1st Special Service Force

FSSF patch The 1st Special Service Force

“… the Force never in all its service yielded an inch of ground nor left a battle with an indecisive conclusion. The Force won everything it fought for…”
The Independent Record, Helena, Montana – Sunday, August 7, 1955, page 6

Italy, October 1943 to June 1944

Popularly known as the Devil’s Brigade, the 1st Special Service Force (FSSF) was a joint American-Canadian commando-style unit originally raised to operate in Norway in an attempt to prevent the Germans from obtaining that country’s critical raw materials and to knockout strategic targets such as hydroelectric power plants.

Originally conceived as a three-battalion force, initially 1600 volunteers were carefully selected with preference being given to men previously employed as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters, game wardens and the like. 

Approximately one-third of the unit’s enlisted personnel were drawn from the Canadian Army and approximately half the officers and NCOs were Canadians. The force was activated on 20 July 1942 at Fort Harrison near Helena, Montana under the command of LTC Robert T. Frederick.

The initial training period was rigorous and intensive. Training included stealth tactics, hand-to-hand fighting, demolitions, amphibious warfare, rock climbing, mountain combat, winter operations, skiing, and parachute jumping. Every man in the force was a qualified parachutist.

The FSSF coming ashore at Anzio
FSSF men painting their faces before battle

The originally planned mission to Norway was eventually cancelled. In August 1943 the FSSF participated in the unopposed retaking of several islands in the Aleutians.

In October 1943, the FSSF was in Italy and assigned to the US Fifth Army. Previously a twelve-day attack on Mount la Difense had been stopped cold by the veteran German 104. Panzergrenadier Regiment. Attacking the peak from the rear up the steep cliffs, the FSSF cleared the summit (a feat immortalized in the 1968 motion picture The Devil’s Brigade). That was followed by Monte la Remetanea. It was in their next battle at Mount Sammucro that the Germans tagged them with the nickname of the “Black Devils”  (because the brigade’s members smeared their faces with black boot polish for their covert night operations). 

Radicosa, Mount Majo and Monte Vischiataro followed in January 1944 but by 8 January the 1800 men making up the initial combat strength of the FSSF had dropped to just over 500 effectives.

At the end of January 1944, the FSSF went into the Anzio beachhead, where for the next 90 days they occupied defensive positions opposite the crack Hermann Goring Panzer Division and often terrorized the Germans with their nighttime raids. Replacements arrived during that period and on 23 May 1944 they moved forward again, leading the advance of the US VI Corps towards Rome. On 4 June the FSSF was the first unit sent into Rome with the assignment of capturing seven essential bridges intact. By the time the parades and celebrations started, the FSSF was again in combat along the twenty-mile front of the Tiber River.

FSSF landing craft
FSSF Officers dresssed for cold weather

France, August 1944 to December 1944

Moved out of the line for refitting, they were soon back to their old tricks, nearly every man was seen driving his own jeep, each of which had been liberated from some other unit.  On 23 June, Frederick was promoted and transferred to command the 1st Airborne Task Force. The FSSF then began training for its last real combat role ~ the invasion of southern France on 15 August 1944. The FSSF’s assignment was to seize two of three small islands between Toulon and the Riviera where there were ancient forts that the Germans had strengthened. By taking them, the FSSF would protect the invasion force from enfilading fire from the left flank.

With a little help from the Navy and the U.S. Army Air Forces, the FSSF men crawled, charged, and blasted their way into the German fortifications on Ile de Port-Cros and Ile du Levant, losing many good men due to unnecessary acts of bravado. “The men were too courageous,” one FSSF man said later. “They had a mistaken concept that courage and physical fitness were all that was necessary.”

While the rest of the Seventh Army moved northward through southeastern France the FSSF, however, was sent eastward along the Riviera.

There they fought against substandard, rear-guard enemy units, finally taking up positions along the French-Italian border. There the men stayed, their prodigious fighting talents wasting away as the war moved on. 

The FSSF’s days were numbered. Without Frederick at the helm, and unable to find the calibre of men necessary to fill out its diminished ranks and carry on its glorious tradition, the FSSF was doomed to be disbanded on 5 December, its officers and men reassigned to other units.

In December 1944 Frederick was made commanding general of the 45th Infantry Division, which was locked in fighting in the Vosges Mountains, close to the German border. Wounded nine times during the war, Frederick was praised by Churchill as “the greatest fighting general of all time.”

FSSF advancing along a mountain trail
A platoon of Jeff’s FSSF force The FSSF in
Flames Of War

The FSSF was outfitted entirely by the US with uniforms, equipment and weapons. The force consisted of three combat regiments and an integral service battalion (a unique concept at the time of its introduction in 1942, it consisted of a maintenance company, a service company, a military police platoon and forward air controllers).

The goal was to have all non-combat personnel at the FSSF head-quarters.

Each combat regiment was approximately 600 strong and was divided into two combat battalions, each of three companies. Each Company consisted of a headquarters platoon and three combat platoons. Each combat platoon had a platoon HQ and two combat sections. The section was described as being a Staff Sergeant and twelve men including a Johnson Light Machine Gun, a Browning Automatic Rifle, an SMG, a special weapon (bazooka or 60mm Mortar), a M1919A4 Browning LMG (sometimes) and up to eight M1 carbines.

To field a FSSF company in Flames Of War, use Road To Rome (page 160).

Learn more about Dogs and Devils here... 

A Command team of Jeff’s FSSF force

Last Updated On Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by Blake at Battlefront