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First Special Service Force (WWII)

First Special Service Force (WWII)

The Devils Brigade - The 1st Special Service Force was an elite American–Canadian commando unit in World War II, under the command of the United States Fifth Army. The unit was organized in 1942 and trained at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana in the United States. The Force served in the Aleutian Islands, and fought in Italy, and southern France before being disbanded in December 1944.

The modern American and Canadian special operations forces trace their heritage to this unit. In 2013, the United States Congress passed a bill to award the 1st Special Service Force the Congressional Gold Medal.



Geoffrey Pyke was an English journalist, educationalist, and later an inventor whose clever, but unorthodox, ideas could be difficult to implement. In lifestyle and appearance, he fit the common stereotype of a scientist-engineer-inventor or in British slang, a "boffin". This was part of the British approach in World War II, of encouraging innovative warfare methods and weapons, that was personally backed by Churchill. Hobart's Funnies are another example.

While working for the British Combined Operations Command, Pyke devised a plan for the creation of a small, élite force capable of fighting behind enemy lines in winter conditions. This was to have been a commando unit that could be landed, by sea or air, into occupied Norway, Romania and/or the Italian Alps on sabotage missions against hydroelectric plants and oil fields.

In Norway, the chief industrial threat was the creation of the heavy water used in the German atomic weapon research at Rjukan. Furthermore, attacks on Norwegian power stations, which supplied the country with 49% of its power, might drive the Axis powers out of the country and give the Allies a direct link to Russia.[2] In Romania, there were the strategically important Ploiești oil fields that met one quarter of the Germans' consumption, and Italian hydroelectric plants powered most of south German industry. Pyke requested that a tracked vehicle be developed especially for the unit, capable of carrying men and their equipment at high speed across snow-covered terrain.

Project Plough

In March 1942 Pyke proposed an idea, which he had named Project Plough, to Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ) that Allied commandos be parachuted into the Norwegian mountains to establish a covert base on the Jostedalsbreen, a large glacier plateau in German-occupied Norway, for guerrilla actions against the German army of occupation. Equipped with Pyke's proposed snow vehicle, they would attack strategic targets, such as hydroelectric power plants. Pyke persuaded Mountbatten that such a force would be virtually invulnerable in its glacier strongholds and would tie down large numbers of German troops trying to dislodge it.

However, given the demands upon both Combined Operations and British industry, it was decided to offer it instead to the United States at the Chequers Conference of March 1942. General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, accepted the suggestion for Project Plough. In April 1942, since no suitable vehicle existed, the U.S. government asked automobile manufacturers to look into such a design. Studebaker subsequently created the T-15 cargo carrier, which later became the M29 Weasel.

In May 1942, the concept papers for Plough were scrutinized by Major Robert T. Frederick, a young officer in the Operations Division of the U.S. General Staff. Frederick predicted Plough would be a military fiasco on the following grounds. Firstly, he argued that Plough endeavored to achieve unrealistic objectives with the number of troops that the plan called for. Similarly, he argued that the small, elite division would be outnumbered and overtaken in any defensive attempts to hold an area once it was captured. Furthermore, Frederick concluded that there was no concrete way to evacuate the troops after a mission. This would have required significant troop lift and covering fighter support. All vehicles and equipment would have had to be abandoned. Finally, the plan had called for troops to be parachute dropped by airplane to their targets, which Frederick said was impossible at the moment, as there were no planes to fly the men into Norway. Too, significant aircraft would be necessary to drop the Weasels and resupply the force. Ultimately, he concluded that a small squad of elite men would not do enough damage to justify the risk of putting them into battle and instead proposed a series of strategic bombings to achieve the plan's objectives.

Generals Marshall and Eisenhower had already discussed Plough with the British High Command and were unwilling to compromise a chance to open an American front in Europe. It was believed that Plough offered the possibility of defeating the Germans, and the Americans wanted allied efforts to shift to the Pacific Theater. The sooner the Germans were defeated, it was argued, the sooner this would become a reality.

The first officer picked to lead the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Howard R. Johnson, did not get along well with Pyke. Johnson was transferred after arguing with Mountbatten and Eisenhower about the feasibility of the plan. (Johnson went on to form and command the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment.) He was replaced by Frederick, following a suggestion by Mountbatten, which was approved by Eisenhower. Frederick was given the task of creating a fighting unit for Project Plough and was promoted to colonel to command it. By July 1942 Frederick had eased Pyke out of the picture.

The First Special Service Force was activated on 9 July 1942 as a joint Canadian-U.S. force of three small regiments and a service battalion, directly answerable to the joint Chiefs of Staff. U.S. Army. Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Montana, was chosen as the primary training location, due to its flat terrain for airborne training and its close proximity to mountains for ski and winter training.

Frederick enjoyed a very high priority in obtaining equipment and training areas. Originally, due to its winter warfare mission, it had been intended that the unit should be equally made up of American, Canadian, and Norwegian troops. However, a lack of suitable Norwegians saw this changed to half American and half Canadian.

Canadian recruitment

In July 1942, the Canadian Minister of National Defence, James Ralston, approved the assignment of 697 officers and enlisted men for Project Plough, under the guise that they were forming Canada's first airborne unit, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB).

Due to a decision to raise an actual Canadian parachute battalion, the Canadian volunteers for Project Plough were also sometimes known unofficially as the "2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion". (The Canadians did not officially become a unit until April–May 1943, under the designation, 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion.)

While its members remained part of the Canadian Army, subject to its code of discipline and paid by the Canadian government, they were to be supplied with uniforms, equipment, food, shelter and travel expenses by the U.S. Army. It was agreed that a Canadian would serve as second in command of the force and that half of the officers and one third of the enlisted men would be Canadian. After Lieutenant Colonel McQueen, the senior Canadian member broke his leg during parachute training, the highest ranking Canadian in the force was Lieutenant Colonel Don Williamson, who commanded the 2nd Regiment.

First Special Service Force (WWII)

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