At war with the elite WWII Devil's Brigade

Review by Bob Gordon

Of Courage and Determination, by Colonel Bernd Horn and Michel Wyczynski tells a tragic tale of a weapon that never really found a battlefield. The weapon was ground down irreparably when its combat effectiveness was misapplied. The "Devil's Brigade," formally known as the First Special Service Force (FSSF), was made famous by the eponymous film. The film was highly fictionalized; this account is not.

Brilliant and eccentric, British scientist Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke proposed that dominion over the fourth element, “mastery of the snows” - could defeat Hitler's European empire in its hinterland. A small commando force, suitably trained and equipped, would destroy everything from hydro-electricity in Italy, to heavy water plants, nickel refineries, and naval bases in Norway, and Romanian oil refining capacity. Iconoclasts themselves, both Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of combined operations, and Churchill, the Prime Minister, fervently advanced the idea.

They acted with such single-mindedness that when the British Army and the Norwegian government-in-exile refused to participate, Churchill pressed Lieutenant-General Andy McNaughton, and DND pressed Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, for Canada and the U.S. to proceed as the only partners. Thus was created a unique combined Canadian-American unit for operations in arctic and alpine conditions.

The FSSF’s first operation - the invasion of Kiska in the Aleutian chain off Alaska - was portending of things to come. The unit charged ashore to discover that the Japanese had evacuated a week earlier. Next, it was deployed to Italy, fighting in alpine conditions and a cold climate. In the battles of Mounts le Difensa and Majo, it fought well but suffered heavy casualties.

When desperation saw it shifted to the stalemated Anzio beachhead, the unit was assigned Herculean and inappropriate defensive tasks. The 1,200 men strong unit was assigned 10 kilometers of frontage. The 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment, with 69 effectives, was expected to defend 1,100 meters. The more than three months in the line bled the unit white. Although it participated in the invasion of southern France, the unit was a spent force and it was eventually disbanded in December 1944. Initially amazingly well-trained and equipped, the FSSF was, ultimately, a weapon that never really found a target.

A well-researched book that chronicles this unit's short yet unique and legendary experience, "a story of courage and determination."

Of Courage and Determination: The First Special Service Force, ‘Devil’s Brigade,’ 1942-44 by Colonel Bernd Horn and Michel Wyczyniski, published by Dundurn Press in 2013. Includes 405 pages, black and white photographs, notes, glossary, and an index. Softcover $35.00. ISBN: 978-1-4597-0964-5. To purchase a copy, please go to the publisher’s website.