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Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The Devil's Brigade, 1942-1945:
The First Special Service Force was a joint American-Canadian commando unit formed on July 20, 1942. It was a volunteer unit of 1600 men, especially those with experience as hunters, game wardens, lumberjacks, or forest rangers. At Fort Harrison near Helena, Montana, they had intense training in many disciplines such as mountain fighting and rock climbing, hand-to-hand fighting, demolitions, amphibious fighting, stealth tactics . . . even training as ski troops! They were a very specialised group; they even went so far as to have a special combat knife designed for their unit (called the "V-42").

Their first operation was in Italy when the commander of the US 5th Army brought them in. Once there, they immediately demonstrated the value and effectiveness of their training.

Their first big claim to fame, though, was their attack at Monte la Difensa, an Italian mountain with tall, sheer cliffs and a german position on top of it. In the middle of winter, the 1SSF scaled the cliffs and wiped out the entire German position; it was one thought to be impenetrable, especially after multiple failed American attempts earlier in the fighting.

In Anzio, the 1SSF continued to gain fame, holding and raiding from the right-hand flank of the beachhead after the US Rangers suffered heavy losses. As the fighting continued, a diary from a dead German soldier was found that said, "The black devils are all around us every time we come into the line," - The 1SST often painted their faces black with boot polish for night operations. From that day on, the First Special Service Force took on the nickname, "The Devil's Brigade".

The Devil's Brigade was the first unit sent into Rome, and captured bridges leading into the Italian capital before they could be blown up. Immediately after taking the bridges, the unit pushed north into and through the city. The story goes that the next day Italian citizens greeted the lines of soldiers coming into the liberated city warmly, even though the ones who won the battle had already passed through in the early morning and were already fighting heavily at the Tiber River.

After the liberation of Italy, the unit was sent near the south of France and fought in the Rhineland Campaign until the end of the war in Europe. By the end of the war, the First Special Service Force had made a name for itself and had suffered a casualty rate of about 39 percent.

Many covert information-gathering missions were made through the nights, battles were fought during the days to great distinction, and throughout it all, the Devil's Brigade never failed to meet its objectives. The Devil's Brigade served as the example for future special force outfits such as Joint Task Force Two in Canada and Delta Force in The States. Today, special assignment forces make up a great deal of the way many modern conflicts are resolved.

As an extra interesting note, the highway that runs from Lethbridge, Alberta to Helena, Montana was renamed the "First Special Service Force Memorial Highway" in honour of the route the Canadian volunteers travelled so that the unit could be formed. As for myself, I find the Devil's Brigade fascinating. They make you kinda proud to be a North American, eh? (that is, if you are North American . . . otherwise . . . . . I dunno. Still neat, eh?)

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(The red arrowhead shoulder sleeve patch of the 1st Special Service Force)

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