Properly designated as the 1st Special Service Force, The Devil's Brigade was a joint World War II American-Canadian commando unit organised in 1942 and trained at Fort Harrison near Helena, Montana in the United States. The brigade fought in the Aleutian Islands, the Italian Campaign, and southern France before being disbanded in December, 1944. Many modern American and Canadian Special Forces units trace their heritage to this unit.
Scientist Geoffrey Pyke, of the British Combined Operations Command, envisioned the creation of a small, élite military force capable of fighting behind enemy lines in winter conditions. To create a commando unit that could be landed, by sea or air, to occupied Norway, Romania, and the Italian Alps on sabotage missions of hydroelectric plants and oil fields. In Norway, the chief industrial threat was the creation, at Rjukan, of the heavy water used in the German atomic weapon research. In Romania were the strategically important Ploesti oil fields that met most of the Germans' needs, and in Italy there were the hydroelectric plants powering most south German industry. Pyke added that a tracked vehicle be developed, especially for the unit, capable of carrying them and their equipment at high speed across snow-covered terrain.
In March 1942 Pyke proposed his idea, which he had named Project Plough, to Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ) that Allied commandos be parachuted into the Norwegian mountains to establish a base on the Jostedalsbreen, a large glacier plateau, for guerrilla actions against the German army of occupation. These troops would be equipped with Pyke's proposed snow vehicle. Pyke persuaded Mountbatten that such a force would be invulnerable in its glacier strongholds and would tie down large numbers of German troops trying to dislodge it.
However, given the demands upon both Combined Operations and British industry, it was decided to offer it instead to the US at the Chequers Conference of March 1942. General George C. Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, accepted the suggestion for Project Plough and since no suitable vehicle existed, in April 1942 the US government started asking automobile manufacturers to look into such a design. Studebaker subsequently created the T-15 cargo carrier which later became the M29 Weasel.
In May 1942 the concept papers for Plough were scrutinised by a young officer in the Operations Division of the US General Staff, Lt. Colonel Robert T. Frederick. His report identified many drawbacks with it, including the unit's organisation and how it was to withdraw once its mission had been completed.
The first officer picked to lead the unit, Lt. Col. H.R. Johnson, resigned as soon as he met the eccentric Pyke. His replacement was suggested by Mountbatten and assigned by Eisenhower: Lt. Col. Frederick himself was given the task of creating a fighting unit for Project Plough and was promoted to colonel to command it, and by July 1942 had eased Pyke out of the picture.
Colonel Frederick enjoyed a very high priority in obtaining equipment and training areas. Originally it had been intended due to its winter warfare mission that the unit should be equally made up of American, Canadian, and Norwegian troops. However, a lack of suitable Norwegians saw this changed to half US and half Canadian.
In July 1942 the Canadian Minister of National Defence approved the assignment of 697 officers and enlisted men for the project. The Canadian force would serve under the official Canadian designation of 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion; they would be paid by the Canadian government but be supplied with uniforms, equipment, food, shelter and travel expenses by the US. They also remained subject to their own army's code of discipline. The US volunteers for the force consisted primarily of enlisted men recruited by advertising at Army posts, stating that preference was to be given to men previously employed as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters, game wardens, and the like. Frederick then named this force the First Special Service Force (FSSF).
Force members received rigorous and intensive training in stealth tactics; hand-to-hand combat; the use of explosives for demolition; parachuting; amphibious warfare; rock-climbing; mountain warfare, and as ski troops. From the outset, the 1st Special Service Force was armed with a variety of non-standard or limited-issue weapons, such as the M1941 Johnson machine gun. The Johnson LMG in particular helped greatly increase the firepower of the unit and was highly regarded by those who used it in combat. Frederick himself participated in the design of a fighting knife made exclusively for the Force called the V-42 combat knife, a derivative of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. The formation patch was a red spearhead with the words USA written horizontally and CANADA written vertically. The branch of service insignia was the crossed arrows formerly worn by the U.S. Army Indian Scouts. The unit wore red, white, and blue piping on their garrison cap and on the breast oval behind their parachutist wings. Members of the unit also wore a red, white, and blue fourragere, lanyard, or shoulder cord made out of parachute shroud lines.
Much feared for their fighting prowess, the monicker "The Black Devils" was adopted after the discovery of the personal diary of a German officer referring to "die schwarzen Teufeln (the Black Devils)." With blackened faces, small units would often overwhelm German defenders without firing a shot, and then disappear into the night.
Following its initial training period in Montana, the 1st SSF relocated to Camp Bradford, Vermont, on April 15 1943, and to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, on May 23 1943. On July 4 1943, it arrived at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, and on July 10 sailed for the Aleutian Islands. On August 15 1943, 1st SSF was part of the invasion force of the island of Kiska, but after the island was found evacuated, it re-embarked and returned to Fort Ethan Allen, arriving September 9.
At Monte la Difensa, near which was located the ancient town of Rocca d'Evandro (about 10 miles south east of Cassino) and was part of the Bernhardt Line Defences on the Camino hill mass, 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 1st Special Service Force wiped out a strategic enemy defensive position that sat high atop a mountain surrounded by steep cliffs. They climbed the cliffs using ropes only in the dead of night, and caught the Germans by surprise. 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.
The 1st SSF immediately continued its attack, assaulting Monte la Remetanea from December 6 to December 9. It captured Monte Sambúcaro on December 25, and assaulted Monte Vischiataro on January 8 1944. During the mountain campaign the 1st SSF suffered 77% casualties.
The Special Force brigade was withdrawn from the mountains in January and on February 1 was landed at the beachhead created by Operation Shingle at Anzio, south of Rome, replacing the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions which had been decimated at Cisterna. Their task was to hold and raid from the right-hand flank of the beachhead marked by the Mussolini Canal/Pontine Marshes. Shortly after the SSF took over the Mussolini Canal sector, German units pulled back up to a half-mile to avoid their aggressive patrols.
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 (Die schwarzen Teufel) are all around us every time we come into the line." The soldier was referring to them as "black" because the brigade's members smeared their faces with black boot polish for their covert operations in the dark of the night. During Anzio, the 1st SSF fought for 99 days without relief. It was also at Anzio that the 1st SSF used their trademark stickers; 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", placing these stickers on German corpses and fortifications. Canadian and American members of the Special Force who lost their lives are buried near the beach in the Commonwealth Anzio War Cemetery and the American Cemetery in Nettuno, just east of Anzio.
When the 5th Army breakout offensive began on May 25, 1944, the 1st SSF was sent against Monte Arrestino, and attacked Rocca Massima on May 27. The 1st SSF was given the assignment of capturing seven bridges in the city to prevent their demolition by the withdrawing Wehrmacht. During the night of June 4, members of the 1st SSF entered Rome. They are among the Allied units who claim to be the first to enter Rome. After they secured the bridges, they quickly moved north in pursuit of the retreating Germans.
In September of 1999, Alberta Highway 4 and Interstate 15 in Montana, being the main highway between the cities 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.
Two documentaries have been made about the Force: Daring to Die: The Story of the Black Devils,written and directed by Greg Hancock of figments of imagination and Devil's Brigade , a 2006 TV mini-series produced by Frantic Films.