By Dominic Oto
Risk, grit, daring and doing impossible missions are the trademark of America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF). Many American SOF units trace their lineage to the “Devil’s Brigade.”
During World War II the Allies were struggling to strike out at their enemies. A secret unit of soldiers was created to carry out deadly actions in the face of impossible danger. The unit was called the First Special Service Force, aka “The Devil’s Brigade.” The Devil’s Brigade was a special fighting unit from World War II. This secret fighting outfit combined crack Canadian soldiers and a collection of U.S. Army volunteers with outdoor experience.
Memories of the First Special Service Force resonate in the wintry outside of Helena Montana. The first volunteers arrived at Fort William Henry Harrison in the summer of 1942. The men of the Devil’s Brigade began their secret and intensive training program for their battle to come.
The men were trained in what was considered a suicide mission. The First Special Service Force would become one of the most remarkable fighting units in modern history.
The First Special Service Force brought together men of the Canadian Army and the U.S. Army under a unified command. They wore a shoulder patch- a brilliant red spearhead with “USA” across the top and “CANADA” down the spine.
The first mission of the First Special Service Force was “OPERATION PLOUGH.” It was a secret plan using a yet to be snow vehicle and ski troops. The selected soldiers would parachute into Nazi-occupied Norway, Italy and Romania. They would carry out daring strikes against oil refineries and hydroelectric plants.
The plan was conceived by eccentric British scientist Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke worked under Lord Louis Mountbatten, along with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded the Americans to develop OPERATION PLOUGH. The operation was to be a diversion for a cross-channel invasion under consideration for 1943.
If the mission had been carried out, they might have become throw away troops. It’s unlikely many of the men of the Devil’s Brigade would have returned home.
At the War Department in Washington, D.C., staff officer, Colonel Robert T. Frederick, was assigned to analyze OPERATION PLOUGH. Frederick was a one-time artillery officer, recommended that the mission not be undertaken. He considered the mission “unworkable.”
Mountbatten and Churchill were insistent. OPERATION PLOUGH was approved despite its shortcomings. Mountbatten met with Frederick. Ironically, he saw in the plan’s harshest critic, its ideal commander. Mountbatten sent word to Frederick’s boss in the War Department, a senior staff planner named General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower agreed and ordered Frederick to take over. Frederick was stunned and happy for the new challenging assignment.
In the summer of 1942, six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Colonel, and later General, Frederick set to work at Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana. His job was to build train facilities, which at the time, were nearly non-existent.
Frederick’s men, both Canadian and American, held him in high esteem. Frederick was an officer with no combat experience, but his abilities were immediately apparent to the men he led. The camp was resurrected practically overnight. Material and manpower rolled in quick.
The First Special Service Force or “The Force” would be operated as a unit of the U.S. Army. Soldiers of the Canadian army were recruited partly for their outdoor and snow skills. American soldiers were recruited asking for men with outdoor experience like hunters, game wardens North woodsman and lumberjacks. Bringing Canadian and Americans together in the Force produced a new breed of soldier.
The unit started out with 1,800 strong and aggressive volunteers. All of them were men who were willing to extreme danger and bitter hardship. Men motivated to fight. Many of the troops saw the war in terms of good versus evil. Volunteering for the Force was an opportunity to stop Hitler and defend freedom.
Dedicated as they were Force volunteers would later be burdened with a public image that was far different from the truth. In 1966 actor William Holden, starred in a movie called “The Devil’s Brigade.” The picture depicted the American recruits as criminals and rejects from Army stockades from across the country. “The Devil’s Brigade” was an entertaining war movie, but most of the American soldiers were volunteers, not criminals.
About the author:
Oto holds a BS in History from Oregon State University and a MMA in Military History from American Public University. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Company Commander and Staff Trainer to the Afghan National Army. He was wounded once and decorated three times. Oto is an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve.