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First Special Service Force

The First Special Service Force was a unique fighting force in many ways. Chiefly, and most famously thanks to the 1968 motion picture by United Artists, the force was bi-national, consisting of American and Canadian personnel. This unit, trained in amphibious, mountain, and airborne warfare was perhaps the most highly trained unit of its size to emerge from the Second World War.

Brief History

The genesis of the First Special Service Force was Operation PLOUGH, and British scientist Geoffrey Pyke whose ideas caught the imagination of both Lord Louis Mountbatten and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in early 1942. PLOUGH was a plan for mastery of the snows of northern Europe, through a specially designed vehicle to be delivered by air. This device would permit Allied commandos to operate at will, delivering knock-out blows to targets key to German energy and other targets (such as the oil-fields in Romania, or the hydro-electric plants in Norway).

The scheme's realization involved raising a special force and developing special equipment; and it had sufficient appeal to British and American leaders to lead them to put both matters in hand. In Canada the Department of Munitions and Supply was asked to develop a snowmobile, and did produce an effective vehicle, the "Penguin", which, with modifications, has since given good service in the Army's Arctic exercises. United States agencies on their side, with help from the National Research Council in Ottawa and from other Allied countries, developed a vehicle which, under the name of "Weasel", later did well in many theatres. In its amphibious form (M 29 C) it was familiar to the Canadian Army.

The original scheme for the raiding force contemplated a unit composed of Canadians, Americans and Norwegians. It soon became clear that no Norwegians except a few instructors would be available. On 26 June 1942, however, the Canadian Prime Minister approved Canadian participation (possibly because of the extreme secrecy of the project, it does not appear to have been put before the Cabinet War Committee at this stage), and on 14 July the Minister of National Defence authorized the movement of 47 officers and 650 other ranks to the United States in connection with the project. For security reasons, the Canadian part of the force was designated "2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion" until May 1943, when the name was changed to "1st Canadian Special Service Battalion". The senior Canadian officer was Lt.-Col. J. G. McQueen, who was brought back from the army overseas to take the appointment; the junior officers were chiefly recent graduates of the Officers Training Centre at Brockville; while the other ranks were selected from among men in Canada volunteering for duty as paratroopers.1

Formation and Training

Training in Montana, men of the 1SSF show their skill at skiing and parachute jumping. The Force was entirely equipped by the US Army, including weapons like the M1 Garand rifles shown here.

The commando force became known as the First Special Service Force, and was raised at Helena, Montana under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick of the US Army, with a Canadian as second in command. Lieutenant-Colonel McQueen, formerly the second-in-command of The Calgary Highlanders in the United Kingdom, had returned to North America to accept the position of senior Canadian in the Force. He was injured in parachute training on 13 August 1942 and left the Force shortly after, going to Washington, D.C. in a liaison role for the force, and later commanded The Lincoln and Welland Regiment in Normandy. Lieutenant Colonel Don Williamson of The Dufferin and Haldimand Rifles took over as senior Canadian and executive officer (second-in-command) of the FSSF.2

Approximately half the leadership positions in this force were occupied by Canadians, with about 1/3 of the unit's personnel drawn from the Canadian Army.

One of the battalion commanders was Tom Gilday, whose initial involvement was to round up volunteers for the project. "I wasn't asked to volunteer," he points out, "I was told to go." A member of Montreal's Canadian Grenadier Guards since 1932, he had served as the army's only ski instructor since 1940, training men to travel and survive in the snow. This seemed to fit perfectly into Plough's intentions, and Gilday was sent out to sign up candidates. "I picked trappers and hunters, bushmen, farmers' sons, all good individual outdoor types who would know their way around in the woods and in the country and in all kinds of weather conditions."3

Conceptually the unit was a Brigade, though in terms of actual numbers, the unit was organized much differently (see below). Administratively, the Canadian component of the Force was known, at least in Ottawa, as the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion. On 1 May 1943, the commander of the Canadian contingent began signing the unit's war diary as the CO of the "1st Canadian Special Service Battalion."

Entrance standards were high, and during the initial period of training, from July 1942 to the summer of 1943, was rigorous. All members of the Force became proficient in winter operations, including skiing, as well as parachute jumping (every man in the Force was a qualified parachutist) and amphibious operations. The FSSF, training in Virginia in mid 1943, bested even the leading Marine units in embarkation drills. Hand to hand combat training was emphasized, as was work with demolitions. The average age of the Force was a little higher than regular infantry, and most of the Forcemen had been non-commissioned officers prior to reassignment. The Force was thus very mature in outlook, and their growing skills were a testament to that.

See main article on Operation COTTAGE

The Force participated in the Aleutians Campaign in August 1943; the Japanese had captured several islands here during the Battle of Midway in June 1942. By this time, the Force's expected mission - a large raid on Norway - had been cancelled. The Japanese had deserted the Aleutians, however, and the Forcemen saw no combat there.

In November 1943, the FSSF was on the other side of the world, reassigned to the United States 5th Army, which was fighting its way north through the rugged mountainous terrain of Italy. After a 12 day attack was stopped cold at Monte la Difensa, the Force went in and cleared the veteran German 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment from the summit, a feat immortalized in the 1968 motion picture The Devil's Brigade.

Monte Majo followed in January 1944, but by 8 January, after roughly two months in combat, the 1,800 men making up the combat strength of the Force had dropped to just over 500. The Canadian Army had given no official thought to reinforcing the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion (i.e. the Canadian contingent of the FSSF). The initial commitment had been to a special project in Norway, and when the Force was sent instead to the Aleutians, the Canadian Army had kept its option open to withdraw its commitment should subsequent operations produce heavy casualties. In December 1944, following its first combat actions, Canadian headquarters overseas wished to do exactly that. The Force of 2,200 men that had left the United States had been reduced to fewer than 1,400. Nonetheless, glowing praise from the corps and army commander were received in the wake of the fighting at Difensa and Remetanea, and the senior Canadian, Lieutenant-Colonel Don Williamson, was recommended for the Legion of Merit.4

At the end of January, the Force was ordered to the Anzio beachhead, where for 90 days they occupied defensive positions making up a large part of the entire perimeter. They patrolled aggressively, with the crack Hermann Goering Division opposite them. Replacements arrived during their time in the beachhead, and on 23 May 1944 the now-recovered FSSF moved forward again, leading the advance of VI Corps to Rome and the Advance to the Tiber in June.

In August 1944, the Force was able to use its amphibious skills during the landings on islands flanking the invasion beaches in Southern France as part of Operation DRAGOON. The unit then fell under the operational control of the 1st Airborne Task Force, clearing the French coastline east to the Italian border. It was their last major mission, and in December 1944, with the need for specialized forces waning, the Force was disbanded. The Canadians went largely to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the Americans to the 474th Infantry (Separate) Regiment, or to US parachute units. The 474th ironically finished the war in Norway.


Canadian participation in the Force was based around the original Project PLOUGH discussions. The original American Table of Organization (their term for a War Establishment) called for 108 officers and 1167 other ranks, and called for Canadian participation to be half. However, the enlisted strength of the combat regiments was later increased by 50%. Canadian participation was never increased accordingly, and at no time did Canadian composition of the Force ever equal half - at peak strength, the contribution was a little over 33% of the fighting regiments or 25% of the Force as a whole.5 Moreover, after the Force's first battle at Monte la Difensa-Monte la Remetanea, when the Canadian contingent requested reinforcements, they were advised that the original commitment was made for a single operation to Norway (Project PLOUGH). No thought had been given to reinforcing the Canadian contingent, and indeed, the option remained of withdrawing the Canadians from the Force altogether. The parachute-trained and combat tested Canadians of the FSSF were seen as a valuable asset for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion then training in England.6

After the fighting in the mountains in December and early January, the pressure on Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in London for the Canadian contingent to be withdrawn had grown. With only 300 Canadian effectives remaining in the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, and the unit being "squandered" in an infantry role in which their special skills and training were not being utilized, there was a strong case for returning them to the Canadian Army. At the same time, the deputy commander of the Mediterranean theatre wanted to disband the entire FSSF and put the Americans in it to better employment. Under pressure from Washington, however, the Canadians relented and kept their contingent as part of the Force, albeit with a redefined purpose.

Things were made easier for the Canadians when the role of the 1stSSF was redefined as 'infantry shock troops' - eliminating the need to give replacements added training (in parachuting, for example) that was costly and time-consuming. (General Ken) Stuart relented. On February 12 he issued permission for regular infantry volunteers to be sought from I (Canadian) Corps in Italy and its reinforcement depot in theatre.7

The Canadian reinforcements did not arrive until 27 April, with the Force was heavily involved in the fighting at Anzio. The 379 Canadian survivors at that point (106 more were in hospital) were joined by 15 officers and 240 other ranks bringing the total of Canadians, both effective and non-, to 726. Some 400 U.S. Army Rangers also joined the Force. Most of the Canadians were assigned to the 2nd Regiment, but three of the Canadians were rejected - the U.S. Army was segregated, and an East Indian and two African-Canadians were returned to the Canadian base at Avellino.8

Commanding Officer, First Special Service Force

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert T. Frederick
(Promoted Brigadier-General January 1944)
9 July 1942 - 23 June 1944
Colonel Edwin A. Walker June 1944 - December 1944
Commanding Officer, 1st Regiment Commanding Officer, 2nd Regiment Commanding Officer, 3rd Regiment
Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred C. Marshall
Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Akehurst*
Lieutenant-Colonel D.D. Williamson*
Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Moore
Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Akehurst*
Lieutenant-Colonel Mahony
Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin A. Walker
Lieutenant-Colonel R.W. "Bill" Becket*

Canadians indicated by (*)


The FSSF was outfitted entirely by the US, with uniforms, equipment and weapons. In some ways they were similarly outfitted to US parachute units, however, there were also major differences, as outlined below.

The Force itself was equal to an over-strength Canadian Infantry Brigade (equivalent to a US or German Regiment), consisting of three "Regiments" divided each into two battalions, as thus:

  • First Special Service Force

    • First Regiment

      • 1st Battalion

        • No. 1 Company

        • No. 2 Company

        • No. 3 Company

      • 2nd Battalion

        • No. 4 Company

        • No. 5 Company

        • No. 6 Company

    • Second Regiment

      • (as above)

    • Third Regiment

      • (as above)

    • Service Battalion

      • Maintenance Company

      • Service Company

      • Military Police Platoon

      • Forward Air Controllers

Each "Regiment" of two battalions only consisted of about 600 men at full strength, with companies of about 100. The Force was short on supply troops, though the integral Service Battalion was a unique concept at the time of its introduction in 1942. The goal was to have all non-combat personnel at the Brigade headquarters.

  • FSSF Company

    • HQ Platoon

    • 1st Platoon

    • 2nd Platoon

    • 3rd Platoon

The platoon commander (a lieutenant) would be armed most likely with a carbine and .45 calibre pistol, and would have two sections under his command. The section is described as being twelve men led by a Staff Sergeant. The two sections had a section leader with a Thompson SMG, a BAR Gunner, nine M-1 Garands, a Johnson LMG, and either a Bazooka or a 60mm Mortar.

Support Units

As the FSSF was a light infantry unit, it required heavier support units on occasion.

456th Parachute Artillery Battalion

The FSSF arrived in the Anzio beachhead with this unit attached as "semi-permanent" fire support. The battalion was comprised of three batteries, each with 4 x M1A1 75mm pack howitzers. It also had an anti-tank platoon of four x M3A1 37mm anti-tank guns.

  • Battalion Headquarters

    • Security (two Trucks, two .50 calibre Heavy Machine Guns)

    • Signals, Supply, Maintenance

  • 75mm Battery

    • Section (2xJeeps, 2x75mm Guns)

    • Section (2xJeeps, 2x75mm Guns)

  • 75mm Battery (as above)

  • 75mm Battery (as above)

  • Anti-Tank Platoon

    • (4xJeeps, 4x37mm AT Gun)

T30 Howitzer Motor Carriage, image from a contemporary technical manual. The gun is shown at maximum elevation and with an early pattern gunshield.

Ranger Gun Company (Anzio)

Also while at Anzio, the FSSF acquired a Gun Company from Darby's Rangers; this consisted of 4 x T30 Howitzer Motor Carriage halftracks.

81st Reconnaissance Battalion

This battalion (part of the 1st US Armored Division) was sometimes used in support of the FSSF, and probably operated with one recon company (as shown below) in support of each FSSF battalion. The 81st Reconnaissance Battalion used M8 Greyhound armoured cars, M5A1 Stuart light tanks, the M19 60mm mortar, and the 1/4 ton truck (both armed and unarmed).


MG Jeep

M8 Greyhound


  • Recon Company

    • Armoured Car Platoon

      • 3 x M8 Greyhound

      • 3 x Jeep (MG)

      • 3 x Jeep

      • 3 x 60mm Mortar

    • Light Tank Platoon

      • 5 x M5A1 Light Tank

    • Sardinian Mule Company


The "Weasel" snow vehicle that had been the impetus for creating the Force was never used as intended in action in Norway (or northern Italy or Romania, as envisioned by the original plan). The T-15, an early vehicle capable of carrying four men, was used by the Force in the Aleutians, and a larger vehicle known as the T-24 (later standardized as the M29) was used by the Force in Italy, though only in limited numbers - certainly the Force did not receive the scale of issue that PLOUGH had envisioned. The section tables of organization were purposefully increased while still in Helena, Montana, to 12 men as acknowledgement that the Force would not be dependent on the "Weasels".9

In January 1944, 12 of the 100 T-24 Weasels the Force had brought to Italy were uncrated for the first time. The Force found it preferred mules in much of the terrain it found in Italy, due to the rugged hills they were forced to operate in.10 The 474th Infantry Regiment, to which personnel of the Force were reassigned after disbandment in early 1945, also used the M29. The T-15 and its successors were used throughout the U.S. Army - and were also seen in Canadian Army use in Europe - and were produced in sizeable numbers.11

The T-24 cargo carrier, with canvas top up. The T15 was similar in appearance, but smaller.


The Force used American uniforms and equipment primarily, including some distinctive badges.

US Army officers' Class "A" Jacket with unit insignia of the First Special Service Force.

US Army Enlisted Mens' Class "A" Jacket with unit insignia of the First Special Service Force.

In action, the Force wore standard US Army combat clothing, with some special items such as the fur edged parka shown here. Lieutenant J. Kostelec of Calgary and Lieutenant H.C. Wilson of Washington state rest on the steps of the Force's Clearing Station, near Venafro, Italy, in Jan 1944. LAC Photo.

Charles L Stewart, at right, in the uniform of the FSSF, with his brother who was in the RCAF. Photo courtesy of William Stewart.


Collar Badges

On the "Ike" Jacket or Class "A" uniform, a circular CANADA disc was worn in place of the U.S. disc normally worn by Enlisted Men. On the opposite collar, a crossed arrows disc was worn by Enlisted Men.12

Officers wore a pair of straight CANADA badges in brass in place of the U.S. worn by American officers, with a crossed arrows badge worn below on the lower lapels. At left is a repro badge, courtesy Ted Harris.13

At far left, an original Canada disc, a screw back design, made in Montreal by William Scully. To its right, a reproduction disc, courtesy of Ted Harris.


Standard US Army brass buttons were worn on dress uniforms.

Shoulder Sleeve Insignia

On the shirt and the field jacket, a shoulder patch (referred to as a Shoulder Sleeve Insignia, or SSI, in American terminology) depicting a red arrowhead with the USA and CANADA stitched in white was used. Per US custom, the patch was worn on the wearer's upper left sleeve.14

SSF patches courtesy Bill Ellis. Grimshaw references SF-5b, SF-5c and SF-5a. White embroidery on border was not standard and was wearer's method of attaching the badge to the uniform.

Grimshaw also identified the formation patch worn on Kiska as an FSSF item of dress.15 Badges at right courtesy Bill Alexander.


A third item of distinction was a red/white/blue braided shoulder cord worn with the dress uniform. The cord was often jokingly referred to by Forcemen as indicating they belonged to a unit of barbers. The unit's name, "Special Service Force", was deliberately selected by Colonel Frederick as being vague, perhaps even easily confused with "Special Services" who provided amenities to soldiers in the field.16

Re-enactors from the Philadelphia area, wearing a mix of original and replica Class "A" uniform and accoutrements, showing the braided cord. Photographed at the SSF reunion in Calgary, 2005.

Lieutenant D.I. McWilliams, of Toronto, photographed in Ottawa in June 1944. He wears Canadian Service Dress with Canadian parachute wings, the red/white/blue fourragere, and the arrowhead SSI. His cap, of Canadian design, bears the cap badge of the "Canadian Parachute Corps", and his collar badges are also for the "Canadian Parachute Corps." Research published by Ken Joyce has shown that some officers had attempted to obtain badges of the Canadian Parachute Corps, having no time to design their own Force badges. The Corps, however, was nominal - it did not exist in reality, and the Force was so informed by National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion nonetheless was using the badges of the non-existent corps as its insignia, (as were parachute school staff in Canada), and so a number of Force officers purchased the insignia directly from the manufacturer (William Scully) in Montreal.17 LAC photo

Parachute Oval

Reproduction parachute oval, courtesy Ted Harris. The ovals were used to back the US metal jump wings.18

US Battle Honours

As Awarded By The American Government

  • Pacific Theater

    • Aleutians Campaign

    • Kiska-Little Kiska August 15-19, 1943

    • Segula Island August 17, 1943

  • Mediterranean Theater

    • Naples-Foggia Campaign

      • Monte la Difensa December 3-6, 1943

      • Monte la Remetanea December 6-9, 1943

      • Height 720 (Monte Sammucro) December 25, 1943

      • Radicosa January 4, 1944

      • Monte Majo January 6, 1944

      • Monte Vischiataro January 8, 1944

      • Mussolini Canal (Anzio) February 2 - May 10, 1944

      • Monto Arrestino May 25, 1944

      • Rocca Massima May 27, 1944

      • Colle Ferro June 2, 1944

    • Rome-Arno Campaign

      • Rome June 4, 1944

    • Southern France Campaign

      • Ille d'Hyeres August 14-17, 1944

      • Grasse August 27, 1944

      • Villeneuve-Loubet August 30, 1944

      • Vence September 1, 1944

      • Drap September 3, 1944

      • L'Escarene September 5, 1944

      • La Turbie September 6, 1944

      • Menton September 7, 1944

Canadian Battle Honours

Lieutenant Colonel Akehurst examines the Military Medal awarded to Sergeant Tommy Prince at an investiture at Buckingham Palace in 1945. The FSSF received many individual awards in addition to their unit accolades. Prince was recognized as the most decorated Native soldier in the Canadian Army. Note also the return to Canadian uniforms by members of the Force following its disbandment, and the repatriation of Canadian soldiers from the U.S. Army. LAC 142288.


The First Special Service Force was perpetuated by both The Canadian Airborne Regiment and the United States Army Special Forces (commonly known as the "Green Berets"), both created in the 1960s. Bi- or Multi-national forces since the Second World War seem to be fairly uncommon, particularly with regards to special forces units.


  • Adleman, Robert H. The Devil's Brigade Toronto, ON: Bantam Books of Canada, 1967

  • Burhans, Robert D. The First Special Service Force: A War History of the North Americans 1942-1944 Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 1981

  • Coottingham, Peter Layton. Once Upon A Wartime Neepawa, MB: P.L. Cottingham, 1996

  • Horn, Bernd and Michel Wyczynski Hook-Up! The Canadian Airborne Compendium: A Summary of Major Airborne Activities, Exercises and Operations, 1940-2000. (Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine's ON, 2003) ISBN: 1551250713 252pp.

  • Peppard, Herb. The Lighthearted Soldier: A Canadian's Exploits with the Black Devils in WW II Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 1994

  • Ross, Robert Todd. The Supercommandos: First Special Service Force, 1942-1944 An Illustrated History, Atglen, PA: Schiffer, Publishing Ltd., 2000

  • Swann, Steven. "The Devil's Brigade: Reference Notes for ASL" in ASL Annual '90, The Avalon Hill Game Company, Baltimore, MD, 1990.

Dramatic Portrayals

  • The Devil's Brigade (United Artists, 1968)

  • Anzio (Columbia Pictures, 1968)


  1. Stacey, C.P. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War: Volume I: Six Years Of War (Queen's Printer, Ottawa, ON, 1956) p.105

  2. Joyce, Kenneth H. Snow Plough and the Jupiter Deception: The story of the 1st Special Service Force and the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, 1942-1945 (Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharines, ON, 2006) ISBN 1-55125-094-2 pp.52-68

  3. Dancocks, Daniel G. D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945 (McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, ON, 1991) ISBN 0771025440 p.195

  4. Joyce, Ibid, pp.168-171 Williamson never received the Legion of Merit. The recommendation was withdrawn after adverse reports about Williamson's conduct at la Difensa were received by Frederick. Williamson was relieved shortly after the battle at Hill 720. According to Canadian Army regulations, officers relieved of command for any reasons excepting medical could not be further employed in a theatre of war and Williamson was returned to Canada.

  5. Stacey, Ibid, pp.105-106

  6. Joyce, Ibid, pp.168-169

  7. Ibid, pp.200-202

  8. Ibid, p.208

  9. Burhans, Robert D. The First Special Service Force: A War History of The North Americans 1942-1944 (Methuen Publications, Toronto, ON, 1981) ISBN 0-458-95020-1 p.42

  10. Joyce, Ibid, p.185

  11. Werner, Bret  First Special Service Force 1942-44  (Osprey Publishing Ltd, Botley, Oxford, UK, 2006) ISBN 978-1-84176-968-4 p.54

  12. Mazeas Reference Number: S.24b for both the Enlisted Man CANADA disc and the officer's crossed arrows. He does not illustrate either the Enlisted Man crossed arrows disc or the officer's CANADA title. Brooker Reference Number: CB.46 for the officer's crossed arrows

  13. Grimshaw Reference Numbers: Grimshaw identifies the following badges:

    • SF-1a, SF-1b, SF-1c being three different variants of the officer's crossed arrows.

    • SF-2 being the enlisted man's crossed arrows disc.

    • SF-3 being the officer's CANADA badge

    • SF-4a being the officer's CANADA badge attached to a brass disc for wear by enlisted men, and SF-4b being a one piece enlisted man's disc with CANADA lettering and single screw-post backing.

  14. Grimshaw Reference Numbers: SF-5a, SF-5b and SF-5c are all recognized as distinct variants by Grimshaw; the first having a wide border and thick letters, the second having a wide border and thin letters, the last having a narrow border, thin letters, and distinctly different weave.

  15. Grimshaw Reference Numbers: SF-6a (embroidered) and SF-6b (canvas). However, Ken Joyce notes that the only patches issued during the period the FSSF was involved at Kiska were printed, and that embroidered patches were not created until later; therefore embroidered badges were never worn by the FSSF.

  16. Grimshaw Reference Number: SF-7

  17. Joyce, Ibid, p.142

  18. Grimshaw Reference Number: SF-8

  19. Joyce, Ibid, p.300 1999-present