The men dropped to one knee on the side of a dirty mountain road, their breath frosting into tiny, pulsing clouds as they focused a stare toward the objective. From here the twin peaks belied a peaceful scene of deep green slopes and gentle curving crests that melded with countless others in the region.
Any other time such a sight lured mountain climbers and hikers to its untouched beauty to stand upon their summits and view the gentle ebb of valleys and roads that coursed among them.
For these men though, such luxuries seemed alien. To them, the peaks defied beauty, and appeared brooding and alive, waiting to smash anyone foolhardy enough to scale them in an avalanche of fire and metal.
Thoughts of this followed them when the order came to move out, these armed men with faces black as night, like no other force on earth, eager and willing to do the impossible.
They existed for only 2 years, a group of men comprising the best of the U.S. and Canadian militaries. They served in both the Pacific and European theaters during the Second World War, and left a trail of dead enemy as testimony to their effectiveness. Officially called the 1st Special Service Force, they earned many nicknames throughout the conflict, but one name rose above all others, fittingly it was coined by the enemy…
The Devil’s Brigade
American and Canadian Special forces units trace their lineage back the Brigade, whose origin began in the mind of scientist Geoffry Pyke, who recommended creation of a small force of soldiers capable fighting and sustaining itself behind enemy lines in mountains and in winter conditions.
This group would carry out missions of strategic importance, (with Norway at the top of the list), destroy targets and tie down German forces using guerilla tactics, and what may fit on their backs, as resupply was nigh impossible.
Called Project Plough, in spring 1942, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of British Combined Operations Command approved of the concept. However, given the strain on British forces then fighting in two theaters, he suggested offering the plan to the U.S.
After presenting the proposal at the Chequers conference, the U.S. General Staff reviewed and issued its decision… It couldn’t be done. Not as intended, at least. Strategic bombing missions into target areas like Norway seemed a better alternative than asking a small group of men to march and fight for weeks on end.
Desires of using a small elite force for less vital tasks remained, though, and the plan received the green light to use American and Canadian soldiers to form the unit. Norwegians were originally intended as well, but were too few. And with that, the group began forming in secret during summer, 1942.
Train windows were blacked out as men traveled cross country to their final destination. Canada approved 697 men for the outfit who received word they were to raise a brigade sized force and be trained in the U.S. Americans recalled similar tales of deception as they boarded likewise trains to head for parts unknown and fill out the remainder of the force. In all, the strength of the Brigade finalized to 3 regiments of 32 officers and 385 enlisted men.
When viewing the numbers on paper, the force appeared small compared to standard infantry brigades, although for Special Forces work it seemed rather large. Either way, the potential to have effects far beyond its numbers gave it a high priority, along with searching for a suitable leader capable of seeing it through.
They found one in Colonel Robert Frederick.
1st Special Service force had sacked its first commander for being ineffective and scoured over personnel records for a replacement before finding Frederick. His assignment to the Brigade proved to be the missing link the unit needed through training and combat. Furthermore, Frederick proved himself worthy of respect by not just leading his men, but fighting alongside them and sharing the same deprivations as they. Ironically, he had been the most vocal against the original Project Plough concept.
With its ranks filled, the next few months brought intensive training as the 1st Special Service Force traveled in secret to various locations throughout the states. Courses included parachuting, skiing and rock climbing among others, as well as winter warfare and small unit tactics. Long marches became standard, with some ranging up to 60 miles.
The men utilized standard American weaponry but experimented with different equipment and rations. All through summer and fall of 1942 they trained in uniforms from their respective armies, until it was decided American uniforms were the preferred attire. Now, looking as one, the men completed the grueling regimen, allaying Frederick’s fears that though two sides looked alike, they might have trouble bonding into an effective fighting unit.
Now the wait came.
Into 1943, Frederick kept his force honed into a fine edge while anticipating an assignment to come down the channels. When it arrived, the unit realized the miserable days of sleeping in cold and tramping through snow paid off. The Aleutian Islands were the target, and soon they embarked on a troopship in San Francisco, churning north towards the windswept Island of Kiska.
They came ashore with the beaches secured and moved inland with other American forces. Frederick and other commanders quickly surmised why they met no resistance the further they progressed. The island had been evacuated. Now, with no enemy, the Brigade boarded the troopships to take them back to the mainland, many men wondering just how long it might take to test their skills.
Less than a month passed when the unit moved out again, this time to the east coast where they debarked for Casablanca, Morocco, in November, then on to the Italian Front as part of the 5th U.S. Army. They reached Naples and went to the front immediately with the U.S. 36th Division on the 19th. At last, the Brigade was confident it would receive seasoning under fire, and prove itself more than capable to dish it out as well.
Arrayed before it were German forces having set up a series of defensive lines on the Italian mainland designed to halt Allied advances. One of these, designated the The Winter Line, stretched among a mountain range, containing strong points that must be taken before advancing to the Gustave Line which covered Rome. Two of these strong points lay atop mountains called La Defensa and La Rometonea.
Both mountains came under the control of a German Panzer Grenadier division, with a Panzer division in reserve. Each one provided hidden machine gun nests, mortar pits, rocket launchers and multitudes of foxholes under a forest canopy, while further away amid other mountains and hills, artillery positioned under camouflage nets stood poised to rain fire upon any force foolish enough to attempt an advance up the slopes.
Colonel Frederick sent out patrols to survey possible routes of advance. Deciding on one on December 1st, he had his men trucked to within a few miles of the mountains. They offloaded and began the arduous trek over peaks toward one of the strong points, La Defensa, where they planned to scale an almost vertical rise to reach the summit and catch the Germans off guard. Once fighting among them the German artillery was unlikely to interfere, and after they cleared the top, they could turn their attention to the ultimate objective, La Rometonea.
Led by Lieutenant colonel T.C MacWilliam, the force involved the 2nd regiment with half of the 3rd. The other regiments would be held in reserve and committed if needed.
On December 2nd an Allied artillery barrage screamed down onto La defense setting it alight with brilliant flashes in the overcast dusk. One of the men remarked: “It was like we were marching into Hell…the whole mountain seemed to be on fire.” The march continued unnoticed to the base of vast heights which they had to climb.
There the shelling subsided, and ropes unwound in busy hands to begin ascending a 65 degree slope rising 1,000 feet high, each man pulling himself into the night sky, the scent of burning timber heavy in each breath and the fear of discovery growing stronger with each handful of minutes.
A freezing rain pelted their bodies, chilling them amid sweat forming on their brows, until soon they pulled themselves over the top, gathering once more for the short rush to the summit.
They moved out in small groups, when flares burst and sizzled overhead, the sound exploded into a roar of machine gun and rifle fire. Their cover blown, they returned fire with equal fury. Commands screamed and they raced toward the enemy positions. Grenades arced through the dark from both sides, their deep reports adding to the hammering din.
The unit poured into the German positions firing point blank and forcing others to flee into the night. They moved onward, crawling over blasted tree trunks oblivious to bullets streaking about them until they swept the top clear of enemy. Reports of success began echoing in headsets back at command posts.
Dawn broke over La Defensa revealing a once impregnable stronghold in the hands of the Brigade. Even more impressive was the fact that an operation all thought would take days to achieve had been done in 2 hours with a minuscule force.
The second objective lay ahead.
On December 6th, with little rest, La Rometonea was assaulted, but slowed after MacWilliam was killed. It too fell, though not as quick. Afterward they stood down, but only for a few days when commanders, realizing just how good a unit they had, sent them against more mountains intended for larger forces.
Here too, they succeeded. Nevertheless, at the end of the campaign they tallied a 77% casualty rate.
With the force in demand, the unit transferred to Anzio, where they continued successful missions, often startling Germans with just how small a force they were.
Here, in this part of Italy, the soldiers left stickers on corpses saying the “The worst is yet to come.. This, along with their skills and tenacity, caused the Germans to christen them the ‘Devil’s Brigade.’
From Italy, they soon moved to Southern France, fighting house to house in numerous villages and towns. At the height of their prowess and reputation there appeared to be no task too great to accomplish. Except time. And in a field outside of Villeneuve-Loubet, their hardest fight in-country to date, time caught up to the unit and it disbanded. A parade was held and the final act came when American members saluted their Canadian brothers with a march past, and officers saluting.
The Devil’s Brigade was no more.
In 2 years the 1,800 man unit went on to amass a record of some 12,000 enemy casualties, 7,000 prisoners and scores of enemy positions overrun. The cost was high. A 600% attrition rate reflected the danger of their missions, but proved the value of a small elite force influencing battles far out of proportion to their numbers.
Today, 70 years on. America and Canada continue to pay tribute to this group of men who put their national identities aside and dedicated themselves to defeating tyranny. In the words of Devil’s Brigade veteran Jack Furman from British Columbia “As far as we in the force were concerned, we never considered ourselves as Canadian or American. After the first while, we didn’t know who was who. We were just part of the force.”
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