The Force at la Difensa
by Michael F. Dilley
Italy, early December 1943. It had been raining since mid-September. Rivers in the area were running high, bridges were swept away, and road surfaces were mostly gone. And, of course, it was cold.
The German Winter Line had held out despite attack after attack by Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army. Regardless of any progress made, no advance beyond the Mignano Gap to Cassino was achieved. This Gap was flanked by the Camino hill mass including mountains such as la Difensa, la Remetanea, Rotondo, and Lungo.
On 22 November, Fifth Army had announced Operation Raincoat, “the plan to breach the mountain passes.” One of the units in this plan was new to the Italian theater, having previously served in the invasion of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. It was assigned to the U.S. 36th Infantry Division as the spearhead of the operation. This unit was the First Special Service Force.
The Force was created as a result of an idea by a British scientist named Geoffrey Pyke. In the summer of 1940, Pyke advocated for a low-silhouetted, tracked, propeller driven sled designated the Weasel, which would be used by airborne troops in a counter-invasion of Norway. The idea, nicknamed Project Plough, caught the attention of Winston Churchill and was sent to the U.S. Army for review. Ground tests conducted by the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington, proved very negative, although much of this was caused by a lack of snow that essentially resulted in the tests being inconclusive. Retests in the Sierra Nevada range and on Mount Rainier again produced similar failed results particularly in the Weasel’s capacity to transit a 20% grade.
In the War Department, the push was on to rush the project through in 180 days. Despite this, the study was thoroughly reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick on the Army staff. Frederick, a Coast Artillery officer who began his military career with the California Army National Guard, thought the project was a bad idea due to lack of transport and a lack of an effective evacuation plan. “Plough was a beautiful paper concept but a strategical farce.” He was, however, overruled and the Army, in its infinite wisdom, because he knew more about the project than anyone else, appointed him to command a joint US-Canadian unit that would train on and use the Weasel. Frederick, by now promoted to Colonel, was eventually sent to Fort William Henry Harrison, in Helena, Montana, to raise and train the unit.
Colonel Frederick decided that his unit would have to be made up of out-of-the-ordinary soldiers and began looking for officers to fill the staff of his organization. A request went out to all Army units seeking volunteers with specific backgrounds or skills. It read, in part, that Colonel Frederick was looking for “…single men between ages 21 and 35 who had completed three years or more grammar school within the occupational range of Lumberjacks, Forest Rangers, Hunters, Northwoodsmen, Game Wardens, Prospectors, and Explorers.” Any soldier, officer or enlisted, selected was advised that he would be required to complete parachute training.
As recruiting continued in the U.S. Army, meetings were held with Canadian Army representatives to settle problems of organization, pay, uniforms, records administration and maintenance, quarters, and discipline. In a short time, arrangements were made to recruit from soldiers from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion; those chosen were redesignated as the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion, which existed only within the Force.
In July 1942, soldiers began to arrive at Fort Harrison and, within 48 hours, began their parachute training. In late August, Colonel Frederick awarded 1,200 parachute qualification badges to the combat echelon of his unit. The Force consisted of three regiments of two battalions; each battalion was divided into three companies. The Force also included a Service Battalion, composed of clerks, cooks, mechanics, armorers, riggers, supply specialists, and medics who would perform all work details, leaving the combat echelon to train continuously. Canadian and U.S. soldiers, both officer and enlisted, were equally integrated throughout the Force.
Organization of the First Special Service Force
(Chart by the author)
Colonel Frederick’s training concept for his unit required all soldiers to “master all the infantry small arms, be able to drive and repair the Weasel, be a qualified skier and parachutist as
well as being a master of demolitions and numerous lesser skills.” Training began in earnest, starting with small unit tactics, with plans to move on to integrated unit tactics, and to such specialized training as “skiing, rock climbing, living in cold climates…” as well as operations associated with driving and maintain the unit’s snow vehicles.
Naming his organization presented an interesting thought process for Colonel Frederick. Various designations were suggested that incorporated such words as “Parachute Infantry” or “Commando” or “Ranger” or other “tough-sounding” names. The term “Plough” was considered to be a secret operational name for the unit and so would not be used. Frederick wanted something less sinister and he eventually decided on the innocent sounding “First Special Service Force.” The Quartermaster Corps’ Heraldry Section assisted in the selection of a shoulder patch for the Force by designing a red arrowhead with “USA-Canada” across the top and down the center. Since his soldiers, both U.S. and Canadian, were selected from all branches of their respective militaries, Colonel Frederick wanted a separate insignia for their uniforms. Eventually, with the formal written agreement of the remaining members of the U.S. Army’s Indian Scouts, the collar insignia of crossed arrows was selected. The War Department formalized this selection, thereby creating the Force as a separate branch within the Army.
While the administrative details were being worked out, Colonel Frederick looked to organizing and training his Force. Lieutenant Colonel John G. McQueen, of the Calgary Highlanders, had led the Canadian element to Fort Harrison. He was designated the Executive Officer of the Force. Two of the regiments were commanded by Americans with Canadian executive officers; a Canadian officer, with an American executive officer, commanded the other regiment. Of the six battalions in the Force, five of them were commanded by Canadian officers with American executive officers. More Canadian officers than American officers commanded companies; however, most platoon commanders were American First Sergeants. Within the ranks of the companies, the mix of nationalities was essentially based on the proportion of the two nationalities within the total Force structure.
Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the First Special Service Force
(Photo by the author)
Collar insignia worn by US and Canadian officers of the First Special Service Force
(Photo by the author)
Training began according to a tight schedule. This schedule consisted of three phases – 3 August to 3 October for parachute training, basic weapons qualifications, demolitions training and qualification, small unit tactics, and a lot of physical training; 5 October to 21 November for more tactics and field problems; and 23 November to late December for ski training, rock climbing training, cold climate survival training, and operations with the combat snow vehicle. Training days ran from 0445 until 2130 four days of the week, with the day’s training shortened until 1700 on the remaining two days. The men of the Force did not train on Sundays.
Planning was conducted at the same time as training. The Force S-2 (Intelligence) and S-3 (Operations and Training) staffs were reviewing plans submitted by Washington for the Force once it was committed to combat. Missions included attacking and destroying German oil fields near Ploesti, in Rumania, as well as power generation capabilities in Italy. When these planned operations were reassigned to air assets, planning returned to targets in Norway and elsewhere in the Scandinavian countries.
Late in the summer, LtCol McQueen broke his leg during a training parachute jump; he was transferred out of the Force. He was replaced by Colonel Paul D. Adams, an American. Hand-to-hand fighting was added to the already jammed training schedule. At the suggestion of former Shanghai Police Captain Bruce Fairbairn, the Force obtained the training services of another former member of the Shanghai Police Department, an Irishman named D.M. O’Neill. The so-called O’Neill System of hand-to-hand combat was based on what O’Neill called “a kick and a poke”, a simplified yet more destructive system over Judo.
It was while Colonel Frederick was on a coordination visit to London in September to secure sufficient basing areas for his Force in England as well as air assets to move it on deployment that he was notified to suspend his unit’s current planning. Project Plough had been cancelled.
Training continued although, with the demise of the Plough plan, now it was directed at making the Force “into a versatile assault group able to undertake any task that might be assigned.” The Force acquired Johnson light machine guns from the U.S. Marine Corps by trading a part of its store of a new explosive known as RS, developed by the Army Ordnance Department. The newest in cold winter equipment and clothing came from the Arctic experimental department of the Quartermaster Corps. Light weight, long range radios were tested.
In late November, Colonel Frederick was alerted to cancel plans for the Force to be used in the Caucasus Mountains and in New Guinea. This time, the target for planning was Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands. This island chain was partially occupied by the Japanese. The target date for the invasion was in the spring of 1943. In January 1943, Colonel Frederick visited Alaska and his Force was accepted into the Department for the invasion. In late March, the Force was scheduled to receive amphibious training the following month in Norfolk, Virginia. The unit left Fort Harrison and headed east.
More training followed this, all to make the Force more versatile and ready for deployment. When their training at the Navy Scouts and Raiders School in Fort Pierce, Florida was cancelled, the Force was sent to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont for more cold weather exercises. The Force left Fort Ethan Allen by train on 26 June and arrived in the San Francisco area by 3 July.
On 9 July, the Force loaded onto two Liberty ships bound for Adak, an island in the Aleutians, where the men were met by Colonel Frederick. He had spent the previous week becoming familiar with his unit’s bivouac and pre-invasion training areas. He had even tagged along on a bombing mission over Kiska to examine the Force’s target areas. In the meantime, men of the Force were meeting with members of the Alaska Scouts, who were able to give them local information about their objectives.
The invasion plan called for the 1st Regiment to be part of the initial landing force on the southern end of the island and then fight its way eastward toward the Japanese naval base at Kiska Harbor. The following day, the 3rd Regiment was to land on the western side of the island and to fight eastward, forming a pincer against the Japanese forces. Colonel Frederick and his staff were to accompany 3rd Regiment. The 2nd Regiment was to be held in reserve, to be parachuted in where tactically needed. The invasion was to kick off on 15 August.
As the first wave went in at 0120 on the 15th they found, to their utter surprise, that the Japanese had left the island just a few hours before. The landing units proceeded eastward, still finding no Japanese. The following morning, by 0300, the landing force on the western side was ashore, still not finding any Japanese. As a result, the parachute jump was cancelled and, later that day, the island declared secured. Two days later, on the 18th, Colonel Frederick was directed by a wire from Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor to return the Force to San Francisco “without delay.” The Force returned on two ships, one arriving on 30 August and the other on 1 September.
Half of the Force was given 10 days of leave, with orders to report back to Fort Ethan Allen. The other half left San Francisco by troop trains, bound for Vermont. Once everyone returned from leave, the Force spent a month tightening up and preparing for deployment overseas. On 14 October, orders came for the Force to move by train to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia and then to the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation for overseas deployment by ship. The trip would take several weeks. Their destination – Casablanca, Oran, and then on to Naples. In just three months the Force had gone from the Aleutians Islands of Alaska, facing the Japanese, to the mountains of Italy, to face the Germans.
In sending for the Force, it had been General Dwight Eisenhower’s intent to use them for raids, sabotage, or guerrilla operations in Italy, or perhaps southern France or the Balkans. But General Mark Clark, Commanding General, Fifth Army, beat him to the punch and had the Force assigned to his command.
Typically, November is the rainiest month in Italy. November of 1943 was no exception. In fact, it had been raining fairly steadily since September and was getting colder as winter approached. The so-called German “Winter Line” was actually a chain of heavily fortified hills manned by some of the best units the Germans had in Italy, including a Panzer Grenadier Division and the Herman Goering Division. These units had held out on Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea, against everything the Fifth Army had sent against them. The Allies suffered heavy casualties in each attack, particularly in a sustained drive in the 12 days prior to the Force being assigned to the area.
One of the keys to the Allies getting through the Winter Line was the 3,000 foot high Monte la Difensa. Air and artillery attacks had not been successful. Far above the 1,000 foot tree line, the Germans were dug in among sheer cliffs. Connected, concealed trails along the upper part of la Difensa made it easy for the Germans to maneuver and coordinate their defense. The cliff face actually began at about the 2,000 foot level and extended upwards at a pitch of between 60 and 70 degrees for almost another 1,000 feet.
The Force was designated to be the next spearhead against la Difensa and la Remetanea. The planners were not optimistic that the Force would be able to succeed where other units had failed and, even if they did succeed, it would probably not be a combat effective unit afterwards.
During the first week after being given the assignment, Colonel Frederick and a small group of enlisted men and a few members of his staff conducted night-time reconnaissance of the targets. The northern approach consisted of a 200 foot cliff. Above this were a series of 6 ledges about 30 feet apart. Colonel Frederick found that the Germans apparently believed that a full-sized force would not be able to attack up this flank. As a result there was very little German firepower employed to protect against an assault from this direction. Colonel Frederick decided that this was the approach the Force would use.
By 15 November, the Force was in position ready to launch. The rain continued to come down, heavily. And it was cold. The Force planners believed this would add to the surprise of their attack. The 2nd Regiment was designated as the lead attacking element to take the objective. The 1st Regiment was to serve as the reserve unit for the 36th Division. The 3rd Regiment was designated to serve as supply carriers, litter bearers, and Force reserve. D-Day was set for 2 December.
At 1600 on 2 December, the men of the Force began loading trucks and moved forward. In a heavy rain, they left the trucks and hiked the last 10 miles to the base of their objective. The 2nd Regiment began climbing under the cover of rain and darkness. Their objective that night was a point about halfway up to the crest. They were not in a hurry and stealth was their method of movement this night. Artillery fire covered their movement and, they hoped, kept the Germans busy protecting themselves and not concerned about their unprotected flank. As the lead element moved up the mountain, they left ropes in place for the double row of companies coming behind to use. These ropes would be and were also used to evacuate wounded and other casualties down the mountain later in the action. Before first light all elements of the Force were in their designated positions. They “burrowed into concealment” and remained there all day. They had not been detected by the Germans.
During the day, down below, other Allied units moved up to their assigned positions. This was a contingency movement. If the Force was successful in securing its objective, the other units would be needed to reinforce the victory and prevent German reinforcement or counter-attack. Late that afternoon, the men of the 2nd Regiment made a final check of their weapons and equipment. Colonel Frederick led the Force elements as they began to climb the trail upward. The goal for the 2nd Regiment that night was to arrive at the base of the crown of la Difensa by 2230.
The Forcemen began their rigorous climb, carrying weapons and heavy backpacks. They crawled upwards from hand-hold to hand-hold in the cold rain, using ropes whenever possible to facilitate the climb. By midnight most of them were well concealed in the rocky ledges below the German positions. There was no indication that the Germans knew of their presence or even of their approach. They untied their ropes around themselves and rested in the darkness, the cold air freezing their sweat.
Soon Colonel Frederick and some of his staff joined the weary Forcemen in the lead. The ledge where they waited was barely the width of a man’s body. They could smell food odors coming from the German mess area; they were that close to the enemy - yet still undetected. Sometime around 0430, Colonel Frederick gave the signal for his men to move forward. Bayonets and knives were the order for this approach. “Fog shrouded the movement forward of the scouts.” The only sound the Forcemen made as they moved into the German position was a “soft gurgle vented by German sentries who had their throats cut” by the leading Forcemen.
Suddenly several of the Forcemen slipped on loose stones the Germans used around their enforcements. A green flare went up, then a red one. Then two bright magnesium flares lit the sky, catching the advancing Forcemen in their light. The Force had been spotted and the battle was on.
The Forcemen were attacking from an advantage, even though silhouetted in the flares. They had come from a position which the Germans were not expecting. The Germans recovered in one area and brought extra machine guns on the advancing Americans, slowing them down. After being pinned down for a short time, a nine-man group, with machine gun and mortar coverage, advanced and captured a cave and dispatched a nearby machine gun.
As light began to spread, Germans began to surrender. At one point, a German soldier advanced while waiving a white flag. A Force company commander moved out to take the prisoner. As soon as the captain was exposed, the German dropped into a hole and other Germans nearby opened up on the captain. The outraged Force company ran forward and killed all the Germans. Thereafter that company made no attempt to capture prisoners.
Two companies were now on top of la Difensa. From this position they could see the Germans “swarming like ants toward the valley and next hill [la Remetanea].” By 0700, 1st Battalion occupied the hill top. The men of 2nd Battalion arrived soon after. It took about another hour to clear the area of Germans and dig in, waiting for the expected counter-attack.
In the meantime, the 3rd Regiment and part of the Service Battalion combed the area for wounded and began moving them down the mountain as quickly as they could. One of the battalion commanders noted that the final assault had been up an almost perpendicular wall, one, however, with several ledges.
A request went down the mountain for ammunition, as those Forcemen on top were low. Fortunately, no counter-attack was launched right away. The Germans were satisfied, for the time being, to rain mortar shells on the enemy atop the mountain. Colonel Frederick, after reviewing the situation, sent a message down requesting urgent resupply of ammunition, rations, water, blankets, and litters. It took about six hours for this material to move from the bottom of the mountain to the top.
In other areas, British units were advancing on their objectives on nearby hill masses. Later in the day, with no German counter-attack still in sight, the 36th Division inquired about Colonel Frederick’s intentions as some adjoining units were taking heavy fire from some of the nearby hills. In the afternoon, Colonel Frederick approved plans for 2nd Regiment to attack la Remetanea the following morning on the condition that patrols continue during the night and an artillery forward observer be kept on alert and well forward to call in fire support as soon as he deemed it was necessary.
Information brought back by various patrols caused the attack to be delayed for two more days, allowing for more consolidation of friendly forces so as to overwhelm the Germans. On the 7th, the Germans were driven from la Remetanea, with the Force in the forefront of the action. The fate of the German defense in the immediate hill area was sealed. The Winter Line had been broken. The First Special Service Force had earned its first battle success in an attack that took the German defenders completely by surprise.
Later, General Eisenhower described the battle like this: “…a small detachment [the Force] had put on a remarkable exhibition of mountain climbing. With the aid of ropes, a few of them climbed steep cliffs of great height. I have never understood how, encumbered by their equipment, they were able to do it…They entered and seized the [German company commander], who ejaculated, “You can’t be here. It is impossible to come up those rocks.”
The Force would move on to other victories. They would take part in the landings at Anzio (where they would earn their nickname of “Black Devils” from the German units opposing them), be among the first units into Rome, and land in the invasion of Southern France in August 1944. They would eventually be disbanded in December 1944 with the Canadians returning to Canadian units and the Americans to American units, having earned many battle credits. They had succeeded where may others had failed and had satisfied all of Colonel Fredericks’s expectations of them.
Bibliography of sources consulted:
Adleman, Robert H. and George Walton; The Devil’s Brigade; Philadelphia, PA; Chilton Books; 1966
Burhans, Robert D.; The First Special Service Force – A War History of the The North Americans 1942-1944; Washington, DC; Infantry Journal Press; 1947
De Trez, Michel; First Airborne Task Force – Pictorial History of the Allied Paratroopers in the Invasion of Southern France; Belgium; D-Day Publishing; 1998
Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Crusade in Europe; New York; Doubleday & Company, Inc.; 1948
Hicks, Anne; The Last Fighting General – The Biography of Robert Tyron Frederick; Atglen, PA; Schiffer Military History; 2006
Insignia are from the author’s collection.
Copyright © 2014 Michael F. Dilley
Written by Michael F. Dilley. The author retains the copyright to this piece bearing his name. No reproduction, copying, or other forms of retrieval without permission. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael F. Dilley at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.michaelfdilley.com.
About the author:
Michael F. Dilley has a B.A. in History from Columbia College in Missouri and is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer. He served two tours in Viet Nam and six and one-half years in airborne units. In the field of military history, he was written three books (one of them as co-author) and contributed to two anthologies. He has also written many articles and book reviews dealing with special purpose, special mission units.
Published online: 03/08/2014.
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