The Devil’s Brigade

In June of 1942, then-Major General Ike Eisenhower handed Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick the job of assembling a unit of guerilla fighters for a one-time behind-the-lines diversionary operation against German forces. Nothing like this had been done in the Army before, and the officer Ike selected had apparently done nothing to indicate that he could handle the job: “Frederick was an interesting choice to lead this new guerrilla unit. He had graduated middle of his class from West Point and had been commissioned into the Coastal Artillery. He had never made much of an impression on anyone, though he soon would.”

Lt. Col. Frederick started by recruiting men with backgrounds in harsh outdoor occupations (lumberjacks, miners, hunters) and trained them harder than standard Army training. Less sleep, faster marches for 50 miles with full combat pack, training in weapons and killing silently with hands and knives.
E
ven the chaplains were fully trained to kill. Demolitions training was added. Montana was their training base. They were told they were going to fight in Norway and trained accordingly, to the point that Frederick thought he had “the best fighting unit ever assembled”.

At least two other missions were briefly considered, then dropped. When Frederick flew to England to work out the details of their original mission, he learned that it had been cancelled. No new task assigned. Just … limbo. Higher-ups wanted to scrub the unit.

So Frederick went back to training, this time for any possible mission. He was fighting the brass to keep his unit alive. He wanted to be ready for any mission.

Transferred to Norfolk, Virginia for amphibious training, and getting bored with the training, these disrespectful rowdies began humiliating Marines, disarming them in public and so forth. Threatened with his troops being thrown in jail, Frederick proved conclusively to the Marine base commander that his men were, shall we say, overqualified to be Marines. Read the story of that hilarious I mean, outrageous escapade here, at the liveliest, most entertaining of all the links I searched,  along with a very full account of FSSF’s entire brief but outstanding service.

The full story of the First Special Service Force’s battles has to be read in full. No synopsis can do it credit. Two points stand out, however: at the end of their first campaign in the Italian mountains, of the original 1800 “Forcemen”, only about 400 were alive or unwounded. Even their support personnel suffered 50% casualties.

And Lt. Colonel Frederick led from the very front of the front. So much so that he was wounded nine times and awarded eight purple hearts. Winston Churchill called him “the greatest fighting general of all time”.

Then came Anzio.

After several weeks rest and training replacement troops, the now 2300-man FSSF was assigned to guard 10 miles of the Gustav Line (twice as much territory as the 15,000 soldiers of the 3rd Armored Division) which was the leading edge of the beachhead at Anzio. Guard, as in “sit and wait”. That was one thing FSSF had not trained for, so they decided on their own not to do it. Instead, they conducted raids nightly into German Army positions, cutting throats and performing the most hilarious – I mean, outrageous – thefts of livestock and captures of prisoners, sometimes whole companies at a time. And wine and “other beverages”, involuntarily donated by German military units. According to commanders of other Army units, their soldiers’ moods improved on hearing of the audacity and success of FSSF’s nightly entertainment. To the extent that when preparing for breakout from the beachhead, FSSF had six times as many volunteers as they needed to replace casualties.

Then Lt. Colonel Frederick began to conduct psychological warfare. He had “business cards” printed up with the unit logo and the words in German, “The worst is yet to come”. The effect was heightened somewhat by pinning these to the bodies of German soldiers they killed during the night. The Germans began calling them the black devils”.

The war changed – at least according to the brass – and on December 5th, 1944, the First Special Service Force was disbanded. The emotional story of that event is included at the historynet link above. It hurts to read it. Their achievements are legendary. I’m strongly reminded of the poem, “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

According to the US House website,  “The 1,800-man unit – composed of 900 Americans and 900 Canadians — accounted for 12,000 German casualties and captured 7,000 prisoners during the war.”

You can see the British heritage of Canada in the dry, understated language of this Canadian webpage dedicated to the First Special Service Force.  There are some photos and drawings of vehicles and uniforms of the Force, and a map of the FSSF’s movements, and a photo of Tommy Prince, “the most decorated Aboriginal soldier of Canada”. Prince went on to fight in Korea also.

Some have said that the Force was wasted, being trained as a guerilla unit and then assigned to regular warfare. This site, also Canadian, contains a fairly detailed analysis of the strategic achievements that make it clear that the First Special Service Force was definitely NOT wasted, and why. They also recommend two books on the subject, for the serious student of the FSSF.

The US Mint struck a bronze commemorative: “During 251 days of combat, the Force suffered 2,314 casualties, or 134 percent of its authorized strength, captured thousands of prisoners, earned five United States campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors, and never failed a mission.”

Montana’s Military Museum remembers them well: “We are the official kit shop for First Special Service Force Association”.

Here’s a one hour 2015 C-SPAN video of the US House and Senate honoring FSSF in the US Capitol Visitor Center. There were 42 FSSF veterans present:

Lt. Gen Joseph Votel, US Special Ops Commander, was present and spoke at about 45:00. He acknowledged the FSSF’s contribution to the formation of America’s present Special Forces.

In 2017, the last remaining South Carolina member of FSSF presented the “Maj. Gen. Robert Frederick Leadership Award” to ROTC Cadet Neil Bultman: “Gordon Simms USA (Ret.), 96, of Columbia, who served directly under Frederick, will make the presentation … Simms was an original member of the American-Canadian strike force called 1st Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade … Simms also once served as the president of the 1st Special Services Force Association … [this award was] first presented to cadets at the University of Montana and Montana State University in 2005, as the Devil’s Brigade was trained in that state. Currently six universities participate in the award competition: The Citadel, Montana State University, University of Idaho, University of Montana, University of Wyoming, and Washington State University.

A salute to the members of the First Special Service Force, and may their eternal rest be peaceful and comfortable.

As always, thank you to all our warriors. You make Americans proud of you, and grateful for your presence among us.

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