Fort William Henry Harrison, Helena, Montana July 9, 1942

On this date in 1942 the First Special Service Force was acti­vated as a joint U.S.-Cana­dian force. Regarded as parents of the U.S. Green Berets, the United States Special Opera­tions Com­mand, and the Cana­dian Special Opera­tions Forces Com­mand, these volun­teers were the shock troops of the U.S. Army in World War II. Ameri­cans and Cana­dians who had formerly been lum­ber­jacks, hunters, prospec­tors, explorers, game war­dens, and skiers received rigorous training in stealth tac­tics, hand-to-hand (often unarmed) com­bat, explo­sives demo­li­tion, rock climbing, para­chute jumping, and amphib­ious, moun­tain, and ski war­fare. An amal­gam of two armies, these hand-picked offi­cers and enlisted men—single men between the ages of 21 and 35 who had at least three years of grammar school (!)—trained on the hot, dusty Mon­tana prairie, in the frozen peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and in the chilly waters of Chesapeake Bay.

Much feared for their fighting prowess, the First SSF adopted (as one legend has it) their German nick­name “Black Devils” (“Schwarze Teufel”). With black­ened faces, these small agile units often over­whelmed German defenders without firing a shot and then dis­appeared into the night. The Devil’s Bri­gade (their preferred name) saw action in Alaska, Italy (Anzio, Monte Cas­sino, Rome in the spear­head of Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth U.S. Army), South­ern France (Opera­tion Dra­goon), and the Rhine­land campaign (late 1944). In Italy they used their trade­mark stickers depicting their unit patch (a red Indian arrow­head) and the slogan “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” meaning “The worst is yet to come,” placing the stickers on German corpses and fortifications.

In the December 1943 to January 1944 mountain cam­paign in Italy, the Devil’s Bri­gade suffered 77 per­cent casual­ties. In the inva­sion of South­ern France, their com­mander was wounded nine times. Over­all, the 1,800-member First SSF accounted for roughly 12,000 German casual­ties, took some 7,000 pri­soners, and sustained an attrition rate of over 600 percent.

The First SSF was disbanded in December 1944 in South­ern France. The Cana­dian con­tin­gent quietly dis­persed as com­bat fillers. Ameri­can mem­bers were sent to the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion as replace­ments, others formed the core of a new infan­try regi­ment for ser­vice with Gen. George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army, and still others were integrated into U.S. Army Ranger battalions. Members of the First Special Service Force were awarded the Army’s Distin­guished Unit Cita­tion for extraor­dinary heroism and the French Croix de Guerre with Silver-Gilt Star, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Bronze Star. In 2013 the U.S. Congress passed a bill to award the First SSF the Congressional Gold Medal.

Supercommandos: First Special Service Force (1942–1945) and Lineal Descendants

Devil’s Brigade briefing, Anzio beachhead, April 1944Brig. Gen. Robert Frederick, commander, First Special Service Force

Left: Personnel of the First Special Service Force being briefed before setting out on patrol, Anzio beach­head, Italy, April 20, 1944. An order found on a German POW stated that the Germans in Anzio would be “fighting an elite Cana­dian-Ameri­can Force. They are treach­erous, unmer­ci­ful and clever. You can­not afford to relax. The first soldier or group of soldiers capturing one of these men will be given a 10‑day fur­lough.” It was at Anzio that the Devil’s Brigade (or Black Devils’ Brigade) adopted their German nick­name on account of the black boot polish the men applied to their faces before going on night­time opera­tions behind enemy lines, appearing out of nowhere, and taking prisoners or killing the enemy.

Right: Brig. Gen. Robert T. Frederick commanded the mixed force of Ameri­cans and Cana­dians since its ear­liest days, working hard to create an inte­grated “North Ameri­can” fighting unit. His men greatly admired Frederick for his intel­li­gence, cour­age, and willing­ness to fight along­side them in battle, including walking into a German mine­field to help retrieve wounded soldiers. After the Ital­ian cam­paign, British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill called Frede­rick “the greatest fighting gene­ral of all time” and “if we had had a dozen more like him we would have smashed Hitler in 1942.” In August 1944 Frede­rick left on promotion to major general to command the 1st Airborne Task Force.

U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Somalia, 1993U.S. Special Forces Group, Afghanistan

Left: Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regi­ment of the U.S. Army Special Opera­tions Com­mand in Soma­lia, 1993. The all-volun­teer 75th Ran­ger Regi­ment is the Army’s pre­mier raid force, spe­cializing in seizing key terrain such as air­fields, destroying strategic facilities, and capturing or killing enemies.

Right: U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, on patrol in Afghan­i­stan. Spe­cial Forces are tasked with five pri­mary mis­sions: un­con­ven­tional war­fare (the ori­gi­nal and most im­por­tant mis­sion of the force), for­eign inter­nal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counterterrorism.

The Devil’s Brigade: U.S.-Canadian First Special Service Force