(HELENA) On Dec. 2, 1943, hundreds of American and Canadian soldiers spent hours waiting in the cold and wet, on a mountain in central Italy called Monte la Difensa. By the next morning, they would scale a 300-foot cliff, dislodge an entrenched German defensive position and begin developing a reputation as one of the most feared and most respected Allied units of World War II.
The men were members of the First Special Service Force, an elite unit created to handle specialized, dangerous missions. They had prepared for battles like the ones they faced Italy with nine months of intense training at Fort Harrison in Helena.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte la Difensa, the FSSF’s first major mission of the war.
The FSSF was designed for unconventional warfare. Bill Woon, with the First Special Service Force Association, said there had never been a unit like it.
“The concept of unconventional warfare – of these small teams trained to be very autonomous, to operate as a team, as a section – was somewhat new to the U.S. Army,” he said. “There was no manual, there was no guidebook to lead them.”
At Fort Harrison, Lt. Col. Robert Frederick, the new unit’s commander, put his soldiers through grueling physical conditioning. They trained in various forms of combat, stealth, parachuting, night missions, winter warfare and mountain conditions. Montana’s rugged terrain and cold weather provided important experience for the unit.
“The missions they were given was exactly what they trained for here,” said Woon.
The FSSF had originally been intended to invade Norway and fight behind enemy lines. After that operation was canceled, the soldiers were sent to the island of Kiska, in Alaska’s Aleutian chain. The Japanese had occupied the island, but they evacuated their troops shortly before the Allied amphibious assault.
The unit would see its first real combat in Italy. By fall of 1943, the Allies had spent weeks trying to break through the Germans’ “Winter Line,” a line of heavy fortifications across the peninsula south of Rome. They had made little progress and suffered heavy casualties.
The FSSF was tasked with capturing Monte la Difensa. The German forces atop the mountain had prepared to defend any of the most likely routes to the summit, but they hadn’t planned for an attack from the steep cliffs.
“The Germans didn’t think that anybody could get enough men and equipment up those cliffs to sustain any kind of a battle,” Woon said.
On Dec. 1, FSSF troops made a 10-mile hike to the mountain, through cold, wet weather. Throughout Dec. 2, they built shelters and waited for the attack. They could not build fires because it would give their position away.
In the night hours, the men began making their way up the cliffs on ropes, through extreme conditions.
“It was raining and snowing and foggy, and they had to go up these cliffs absolutely silent, because there were sentries up above,” said Woon.
Woon said the soldiers were close enough to smell the Germans’ food and hear them speaking.
By the morning of Dec. 3, hundreds of men had made their way to the top of the cliff. Before dawn, a fierce battle began. Within hours, the FSSF had pushed the German defenders off the summit.
La Difensa was just the beginning. The FSSF faced six brutal weeks of fighting in the Italian mountains. By the middle of January, the unit had been reduced from 1,800 active combat soldiers to fewer than 500. But they had helped clear the way for the rest of the Allied forces to continue their advance through Italy.
“After they came out of the mountains, everybody knew who the First Special Service Force was and what their capabilities were,” said Woon.
The FSSF went on to take part in the fierce Battle of Anzio, the liberation of Rome and battles in southern France. They eventually developed the nicknames “Black Devils” and “Devil’s Brigade,” in recognition of the fear they caused through nighttime raids behind German lines.
Today, the Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison features an extensive exhibit on the FSSF.
“Fort Harrison, of course, is the founding home of the First Special Service Force, so what we’ve done is we’ve really chronicled their activities here and overseas,” said Ray Read, the museum’s director. “In less than 30 months, they traveled most of the world, and they never lost a battle.”
Of the men who served in the force, about 40 – both Americans and Canadians – came back to live in Montana after the war. They and other FSSF veterans worked closely with the museum, providing remembrances and items like uniforms and weapons for the exhibit.
“When we opened up these galleries, we just had open cases and we said, ‘What do you want in them?’” said Read. “And they said, ‘Here.’ They kept giving us material.”
The Battle of Monte la Difensa features prominently in the exhibit. The museum has a large model of the mountain, showcasing the rough terrain the soldiers had to travel. One case also features a chunk of rock from the summit, shaped roughly like the FSSF’s arrowhead emblem. Veterans found the rock while visiting the site decades after the war.
The legacy of the FSSF began at La Difensa, and it has lasted long after the unit was disbanded in 1944. The U.S. Army recognizes the force as a forerunner of modern special forces units like the Green Berets.
“These men, volunteering for what was considered a suicide mission, and giving up their youth to basically liberate the world from oppression – that still exists today,” said Woon. “We still have young men and women who are following that same path of volunteering to keep us free so that we can enjoy the liberties and freedoms that we have. To me, that’s what I call the spirit of the Force.”
Woon said 72 members of the FSSF are still alive today.