Geoffrey Pyke, scientist, inventor, eccentric, or " boffin" even by English standards, had one idea after another rejected by the War Ministry in Britain during World War II. They sunk his idea for a disposable battleship made out of sawdust and ice (Pykerite), along with other cockamamie ones that came down the pike. (Sorry)! But he did manage an interview with Lord Mountbattan and knew intuitively how to get his attention. "How would you like to tie down a half a million German troops in Norway with less than a division operating behind enemy lines?" This was just the right approach to his lordship, and the idea of modern special forces was born.
The concept was the easy part, but where would you get the troops, and where would they train? It was decided that it would be a Canadian and American force under the command of a skinny, American colonel named Robert T. Fredericks, who was also marked as a comer in the army. Naturally, the Canadians sent their very best troops to their new post in Montana, and at garrisons around the US commanders decided to empty their stockades with the dregs of their units. One former sheriff turned soldier met up with a cattle rustler turned soldier, and swore he would take him in after the war's end.
The demands were simple. Each man had to measure up in the training. He had to learn to ski, parachute, and climb rock. He had to become adept at unarmed combat, and using unorthodox weapons. All those failing to make the grade would have the dreaded RTU stamped on their personnel jacket--returned to unit. That meant a Canadian would be sent home in disgrace, or an American would (usually) be sent back to the brig. Fredericks knew how to get the most out of his men by setting almost impossibly high standards which made them soon realize that they were something special in the unit with a nondescript name: 1st Special Service Force, an unfortunate choice as special service was associated with the entertainment provided to the troops.
As happens in war, their Nordic mission was cancelled, and they were sent overseas to be added to invasion forces here and there starting with the Aleutians. Other services were quick to note their skill. Chief Petty Officers marvelled how they were in the boats faster than marines. Marines wanted to know where and how they learned their particular brand of hand-to-hand combat, and Rangers wanted to know if they all skied or jumped out of planes. Soon the Germans would have a lot more questions about this unit when they faced them on the beaches of Anzio.
Their first combat achievement was their first action in Italy. Allies were unable to take a fortified position on an Italian mountain called Monte la Difensa or Hill 960. One side was ringed with overlapping fields of fire, and the other was sheer cliff. The Germans didn't bother to defend it. Naturally, the brigade made the trip up that side in three hours as the artillery bombardment of the hilltop covered their ascent. They took the mountain. After this action, they were sent to reinforce the perimeter at Anzio. It was here that they acquired their name from the Germans as the "black devils" because they came in the middle of the night with faces blackened from shoe polish, and departed. The signs they left on dead Germans were left to frighten, and they did: "Das dicke Ende kommt noch," meant the worst is yet to come.
The 1st Special Service Force or what the Germans called them, the Devil's Brigade, was disbanded after the invasion of southern France. In their brief history, less than thirty of them were ever captured, the lowest percentage of any unit in World War II. They also became the direct forerunners of the US Army's Special Forces where men must become airborne qualified before they receive their green beret. They also wear crossed arrows with an inscription: "de oppresso liber." The lineage was complete when the flag of the 1st Special Service Force was handed to the Special Forces.
This book was not drama or excitement, but a small part of military history that will draw a narrow range of interest--like mine. I recommend it for those who enjoy the same.