acquire the enduring, if fanciful, sobriquet “Devil’s Brigade,” the title of a popular history of the FSSF, and a Hollywood film loosely based on the book. To my knowledge, until the publication of Robert H. Adleman, and Colonel George Walton’s history in 1966, the FSSF had never been referred to as the “Devil’s Brigade.” In fact, many veterans have taken umbrage with the title, not to mention the portrayal of the Force in the film.
10. At least 32 Forcemen were killed in action on 23 May 1944: 17 Americans, and 15 Canadians. The 1st Regiment accounted for about half of the men killed that day. Three Canadian officers were killed, one in 1st Company, and two in 3rd Company. Among the dead officers was Captain Frederick Blake Atto, a company commander, and a recent recipient of the US Distinguished Service Cross. Unable to replace their losses, the number of Canadians in the FSSF dwindled. However, even as late as the “Champagne Campaign” in southern France—from 23 August 1944 until the Force was disbanded in December—Canadians continued to account for approximately 25 percent of those killed in action.
11. Colonel Edwin A. Walker, commander of the 3rd Regiment, would take Frederick’s place.
12. The British 2nd Parachute Brigade dropped near Le Muy on 15 August 1944.
13. Sitka is a town in Alaska. The other amphibious task forces were given the code names Alpha, Camel, and Delta. Sitka Force was composed of several ships of Royal Canadian Navy, which had taken part in the Kiska operation a year earlier. I suspect that this had something to do with the naming of this task force.
14. This was the famous 3rd “Rock of the Marne” Infantry Division. Its 7th Infantry Regiment landed on Baie de Cavalaire, on the left flank of the invasion force.
15. General histories of Operation Dragoon seldom mention the protracted fighting on Port-Cros. The 1st Regiment landed on the east coast of Port-Cros, between Pointe du Tuf and Baie de Port Man. They took the first enemy fortified position by surprise. The position overlooked the beach at Port Man Bay, the most favourable landing site on the eastern half of the island. But the assault force had beached its rubber boats at the base of cliffs to the east of the bay, and had approached the defensive position from the rear. Accounts differ. A war correspondent claimed that the enemy surrendered without firing a shot. Clearly not all of the defenders at Fort de Port Man were as accommodating for a sharp firefight ensued. A popular Force medic, Sergeant J. L. Walkmeister of Suttercreek California, was seriously wounded while attempting to rescue a wounded man near the fort. He later succumbed to his wounds—on a hospital ship, I believe.
Another fight developed around the Fortin de la Vigie later that morning. In the afternoon, the first of several attempts to breach Fort de l’Eminence were made. Technician 4th Grade Reynold J. King (Ithaca, New York) of 4th Company was killed in the fighting, winning the Silver Star for his gallantry. Later that evening, elements of 2nd Company began clearing the village of Port-Cros. Their initial efforts were stymied by the presence of yet another fortified position: Fort du Moulin—also referred to as the “Chateau.” This fort, and the surrounding area of the village, would not fall until the following morning. Second company lost two killed in this action: First Lieutenant Robert Grant McLean of Calgary, Alberta, and Private George Nixon of Chicago, Illinois. 
Fort de l’Eminence and Fort de l’Estissac were more formidable. Third Company lost four men on 16 August, while storming the “star fort,” as the Forcemen called the smaller of these redoubts. Company commander Captain W. H. Merritt (West Barrington, Rhode Island) lost his life, as did at least three others: Private W. B. Harry (Vancouver, British Columbia), Private G. W. Glew (London, England), and Technician 4th Grade Frank J. Tomasoski (Gaastra, Michigan). According to one source, Private J. W. Wilson (Vancouver, British Columbia) may also have been killed in this action. I have not been able to confirm this.
When Rear Admiral L. A. Davidson, commander of the Sitka Task Force, came ashore the following day, Lieutenant Colonel J. F. R. Akehurst gave him a tour of one of the captured forts. The Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion explained to Admiral why his infantrymen were having so much difficultly seizing the forts. Neither FSSF persistence nor a shoot by a US cruiser could dislodge the defenders from their high, thick-walled redoubts. An air strike with rockets was equally ineffective. The Canadian colonel asked if the navy “had anything big out there?” Indeed they did. Twelve 15-inch shells from the battleship HMS Ramilles smashed into Fort de l’Eminence. The Germans surrendered shortly thereafter, at 1345 on 17 August. 
16. The Germans had installed obsolete French guns along the length of the Sudwall, as the fortifications on the coast of southern France were called. Perhaps as many as 30 Canon de 164mm Modèle 1893 were emplaced in the Sudwall. This medium-caliber naval gun formerly served as a secondary armament on a number of large French warships during the Great War.
17. The entire island operation cost the Force roughly 60 casualties, with about a quarter of these being fatal.
18. Forcemen had grown despondent. Prospects of relief dimmed as the days grew shorter and winter approached. Discontent extended to the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment. In October, Lieutenant-Colonel Akehurst’s request to return to the Canadian Army had been approved. He and the Force Commander, Colonel Walker, apparently did not “see eye to eye.” 
Dissatisfaction within the Force was widespread. Courts Martial were on the rise, primarily for Absences Without Leave. Ten Canadian Forcemen were court martialed in early October. The Americans tried about four times that number in the same period. But then, the Canadians made up a very small proportion of the FSSF at this stage of the war. In fact, this was one of the more prevalent Canadian complaints. Canadian Forcemen felt that Canada had abandoned them to the whims of the US Army. They had signed on for a 50-50 outfit, but there was little Canadian character left in the Force.
Upon discharge from hospital, some men slipped away into French cities rather than return to their units. Others, mostly replacements, snuck out of the front line. The more desperate broke out of the stockade and fled. In mid November, four Canadians from the 3rd Regiment were court martialed. The majority were replacements who waived their right to a defence in order to obtain a conviction and thereby avoid a return to the line. All this was understandable, if not excusable, the war diarist of the Canadian “contingent” wrote. “The men are getting pretty fed up and tired sitting up in the mountains day after day.” After months in the line, the Force was overdue for relief. It also proved to be past its expiry date. Neither the Canadian government, nor senior American commanders—including General Frederick—were interested in continuing the experiment.
19. It was perhaps fitting that when the FSSF was relieved for the last time, it was by a Japanese-American outfit that would become the most highly decorated regiment in the US Army.
20. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed 10 June 1942. Some men, such as William “Sam” Magee, were recruited by the FSSF while training at Benning because the Canadian jump school at Shilo, Manitoba was under construction at the time. Canadian paratroops later fought in the Ardennes during the final days of the Battle of the Bulge, in the Netherlands, and in the largest airdrop of the war—Operation Varsity—during the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945.
21. For example, the US 101st Airborne Division was redeployed to the Ardennes during the winter of 1944-45 as a stop-gap measure. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion joined the fight on 2 January 1945, the only Canadian unit to participate in the Battle of the Bulge.
22. On more than one occasion, Canadian authorities raised the question of replacements, but were reminded by the Americans, not least Colonel Frederick, that the Force was only to be used once. One commentator concluded that while Frederick understood the benefit of a replacement system, he did not want to delay the commitment of the Force to battle in 1943. He had lured volunteers with the promise of seeing combat earlier than otherwise. He felt compelled to keep his promise in spite of what his decision would mean for the longevity of his Force. James A. Wood, We Move Only Forward: Canada, the United States and the First Special Service Force, 1942-1944 (Vanwell: St. Catharines, Ontario, 2006), p. 66.
23. It was also at this juncture that additional support elements were permanently attached to the Force. But as welcome as a Ranger Cannon company was, it was no substitute for line infantry. For the purposes of accuracy, I should also point out that the 456th Parachute Artillery Battalion had been attached to the Force during the battles for the Bernhardt Line. This gave the Force some welcome organic artillery (six 75mm pack howitzers) and anti-tank support (four 37mm anti-tank guns). It was also at this time that the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion (1st US Armored Division) was attached to the Force, although the utility of M8 armoured cars and M5A1 light tanks in mountainous terrain was limited. Of greater utility was the Sardinian Pack Mule Company. During the assault on la Difensa and la Remetanea, the men of the 3rd Regiment and the Service Battalion had laboured as human pack mules, in an effort to keep the troops atop Hill 960 resupplied. It was then that Forcemen began to call themselves “Freddie’s Freighters,” after their commander Colonel Frederick. 
Harlan S. Morgan 3-2 manpacks medical supplies up to the front in January 1944. He and others of 3rd Company have left their weapons behind in order to demonstrate their temporary non-combatant status.
24. I suppose that one could argue that keeping the FSSF in the line along the Franco-Italian border served two practical purposes: it freed other, more powerful combat units for offensive operations, and it kept the Force pre-occupied while staff officers deliberated over what to do with the FSSF.
25. The disaster that befell the Rangers at Cisterna in January 1944—and the British 6th Airborne Division later that year—underlined the vulnerability of light-infantry forces to attack by heavier mechanized or armoured forces. While useful for seizing important ground by surprise, the survival of these light-infantry forces was dependent upon early relief by conventional ground forces. Operation Varsity, undertaken in March 1945, was more successful in the sense that Allied ground forces linked up with airborne and glider-borne troops within 24 hours of the latter landing behind enemy lines. Even so, casualties among the lightly-armed paratroopers and glider infantry were high, albeit still less than anticipated.
26. In order to prevent unnecessary rifts between the two nationalities, Colonel Frederick had recommended that Canadians pay their personnel at the same rates as American personnel. Canadian officials decided against this. In the end, Canadians generally earned about a third less than their American counterparts. The higher overall pay due to the monthly parachute allowance nevertheless attracted many Canadian infantrymen to the Force. 
27. This is understandable. Canadian officials were careful not to give the American Army carte blanche with respect to where and how Canadian soldiers were employed, just as they were equally reluctant to allow the British Army to deploy Canadian formations without Canadian consent. In other words, the FSSF was to be used for operations that advanced both American and Canadian interests, and more broadly, Allied interests. The FSSF could not be seen as an instrument of American military power. It had to remain a cooperative military venture. 
28. The monument to the FSSF can be found in Memorial Park, in central Helena. The monument fronts on Last Chance Gulch, or Main Street. Members of the Force helped to finance construction of the monument. In August 1943, the Force had raised money for the commissioning of a navy cruiser, the Helena. When the US Navy abandoned the project, Frederick asked that the money raised to buy war bonds for the cruiser be redirected and used to fund an FSSF memorial.
29. Joe Glass made the trip up to Edmonton in 2011. It proved to be his last reunion.
30. Last I heard, “Sam” was based in Bowmanville, Ontario. At least that is where the gregarious vet hangs his beret when he is not in Italy, France, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere promoting and reliving the exploits of the Force. 

Heaps of books on the First Special Service Force have been published. Within the last decade, the number of books dealing with the Force has multiplied. Below (following the film) are some of the general works dealing with the Force. There are also a number of biographies and documentary films to be had. Happy hunting!

Russian version (русский перевод)

The Black Devils (2001) 


Daring to Die: The Story of the Black Devils (2003) Promo

7 comments:

Jason Fritz said...

Photo 30 of 47 depicts the 4-2. It looks as though it was incorrectly labeled 4-3? My grandfather is the first soldier on left kneeling.

Chris Doary said...

HI Jason,

Thanks for the question.

I gather that you are referring to the photo with the caption: Forcemen of 4-3 in the Alpes Maritime, October 1944.

May I ask what your grandfather's name was?

Jason Fritz said...

Yes, that's the photo I was referring to. My Grandfather was Arthur M. Shawley from Pennsylvania.

Jason Fritz said...

I'm sorry. I stand corrected. The photo I was referring to is actually labeled:
"2nd Platoon, 4-3 France, October 1944"

Thanks!

Chris Doary said...

That makes sense. I have an Arthur Shawley from Jenner, PA in 4-2.

Can you confirm the position of your grandfather in the photo?

I will call the man seated at the bottom, with his rifle resting on his knees, No. 1. The man with the Thompson SMG is No.3. Which man is your grandfather? Number 1, 2, 3, or 4?

I will update the caption accordingly.

Thanks again for your assistance.

Chris Doary said...

Have updated "2nd Platoon, 4-3 France, October 1944" caption to read 4-2.

I have also added your grandfather's name in brackets, and indicated his position in the photo.

Please confirm that I have everything correct.

Cheers,

Chris

Jason Fritz said...

Yes Chris. That's correct! Thanks for adding his name. You didn't have to do that, but it's appreciated. I just wanted to make sure the unit was correctly labeled for others who might be looking for photos of loved ones, etc.
There's another website that lists all the names of the soldiers in that particular photo. Let me know if you're interested in seeing the link.

Thanks again! Cheers!