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.
On June 15, 1943, an AGF inspection team arrived to certify the Force was qualified for commitment overseas. The inspection included road marching, physical fitness, and individual tests on military subjects. Minimum passing grade was 75 percent. The Braves’ scores were literally off the charts – the average score for the unit itself was 125 percent. On some tests, like those that measured strength and speed, individuals scored as high as 200 percent. Frederick had so thoroughly trained his men that tests designed to assess night operations proficiency proved to be child’s play; the Braves were so skilled in the use of map and compass that they never got lost, no matter how dark the night or unfamiliar the terrain, and regardless of weather conditions. In its report to AGF headquarters, the inspectors stated that the First Special Service Force “was ready for combat.” Additionally, they informed Frederick that the Force demonstrated the coordination and teamwork of a championship professional ball club.
Their extraordinary physical condition, and their many technical and combat skills, would be put to the test in the capture of la Difensa.
He decided to attack at night and directly up the steep northeast slope. If things went as he believed they would, his men would conquer la Difensa before the Germans realized what had happened.
La Difensa was part of a 6-mile long, 4-mile wide complex of steep peaks and ridgelines averaging about 3,000 feet in height and known as the Camino hill mass. La Difensa formed the “forward position” facing Clark’s troops, and as its name suggests, seemed designed for defense. The northeast face was particularly imposing. Near the top was a cliff 200 feet high with a 70-degree slope, and above that was a series of six ledges, each averaging about 30 feet in height. Only after all that was overcome was the summit reached.
Defending the mountain were about 400 men, including the veteran 3rd Battalion, 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment and elements of the 3rd Battalion, 129th Panzergrenadier Regiment. The 115th Reconnaissance Battalion was held in reserve. The German defenses were formidable. Interlocking machine gun and mortar positions were dug into the rock, making them impervious to artillery fire. Narrow trails and natural approaches were mined and covered by well-camouflaged snipers. German forward observers could call down accurate artillery fire, and forces on one hill could count on support from other units stationed on nearby summits and ridges. The only weakness in la Difensa’s defenses was on the northeast side. Deemed impassible even by locals, this part was lightly guarded.
The FSSF arrived in Naples on Nov. 19 and was quickly transported to the staging area. Frederick was told the Force would be assigned to II Corps and attached to the 36th Division. Its mission was to take la Difensa on Dec. 3 and then press forward and take Monte la Rementanea. Simultaneous attacks by X Corps and the 36th Division would be conducted against Monte Camino and Monte Maggiore respectively. The attacks would be preceded by combined air raids and artillery barrages.
While his men got ready for their first battle, Frederick conducted reconnaissance. He then devised an audacious plan of his own, one that called for speed, surprise, and shock to swiftly overcome the enemy. He decided to attack at night and directly up the steep northeast slope. If things went as he believed they would, his men would conquer la Difensa before the Germans realized what had happened.
The artillery and air attacks began on Dec. 2. About 900 guns delivered high-explosive, white phosphorous, and smoke shells in what was the largest artillery barrage at the time. During one hour alone, 22,000 rounds blanketed la Difensa. Though participants later said that it appeared as if “the whole mountain was on fire,” the results would prove mixed. Some areas suffered heavy casualties, while other, more well-protected emplacements experienced no greater discomfort than a loss of sleep.
The task of seizing the mountain was given to the 2nd Regiment under the command of Canadian Lt. Col. D.D. “Windy Willy” Williamson. Supporting it would be the 3rd Regiment, commanded by the polo-playing Texan, Lt. Col. Edwin A. Walker. The 1st Regiment, under West Pointer Lt. Col. Alfred C. Marshall, was held in reserve. At approximately 1800, the 2nd Regiment began its assault. Scaling rope ladders and groping for hand and footholds in the rain-slick rock wall while carrying a pack and weapon load that “would have forced lesser men to the ground,” the 600-man force silently made its way to the summit. By 0430, three companies had reached the summit undetected. As they were preparing an assault line, some men tripped over loose stones placed there by the Germans to provide a warning.
Suddenly, the night sky was illuminated by red and green flares. As one participant later said, “All hell broke loose.” The German defenders frantically worked to reposition their emplaced weapons to address attack from the unexpected quarter. Though the Braves came under heavy fire, it was uncoordinated; surprise was on the Force’s side. The Braves advanced, breaking into smaller units to conduct fire and maneuver assaults against one German strongpoint after another. By 0700, the Force was in possession of the summit.
The original plan called for the Force to promptly exploit the success with an attack on la Rementanea. But exhaustion, a lack of ammunition, and the fact that it would take at least six hours to get sufficiently resupplied caused Frederick, who had accompanied the battalion, to suspend that part of the assault until Dec. 5. The Force reorganized and consolidated its position on la Difensa in anticipation of the German response. Because the British X Corps’ 56th Division had failed to take nearby Monte Camino and would not succeed in doing so until Dec. 6, the braves on la Difensa were subjected to punishing mortar, long-range machine gun, Nebelwerfer six-barrel rocket artillery, and sniper fire from both Camino and la Rementanea. Adding to the Force’s plight was the constant rain and sleet and brutal cold.
At one point, Frederick sent down a special request for medical supplies: six cases of bourbon and six gross of condoms. When this request reached II Corps, the outraged quartermaster demanded to know what exactly the Force had discovered on the top of la Difensa that called for prophylactics and liquor.
Supplying the men on the summit became a supreme test. Because mules could not handle the steep grade or treacherous footing, everything had to be hand carried. At one point, Frederick sent down a special request for medical supplies: six cases of bourbon and six gross of condoms. When this request reached II Corps, the outraged quartermaster demanded to know what exactly the Force had discovered on the top of la Difensa that called for prophylactics and liquor. As Geoffrey Perret wrote in There’s a War to be Won, “Alas, what the Braves had found wasn’t party-loving, free-spirited women but coldness so intense it froze the sweat under a man’s clothing the moment he stopped moving. A shot of bourbon would help warm him up. The condoms were for protection against the incessant sleet that the howling wind blew down rifle barrels.”
The next two days became a chaotic, seesaw battle under some of the worst weather conditions imaginable in which each side attempted to gain the advantage over the other. Finally, on Dec. 5, the Force launched an attack on la Rementanea with two reinforced battalions. The attack was stopped at the mid-way point by a desperate German defense. But that defense proved to be a thin – though hard – crust. A follow-up attack early the next morning encountered light opposition. By noon the next day, the Braves had captured Rementanea. During the next two days, they conducted mopping up operations.
On Monday, Dec. 6, in tidy, precise penmanship and punctuation, Frederick wrote a dispatch to his command post. The only hint of his exhaustion was the fact that he erroneously dated the message “November 6”: “We have passed the crest of 907 [la Rementanea]. We are receiving much machine gun and mortar fire from several directions … Men are getting in bad shape … I have stopped burying the dead … German snipers are giving us hell and it is extremely difficult to catch them.” He concluded by writing, “I am OK, just uncomfortable and tired.”
The Fifth Army’s left flank was secure, but it was a costly victory. The Force had sustained more than 30 percent casualties, with 73 killed, nine missing, 313 wounded or injured, and 116 incapacitated from exhaustion and exposure.
The official history of the Italian campaign noted, “The mission against la Difensa was fully suited to the First Special Service Force. It took advantage of the Force’s special training in night fighting, mountain climbing, cold weather, and lightning assault. No conventional unit, without special training, could have accomplished the mission.”
Clark and the rest of the Fifth Army were in awe over the unit’s accomplishment. He and his planners estimated that the FSSF would take la Difensa in three days. It was captured in two hours. In its first real battle, the First Special Service Force’s reputation as an extremely capable and hard-hitting raiding force for mountain operations was made.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew Frederick from their general staff days and who was the person who ordered Frederick to organize and command the unit, paid a visit to the area shortly after the capture of Mount Camino. In his book, Crusade in Europe, he wrote, “I was taken to a spot where, in order to outflank on these mountain strongpoints, a small detachment had put on a remarkable exhibition of mountain climbing. With the aid of ropes, a few of them climbed steep cliffs of great height. I have never understood how, encumbered by their equipment, they were able to do it. In fact, I think that any Alpine climber would have examined the place doubtfully before attempting to scale it. Nevertheless, the detachment reached the top and ferreted out the German Company Headquarters. They entered and seized the captain, who exclaimed, ‘You can’t be here. It is impossible to come up those rocks.’”
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.