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.
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).
Formation and Training
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 Force used American uniforms and equipment primarily, including some distinctive badges.
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
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.
US Battle Honours
As Awarded By The American Government
Canadian Battle Honours
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.