The Rise of the First Special Service Force

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By Isabella Lee

The Devil's Brigade, The Black Devils, The Black Devils' Brigade and Freddie's Freighters are the nicknames given to the First Special Service Force (FSSF), the first elite combat unit that was made up of Canadians and Americans. The FSSF was a product of the imagination of Geoffrey Pyke, an eccentric British military scientist, and the unit received some of the most extensive training of any military unit in Canadian and American history. Training began in 1942 at Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Montana. Canadian volunteers consisted primarily of enlisted soldiers recruited by advertising at Army posts, with preference given to those previously employed as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters and game wardens. They travelled along Highway 4 from Lethbridge, Alberta to join their American counterparts.

With rejection rates as high as 50 percent, the weeding-out process and the subsequent extensive training formed a strong esprit de corps within the unit. The men were on a strict and physically-demanding three-phase training schedule. From August to October, they trained in parachuting, weapons and demolitions usage, small unit tactics and physical training; from October to November, training focused on unit tactics and problem solving; and from November to July, training extended into skiing, rock climbing, adaptation to cold climates and operation of the M29 Weasel, a snow and rough terrain vehicle. The force was armed with a variety of non-standard and limited-issue weapons, such as the M41 Johnson light machine gun and the V-42 fighting knife, derived from the Fairbairn-Sykes weapon of British commandos.

Originally, the FSSF were slated to be a sabotage parachute unit, but in the end, they were used for special missions due to the diverse training the men had gone through. The mixture of extreme training and specialized weapons made this unit extremely effective. The successes of the FSSF paved the way for modern Special Forces units, such as Canada’s Special Operations Regiment and the United States’ Navy Seals.

Learn more about the First Special Service Force, or Devil’s Brigade, and military history in our region at the Galt Museum & Archives.