Today, it’s hard to go very long without hearing about special operations forces like the Army’s Green Berets and the Navy’s SEALs. But before special operators became an ingrained part of the military’s strategy and established a prominent presence in the public eye, they existed as experimental, now largely forgotten units that were launched during the Second World War.
One of the primary predecessors of today’s commandos was the 1st Special Service Force, which was known simply as the Force, and is described in a book of the same name by military historian Saul David. Today on the show, Saul explains how he came across the little known story of the Force and traces its origins to an idea formulated by a British civilian scientist and championed by Winston Churchill which envisioned a unit that could accompany a fleet of snow tanks into enemy territory. Saul details how the Force was composed of men from both America and Canada, how members were recruited from the rough-and-ready ranks of explorers, miners, lumberjacks, and hunters who were physically strong and used to cold temperatures and rugged terrain, and the rigorous training that turned these recruits into what was arguably the military’s fittest and best disciplined fighting force — a unit which would become known as the “Devil’s Brigade.” We then turn to the action these elite commandos saw during the war, which included scaling the sheer cliffs of a mountain to secure a Nazi stronghold. We end our conversation with why the unit was disbanded before the war was even over and how its legacy continues to live on in the special forces of today.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The strategic thinking at the highest levels which ultimately led to the creation of the Force
- Geoffrey Pyke, gentleman inventor
- Why was it US and Canadian forces that were chosen to fight together?
- The makeup of this motley crew of soldiers
- What was this group’s intense training like?
- Did the Force have a certain reputation? Was it earned/deserved?
- Why was the Force in limbo for a while?
- The epic achievements of the Force
- What ultimately happened to the group?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Skiing Soldiers of WWII
- Got Sisu?
- Geoffrey Pyke
- The Audacious Life of Winston Churchill
- The Friendship, Rivalry, and Leadership of WWII’s Greatest Generals
- The History and Future of America’s Special Forces
- Millennials as Human Wormholes to WWII
- Aleutian Islands campaign
- The Devil’s Brigade
Connect With Saul
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Today, it’s hard to go very long without hearing about special operations forces like the Army’s Green Berets and the Navy’s SEAL teams. Before special operators became an ingrained part of the military strategy and established a prominent presence to the public eye, they existed as experimental, now largely forgotten, units that were launched during the Second World War. One of the primary predecessors of today’s commandos was the 1st Special Service Force, which was known simply as the Force, and is described in a book by the same name, by military historian Saul David.
Today in the show, Saul explains how he came across this little known story of the Force, and traces its origins to an idea formulated by an eccentric British civilian scientist and championed by Winston Churchill, which envisioned a unit that could accompany a fleet of snow tanks into enemy territory. Saul details how the Force was composed of men from both America and Canada, how members were recruited from the rough-and-ready ranks of explorers, miners, lumberjacks, and hunters, who were physically strong and used to cold temperatures and rugged terrain. And he also talks about the rigorous training that turned these recruits into what was arguably the military’s fittest and best disciplined fighting force, a unit which became known as the Devil’s Brigade. We turn to the action these elite commandos saw during the war, which included scaling the sheer cliffs of a mountain to secure a Nazi stronghold. And we end our conversation with why the unit was disbanded before the war was even over, and how its legacy continues to live on in the Special Forces of today. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/theforce.
All right. Saul David, welcome to the show.
Saul David: Thank you. Very nice to be here.
Brett McKay: You had a book out called “The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible.” And it’s about this military unit that was combined American and Canadian troops, and they were, basically, the precursor Green Berets, Navy SEALs. And I never heard of this story, and I’m sure a lot of people haven’t heard about this story. How did you come across the story of the Force?
Saul David: Well, believe it or not, Brett, given that I’m a military historian and I’ve studied a lot of stories of this type, I hadn’t heard about it either. And that really sums up how it’s slipped between the cracks of history a little bit. As I’ve already pointed out, I’ve written about war from the Romans onwards, but one thing that doesn’t change in military history is the basic principles of war. The methods change, but the way you fight wars don’t. And so I felt at liberty to range long and wide. But I hadn’t really written much on the Second World War since my first couple of books, and there are another 10 or 12 in between. So, I was very keen to find a Second World War story. I was keen to find a story that would allow me to concentrate on a relatively small group of people. And I was also keen to find a story, if possible, that had a certain amount of derring-do in it, behind-the-line sort of stuff, elite soldiers. Putting all those things together, I did a quick search, basically, an online search, believe it or not, to find that sort of force. And I came up very quickly with these entries to the 1st Special Service Force, which I’d never heard of before. It talked about the nature of the Force, where it had fought, and I was intrigued. I was fascinated and I was also surprised. I hadn’t heard about it. And if I hadn’t heard about it, Brett, I knew an awful lot of other people wouldn’t have done.
Brett McKay: To understand the origins of the Force, we have to look at the high-level strategic thinking that Roosevelt, Churchill, and the other military leaders involved in the war in Europe were thinking. What was the strategic thinking, high-level strategic thinking, that eventually led to the creation of the Force?
Saul David: Well, the time is important, the context of the days. We’re talking about the spring of 1942, where pretty much everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong, certainly for the British up until this point in the war, and also for the Americans. They had come in after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and really had been pushed back all the way through the Pacific. It was a litany of disaster, really. And so when the Americans came over to Britain to discuss strategy in April 1942, all sides were looking for a way to strike back, but particularly Churchill and the British, mainly because resources were always difficult to get hold of and they were looking for a way to create a force that could actually do a lot more damage in terms of its size, and therefore its cost, than you would normally get in a military scenario.
Brett McKay: And then part of the strategy, they were thinking that one thing… That one of the fronts they could open up was in Norway. What were they thinking? Why Norway?
Saul David: Yeah. They’re looking for strategic targets. They’re looking for targets particularly that were in snowy areas and mountainous areas, and the reason for that is because those areas, particularly in wintertime, military operations can’t take place. But there were strategic targets in those locations, both in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, one of the areas they were looking at, where you had a lot of oil fields that the Axis powers were using. But crucially, in Norway, there was hydroelectric power and there was also, although they didn’t know it at that time, the development of hard water, which would be used for nuclear weapons. So, there’s very much a sense that they could really disable that hydroelectric effort that the Germans were really moving into top gear with by using a force in Norway that would fight behind the lines and that would be able to fight in winter warfare.
Brett McKay: Yeah, they thought, “Okay, winter warfare.” So, they had to develop a winter warfare unit ’cause, at that time, both the British and the Americans didn’t really… They didn’t have units that were trained just for mountaineering or trained in winter conditions. And so, they had this idea… Or someone had this idea… Actually it was this guy, Geoffrey Pyke, who had this idea of creating sort of a snow tank, and that you would train these forces that would be able to work with these snow tanks. And it got called… This whole idea got called Project Plough. Can you walk us through Project Plough and this guy, Geoffrey Pyke, who came up with the idea?
Saul David: Pyke is one of the great characters of the Second World War. And although, interestingly enough, from the British perspective, he wasn’t alone, there were quite a few of these odd eccentric characters who really made a vital contribution to the war effort. Pyke himself actually wasn’t even a scientist, the British, and Churchill in particular, were very keen to use scientists to develop ways to fight warfare, develop ways to get one over the enemy, but Pyke wasn’t a scientist. He certainly wasn’t scientifically trained. He’s actually originally an educationalist, but also a civilian inventor. And he came out with all kinds of nutty ideas throughout the Second World War.
Now, this was probably one of his least nutty ideas. He thought that if you could create this elite force, this commando force that could fight in winter warfare, the other really key element of it being able to strike hard and fast and then be able to get away was by creating a snow vehicle, as you point out, a snow plough, as it was known. That was its code name. What you’re really talking about is creating a track vehicle that can move anywhere on snow, particularly up and down quite steep gradients. And Pyke reckoned that if a force was equipped with this vehicle, it could get away from the enemy. Really, it could strike hard and then get away. That was the plan. You create the Force, you develop the vehicle, and you’ve got something that you can use against strategic targets.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna talk more about Pyke and his crazy inventions, ’cause one of them that almost… Churchill really liked this idea, but it never came to fruition. He came with this thing called a Pykrete, which basically it made ice almost like concrete, and he had this idea of creating aircraft carriers out of this stuff.
Saul David: You couldn’t make it up. His idea was, you’re gonna drag icebergs from the Arctic, you’re gonna tow them to the theater of war, you’re gonna coat them in this Pykrete, which was a sort of combination of snow ice and wood pulp and various other things, which he had patented and presumably was gonna make a lot of money out of, if they had actually used this. And, of course, it’s called Pykrete after him. It all sounds completely nutty, doesn’t it? But actually it was taken very seriously to the extent that Mountbatten, who was a great supporter of Geoffrey Pyke, Mountbatten being the Chief of Combined Operations, which was really the Force set up to strike back at the Germans using commandos in the early stages of the war.
Mountbatten was convinced that Pykrete would work, and he was given permission by Churchill to demonstrate it at a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, and President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill which, and this is really hard to believe but it actually happens, Mountbatten fires a pistol into the Pykrete to show how strong it is. This was, of course, incredibly dangerous in a closed room. The bullet ricocheted off the Pykrete and almost hit one of the Chiefs of Staff, so it almost ended in disaster. But it was taken very seriously. It was almost used. But they decided not to use it in the end for two reasons. One, they had enough aircraft carriers. And two, they were gonna use these harbors which, of course, they did eventually, the Mulberry harbors, off the D-Day Normandy coast.
Brett McKay: You said that he wasn’t really a trained scientist. He’s more of a gentleman scholar-type guy. Why did people in the British leadership take him seriously?
Saul David: Well, I think it all comes down to… Well, two things actually, Brett. It’s partly the British character. These eccentric people who are amateur inventors or gentlemen inventors, as you say, there’s been a long history of that. In fact, a lot of the great breakthroughs in British science were actually made by people who weren’t trained scientists. But there’s another thing here, and that’s Churchill. Churchill had a great interest in quirky ideas. He thought outside the box himself, and he was always looking for people who could approach a traditional problem from a different angle, and Pyke was very much this sort of character. How can we disable an enormous number of the enemy, certainly the enemy troops and the enemy war effort, with a relatively small force? And that’s exactly what Pyke was offering him.
Brett McKay: All right. So, the British with Pyke got this idea of, “We’re gonna create a snow vehicle.” And basically it looked like a spiral, cylinder thing that just moved and it just went through the… That was the idea. It went through the snow. They had to take this to the Americans. What did the Americans think of Project Plough?
Saul David: Well, it’s interesting because, I think, my belief is that when this crucial meeting took place in April 1942, when the idea of Project Plough was first mooted to the Americans, Churchill was already on board, Mountbatten was already on board. There was a big discussion about strategy. The British seemed to have moved towards the American direction in terms of overall war strategy. And I think that the acceptance of Project Plough was a bit of a quid pro quo. It was like, “Okay, you’ve given us something. We’ll take this nutty idea on board, and we’ll see where it goes.” They didn’t promise anything at this stage, but Marshall effectively said, “Well, we’ll have a look at it. We’ll make sure some senior people in the War Department have a look at it, and we’ll see where it goes. And if it’s viable, we will fund it.” And I think that’s the key thing here. The British simply didn’t have the resources either to pay for and create and train this force, and more importantly to actually develop the snow vehicle.
Brett McKay: All right. Marshall took the idea, and I think he passed it on to Eisenhower and said, “Hey, you take a look at this.” Eisenhower then delegated this thing to a guy named Bob Frederick. And Bob Frederick he basically just did this report and analysis. “Is this feasible? Will it do anything?” Etcetera, etcetera. What was Frederick’s initial analysis on this?
Saul David: Well, given the fact that Frederick becomes the father of the 1st Special Service Force, and I hope I’m not giving the game away too much by saying that. It’s pretty remarkable that his initial appraisal, having spoken to all the key people and looked at an awful lot of documents, was it’ll never work. I think one of his main concerns was you need an awful lot of air assets to transport this force, and you’ll never be able to get these in wartime when big planes are required for bombing runs. But he was skeptical about other elements of the plan. And so he submitted his report to Eisenhower, who was one of the operations chiefs at the War Department at that time. And Eisenhower was infuriated when he got back from a trip to Britain, when he received this report, because he’d promised the Brits that he would get it done.
And so, for Frederick to say, “It can’t be done,” he didn’t wanna hear that. He goes back to Frederick and he says, “Look at this again.” Now, it’s at this point when Frederick probably realizes, “Okay, there are some seriously high-level people backing this,” that he began, in my view, to see the possibility of his own involvement, his own personal ambition. What could be more brilliant for someone who’s really a staff officer, who’s unlikely ever to see combat in the Second World War, actually creating and leading this type of special force in combat. I’m convinced that something clicked in his head and he saw the opportunity, and at that point, he maneuvered himself into the position of actually taking command of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he made a big jump in rank. And he was a young guy, too. He was only 32 or so?
Saul David: Yeah. He’s mid 30s. He’s someone who is… Done reasonably well in his career. No question, he was a fine staff officer, but fine staff officers rarely make good combat leaders. But he certainly had this X factor that allowed him both to inspire men, but also great attention to detail, and that is exactly what was required in creating this force. He had to be able to inspire the young recruits, particularly given the training regime they were about to undergo. But he also had to keep abreast of enormous amount of detail, a lot of planning meetings, a lot of admin to deal with as well.
Brett McKay: All right. So, the Americans signed off and it’s then, I guess, at this point, Pyke went into the background. He’s like, “All right, my idea’s taken over, my work is done.”
Saul David: Well, not entirely. He does actually go over to America. He wants to keep an eye, particularly, on the development of the snowmobile, but the Americans find him… They don’t have quite the same willingness to put up with eccentrics like Pyke, and they find him very obstructive. And actually a combination of Eisenhower, Fredrick, and one or two others managed to get Pyke sent back to the UK. “Look, we’ll carry on with the project, we don’t need him interfering.” That’s pretty much what happens to Pyke. But nevertheless, his original idea was beginning to fly by the summer of 1942. They launched the Force, that is, they started looking for recruits and they were also well into the development of the snowmobile.
Brett McKay: We always talk about the launch of the Force. This is a unique unit, ’cause they decided it was gonna be combined American and Canadians unit. Why did the British and Americans decide to do that?
Saul David: It’s an amazing fact, when you think about it. First time it’s ever happened in history. Probably, Brett, the last time it ever will happen in history that you have this joint US-Canadian force commanded by officers from both sides. The leader ultimately was gonna be Frederick, but it was very much a force with equal input from both these armies. And there was one very good reason for that, and that was that they needed to recruit people who would be suitable for this type of winter warfare. And there was a feeling that Canadians, they live in this sort of climate anyway, they’re obviously ideal. I think it was also an element of this is still allowing a kind of British connection to the story. Bear in mind that the Canada at that time still had the Union Jack as its flag. Of course, they still had the Royal connection. And so it was probably a little bit of a sop to Churchill on the one hand, and a feeling that we’re gonna get some damn good recruits from Canada as well.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ll talk about some of the people that both countries recruited from. But another interesting fact about the Force is that it wasn’t under any branch of the military in the United States. It wasn’t part of the Army or Navy. It was actually just part of the War Department.
Saul David: Well, Fredrick was very much of the opinion that there was gonna be all kinds of interference that… Traditionally, there’s always been a sense, Brett, that Special Forces are frowned upon by the traditional elements of the military. It was the case then and it’s still the case today, and I think Frederick realized this, and therefore, he wanted to keep the Force with as small a chain of command as possible. Basically, he wanted to answer only to the Army Chief of Staff, and that’s exactly what happened at the start. It was just a War Department-led kind of operation, and Frederick was given complete carte blanche. He’s literally given a document that says, “This is priority war work. Anything I need, I get.”
Brett McKay: You mentioned that one of the reasons they brought in Canadians, they wanted people who were used to the climate they thought they were gonna fight in, snow, mountains, etcetera. And so as a consequence, they recruited heavily amongst lumberjacks, miners, hunters. And this also happened… It seems like in the United States, they were primarily recruiting from the Northwest, the Montana area, the same sort of climate. Who were the type of guys that joined up? What was the pitch when Frederick went out and was just trying to get people to join this thing? What was he selling them?
Saul David: The first thing is interesting, is that they sent the pitch to pretty much everybody. There was no unit in the US Army and the Canadian military forces that didn’t actually receive the pitch. The question is, who were they gonna get and who were they gonna select? But the pitch was quite specific. In Canada, they were looking for so-called active personnel with high physical standards, military trained, and ideally possessing the combined qualities of mountaineer, north woodsman, and skiers, as you’ve already pointed out. And the Americans were looking for something similar. They were a bit more specific. They wanted single men between the ages of 21 and 35, three grades of grammar school, and the occupations you’ve already mentioned. And it’s true that the majority of the Force did come from those sort of backgrounds, but it wasn’t exclusive. And what’s interesting about the Force is that they were people from all over the United States, from all over Canada. And there’s even one guy who actually figures quite prominent in the story, a guy called Percy Critchlow, who’s a sergeant, who’s a 29-year-old Classics teacher from the Caribbean. This is a bright intellectual guy, almost the opposite of what they’re looking for. But if you had the right stuff and you said the right thing in the interview and you appeared to be the right type of guy, you were determined enough and you were fit enough, they took you on.
Brett McKay: So, Percy was one guy that you highlight in the book. Any other guys that you’ve highlighted in the book that epitomized the type of men who joined up with the Force?
Saul David: Yeah. I’ll give you one example on each side. On the Canadian side, one of the most attractive figures as far as I was concerned ’cause, again, quite an unusual type to pick, was a guy called Captain Tom MacWilliam. He was 27 years old, a schoolteacher. He came from the Eastern Maritime province of New Brunswick. He wasn’t particularly tall, he wasn’t particularly heavy. What he was, was a talented athlete, deceptively strong, and frankly, in my view, a born leader. And what’s so brilliant about the selection process is they were able to find people like MacWilliam. Now, that was the Canadian side.
On the American side, of course, you had people from, as you’ve already pointed out, the Northwest in particular. But that wasn’t… They were also looking for people who had experience from that region. I think probably the best example of all, someone who, again, figures very prominently in this story, is a man who wasn’t that young. In fact, he was out of the age range, he was 37 years old, a man called Howard Van Ausdale, who was actually half Dutch and half Native American. He’d been a gold prospector and trapper in the Northwest State of Oregon for many years, exactly what they’re looking for. But he had the added advantage of being someone who had a great sense of… He could track people, he had a great sense of the relief of the mountainside, and this would be a talent that was gonna become very useful when they actually get to the mountains in Italy.
Brett McKay: Another thing to point out, we’ve been calling it the Force, but that’s what Frederick decided. He wanted to call it, he called it the Force. That’s what it was referred to as.
Saul David: Yeah. That was his shortened version. He actually chose the full name, the 1st Special Service Force, because he thought it would mislead people. He thought it was a very bland name that was almost like the entertainment troupe that the US Army had at the time. And indeed, they were sometimes mistaken for that entertainment troupe. He was trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but actually when you think about it, 1st Special Service Force, in modern terms, you think, “Yeah. Okay, these guys sound quite tough to me.” But it was shortened to the Force, that was what they were known then, and that’s what they still call themselves today.
Brett McKay: All right. They started recruiting these guys, they set up a training camp in Montana, and the leaders there were, they were charged with basically getting these guys into shape but also making the most elite soldier possible. And so they came up with this, one of the most rigorous advanced training programs for fighters in World War II. And this was one of my favorite parts of the book ’cause it was just… It was like a movie montage almost, I could imagine them doing all these different things. What was their training like? Can you give us a bit of a… Some examples of that?
Saul David: Well, I’ve looked at training for military forces through the ages, and in particular modern-day special forces, and I have never seen a training regime that is as tough as this one. Certainly, if you consider that they had to go from pretty much being… Very few of them had actually been in combat. In fact, hardly any of them had been in combat. So, it’s not as though they were trained, hard-bitten soldiers. These were young men with talent, with determination, and they were thrust into a training regime that was incredibly brutal. Within just days of them arriving at the camp near Helena, Montana, they were expected to go through their parachute training. Now, normally that would take about six weeks. They were expected to do it in a week. Everything was accelerated. Once they’ve got their wings… And plenty of them didn’t get their wings, they broke their legs, and they were immediately returned to their units if that happened. But once you’ve got your wings after just two jumps, then the real tough stuff started.
Just to give you a sense of what they went through, I’ll talk a little bit about the training regime. From August to October, as well as parachuting, they learned weapons and demolition usage, unarmed combat and small unit tactics. October to November 1942, large unit tactics and problem solving. November 1942 to March 1943, skiing, rock climbing, adaption to cold climates, and operation and maintenance of the Weasel snow vehicle, that is the snow plough which they had developed. And from April to June 1943, amphibious landing techniques. And while all of this is going on, Brett, they’re put through the most brutal physical training program that you can imagine, that included the fatigue of combat, unfavorable terrain, or adverse weather. It consisted chiefly of crawling, rope climbing, boxing, push-ups, games, doubling, running. They did it all. And what’s interesting about this physical regime is that you think, on the one hand, you need guys who can get through it. Of course, they did, but they also needed thinking soldiers, just like the special forces today. They were looking for a combination of a physical Superman, but also someone who could think outside the box. It was really a brutally tough, as I say, training regime. And those people who came through it, and plenty didn’t, became, in my view, some of the finest trained soldiers of the Second World War.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You’re describing all the skills they learned. For most of the military, and the British and the Americans, there’d be the Airborne Division that would learn how to skydive. Well, these guys had to learn how to skydive. Then amphibious, that was for the Marines. These guys had to learn amphibious assault, so they were doing it all. They were jack of all trades.
Saul David: They were. And it’s worth pointing out that when they were doing all these various different skills and they were being tested on their ability in these skills, they were generally off the charts. A good example is during the amphibious training in the spring of 1943, of course, the Marines have been through that. There were records of getting on and off landing craft. All those records were broken by the Force men. And if your bear in mind, they only had a week or two to train to break these records, you just get a sense of the sort of people that they had created in this force. And their ability to shoot, their aggression, their physical capability, their multi-skills capability was really outstanding. And on a metric of up to 100, 100 of course being the highest, they were usually way off that scale. They were into the 140s, 150s. They had never seen soldiers like this before.
Brett McKay: Did the soldiers, as they were training at this camp near Helena, Montana, did they know what they were gonna be used for exactly, or were they just there and they’re just… Whatever they had to do that day, they did?
Saul David: They didn’t know for sure. There were lots of rumors. They were occasionally working in cut-outs of hydroelectric dams and power stations. Some of them had a suspicion it might be something to do with hydroelectric power, but they were never officially told where they were going, as soldiers, of course, never are, right up until the last minute. But one thing they knew for sure, they were going behind the lines and the likelihood of them coming back from this mission were very low.
Brett McKay: So, they were training the troops, getting these guys ready, we forgot about the plough, ’cause this is the whole thing that kickstarted it. How was the development of this snow vehicle going while they were training these soldiers?
Saul David: Well, it went very well actually. And it went well, of course, ’cause the resources were pretty much unlimited. Studebaker was given the job of developing this vehicle. In cahoots with various technical branches of the American military, they were doing it with various research bodies, both in the United States and Canada. And Canada, in particular, already had some form in this field. And they came up with… Or admittedly having to refine it through various different modifications, but they came up with something that was really, really effective. The so-called Weasel M29 vehicle, was developed and used, in large numbers actually, later on in the war. And you find it popping up in various different campaigns. But for reasons I’m sure we’ll come on to in a second, it was never used in combat by the Force, even though it was developed for them.
Brett McKay: Okay. Well, let’s talk about… These guys are getting trained. We got to remember these are American and Canadians, and every combat unit has their own unique culture. And imagine this one developed a really unique culture, because not only the type of training they were doing, but also the fact that they were soldiers from two different countries. What was the culture like in the Force?
Saul David: It was fascinating when they first came across each other, when the recruits first arrived at Helena in early August 1942. They had different uniforms, they had different ways of marching, they had different equipment. If you think of the learning curve that they had to go through to become, to create a esprit de corps in the single unit was really, again, incredibly steep. But they were prepared to do it and it’s very interesting. I think, by the end, certainly by the time that they go into combat, there’s a real sense of unity, even though they come from very different backgrounds. Does that mean there wasn’t any tension between the nationalities? No, it doesn’t. There certainly was. There were fist fights between them, particularly in the early days.
There was a certain amount of bad blood between one particular platoon, in my view, between the Americans and the Canadians. There’s a lot of fighting. There’s even some firing going on during a live firing exercise that wounds one of the soldiers. These were tough men, tough men who took no prisoners. And there was a feeling that… Particularly the Canadians felt that the Americans were better paid, which they were. Their parachute pay was higher than the Canadians were getting. And there was inevitably gonna be some sense of national competition. But despite all of that, as the training continued, slowly but surely, their real pride was in their unit, in their company, and even down to their platoon and their section, as happens in all of these elite military forces.
Brett McKay: As I was reading this, it reminded me of the story of the 10th Mountain Division. We did a podcast about them a couple of months ago. And the thing with the 10th Mountain Division, they developed this reputation in the military, thanks to some PR things that they did. It’s really glamorous. You had these skiing GIs. And the Force reminded me of that a bit. Did the Force, did they develop a reputation amongst other branches in the military?
Saul David: They did. And it was a reputation that basically other people in the Army, particularly people who had seen combat, didn’t feel was deserved. They’d heard about this Force, they’d obviously heard about its training, they heard about its glamorous uniform, they heard about its feeling that it could pretty much accomplish anything, and they weren’t convinced. And understandably, they weren’t convinced, because it hadn’t seen any action and it wasn’t gonna see any action for a while. In fact, I think, the fact that it doesn’t see action for quite a long time, Brett, is one of the reasons why it was so superbly trained. One of the problems you have in wartime is the speed with which soldiers get trained and thrown into action. Luckily, because of various delays in finding the right target for the Force, it had a good year to train properly, and it was all the better for that. But certainly, there was a lot of jealousy among the rest of the military.
And it’s interesting, you mentioned the 10th Mountain Division, because in the early days, when they were thinking of how they were gonna develop the Force, they were thinking, “We’ll match the two together. We might even equip the 10th Mountain Division with Weasels.” But that never actually happened.
Brett McKay: You mentioned they have glamorous uniforms. How are they different from the other uniforms?
Saul David: Well, they had developed this… If you think about it, it’s not gonna be American, it’s not gonna be Canadian. It’s gonna be a mixture between the two, incredibly smart so that even a private soldier basically looked like he was an officer. They have this very knotty lanyard, red, white and blue lanyard, that ran through one of the soldier epaulets. And if you saw these guys in the street, you would have thought, “There’s an officer.” And every single member of the Force, and there were about 1500 combat soldiers in the Force, was wearing this uniform. Of course, they didn’t go into combat in that uniform. But off duty, that’s what they were wearing. And if people saw them in the street, they must have been thinking, “Who are these guys?”
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m looking at a picture right now, it’s pretty sharp-looking. One of the issues they had, the military… They’re training these guys, and originally they’re supposed to go to Norway. But then the high command, they’re sort of figuring, “Well, maybe we’re not gonna do that.” And they had a lot of problems trying to figure out what exactly they were gonna do with them. And this started becoming a problem because a lot of the leaders were worried, “These guys are gonna get stale. They’ve trained, they’re ready, they’re raring to go, but if we don’t let them get action now, they might go bad.” What happened? Why did they decide not to send them in Norway, and why were they in limbo for a while?
Saul David: Well, the original plan to send them to Norway was predicated on enough planes being available to fly them and the Weasels to Norway and drop them in there. Of course, there was an alternative. They could’ve gone by sea, but that was pretty quickly rejected. They felt they needed to insert them into the wastelands of Norway, where they wouldn’t be located by the Germans. And the only way they could do that was by air.
There were other factors involved, interestingly enough. The Norwegians themselves weren’t that keen on these various industrial targets being destroyed because they felt it would affect their own population. And there were other secretive units, like SOE, the Special Operations Executive, who were also carrying out similar targets, who very much were feeling, “You’re muscling in on our patch.” So, there was a lot of opposition to using them in Norway. And the decision was taken, interestingly enough, by the Americans to rethink how they were gonna be used. “If we can’t get the planes to drop them before these behind-the-lines targets, we need to rethink how we’re gonna use them.” And the idea really comes, “We’re gonna use them as a lead commander units. They may still be behind the lines, but they’re not gonna be dropped miles behind the lines. We could possibly operate them behind the front in a much more conventional type of military warfare.”
Brett McKay: And while they’re figuring this out, what they’re gonna do with them in Europe, they actually… One of the first missions they went on was to Kiska, which is Alaska. They were actually trying to fight the Japanese, the Pacific theater. The 10th Mountain Division was also at Kiska. How did the troops fare from the Force. How did they do?
Saul David: Yeah. They did very well at Kiska actually. Kiska has gone down in history as a bloodless victory. It was a landing that was unopposed by the Japanese because they had bugged out a few days before. But what you realize from the actual landings on Kiska is what a brutal terrain it would have been to fight in, Kiska, of course, being one of the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific, and up near Alaska this is tough terrain to fight in. And so it proved. And one of the interesting things about the Force and the job of the Force was to go in first. They’re both gonna land first, but they’re also gonna be used as a strike force by dropping them by parachute as well.
And what you see with them is this incredible discipline. One of the scandals… Well, not the scandals, but one of the criticisms of the Kiska campaign is there were a lot of friendly fire incidents, a lot of people getting shot by their own side because the troops were jittery before they realized that the Japanese weren’t there. And actually the Force men were much more disciplined, and there’s a sense that these guys are properly under control. And also physically, the kind of distances they had to march and the speed with which they did it was all pretty impressive, and it was a very good dry run, to be truthful, for what they were eventually gonna have to accomplish in Italy.
Brett McKay: All right. They went to Kiska, they went through that limbo period, they didn’t know what they’re gonna do with them. Finally, High Command decided, “We’re gonna send them to Italy.” Where in Italy exactly was the Force sent to?
Saul David: Well, the connection, interestingly enough, Brett, is Eisenhower. Eisenhower is now the supreme commander in the Mediterranean, and has been since the landings in North Africa towards the end of 1942. And his feeling is, “We need a Force that we can use for the landings in Sicily first and then ultimately the landings in Italy.” Now, Sicily goes by without the Force being used, that’s the summer of 1943. But by the autumn of 1943, when the landings in Italy proper have taken place, there’s a bit of a stalemate. And there’s a stalemate in the mountains in Southern Italy mainly involving the US Fifth Army, commanded by General Mark Clark, who’s one of the proteges of Eisenhower. And Clark is demanding… He hears about this Force, and he asked for it specifically. He’s thinking they could be a big deal-breaker in the mountains, that this is what they’re trained for, “We can’t get through the mountains mainly because the Germans are holding all these high mountain passes. And if we can get the Force to actually strike against one of these passes, we may be able to force our way through.”
Brett McKay: And so there is one pass that they’re really focused on, it was La Difensa. What was this pass like? What made it so difficult, and why was it so an important part of the Italian campaign?
Saul David: Monte La Difensa has been a stronghold since Roman times, hence its name. It’s known as the defendable mountain. It’s a sheer cliff basically. And to get up it, you have to scale it. You can go up the easy route, the relatively easy route, which, of course, was the way you would have walked up it, but that was mainly from the back of the mountain and that was a bit of area that was controlled entirely by the Germans. To get up the main bed of the mountain, you either had to go up around, which, of course, the Germans were readily defending, or you had to climb cliffs. And the Germans were absolutely of the opinion, quite understandably, that the Allies didn’t have troops who could do that.
Just to give you a bit of sense of context where the pass was. It was really the keystone in the defensive system known as the Winter Line, which is really a chain of mountains. And the Monte La Difensa is on the shoulder of a pass known as the Liri Valley, which the Americans, the American Fifth Army, wants to advance up with its armor, but it can’t do that until it’s taken to two shoulders of the pass. So, to take first Monte La Difensa and then the other shoulders is gonna require an extraordinary effort. And various attempts had been made to do this, and they’ve been beaten off with heavy losses. And when the Force finally arrived towards the end of November 1943, and Clark is planning for the next attack, it’s like manna from heaven. “Okay, we can use the Force to take Monte La Difensa.” That was the idea.
Brett McKay: And how do they do it? What was the approach? You couldn’t go around, you couldn’t go up the ramp. What did these guys to do?
Saul David: Well, they scouted out and, very quickly, the scouts, who include the character I mentioned earlier, Van Ausdale, Ausdale goes on a personal scout with a major, and they walk behind the lines, even the scouting mission is incredibly dangerous, and they go behind the lines. And it’s at that point that Van Ausdale notices this sheer cliff. And this cliff is on the northern side of the mountain, and that was well behind German lines. So, not only are the Germans thinking, “Well, no one’s gonna… No one could climb this even if they could get to it.” They’re also thinking, “Well, they can’t get to it because the lines are further the other way.” And it’s Van Ausdale’s recommendation that this is the route they take to get up the mountain.
Brett McKay: And so they just climbed it up, the sheer cliff?
Saul David: Yeah. The pictures are really quite extraordinary. It’s just a sheer slab of rock, 200 feet long. And even to get to that point… And that’s the final bit, that’s just before the peak. Even to get to that bit, you’ve got to climb up. The mountain itself is 1000 meters, or just under 1000 meters. We’re talking 3000 feet high. This is a sizeable… But also brutal conditions. The time of year, this is December. It’s wet, it’s cold, it’s snowy. The chances of getting up this mountain for any normal soldier, at night, and it’s held by some of the most effective soldiers in the German Army, Panzergrenadiers, who were all veterans, really no one else, apart from the Force, in my view, would have even considered that it was viable to attempt. And it’s in the climbing of this mountain that I think all the different elements of the Force training come together to allow them to pull it off.
Brett McKay: And I imagine that they were victorious. They took them out in the end.
Saul David: Yeah. Really, it’s the climax to the book. I don’t wanna give too much away.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Saul David: But it’s an astonishing story, really. And just getting up to the top of the mountain is one of the great military feats, in my view. And once they’re up there, they’ve got to take the mountain against these crack troops, and they do it because of their training and because of their aggression, and because of their determination. All these things come together, and they capture the mountain. It’s one of the great feats of the Second World War. Why it isn’t better known, I honestly don’t know. Funny enough, Brett, there was a film made in the 1960s. So, if you’re long enough in the tooth, and some of your listeners will be, they might have seen that film, called The Devil’s Brigade, which actually deals with the capture of this mountain, and talking a bit about the early days for the Force. But since that film, and since one or two books, it’s gone, disappeared into history, and I’m still slightly mystified as to why.
Brett McKay: Now, your description of the battle was just fantastic, really engaging, action-packed. And then you mentioned that they were called The Devil’s Brigade, and that was from the Germans, from that encounter. The Germans had this encounter with the Force, and they basically called them devils, and the name stuck.
Saul David: Yeah. The Force goes on to do other extraordinary things. At Anzio, they are the first troops into Rome, they are the first troops to invade the South of France, just after the D-Day landings. They were always at the forefront of any tough fighting, and they’d go on to really carry out some extraordinary achievements. In my view, the capture of Monte La Difensa is still their greatest single achievement. But as you say, the Germans were, frankly, in awe of them and gave them a number of nicknames, one of which was the Black Devils, which is where you get the name The Devil’s Brigade from. And they gave them that name, the Black Devils, because during the Anzio standoff, I suppose you’d call it, when the beachhead was being controlled by the Germans, the only bit of the beachhead that the Germans wanted to stay well away from was the bit that the Force were defending, because they would aggressively patrol every night, they would arrive where the Germans weren’t expecting them, they would find dead bodies in the morning with cards on them with a little symbol. And that’s where they got their name, because, of course, they’d always be blacked out when they went out on these night operations. That’s why they were known as the Black Devils.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You said they were basically used as commandos in campaigns throughout Italy. What happened after the war? What happened to the Force?
Saul David: I think one of the reasons why the Force isn’t better known is because of its fate towards the end of 1944. The Force is actually disbanded at the beginning of December 1944. And given its achievements in the year earlier, it’s only really been in combat for a year, but it’s done some astonishing things. You might ask the question, “Why is it disbanded?” One of the main reasons it’s disbanded is because of it’s bi-national nature. The Canadians simply didn’t feel they could devote the resources to putting in reinforcements. Therefore their element of the Force was being diluted all the time, and they didn’t think that was acceptable. There was a possibility of continuing just as American only, but there was a feeling that that that would take away from its essential esprit de corps. And so the decision was taken to disband it while the war was still ongoing. And there was another reason for this, which is that, by the end of 1944, D-Day’s come and gone, the various Allied armies are approaching or are into bits of Germany, and there’s a feeling that really you don’t need this kind of specialized force anymore. It’s really about using the big sledgehammer to crack a nut, and not a stiletto, which is what the Force was.
Brett McKay: But then, they were disbanded, but did they have an influence on the respective militaries in Canada and the United States?
Saul David: Yes. I think that’s the real point, is that the legacy of the Force carried on, in particular in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the US, when the first Green Beret units were being formed. And they very much were formed not just in honor but with the whole sense of training and use that the Force had been created for. So, you get this unbroken line, albeit the Force is being disbanded at the end of the World War II, between the Force and Special Forces today. And the same goes for Canadian Special Forces. All these units look back on, regularly attend the Force reunions, which are still happening. You might be surprised to hear, Brett, there are one or two Force men still alive that I was able to interview. And at every one of these gatherings, these association gatherings, there is a member of the US and the Canadian Special Forces, which underlines the bond between them.
Brett McKay: That’s crazy that there are some still alive. Who’s still alive?
Saul David: Well, there’s a man called Callowhill, Jack Callowhill, who is a Canadian. He’s the last man alive who actually went up Monte La Difensa. He’s in his late 90s now. I interviewed him three or four years ago for the Force. His mind was as sharp as it must have been when he actually went up the mountain, really an extraordinary guy. Ordinary guy, came back, got married, worked in a tinning company in Hamilton, Ontario, for the rest of his life. Hides his light under a bushel, to be truthful, very modest guy, Brett. I think most of these Special Forces guys, that’s fairly typical. That’s who they are. They don’t shout about what they’ve done, but they did some extraordinary things.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I see a picture here of Callowhill right now. Good-looking guy. It says here he joined the force to get out from under his family and look for a bit of adventure.
Saul David: Yeah. They all had very different ideas for why they were gonna do it. Some wanted to get into combat, some wanted adventure, some wanted to see the world, and some, as in Callowhill’s case, just wanted to get out of their family and to grow up a bit. He’s 18 or 19 at the time, and he wanted to experience life.
Brett McKay: Well, Saul, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Saul David: Well, you can go to my website, www.sauldavid.co.uk. But also you can find my books, in particular, “The Force,” at most bookshops in the US, in the UK, and also on most of the websites, Amazon and the like.
Brett McKay: All right. Well, Saul David, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Saul David: Cheers, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Saul David. He’s the author of the book “The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. It’s available on amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about the work at our show notes at aom.is/theforce.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding all of you to not only listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.