The Devils Brigade: A History of the 1st Special Service Force

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

A brief history of the devils brigade (Hill 960)

The Allied forces began their trek across Italy in July of 1943, on their March towards Rome.

Atop Monte La Difensa, one of the peaks forming the Camino Hill mass, was a heavily fortified German position dug into the mountain peaks of Italy during WWII.

The German defensive position was part of Hitler's Bernhardt Line, one of the seven defensive lines that were created to delay the Allied forces progress through Italy.

Upon reaching the fourth defensive line, the Bernhardt Line, the commanders for the British and American Forces decided to pause the campaign for the remainder of November before continuing to push through Italy.

During the campaign through the Italy, the Allies had suffered over 10,000 combat casualties alone between mid October to mid November.

It was clear that before continuing the offensive campaign, the Allies needed to regroup and regain their strength that was lost fighting in the difficult mountainous terrain of Italy.

On their march towards Rome, the only route through the Bernhardt Line was up the Western side of the Camino Hill mass, which was not only extremely difficult terrain to navigate but was heavily fortified by the Germans as well.

The German's XIV Panzer Corps was positioned along the Western face of the mountain where their placement on higher ground acted as a massive advantage in quickly repelling any attacks.

Defensively, bunkers were constructed which receded deep into the mountains to provide cover from Allied artillery fire.

To the Germans rear, the Eastern face of the mountain was comprised of a near vertical 1000 foot cliff face that offered insurmountable protection.

The German stronghold proved to be a stalemate for the Allies as they were unable to penetrate their position.

It was then that the 1st Special Service Force began their first combat operations in the Italian theatre of war.

December 1st, 1943 at 16:30 (UTC + 01:00) the Allied forces deployed the 1st SSF 6 miles from the base of Monte La Difensa.

They would march to the base of the mountain under the cover of Artillery fire where one soldier from 2nd Regiment would compare the event to "marching into hell... the whole mountain was on fire."

Upon their arrival at midnight they began to scale the near vertical (65 degree incline) cliff face which stretched upwards of 1000 feet.

That night, through the torrential autumn rain that fell throughout the night, 600 men from the 2nd regiment of the 1st SSF scaled the Eastern cliff face and flanked the German's fortified position.

Despite the stalemate that prevented the Allied forces from penetrating the German position, the 1st SSF would take hill 960 in less than two hours.

They were Gods of war.

Through the recovery of a journal from a German lieutenant in the Herman Goering Division, it was found that the Nazi soldiers described them as a supernatural force; the Black Devils.

Another captured German Lieutenant admitted to being under the assumption that the Force of 1,800 men was actually a division of around 15,000.

An order was found on other prisoners that stated the Germans in Anzio would be "fighting an elite Canadian-American Force. They are treacherous, unmerciful and clever. You cannot afford to relax. The first soldier or group of soldiers capturing one of these men will be given a 10 day furlough."

They enemy knew who these men were and that they were a force to be reckoned with.

Though to truly understand who these men were, you have to know where they came from.

Fort Harrison, Montana, USA.

Canadian and American troops began parachute training within just 48 hours of their arrival at the base.

There were no training towers and no preliminary flights; trial by fire was the method used from day one.

The mornings started at 0430 with physical training while marches were done on an incredible 97km long course, the record for which was held by Colonel Marshall's First Regiment, who completed it in twenty hours.

The 1st SSF trained in German weapons platforms; taking them apart, reassembling and cleaning until they were as proficient in enemy weapons as they were their own.

Hand to hand combat training was done with unsheathed bayonets and injuries were common place.

For their bayonets they were given the exclusively designed v-42 stiletto. This would be the blade that many German soldiers would lose their lives to.

It was at Anzio that the Germans dubbed the 1st Special Service Force the "Devil's Brigade."

They were referred to as "black" devils because the brigade's members smeared their faces with black boot polish for their covert operations in the dark of the night.

During Anzio, the 1st SSF fought for 99 days without relief.

It was also at Anzio that the 1st SSF used their trademark stickers; during night patrols soldiers would carry stickers depicting the unit patch and a slogan written in German: "Das dicke Ende kommt noch," said to translate to "The Worst is yet to Come", placing these stickers on German corpses and fortifications.

During the war the 1,800-man unit accounted for some 12,000 German casualties, captured some 7,000 prisoners, and sustained an attrition rate of over 600%.

The Devils brigade was instrumental in winning the second World War in their use of guerrilla warfare and their unconventional tactics.

It was on 5 December 1944 in a field near Menton, on the extreme southeast Mediterranean coast France that the 1st Special Service Force was officially disbanded as the war came to a close.

One Canadian soldier recounted the day they were disbanded saying, "It was very very sad because we had no idea it was coming. They just formed us up and asked the Canadians to step forward. So we stepped forward, formed ranks and marched off.

When the Americans were told to close formation, they refused, preserving the gaps left by their departing friends."

Their spirit lives on, as the training programs and unconventional tactics that proved useful during WWII went on to be the foundation that special forces programs were built upon.


Jozef Lalka is a former Infantryman with the Canadian Armed Forces and founder of War Doll. Since releasing from the military, Jozef continues to rigorously train and expand his knowledge of a variety of weapons platforms and tactics.

Having earned a diploma in Media & Video production, Jozef works as a graphic designer, photographer and videographer while pursing a passion for current global conflicts and how they relate to historical events.

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