Personnel of the FSSF being briefed prior to setting out on a patrol, Anzio beachhead, Italy. 

The First Special Service Force (FSSF), also known as the “Devil’s Brigade” or as the Nazis called them the “Black Devils”,was an elite joint American and Canadian commando unit formed during World War II. The unit was created and led by Major Robert T. Frederick of the Operations Division of the U.S. General Staff. The FSSF was activated on July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana. The rugged, mountainous terrain and extreme winter conditions made Montana the ideal place for training.

The origins of the FSSF began at the highest levels of the Allied Command in World War II. The basic concept, which came from the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Command, called for a force able to fight on land, on the sea, in the air, and in winter condition. The FSSF was organized into three regiments, each made up of two battalions. It also had a small Air Force Detachment and a Service Battalion. In all, the FSSF would have approximately 2,300 officers and men.

Shoulder sleeve Insignia of the FSSF. Credit: Bobby C. Hawkins / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED.

Major Frederick played a pivotal role in the creation and leadership of the FSSF. He was tasked with organizing and commanding this unit, which was originally conceived as a commando action force to counter the Nazi occupation of Norway. The concept was later reoriented to an elite fighting element trained for cold weather, mountainous, and amphibious operations.

The Forcemen underwent rigorous training in a variety of weapons, hand-to-hand combat, demolition techniques, airborne assault, and attack maneuvers. In the fall, a group of Norwegian Army ski troops arrived to teach the Forcemen cross country skiing. In spring 1943, the FSSF underwent amphibious training at Norfolk, Virginia, for possible future amphibious operations.

Forcemen of the FSSF boarding a Douglas C-47 aircraft during parachute training at Fort William Henry Harrison, Helena, Montana. August 1942.

After its initial training period in Montana, the FSSF relocated to Camp Bradford, Vermont, on April 15, 1943, and to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, on May 23, 1943. The FSSF participated in its first operation on August 15, 1943, when they landed on the rocky shores of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. However, they discovered that the Japanese had secretly abandoned the island. After this operation, the FSSF returned to the U.S. and was reassigned to the Mediterranean Theater for the fighting on the Italian peninsula. They entered combat in Italy on December 3, 1943

During the Italian campaign of WWII, the FSSF was commanded by Frederick and attached to the United States Fifth Army. The FSSF is most noted for clearing the German forces from the mountaintops of the Winter Line in Italy, action at the Anzio Beachhead, and is recognized as the first Allied unit to enter Rome. After their campaign in Italy, the FSSF continued their operations in Europe, specifically in southern France before being disbanded in December 1944.

Forcemen of 5-2, FSSF, preparing to go on an evening patrol in the Anzio beachhead, Operation Shingle, Italy, ca. 20-27 April 1944.

During a period of 251 days in battle, the FSSF experienced 2,314 losses, which was 134% of its original strength. Despite these losses, they managed to take over 30,000 enemy soldiers as prisoners. Their exceptional performance in the field was recognized with five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors. Remarkably, they accomplished every mission they were assigned.

The FSSF was collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on February 3, 2015. This prestigious award was given in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II. The ceremony took place in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The modern American and Canadian special operations forces trace their heritage to this unit.

The FSSF has been the subject of several feature films:

The Devil’s Brigade (1968), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen recounts the formation, training, and first mission of the FSSF. The film dramatizes the Devil’s Brigade’s first mission in the Italian Campaign, the task of capturing what is considered an impregnable German mountain stronghold, Monte la Difensa

Devil’s Men (2023), directed by Dave Bresnahan and Weston Childers portrays the horrors of war through the eyes of a real WWII soldier in the Force. The film tells the story of Sam Byrne, a Wyoming ranch boy who was drafted and went off to war to do his duty, in spite of the fact that he didn’t want to “haf’ta kill unless I really haf’ta.” He quickly learned that he had to kill or be killed, and he had to kill to protect his buddies — the men he served with.


First Special Service Force Association

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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