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.’”[1]