This July marks the 73rd anniversary of the creation of the first true modern Special Forces unit, the First Special Service Force (FSSF). Canadian and United States SF units trace their lineage back to this historic Canadian/American joint unit, specifically the U.S. Army Special Forces and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. The iconic red arrowhead with USA and Canada written across it has become a great source of pride and kinship for operators in North America.
The idea of the FSSF was thought up by British scientist Geoffrey Pyke, and was very well received by Prime Minister Churchill. It was to be a specialized unit of elite soldiers trained in winter and unconventional warfare, striking enemy locations in Northern Europe, behind enemy lines, with speed and precision—and then disappearing as quickly as they arrived. The idea of such an elite covert unit became very appealing to the U.S. Army as well, and within weeks of the idea being pitched, a half-Canadian, half-American FSSF was created.
The FSSF was commanded and entirely equipped by the U.S. Army, except for their “penguin” and “weasel” over-snow vehicles, which were developed in Canada. The FSSF CO was U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick, and in an attempt to balance the U.S./Canadian force, the XO was Canadian Lieutenant Colonel Don Williamson. The rest of the leadership was approximately half Canadian, half American, and the remaining ranks attempted to maintain a similar makeup.
Like modern-day SF, the FSSF entrance requirements were extremely high and the training afterward was no easier. Initially intended to make up a mountain raiding party, the members of FSSF became extremely proficient in skiing, mountaineering, fieldcraft, hand-to-hand combat, small-unit tactics, and even airborne and amphibious insertion. After completing the rigorous training required by the unit, the men of FSSF were ready and able to complete any task.
The FSSF’s first combat missions came in 1943 during the Aleutians campaign to regain small islands lost to the Japanese after the Battle of Midway. Although the fighting during the Aleutians campaign was minimal, the FSSF gained some much-needed field experience.
After a seemingly uneventful campaign, they were sent to spearhead the Italian campaign, which had slowly reached stagnation. When the FSSF landed in Italy, they devised a plan that seemed impossible: The unit would scale the undefended side of Monte la Difensa, a heavily fortified German defensive position. The key terrain of “Bernhardt Line Defenses,” Monte la Difensa had broken the advance of the Allied forces in Italy and repelled multiple attacks by division-plus size forces.
“Between December 3 and December 6, 1943, they immediately earned a reputation for being able to take impenetrable objectives when no one else could. Here, in the dead of winter, the First Special Service Force wiped out a strategic enemy defensive position that sat high atop a mountain surrounded by steep cliffs. Previously, American and British forces had suffered many casualties in futile attempts to take the important target. The 1st SSF was successful, and this incident was the basis for the 1968 motion picture titled ‘The Devil’s Brigade.’”
After capturing Monte la Difensa, the unit continued on the offensive, assaulting Monte la Remetanea, Monte Sambúcaro, and Monte Vischiataro before being withdrawn due to their high number of casualties. Although gaining notoriety for their actions during their mountain offensive, their true worth was showcased during their time in the Mussolini Canal sector—part of the Anzio campaign. It was during their time here that they become one of the most feared units during the Second World War.
“It was at Anzio that the Germans dubbed the 1st Special Service Force the ‘Devil’s Brigade.’ The diary of a dead German soldier contained a passage that said, ‘The black devils are all around us every time we come into the line.'”
Their stealth, tactics, and aggressive patrolling in the area wreaked havoc on the German forces both physically and psychologically.
“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 to ‘The worst is yet to come.’ They’d place these stickers on German corpses and fortifications.”
Much like modern SF units, they acted as pathfinders, securing bridges behind enemy lines to leave routes open to conventional forces. It is rumored that lead elements of the FSSF were the first Allied forces to set foot in Rome during the 5th Army’s offensive push, forcing the German forces to withdraw.
After the fall of Rome, the FSSF was sent to France on August 22 and was attached to the 1st Airborne Task Force. After arriving in France, the FSSF was back at it, taking names and gaining ground. The French town of Villeneuve-Loubet will live in infamy for the FSSF. On August 26th, 1944, the small town was the host to one of the most difficult and intense fights that the FSSF had seen. After liberating the town, the FSSF was disbanded on December 5th, 1944.
Throughout its short existence, the FSSF was revolutionary in their methods of carrying out small-unit tactics and offensive actions. In 1952, Col. Aaron Bank founded the United States Army Special Forces based off the strategies and lessons learned from the Devil’s Brigade. The Canadian Airborne Regiment (Commando) also was created with many of the lessons learned from the FSSF in mind. Later, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment would trace its lineage to the Devil’s Brigade.
The idea of joint special operations between Canada and the U.S. had a resurgence during the War in Afghanistan, where JTF2 operators and U.S. SF would work together on Task Force K-Bar. Interoperability between the two nations’ special operations forces is becoming more and more common. This is rather fitting as both nations’ premier SOF units trace their lineage back to the joint U.S.-Canadian First Special Service Force. These units working together is a reflection of their getting back to their roots.
 “History of the First Special Service Force,” Web: http://www.firstspecialserviceforce.net/history.html