Found another good Montana PBS program...
Posted 15 December 2011 - 07:33 PM
Video: The Devil's Brigade: To Helena and Back | Watch MontanaPBS Presents Online | MontanaPBS Video
- TD-Tommy776 and sebfrench76 like this
Posted 16 December 2011 - 01:36 AM
Freedom is precious and many gave their lives for it. It is the duty of the future generation
to remember that sacrifice, and offer some sacrifice for themselves if Freedom is threatened.
Cecil Earl Workman, WWII Veteran, "L" Co., 129th Inf. Regt., 37th Inf. Div.
PFC Glenn W. Halvorson
PFC Norman L. Halvorson
Posted 21 December 2011 - 03:51 PM
Posted 21 December 2011 - 04:06 PM
Can you confirm it is 1995 dated?Thanks for the link!
Yes, it was filmed at their 50th reunion celebration in '95, but not released until 2008 I believe. Don't know where it sat until that release date.
Posted 21 December 2011 - 11:49 PM
Called thugs, cutthroats, 'Braves,' the 'Black Devils' andthe 'Devil's Brigade,' the soldiers of the U.S.Canadian 1st Special ServiceForce may also have been some of the finest fighting men of all time.
By Flint Whitlock
After World War II ended, a group of Fort Ord-based army officers were enjoyinga drink in their favorite bar, under the Sausalito end of the Golden GateBridge, when a policeman walked in. His eyes scanned the dimly lit, smokyinterior and settled on something that seemed out of place--a soldier with amustache and two silver stars on each shoulder who looked much too young to bea major general. He was obviously an impostor.
Approaching him, the policeman asked to see some identification. The officercomplied, handing his ID card to the policeman. The cop glanced at the photo onit and the rank--major general. "Damned good forgery," the cop toldhimself as he flipped the card onto the grimy floor. A split second later, thepoliceman was lying next to the ID card, his jaw already beginning to swellfrom the force of the blow that had just been delivered by the mustachioedgeneral. The young man wearing two stars was, in fact, Maj. Gen. Robert T.Frederick, creator and commander of the 1st Special Service Force, one of themost feared--and most fearless--fighting units ever assembled.
Robert Tryon Frederick, son of a San Francisco doctor, impressed almost no oneduring his four years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated124th out of a class of 250 in 1928. The best that could be said of him wasthat he was an excellent organizer. The academy yearbook, The Howitzer, was notexactly effusive in its description of Frederick: "He has a natural and amodest personality that is bound to please."
Frederick's early military service was equally unremarkable. Followinggraduation he was assigned to the Coast Artillery, serving at Fort WinfieldScott in California. He toiled anonymously with that branch for over a decade,graduating from the Coast Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Va., in 1938. Hethen attended Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Twoyears later he was a major, shuffling papers in the operations department ofthe War Department General Staff.
By the time the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, Frederickhad been promoted to lieutenant colonel, but he was still shuffling papers atthe War Department. One of his duties was to pass judgment on ideas submittedby naive but well-meaning civilians who wanted to contribute to the war effort.
In May 1942, Frederick reviewed a report that boasted a long list ofendorsements--including those of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill andAmerican General George C. Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thereport detailed a plan (Project Plough) involving a diversionary invasion ofNorway with a highly trained guerrilla band that would strike deep behind enemylines. In his memo to his boss, Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Frederickdismissed the idea as militarily unworkable.
The Army did not completely kill Project Plough; it opted instead to proceedwith the planning stage, in order to cement British-American solidarity. Whensomeone was needed to command the fledgling project, Eisenhower calledFrederick into his office in early June and awarded him the job, declaring:"You take this Plough project. You've been over the whole thing. You're incharge now. Let me know what you need."
By late summer 1942, a unit of Americans and Canadians at Camp William HenryHarrison, near Helena, Mont., was training under the command of 35-year-oldColonel Frederick. Since there was no precedent for the type of multinationalguerrilla force he was forming, Frederick was given carte blanche to build theunit as he saw fit. He envisioned three "mini-regiments," each withabout 800 men divided between two (instead of the usual three) battalions. Forhis troops, Frederick wanted recruits who were strong, intelligent andaccustomed to working out of doors in the harshest conditions. He and his staffofficers combed American units training in the Southwest and Pacific Northwestfor "single men between ages 21 and 35...within the occupational range oflumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters, northwoodsmen, game wardens, prospectors,and explorers" and requested similar recruits from the Royal CanadianArmy. The Canadian troops that soon began arriving at Camp Harrison were someof that nation's finest volunteers. American unit commanders, on the otherhand, were understandably reluctant to let their best soldiers go. As aconsequence, many of the Americans "volunteered" for the new unitwere delivered to Helena directly from military stockades. It was an odd mix,but one that turned out to work surprisingly well in combat. Frederick immediatelyset about whipping his tough hombres into a cohesive military formation.
While the recruits were tough (one of the American officers reportedly kept afootlocker full of live rattlesnakes under his bed), the training was tougher.Reveille was at 0445 hours, and physical-fitness training lasted all day, withlectures extending well into the night. Instead of the normal marching cadenceof 120 steps per minute, the unit marched at 140 steps per minute, and 50-milehikes with full field gear were the norm. Every man--chaplains included--wasrequired to become an expert with a wide variety of weapons, and knife-fightingtechniques were taught with special relish. They learned how to kill silentlywith their bare hands and how to fight dirty, showing no mercy. They becamedemolition experts and skilled at using the enemy's weapons.
Because they still expected to fight in Norway, cold-weather training wasessential, and skiing and snow-shoeing went on throughout the bitter Montanawinter of 1942-43. So did parachute training, for that was how they expected toenter Norway. Men who could not keep up the grueling pace or who"froze" in the door of a Douglas C-47 during a jump were washed out.And Frederick pushed himself just as hard as he pushed his men.
The unit needed a name. "Braves" became a sort of an unofficialmoniker. But Frederick came up with "Special Service Force," which hepreferred because it gave nothing away. Some people even thought it was part ofthe Army's entertainment arm, the Special Services.
Although most of Helena embraced the multinational force, a few locals causedproblems. One night while the Americans and Canadians were drinking together ata bar, a handful of miners began making unflattering comments about some of thekilt-clad Canucks. While the Canadians stoically ignored the remarks, theirYank comrades beat the stuffing out of the miners. Shortly thereafter, Americanuniforms were issued to everyone in the force.
While the Yanks and Canucks generally got on well with one another (they wereintegrated in each platoon and company, not segregated by nationality), theYanks were paid more than their northern neighbors, which caused some friction.What diffused the tension somewhat was that the Yanks were paid once a monthand were usually broke a day or two after payday, but the more frugal Canadianswere paid twice a month and always seemed to have a few extra dollars to loanto their comrades from the south.
As training for an invasion of Norway continued, contingency plans wereconsidered for other missions--to drop the force into Romania to destroyGerman-held oil fields and pipelines; to descend upon Italy and destroy theelectricity-generating capabilities in the mountainous north. Both plans werescrapped. The unit would now concentrate solely on Norway.
In the autumn of 1942, Frederick flew to England to work out what he thoughtwould be last-minute details about the Norway operation, dubbed OperationSledgehammer. Instead, he learned this mission also had been scrubbed.
Frederick was disheartened. What could he tell his men, whom he now regarded aspotentially the most effective fighting unit ever assembled? The Allies werefighting in North Africa, a theater that had no use for the force's wintertraining. Questions were raised about the need for the force at all during thatperiod.
Returning to the States, Frederick discovered that the Canadian government wason the verge of pulling the plug on future Canadian participation in theamalgamated unit. General Marshall intervened, however, and persuaded theCanadians to stick with it.
Back in Montana, Frederick and his staff informed the Braves of what hadtranspired and assured them they would undoubtedly soon have a combat role.Their training began taking on a broader focus. Mountain climbing gained newemphasis, and the men perfected their skills at operating the Johnson lightmachine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, demolitions and a new shoulder-firedrocket launcher nicknamed the "bazooka." A new amphibious tracked personnelcarrier, the T-24 (later standardized as the M-29) Weasel, also arrived.
Rumors of a variety of missions floated around Camp Harrison--the CaucasusMountains, New Guinea and elsewhere. Yet the first overseas assignment turnedout to be much closer to home, on the island of Kiska at the far end of theAleutian chain, some 1,000 miles west of the Alaska mainland. The Japanese hadcaptured nearby Attu Island, and it took a superhuman effort and manycasualties for the Americans to retake the island. A larger, even betterentrenched enemy was known to be waiting on Kiska.
In April 1943, the force left Montana to undergo amphibious training atNorfolk, Va. Frederick's men performed so well that they completed theirtraining a week before the course was scheduled to end. The men had grown boredwith the training, which they considered too easy. For amusement they beganpicking on Marines in Norfolk, disarming them on the street. The Marine basecommander was displeased by those shenanigans and ordered Frederick to curtailhis unit's extracurricular activities or his men would be thrown into the brig.Instead of complying, Frederick bet the Marine general $10 that his men couldovercome the base's tight security. The general took the bet. The next morning,Frederick drove the general around the base, showing him where his men hadplanted simulated demolitions during the night--including under the basecommander's own bed!
After Norfolk, it was on to Chesapeake Bay, where the force set more records inloading from transports into landing craft. Frederick's men then moved to FortEthan Allen, Vt., where they practiced river-crossing techniques on LakeChamplain. They were then shuttled to the West Coast and, in July 1943, setsail with 40,000 other troops for the invasion of Kiska, the largest amphibiousassault of the war up to that point. Paddling ashore in the dark in rubberboats, the men rapidly reached their assigned beaches, expecting the enemy toopen up on them the moment they hit the shore. But all was silent. The 12,000Japanese on Kiska had been secretly evacuated by sea a few days before theinvasion forces landed. Some of the Allied units remained to garrison thebarren, windswept island, while Frederick's force was ordered to Italy, whereit arrived two months after the nearly disastrous Allied landings at Salerno.
Lieutenant General Mark Clark's Fifth Army--a mixture of American and Britishunits--had run up against the German Gustav Line at the southern entrance tothe Liri Valley. Rome lay less than 100 miles to the north, and Field MarshalAlbert Kesselring's troops were determined to make the Allies pay in blood foreach inch of ground. Stretching across the mountains and fields from theLigurian Sea to the Adriatic side of Italy, the Gustav Line bristled withbunkers, pillboxes, minefields and gun emplacements. The Allies were faced withthe challenge of trying to break through a nearly impregnable wall defended bya battle-hardened, well-entrenched enemy during what would be one of Italy'sworst winters.
On November 22, 1943, the 1,800-man-strong 1st Special Service Force (1st SSF)was attached to Maj. Gen. Fred L. Walker's 36th Infantry Division, a NationalGuard outfit from Texas. The 1st SSF was to spearhead the Fifth Army's driveagainst Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea, about four miles south of avillage called San Pietro. The two rugged mountains guarded the entrance to theMignano Gap, southeast of Cassino, which was scheduled to be assaulted by theU.S. 3rd Infantry Division. It was a tough assignment for an outfit that hadnever seen combat.
The attack was set for December 2. Since Monte la Difensa was closer to theAllied lines, it would be the first assaulted. The 3,120-foot mountain is animpressive sight, with a 200-foot cliff starting at 2,000 feet above sea levelon its north side and six ledges rising above it, each roughly 30 feet apart.On top of the mountain were veterans of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division. TheGermans had already repulsed other Allied attempts to take the high ground, andcorpses littered the slopes. Frederick personally reconnoitered the mountain,along with a handful of his best men, looking for routes to the top.
At dusk on December 1 the Braves were hiking 10 miles through a cold downpourwhile artillery shells from both sides shrieked overhead. As the troops nearedthe mountain, Allied shells plastered it. "It looked like the wholemountain was on fire," said one man.
Throughout December 2, Frederick's men dug shelters into the mountainside, toawait the order to begin the attack on the 4th. As darkness descended, theAmericans and British began a fearsome barrage. Before dawn on the 4th the SSFemerged from their holes, their faces blackened with burnt cork, their weaponsloaded, their knives sharpened to a fine edge. Sensing imminent attack, theGermans brought down artillery and mortars on the most likely approach routes.
With ropes where necessary, men of the 1st SSF's 2nd Regiment, many luggingmachine guns, climbed for hours with stiff, frozen hands to finally reach therain-slicked, rocky ledges above the sheer cliff. They lay there as still asstones and were soon glazed over, encased in icy shells. The men were so closeto the German positions that they could smell food being cooked and hear theenemy cursing the steady rain. Right behind the advance elements came Frederickand his staff.
At the appointed hour, the men slithered from their rocky perches into theentrenchments of the German outposts, silently slitting the throats of theguards. No one was supposed to fire until 0600 hours, but when a section ofloose rock clattered down the cliff, the Germans were alerted and began sendingflares up and shells down. Bullets rattled and whined back and forth in thedark. Both sides exchanged grenades, their targets illuminated only byexplosions or the constant popping of aerial flares. A 1st SSF captain wastrying to take a surrendering German prisoner when the German's comrade sprangfrom his hiding place and shot the officer point-blank in the face, killinghim. From then on, Frederick's men took no prisoners unless specificallyordered to do so for interrogation purposes.
Frederick was in the thick of the fight, giving orders, repositioning machineguns and firing at the enemy with his own .45. Two hours after the battle beganit was over. Those Germans lucky enough to be alive scrambled down the mountainas fast as they could. Thinking that the enemy would probably stage acounterattack against his men, whose supplies were running out, Frederickradioed the troops below to begin hauling supplies to the summit, a six-hourtrip. When the pack mules were unable to make the steep climb, men lugged thefood, water and ammunition on their backs, each man making two or three climbsa day and returning with dead and wounded.
Although Monte la Difensa was in American hands, the Allied position was not assecure on the other nearby peaks. The British had taken a neighboringmountaintop monastery, only to lose it to a German counterattack. Instead ofwaiting for the anticipated German counterattack on la Difensa, Frederickdecided to attack Monte la Remetanea at dawn the next day.
That night was wretched. Cold, unrelenting rain beat down on the unprotectedmen, as did an unending rain of German mortar shells and rockets from the newmultibarreled Nebelwerfer rocket launchers nicknamed "screamingmimis" by the Americans. The force's 1st Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col.Alfred C. Marshall, began to take casualties from the shelling.
Because of the heavy enemy fire, the SSF assault on Monte la Remetanea wasdelayed for a day. A thick fog settled over the mountain, providing the 1st SSFconcealment but no cover. Moving out one by one, or in small patrols,Frederick's men crept through the fog to kill Germans in their foxholes, upclose and personal. Soon the entire southern slope of the mountain was in 1stSSF hands. At nightfall, Frederick directed his assistant commander, ColonelPaul D. Adams, to round up 15 cases of bourbon to warm and reward his men. TheFifth Army filled the requisition without hesitation.
The next day, the 1st SSF moved out to eliminate a particularly troublesomegroup of Germans located in a monastery in the saddle between two hills.Although outnumbered 4-to-1, the men filled the air with their battle cries andsavagely attacked the enemy positions. German soldiers who failed to retreatwere killed on the spot. No prisoners were taken.
The following day, December 6, the exhausted men resumed their attack, overcomingsnipers and enemy artillery until, finally, the beaten Germans pulled out. Theprice of Italian real estate during the three-day battle was high--73 1st SSFmen killed and another 459 wounded. Frederick himself was hit twice. Theirsacrifice and the heroism of those who survived enabled the Allies to gaincontrol of the southern approaches to Monte Cassino and the Liri Valley. Onewar correspondent reported, "This feat captured the imagination of theentire Fifth Army and overnight Frederick and his soldiers became almostlegendary figures in a battle area where heroism was commonplace."
There, however, the war in Italy reached its first stalemate. The entrance tothe Liri Valley, which led directly to Rome, was flanked by rows of formidablemountains and guarded by some of Hitler's toughest soldiers. The Germans werenot about to allow the Allies to stroll unchallenged into the Eternal City.Attention was focused on Monte Cassino, crowned by its ancient Benedictinemonastery, and Cassino, the town below. From the heights, the Germans couldobserve anything that moved in the valley and bring devastating artillery firedown upon it.
Getting the Fifth Army in position to attack Monte Cassino was no easy feat initself. Two mountainous "jaws" guarded the approach to Monte Cassinoon Highway 6. Monte Lungo, to the south, and Monte Sammucro, a towering cragthat loomed spectacularly over the mountainside village of San Pietro, wereboth held by the Germans. The Allies had to seize both before the all-out assaultagainst Monte Cassino could begin.
The first phase of the operation to evict the Germans from the area called forbattalions from the 36th Division and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the82nd Airborne Division to push the enemy off Sammucro's crest. Then the Italian1st Motorized Division, which came over to the Allied side following Italy'scapitulation in September 1943, would assault the Germans on Lungo. Both phasesof the operation quickly ran into trouble. The Italian attack was forced back,while the Americans managed to push close to San Pietro but were pummeled byGerman guns firing from Lungo. Every attempt to take the village, including anassault by 16 tanks on December 15, ended in failure and many casualties. Laterthat same day, however, the 36th's 142nd Regiment successfully drove theGermans off Monte Lungo, forcing the enemy to pull back from the San PietroMonteLungo positions.
Clark decided to exploit this crack in the German defensive line by sending the1st SSF (which had been resting and recuperating for more than a week), the 1stArmored Division and the 34th Infantry Division into the valley and over themountains toward Cassino, less than 15 miles away. The 1st SSF's objective wasHill 720, the westernmost spur of Monte Sammucro. The 1st Battalion of the 36thDivision's 141st Regiment would assist Colonel Marshall's 1st Battalion of the1st SSF. On December 23 the attacks began across Sammucro's cloud-shroudedpeaks, with Frederick in the lead. It quickly became apparent thatcommunications with the 141st Regiment and 504th Parachute Infantry, operatingon the SSF's right flank, were inadequate, and a 24-hour delay was institutedso that the problems could be fixed. Rain beat down on the attackers as theyprepared for H-hour, set for 0300 on Christmas Day. An hour before the assaultbegan, however, the Germans nearby shelled the Americans, who replied withtheir own big guns. The slugfest raged for hours, and the casualties wereappalling. One 1st SSF company was eventually down to seven or eight men. Butby early afternoon, all objectives had been taken by the 36th, the 504th andthe men of the 1st SSF.
As a year-end blizzard enveloped the peaks of the area, bringing most FifthArmy offensive action to a temporary halt, plans were made to resume thebroad-front attack to break into the Liri Valley. The French ExpeditionaryCorps took up positions on the right flank that had been held by the exhausted45th Infantry Division, which had been in nearly continuous combat since theSalerno landings in September. The new operation, scheduled for the first weekof January, called for the British X Corps to capture Cedro Hill while the IICorps attacked Monte Porchia and prepared to cross the Garigliano River nearSant Ambrogio.
Reinforced with extra artillery and two battalions from the 34th InfantryDivision's 133rd Regiment, the 1st SSF was trucked a few miles northeast ofMonte Sammucro in preparation for an assault against Monte Majo. Once thatproved successful, the 1st SSF was to continue on to the southwest towardCervaro, about three miles east of Cassino. The 2nd Regiment, commanded by Lt.Col. Robert Moore, would take Monte Radicosa, while the 3rd Regiment, under Lt.Col. Edwin Walker, was assigned Monte Majo. Not even Colonel Marshall's badlydecimated 1st Regiment was let off the hook--Hill 1270 and Vischiataro Hillwere its objectives.
In the snow, the Italian landscape looked deceptively as pretty as a Christmascard. But the Germans had sown the area with mines and had zeroed in theirartillery and mortars to cover the most likely avenues of approach. As always,Frederick personally took part in reconnoitering the objectives and demandedthe same from all his officers.
Patrols gathered intelligence on the enemy, and supplies were brought forwardto await the attack. Under cover of darkness on the frigid night of January 4,1944, the 1st SSF moved out. Crawling to within grenade range of a line ofmachine-gun nests, one company surprised and killed some 100 Germans. Anotherelement shunned a stealthy approach in favor of a frontal attack and eventuallyreached the summit of Radicosa, although outnumbered 2-1 by the Germans. In thedark, Marshall's 1st Regiment swung east of its objective, then swooped in,taking the defenders by surprise.
After dark on the 7th, the same courageous actions were repeated by Walker's3rd Regiment on nearby Monte Majo. The all-night battle began at 1000 andlasted until dawn, when the summit was in 1st SSF hands. For the next threedays the Germans launched one counterattack after another at the 1st SSF, onlyto be hurled back with horrendous casualties. Elsewhere along the front, otherFifth Army units were making good progress against stiff resistance.
What the enemy could not stop, nature did. The cold was so bitter that, in one75-man group on Monte Radicosa, 44 were evacuated with frozen feet.
The sounds of battle gradually ceased echoing off the mountains. By January 15the Fifth Army stood at the gate of the Liri Valley. But German resistance wasbuilding west of the Rapido River in the Gustav Line fortifications. The brutalwinter weather had arrived in earnest, and Clark's men were on the verge ofexhaustion. Both sides dug in to watch and wait. The stalemate along the GustavLine had begun.
During this period of relative inactivity, the 1st SSF--or what was left ofit--was trucked back to a rest area. Frederick's losses were staggering: Of1,800 combat troops, only 400 were left alive or unwounded. Even thelitter-bearers and porters in the service battalion were at half strength. Thenext several weeks were spent absorbing and training replacements, volunteersand men specially selected from the replacement pool as having the same spirit,determination and indifference to danger that had characterized the originalforce.
Unknown to the men, a new operation was in the works. Code-named"Shingle," this plan was conceived by Winston Churchill as a way ofbreaking the Gustav Line stalemate at Monte Cassino and at the mouth of theLiri Valley. On January 22, 1944, the first phase of Shingle, under the aegisof VI Corps' commander Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, hit the beaches around theresort town of Anzio, some 70 miles up the coast from the Gustav Line and only35 miles south of Rome. The 1st SSF would soon find itself occupying a keyposition at Anzio. The first Allied troops ashore at Anzio, and the neighboringtown of Nettuno, were Maj. Gen. Lucien Truscott's U.S. 3rd Infantry Divisionand Maj. Gen. W.R.C. Penney's British 1st Infantry Division, along with ColonelWilliam O. Darby's Ranger battalions. The landing force was too small to domuch more than establish and build up a beachhead--and to endure endlessartillery barrages and fight off vigorous German counterattacks.
Frederick spent a few weeks training replacements and welcoming back woundedsoldiers--some of them AWOL from the hospital--still stitched and bandaged butnot wanting to miss the action. Arriving at Anzio on February 1, the 1st SSF,now built up to 2,300 men, was given responsibility for a front of nearly 10miles. Most of the assigned front was along the Mussolini Canal and faced thevast Pontine Marshes, which formed the right flank of the beachhead and werevirtually impassable to men and armor.
Unaccustomed to a static role, and not content to simply guard a stretch ofswamp, the 1st SSF men began mounting nuisance raids into enemy territory.Sending nightly patrols deep behind enemy lines to bring back prisoners and togenerally raise hell, they quickly gained a reputation among the Germans as aunit to avoid. Their blackened faces gave rise to a new nickname:Schwartzteufeln, or "Black Devils."
The 1st SSF was filled with colorful characters, and legends grew up aroundmost of them. One night, for example, a patrol from the 1st Regiment enteredthe abandoned town of Borgo Sabotino, a quarter of a mile behind German lines.Proclaiming himself "mayor," 1st Lt. Gus Heilman changed the name ofthe place to "Gusville." The town had certain amenities, such as asizable supply of cows, horses, pigs and chickens. Those soon replaced C- andK-rations and were washed down with wine and other beverages"liberated" from nearby German units.
During the rare quiet moments at Anzio, the men devised a variety of activitiesto keep themselves amused, including baseball, volleyball, horse racing,farming in no-man's land, and raiding U.S. VI Corps headquarters for largecasks of wine. A newspaper, the Gusville Herald-Tribune, soon hit the streets,and the town was frequented by war correspondents who braved enemy fire just sothey could file their stories with the dateline "Gusville, Italy." AsRobert H. Adleman and Colonel George Walton, authors of the book The Devil'sBrigade, wrote: "Gusville had a considerable effect on the morale of allthe soldiers at the Anzio Beachhead...the casual disinclination of forcemenlike Gus Heilman to consider their situation a serious predicament made allAllied soldiers feel better. They saw that the Force was not only refusing tobe content with self-preservation, they were enthusiastically launching andwinning a series of offensive actions. More than one Allied commander observed,'the force gave heart to everybody.'"
The soft-spoken, unassuming Frederick, now a brigadier general, usuallyeschewed gestures that smacked of bravado and machismo, but he hit on an ideathat had more psychological effect than all the propaganda leaflets both sidesshot at each other. He had stickers printed with the 1st SSF emblem and theGerman phrase for "The worst is yet to come." After killing a German,the SSF would paste one of the stickers on the forehead or helmet of thevictim, as a warning to the dead soldier's comrades.
Killing was not the only skill at which the 1st SSF men excelled. They werealso quite adept during their nightly patrols at slithering quietly into enemypositions and bringing back as prisoners whole platoons and even companies. Bythe same token, the men were extremely difficult to capture. Of the entire 1stSSF, it is estimated that fewer than 30 were ever taken prisoner.
The ability of Frederick's men to laugh at death and injury is legendary. One1st SSF man, after having one of his legs blown off by a mine, is said to havereported to the surgeon and asked, "Hey, doc, got an extra foot aroundthis place?"
Near the end of May, however, the good life at Anzio came to a halt as thefull-scale breakout from the beachhead drew near. The 36th Engineer CombatRegiment relieved the 1st SSF west of the Pontine Marshes on May 9, and the 1stSSF men were paired up with the 3rd Division. After Darby's Rangers had beennearly wiped out during their disastrous raid on Cisterna on January 30, 1944,a number of surviving Rangers were reassigned to the 1st SSF as replacements.They were amazed by the toughness and audacity of Frederick's unit. Canadianunits, too, were scoured for volunteers to replace those who had fallen. Sixtimes as many men volunteered as were needed.
The breakout from the beachhead began in furious style early on May 23, 1944.Swiftly overwhelming the enemy in their fixed fortifications, the Allies surgednorthward in hopes of linking up with other British and American forces rushingup through the Liri Valley, having at last smashed through the Gustav Linedefenses. All went surprisingly well for the 1st SSF men until that afternoon,when they encountered 17 Mark VI Tiger tanks. For perhaps the only time in itshistory, the 1st SSF men wisely waited until the panzers were driven off beforeplunging ahead.
To say German resistance was stiff would be a monumental understatement. Everyvillage, barn and intersection was guarded by machine guns and 88s. Many 1stSSF soldiers were killed or wounded in the fearsome fighting around Artena.Frederick himself was hit again. But the inexorable Allied advance continued.
By June 3, the American Fifth and the British Eighth armies were at the gatesof Rome. Declaring it an open city, the Germans pulled back to the north, withenough guns, tanks and snipers left behind to make life miserable for theadvancing Allies. At 0630 on the 4th, an advance patrol of the 1st SSF enteredthe Eternal City through the Porta San Giovanni. Captain Taylor Radcliffe, thepatrol's commander, was the first Allied soldier to enter Rome. Frederick waswounded three times that day.
After a few days in bivouac near Rome, listening to news of the Normandyinvasion, the exhausted, lice-ridden men were trucked to Lake Albano, near thepope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, for some well-deserved rest andrecuperation. Soon back to their old tricks, nearly every man was seen drivinghis own jeep--each of which had been stolen from some other unit. Aconsiderable number of pieces of furniture from the pope's residence also endedup gracing 1st SSF quarters.
The days and weeks rolled by as the 1st SSF luxuriated in the Roman sun and thewaters of Lake Albano. Then, on June 23, Frederick made an announcement thatstunned everyone in the unit: He was being promoted and transferred to commanda newly formed unit, the 1st Airborne Task Force, for the invasion of southernFrance. Some of the toughest soldiers in the world cried openly at the news.
Assuming command of the 1st SSF was Colonel Edwin Walker, the 3rd Regiment'sCO. Following in Frederick's footsteps would have been a tall order for anyone,but Walker, a tough and able commander, simply did not possess the charisma ofthe unit's founder. Frederick's men would have walked barefoot through hell forhim; they were less enamored of his successor.
After being moved to the Salerno area, the 1st SSF began training for its nextto the last combat role--the U.S. Seventh Army invasion of southern France,known as Operation Dragoon, on August 15, 1944. The 1st SSF's assignment was toseize two of three small islands between Toulon and the Riviera where therewere ancient forts that the Germans had strengthened. By taking them, the 1stSSF would protect the rest of the invasion force from enfilading fire from theleft flank.
With a little help from the Navy's big guns and the U.S. Army Air Forces'bombers, the 1st SSF men crawled, charged and blasted their way into the Germanfortifications on Ile de Port-Cros and Ile du Levant, losing many good men dueto unnecessary acts of bravado. "The men were too courageous," one1st SSF man said later. "They had a mistaken concept that courage andphysical fitness were all that was necessary."
The islands were secured by August 16, while the rest of the Seventh Armyrolled northward through southeastern France. The 1st SSF, however, movedeastward along the Riviera against substandard, rear-guard enemy units, finallytaking up positions along the French-Italian border. There the men stayed,their prodigious fighting talents wasting away as the war moved on. Previously,many wounded 1st SSF men had gone AWOL from the hospitals where they wererecuperating in order to rejoin their unit and the fighting. Now, disgustedwith the lack of action and the rumored likelihood of the unit being disbanded,many of the men went AWOL for good.
As the war in Europe entered its final six months, further changes were made inthe Allied armies. In November 1944, the 1st Airborne Task Force was dissolved,and in December Frederick was made commanding general of the 45th InfantryDivision, which was locked in fighting in the Vosges Mountains, close to theGerman border. Wounded nine times during the war, Frederick was praised byChurchill as "the greatest fighting general of all time."
The 1st SSF's days were numbered. Without Frederick at the helm, and unable tofind the caliber of men necessary to fill out its diminished ranks and carry onits glorious tradition, the 1st SSF was doomed to be disbanded, its officersand men reassigned to other units.
Another, more important reason signaled the end of the unit. Lieutenant ColonelRobert D. Burhans, author of the book The 1st Special Service Force, wrote:"The day of small assaults was past. The war had grown into a massoperation of army groups pitted in the final struggle, and who could use 2,400men? SHAEF wanted divisions, corps, armies." On December 5, 1944, the 1stSSF stood in ranks at Villeneuve-Loubet as its colors were struck. The Canadiancontingent marched off smartly, followed by the Americans. It was an emotionalmoment for the men. One Yank related: "This was the day I saw some of thetoughest S.O.B.s ever break down in tears. As the Canadians pulled out, some ofus Americans ran alongside and behind the trucks for a mile with tears in oureyes."
Some historians have called the 1st SSF a "glorious failure"--ahighly specialized and trained unit that was never given the proper role inwhich to use its training. It excelled at mountain warfare but never made aparachute drop, nor used its ski training in snow-covered, enemy-held terrain,nor showed its capabilities as a shock force or guerrilla band behind enemylines. Its incredibly courageous volunteers were squandered in set-piecebattles or assigned to hold static frontage away from the crucial action.
Yet the 1st SSF--the forerunner of America's Green Berets--proved that soldiersfrom two different nations could work effectively as part of an elite,integrated unit, drawing upon each others' strengths and forming a remarkablecohesion that stemmed from the self-confidence of each of its members and adisdain for mindless regulation and regimentation.
Small, specialized units such as the 1st SSF did not, by themselves, win WorldWar II for the Allies. Their value cannot be based on battles won or lost, orin the number of towns liberated or prisoners captured, or in the casualtiesinflicted upon the enemy. But perhaps their well-reported exploits andindomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming odds contributed in a major wayto the optimism that, even in the darkest days of the war, kept whisperingPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt's words in every soldier's and civilian's ear:"We shall gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God."
Flint Whitlock is the author of Soldiers On Skis and The Rock of Anzio. Furtherreading: The Devil's Brigade, by Robert Adleman and Colonel George Walton; andThe First Special Service Force: A War History of the North Americans, 19421944,by Lt. Col. Robert D. Burhans.
- Poppy likes this
"Where is the hunter when the reindeer has its hoof in a pool of lava?" - Russian Proverb, Bartalamyeh Fyodorevitch
0 user(s) are reading this topic
0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users