First Special Service Force 6th CO, 3rd REG, HRS St Louis, MO

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Forum Home > The Early Days of the Force > The Early Days of the Force, Part 1

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By William story


The time was August 1942. For the British Commonwealth of Nations and all of Europe, World War II had been under way since late 1939. Nine months had passed since Pearl Harbor. In Washington a quiet decision had been made: the war in Europe had highest priority. Some Americans, patterned after the British Commandos, called Rangers, had already had their first blooding in Europe, with the Canadians at Dieppe.


On this continent at a dusty rail siding in Montana, a slightly weary and grimy group of Canadian soldiers clambered from early 20th century, immigrant-style day coaches – vehicles that came equipped with hard horse-hair seats and pot-bellied stoves in the corner; all courtesy of a Canadian government which didn’t believe in pampering its troops. In these cars, 35 officers and 450 other ranks, drawn from Canadian Army units, had ridden the hot summer miles from Calgary’s whitewashed Currie Barracks to Helena’s dusty Fort William Henry Harrison. They were volunteers for parachute duty; volunteers for hazardous operations. All had agreed to obey the commands of those senior to them, even though these ‘seniors” might be from another army. All had been tested for IQ levels. Left behind at Currie were those who, though volunteering, failed to make the grade physically or otherwise.


These soldiers were the first contingent of Canadians to form what some have called the most unique fighting force of World War II: the First Special Service Force. Later authors in search of a catchy book title would dub them “the Devil’s Brigade,” and movie moguls would pick that up with a star-filled war picture which runs, re-runs, and runs again on television screens throughout the world. For the time being, however, it was the First Special Service Force, a name which brought some identity problems at that time, a few fist fights, and a lot of good-natured kidding in the U.S. Army, for whom the words Special Services meant entertainers like Ronald Ragan.


This initial Canadian contingent would soon be joined by another train load – this time from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. As the first group lined up under the direction of senior commanders alongside the train, in the near distance workers were still frantically expanding Ft. Harrison from a bare-bones National Guard camp to one which would accommodate the incoming troops. Being laid down were the final pyramidal tent bottoms, while crews following behind were installing the tents. Latrine buildings were being rushed to completion. Dust was everywhere that hot August day, as bulldozers and construction crews labored over the airstrip for the C-47 jump ships, the parachute drying towers, packing sheds, mess halls, and roads.


In the far distance was Mt. Helena, with its adjacent “Muscle Mountain,” so-named by Forcemen who later spent hours rushing up its steep sides when the training officers (it seemed) had nothing else for them to do; or when an element of enforced discipline was needed to curb, but not bind, high (and sometimes rebellious) spirits and independent minds. Men of the Force were not your ordinary run of the mill soldier in either army. For one thing, the Average age of Forcemen was higher than the average age of soldiers in both armies at that time. For another, many of them came from the more rigorous walks of lie: hard-rock miners, prospectors, lumberjacks, hunters, and trappers.


The First Special Service Force, conceived in war-torn and exhausted Britain with the help of a man who, 40 years later, would be assassinated by an IRA bomb – Lord Louis Mountbatten – had been brought to term by Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, and Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, with the Pentagon serving as midwife. Now it was being fleshed out in a nursery far distant from major training centers of either Canada or the U. S. Fort Harrison had been chosen in part for its remoteness; because the Force was an organization whose elements and actual size would remain a considerable mystery to its principal adversaries, the German High Command, and a virtual secret to most Canadian and American citizens until near the end of its operational life.


Fort Harrison had other advantages. It was in the mountains, so mountaineering would be taught. Its winter weather was cold and snowy, especially on the peaks of the Great Divide, so the special snow vehicle developed exclusively for the Force – The Weasel – could be tested and Forcemen trained in its use. Here, too, the soldiers could learn how to ski and to take part in winter-warfare training. There was ample space back in the hills to build mock-ups of the power stations in Norway and northern Italy, which the Force was projected to attack.


All this was virtually unknown to the rank and file of Canadians who disembarked from the hot coaches that day, hot and cinder-peppered through the open windows of the non-air-conditioned, coal-burning train. The vast majority had started the trip thinking they were headed for Fort Benning, because they knew some Canadians were already at the Georgia infantry camp, taking parachute training. Others weren’t so sure, asking about the logic of switching the train through Sweetgrass, Montana, when it would have been more direct to head back to Winnipeg and then south. There had been lots of news stories about Canadians going to Benning, but strangely little about a much larger group of well-trained and experienced soldiers going elsewhere in the United States.


Waiting alongside the rail spur and watching with as much curiosity as the Canadians was a small group of American officers and enlisted men. Some were from the Force Service Battalion, which had been put together several weeks before. It’s responsibility would be to provide the cooks, bakers, kitchen police, latrine workers, the firemen and MPs, the drivers and ammunition suppliers; the parachute riggers and all the other support needed to free the combat echelon for its training and ultimate mission. Time and combat would find these same Service Battalion soldiers with rifles and grenades pressed into their hands as they formed a second line of defense during the anxious days at Anzio, when it appeared the Germans might sweep the Allies into the Tyrrhenian Sea. But for now, along with members of the recently formed Force Headquarters, they were there to help in the arrival of this different – looking group, the first Allied soldiers most of them had ever seen. Observing from the fringes were American soldiers from the combat echelon who had been arriving in dribs and drabs from virtually every U. S Army unit, including the Army Air corps.


Both groups looked each other over carefully. The Canadians took in the U.S. Army summer Khakis, the green herringbone twill coveralls and caps, the pinks and greens of the officer uniforms, “Pink pants?” one Canadian wondered. Visible among the Americans was the occasional campaign hat on an officer or enlisted man. To the Canadians, they looked not unlike the hats worn by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and one former Mountie quipped: “Hey, I should have brought my old uniform.” Later, they were to learn that most of these hats, along with the jodhpurs, belonged to soldiers who had came from the U.S. Cavalry.


The Americans saw a lean bunch of youngish men, most wearing short pants, short-sleeved shirts, puttees (which Americans called leggings and black iron-shod boots). The headgear, perched jauntily over the right eyebrow and virtually resting on the right ear, looked not unlike the U.S. Army overseas caps except that it was not as wide in the body or as high, and it was of stiffened cloth to help keep its shape, In addition, instead of carrying the blue or other piping of the various U.S. Army branches, each cap was distinguished by two small and shiny brass buttons on the front, and individual regimental or branch cap badges fixed to the left front by typical Canadian lugs, and long cotter-pin-like fasteners inside.


But not everyone wore the “wedge” cap. Different to American eyes were the black berets of the tankers – those from the armored regiments or motorized scouts – a piece of headgear made famous by Lord Montgomery’s 8th army armor in North Africa.


Even more different and colorful was the headgear of members drawn from the Scottish regiments of Canada’s Army” the Black Watch, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the Toronto Scottish, the name just a few. Some wore Khake (Canadians pronounced it Kar-kee) tam-o’-shanters – large, round, floppy hats with a large tuft in the top center and usually sporting an enormous bass or black-metal cap badge. These were affectionately or otherwise known to their wearers as cowflops. Still other Scots-regiment types wore the Glengarry bonnet with its trim of red and white checkerboard pattern and its two black streamers down the back, also complete with large brass regimental cap badge.


But the big elbow digging among the Americans began when a Scottish regimental officer descended from the train, wearing plaid trousers, better known as trews, only to be followed by others in kilts, complete with sporrans to the front and dirks in the knee-length woolen stockings. These drew extra stares and comments from the Americans who were soon to learn why the Germans in World War I referred to Scottish regiments as the Ladies from Hell,” and that kilts and trews were no laughing matter.

And finally for one reason or another there were a few Canadians dressed in light khaki summer dress r “walking out” uniforms of midhigh-length jacket complete with brass buttons, attached cloth belt, and brass buckle. This ensemble was completed with khaki shirt and black tie, black boots, and wedge cap, Glengarry, tam-o’-shanter, or black beret. Certainly there was more uniform variety for the Americans to look at than there was for the Canadians. And it was this uniform variety, carried on for some months after the Force was established, which created confusion in the minds of studies of later military historians and collectors. Adding to the confusion for them was a red-beret myth perpetrated by the producer of the movie, The Devil’s Brigade. The First Special Service Force at no time wore a beret, neither red, maroon, black, nor green. Forcemen wore a lot of other strange uniform groupings when they could getaway with it, but not an official beret, as shown in the movie.


Formed up, the new arrivals were marched off to an area closer to the tent lines. There they were separated by twos and directed into individual company streets (a new phrase) and to individual tents, starting with 1st Company 1st Regiment and going through Sixth Company, Third Regiment. On arrival, many of the Canadians found two Americans already in the tent (as did the author). The Americans themselves were relative newcomers, just settling in. Like the Canadians, they had come from virtually every unit in the U.S. Army and from a wide variety of states. Unlike the Canadians, not all were strict volunteers, but had been “volunteered” by their commanding officers as a means of getting red of “troublemakers.” The majority, however, were genuine volunteers, many drawn from the same backgrounds as the Canadians, with the possible exception of fur trappers.


There were moments of getting acquainted, helped by the common language. Dialogues went something like this: “Where you from, soldier? What outfit? The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry? You got to be kidding. Whatinhell's that?” “Winnipeg – that anywhere near the city of Ontario?” Or; “Mississippi, that’s somewhere in the Deep South, isn’t it?” “The 7th Cavalry? Hasn’t your army learned that cavalry went out of style at the start of World War I?” “What’s the Mason-Dixon line?” “You mean the Civil War really should be called the War Between the States?” “No, Canadians don’t pay taxes to the King, Canada isn’t a colony of the English It’s a Dominion,” to be followed by a long explanation of Dominion Governor-General, Leftenant (sic) Governors.


In general, Canadians knew more about the U.S. than Americans did about Canada. Canadians attributed this to better schooling, but in point of fact, the pervasiveness of American-made movies and radio was a major factor. Fibber NcGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were no strangers to the Canadians, who listened as avidly on Saturday or Sunday nights as the Americans.

January 1, 2010 at 7:59 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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