Our speaker this morning was Bill Woon.  He is the son of one of the original members of the First Special Service Force.  He told us about the history of the unit, which began its training at Fort Harrison in Helena. 

 
The unit was created at the urging of Winston Churchill, who was concerned about the German activity in Norway, including their use of the abundant hydroelectric power to fuel their war machine manufacturing and their development of a “heavy water” plant for production of nuclear weapons.  Churchill envisioned a new type of unit that could be dropped in behind enemy lines, be self sustaining once there, and make their own way out.  Since their creation was top secret, the word “services” was inserted in their name to mislead any intelligence about the unit into thinking it was a service unit, like the USO.  The original force was made up of Canadians and U.S. troops.  Fort Harrison was selected as the initial training site, since it provided access to similar terrain and climate conditions that the men would face in Norway.  They trained on the cliffs of Mount Helena and learned dog sledding at Rimini. 

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Before the unit was ready for assignment, the Norwegian resistance completed that mission. Instead, they were shipped to Italy, where their first mission was to take out the German defensive position atop a mountain surrounded by steep cliffs.  Since the Germans thought that they could not be attacked from the cliffs , they did not create defenses guarding this flank of their position.  Previously, British and American forces had suffered heavy losses trying to take this position. In the dead of winter, the First Special Service Force scaled the cliffs and wiped out the German defensive position.  This assault is the basis for the 1968 movie “The Devil’s Brigade.”

               The unit was then dispatched to Anzio where their mission was to hold the beachhead.  Here the Germans dubbed the unit Die Schwarzen Teufel (black devils) because the soldiers smeared their faces with black boot polish for their night raids on German positions.  During night patrols, they carried stickers which they attached to German corpses and fortifications. The stickers said, “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” or “The Worst is Yet to Come.”

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               In August of 2011, supporters of the First Special Services Force started working on a nomination of a Congressional Medal of Honor.  Congress approved the nomination, and 43 of the original members attended the awarding of the medal in February 2015.  Some of the Canadians who trained at Fort Harrison married women from Helena, and resettled here after the war.  Fort Harrison is considered the “home base” of U.S. Special Forces units, since the first unit was trained here.

 

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