British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the soft underbelly of Europe.” War correspondent Ernie Pyle called it that “tough old gut.” “It” was Italy. The two-year Italian campaign of World War II was heartbreakingly brutal. Fighting in rugged terrain that gave all advantage to the German defenders, Allied gains were too often measured in yards and high casualty rates – at one point the price paid was an average of one casualty for every two yards. In November 1943, the Allied advance had stalled at the formidable Winter Line, located about 70 miles south of Rome. These fortifications that stretched from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Coast included the main Gustav Line, supported by the Bernhardt and Hitler lines. American 5th Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mark Clark was determined to breach the German defenses and reach the Liri Valley, the “gateway to Rome,” before the onset of winter. He code-named his plan Operation Raincoat; as it turned out, an appropriate name, because it rained for days before and during the attack.
The unit was originally assigned to conduct large-scale guerilla operations in occupied Norway. Following the cancellation of that, it participated in what proved to be bloodless landings on the Aleutian Island of Kiska that had been held, and then abandoned, by the Japanese. Now, and for the first time, the unit with the misleading name of the First Special Service Force (FSSF) was going to see combat.
Strategically, Clark recognized that Italian topography granted him few options. He later wrote, “There was only one sector on which we could move in strength; that was on either side of Mount Camino, beyond which lay the Liri River Valley leading to the Italian capital. To reach the Liri Valley, we first had to drive the Germans off the Camino hill mass, which included Mount Lungo, Mount la Difensa, Mount la Remetanea, Mount Maggiore, and a little town called San Pietro Infine. … We had little choice but to blast our way through the narrow Mignano Gap adjacent to Mount Camino, and [German theater commander, Field Marshal Albert] Kesselring knew it despite our feints along the coast and elsewhere.”
Operation Raincoat’s success depended on the early conquest of the German fortifications on Hill 960, Monte la Difensa. The mission to capture la Difensa went to a recently arrived unit as tough as the Italian terrain. The unit was originally assigned to conduct large-scale guerilla operations in occupied Norway. Following the cancellation of that, it participated in what proved to be bloodless landings on the Aleutian Island of Kiska that had been held, and then abandoned, by the Japanese. Now, and for the first time, the unit with the misleading name of the First Special Service Force (FSSF) was going to see combat.
Even among the special operations units formed in World War II, the FSSF was unique. A bi-national Canadian-American unit, its leader, Col. Robert T. Frederick (West Point, 1928), who had given the unit its innocuous name in order to disguise its purpose, requested that volunteers be “single men between ages of 21 and 35 who had completed three years or more grammar school within the occupational range of Lumberjacks, Forest Rangers, Hunters, North Woodsmen, Game Wardens, Prospectors, and Explorers.” Frederick was also willing – even eager – to accept troublemakers from other units. It became a perverse point of pride for some “Braves,” as they called themselves, to state, “I got into the Force without a criminal record!”
The Force’s training was designed to prepare the men for operations in cold weather and mountainous regions. To say that the training was physically rigorous was an understatement. An official Canadian report noted, “The programme of physical training was designed to produce a standard of general fitness and stamina capable of meeting the severest demands made upon it by fatigue of combat, unfavorable terrain, or adverse weather. This physical training has been built up to such a pitch that an ordinary person would drop from sheer exhaustion in its early stages.” The Braves learned how to ski, climb steep slopes, and travel long distances over rugged terrain while carrying a rucksack and weapons with a total weight of more than 70 pounds.
The “Force,” as it was informally called, was classified as light infantry. It contained a total of 2,400 men. The combat echelon included the Force Headquarters and three regiments of two battalions each. Each battalion was divided into three companies, each company into three platoons, and each platoon into two sections of 12 to 16 men each. Officer and NCO appointments were integrated, without regard to nationality, on a proportionate basis to personnel of both countries. The only exception to this integrated arrangement was that the service echelon was composed entirely of U.S. personnel. This was because the unit would be supplied through the U.S. Army G-4 system. Thanks to the unit’s unique administrative position as part of the general staff (which meant Frederick reported directly to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall), Frederick was able to requisition for his men weapons, vehicles, and supplies that other, less well-connected units could only envy. It may have been light infantry, but it was heavily armed light infantry.
The First Special Service Force’s administrative classification placed it outside the control of Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair’s Army Ground Force (AGF), a fact that did not sit well with McNair. Before the Force could be deployed, McNair insisted that it prove it was up to AGF standards.