One of the most unique combat units in Italy was the First Special Service Force, a bi-national group consisting of elite Canadian and American fighters. The Canadian component was originally the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion, then renamed the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion. In June 1942, when it joined with US Army troops and became the First Special Service Force, Canadians comprised 1/4 of its strength, 47 officers and 650 other ranks,
Training was arduous — parachuting, skiing, and mountain climbing. Everything was done “at the double” and their physical conditioning was aided by callisthenics, obstacle courses, and long marches with hundred-pound packs. Each man learned how to handle explosives and to use every weapon in the Force’s extensive arsenal. Hand-to-hand combat, night fighting, and use of captured weapons rounded out the training program. These specialized skills were necessary, for the Force members were to become “shock troops”, frequently raiding strategic positions and often parachuting behind enemy lines. Their effectiveness would earn them the nickname, “the Devil’s Brigade”.
The First Special Service Force arrived in Italy in November 1943, as the 5th U.S. Army was preparing to capture the mountains that guarded Cassino to the south. Its initial task was to throw the Germans off two of the highest peaks, Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea. Climbing ropes in the dense fog, the Force took the Germans by surprise on Difensa. Following a bloody, six-day battle, Monte la Remetanea was captured. Its first involvement in the Italian campaign cost the First Special Service Force 511 casualties, including 73 fatalities.
A month later, the Force equalled its previous accomplishment by taking Monte Majo and several other ridges controlling the Via Caslina, the main Naples-Rome road. In terrible weather and even harsher conditions, the Germans were forced back across the Rapido River valley to their main defences, the Gustav Line. Sixty-seven Canadian members of the Force were either killed or wounded on Monte Majo.
By the time the First Special Service Force was pulled out of the line in the middle of January 1944, it had an impressive record. After securing Majo, it drove the enemy from Hills 1109 and 1270, and other Fifth Army formations cleared the Germans from east of Cassino. Due in large part to this elite Canadian-American unit, the Fifth Army was finally ready to launch its long-awaited offensive on Rome. The Force was now sent to Anzio.
The First Special Service Force arrived at the beachhead on February 1. A few reinforcements left it with a combat strength of 1,233, all ranks. Only one of its regiments was intact, the other two were at half-strength. The Force promptly took over one-quarter of Anzio’s thirty-mile-long front, and in a week forced the Germans to withdraw more than a mile from the Mussolini Canal, which was situated at the right flank of the bridgehead.
Performing night raids, scouting and reconnaissance, one of the most successful Force soldiers was 28-year-old Canadian Tommy Prince from Manitoba, who became one of Canada’s most-decorated Aboriginal soldiers, with the Military Medal and the U.S. Silver Star for bravery in action. One of his most famous exploits, earning him the Military Medal, occurred near Anzio, where he calmly placed himself in great danger to report enemy artillery positions. Despite outstanding performances like this, the Force’s casualties at Anzio, while not heavy, mounted steadily. By the time it came out of the line on May 9, it had lost 384 men, killed, wounded, or missing, 117 of which were Canadian.
While the Canadian army was not directly involved in the liberation of Rome, there was a Canadian presence. Members of the First Special Service Force were the first liberators to enter the city. The Force had spent nearly a hundred days in continuous action and so when it came out of the line at Anzio, was given an opportunity to rest and reorganize. Reinforcements strengthened the unit, including 15 Canadian officers and 240 other Canadian ranks.
In late May, the Force headed toward Appian Way, one of the two highways to Rome from the south. Once again the members found themselves in the mountainous terrain in which they excelled and soon seized Monte Arrestino at the entrance to the valley leading northwards to Valmontone, then took Artena, near Valmontone. The approach to Rome began early morning on June 3 and by midnight, the Force had reached Rome’s suburbs. An hour later the Force commander was ordered to seize the Tiber bridges into the capital. The next day, they entered Rome, fanning out across the capital to seize key locations in Rome’s centre.
Soon after, before the end of the Italian campaign, the First Special Service Force left Italy to fight in southern France and was disbanded in December that year.
By the time the “Devil’s Brigade” secured Rome, Canadian casualties alone totalled 185, or about one-third of the Force’s Canadian contingent. Sixty-two of them lie among the 2,313 war dead at Beach Head War Cemetery in Anzio on Italy’s west coast.
The Devil’s Brigade, a one-of-a-kind military unit that never failed to achieve its objective, was disbanded by the end of the War. However, in 1952 Col. Aaron Bank would create another elite unit using the training, the strategies, and the lessons learned from the Devil’s Brigade’s missions. This force would evolve into specialized forces such as the Green Berets, Delta Force, and the Navy SEAL. In Canada, today’s elite and highly secretive JTF2 military unit is also modelled on the Devil’s Brigade. Like World War II, Canadian JTF2 members and American Deta Force members were united again into a special assignment force for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
In September of 1999, the main highway between the city 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.
A large number of the Devil’s Brigade members were honoured for their acts of valour, including Tommy Prince (on right in the image at left), Canada’s most decorated aboriginal soldier of WW II.
Battles of the First Special Service Force :
Aleutians Campaign, 1943 :
Kiska & Little Kiska – August 15-August 19, 1943
Segula Island – August 17, 1943
Italian (Naples-Foggia-Rome) Campaign 1943-1944 :
Monte la Difensa – December 3-December 6, 1943
Monte la Remetanea – December 6-December 9, 1943
Monte Sammucro – December 25 (Christmas Day), 1943
Radicosa – January 4, 1944
Monte Majo – January 6, 1944
Monte Vischiataro – January 8, 1944
Anzio – February 2-May 10, 1944
Monte Arrestino – May 25, 1944
Rocca Massima – May 27, 1944
Colle Ferro – June 2, 1944
Rome – June 4, 1944
Southern France, (Alpes-Maritimes) Campaign, 1944 :
Iles d’Hyères – August 14-August 17, 1944
Grasse – August 27, 1944
Villeneuve-Loubet – August 30, 1944
Vence – September 1, 1944
Drap – September 3, 1944
L’Escarène – September 5, 1944
La Turbie – September 6, 1944
Menton – September 7, 1944
Rhineland Campaign, 1944 :
Franco-Italian border – September 7 – November 30, 1944