Operation Cottage, the recapture of the Aleutian Island of Kiska, followed the expulsion of the Japanese from Attu, another island in the chain. These two islands had been occupied in early June, 1942. Kiska was selected as the First Special Service Force's first combat mission after its initial operation, Project Plough, a sabotage operation in Norway, was cancelled. Upon arrival at Kiska on August 15, 1943, the Force found no opposition. The Japanese had evacuated just hours before the landings as their foothold on the Aleutians had been weakened after the loss of Attu following a bloody battle in May.
Although not as strategically important as the missions that would follow, the Alaskan operation proved to be a success for the Force. The dry-run at Kiska provided valuable experience and contributed to the expulsion of the first invaders to set foot on American soil since the War of 1812.
Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetane
By the time the FSSF arrived in Italy, the Allies had tried many times to remove the German army from its entrenched positions along what was known as the Camino massif. The positions held by the Axis forces blocked the only clear path to Rome sizeable enough to move an army. The Allies' plan was to knock one of the Axis powers out of the war entirely. Italy was the selected target.
Upon arrival at the Camino massif, the two targets selected for the FSSF were Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea. The first, Difensa, appeared to be virtually impregnable. The dormant volcano provided the German troops with an ideal defensive position. Armed with machine guns and mortars, the German defenders could easily hold off an assault on the ramp-like southern slope which offered the only passable approach to the top. The northern face of the mountain featured almost vertical 200-foot high cliffs. Two previous attempts to take Difensa had been made on the southern slope by the 3rd and 36th US Infantry Divisions. Both attempts had been made with roughly 20,000 men, and both had been repelled with a high casualty rate. The Allies were no closer to taking Difensa.
Six hundred men of the First Special Service Force were assigned a position that thousands of men had failed to take. The FSSF had been in the field only once before, for the Kiska mission, and heavy combat was expected for Difensa. It was to be a trial by fire for the new Force. The weather was also a consideration, as the Italian mountain climate meant the men would be fighting in the cold and rain of a harsh winter. It seemed, to many, an impossible task. But the FSSF would soon show that the impossible could be achieved.
A frontal assault would be suicide so the FSSF opted to find a back door. The men marched at night to their positions and waited for the command to scale the mountain. On the night of December 2, dressed for cold winter, and carrying their rifles and ammunition, the men traversed a narrow path that led partway up the North face. They used their ropes to scale the 200-foot cliff face that separated them from the enemy. Once in position at the top of the cliff face, the men launched an immediate surprise attack, catching the enemy completely off-guard.
Alerted to their presence, the Germans began to fire in the direction where it was thought they would be: the Southern slope where the previous attacks had originated. As the Germans fired into the night at an empty mountainside, members of the FSSF took their places around Difensa's peak. They moved the Germans out of position in just over two hours, an objective the Allies had tried unsuccessfully, and at a high casualty rate, to obtain for weeks. The retreating Germans fled to Monte la Remetanea.
Over the next few days, the FSSF fought off German counter attacks against la Difensa. It then regrouped and took Monte la Remetanea on December 6. In their first real combat operations, the men proved to themselves, their commanders and the enemy, that they were the very best.
Having taken the mountains at the southern end of the Mignano Gap, the First Special Service Force was directed to clear the northern end. Monte Sammucro and Hill 720 were among the first objectives.
The attacks commenced on December 25, 1943, at 3:00 a.m. Although the FSSF ran into communications difficulties resulting from heavy shelling, and suffered casualties, the entire operation was over by 7:00 a.m. The FSSF knocked out the German position and secured Hill 720 in about four hours.
The taking of Hill 720 enabled the FSSF to start moving German troops out of the area dominated by the Majo massif to the north of Sammucro. The first objective was a series of occupied hills that blocked the FSSF route to the alpine village of Radicosa. On January 4, the men moved in after nightfall and engaged in a brief firefight, from which they emerged victorious. They had taken the hills, but now were forced to endure the retaliatory mortar fire the Germans rained down on them as they lay huddled in the snow.
Again moving under cover of night through the snow, the FSSF drove the enemy further back, forcing the Germans to give up their position in Radicosa. It was a slow and plodding battle. The FSSF took more ground each night, living in frozen conditions and subsisting on frozen rations.
Finally the FSSF pushed the Germans back to the line that represented their defenses for Monte Majo and Monte Vischiataro. The objective of the mission had been reached.
The advance to the top of Monte Majo was blocked by German machine gun positions at the mountain's base, midsection and summit. These positions allowed supporting fire from other machine gun positions, making Monte Majo a difficult target. The position at the mountain's base would need to be taken out without alerting the remaining positions.
Making their way up the frozen slope in the darkness, members of the FSSF waited while one of the men crept into the German bunker and silently eliminated the German machine gunners. The rest of the soldiers ascended the slope, also eliminating each machine gun position in silence along the way.
A battalion of the FSSF made its way to the top, but was spotted 20 meters from the objective. The men were pinned down by machine gunners, who alerted the remaining German forces to their presence. Two FSSF sergeants moved forward under heavy fire from their forward patrol and captured the machine gun positions, giving the rest of the men time to scramble to the summit. By 7:00 a.m., the FSSF occupied the summit.
A counter attack came almost as soon as the summit had been occupied. Low on ammunition, the FSSF turned the captured and well stocked German guns against the attacking German troops, repelling 27 counter attacks with the enemy's own guns.
On the battle's second night, the men were relieved by the US Army. Upon reaching camp, members of the FSSF were told that immediately after they had left the position, the Germans had recaptured it. To make mattes worse, their new orders were to head back up and retake the mountain they had just captured. Exhausted and nearly frozen, the men of the FSSF did just that: they climbed Monte Majo and retook it from the Germans that very night!
When the men moved in to take Monte Vischiataro, the next objective, on January 8, they found the position had been abandoned.
Of its initial combat strength of 1800 men, the FSSF had only 400 remaining who were not dead, wounded in hospital or taken prisoner.
The Anzio operations were designed to move around the Liri Valley, an area that was proving difficult for the Allies to take, and to threaten Rome. When the FSSF first arrived at Anzio on February 2, 1944, it took over the right flank along the Mussolini Canal.
The FSSF's commanding officer, Brigadier General Robert Frederick, employed a series of aggressive patrols against the German forces in an attempt to push them back. The tactic worked and within a week the Germans had fallen back roughly 1500 yards. This resulted in a No Man's Land between the Axis and Allied troops. This area was dominated by the FSSF as soon as the sun gave way to nightfall. Painting their faces and weapons black, the men would move across the canal to wreak havoc on the German troops, taking prisoners and destroying enemy gun positions and communications equipment. They would take notes on positions and bring back highly accurate intelligence to form their next series of raids or for artillery targeting.
The men would often need to dispose of the enemy silently, which led to the use of their training in knife fighting. The FSSF excelled at this type of combat, and soldiers developed the tactic of creeping up to an outpost and using the combat knife to kill one of the enemy, leaving the body for his comrades to find. This type of psychological warfare had a devastating effect. Even more devastating was the red arrowhead insignia often left on the body of the dead German soldier by the FSSF member, with the warning "Das Dicke Ende Kommt Noch!" Translated to English, the warning reads: "The worst is yet to come!"
During the defense of the Mussolini Canal, the FSSF repelled many German counter attacks and mounted a number of large raids on the villages of Sessuno, Borgo Piave and Littoria.
On May 11, 1944, the Allies commenced Operation Diadem, a massive advance which involved breaking out of the established beachhead at Anzio. The initial duty assigned to the FSSF was to provide cover for the right flank as it made its advance. The commander of the operation was concentrating his forces on the liberation of Rome as its final objective.
The FSSF moved out at 6:30 a.m. on May 23, facing a series of machine gun nests and mortar positions as it made its way towards the Cisterna railway. The armour divisions, meant to support troop movement, had been stopped by minefields, and the supporting infantry was unable to keep up the pace maintained by the FSSF. The Force was left isolated once it arrived at the Cisterna railway objective at 10:00 a.m.
The weather was also working against the men of the FSSF. They found themselves in the pouring rain, low on ammunition, and cut off from re-supply. As a result, the Force temporarily withdrew from the Cisterna railway station to allow the regular infantry to catch up and provide support.
After regrouping, the Force moved on to take Monte Arrestino. During the following days, it proceeded to take the mountain villages of Cori, Rocca, Massima and Artena.
Resistance from German paratroops wasn't enough to stop the FSSF's forward advance as it pushed on with the assistance of Sherman tanks and M-10 tank destroyers. Counter attacks backed up by German armour on May 29 and 30 were defeated. By midday on June 2, the FSSF had moved further to take Colle Ferro, where it worked under heavy fire to defuse German demolition charges orchestrated to destroy much of the town's infrastructure.
By June 3 the Allies had pushed forward, and were pursuing the retreating enemy troops who were falling back towards Rome. Men from the FSSF were among the first to enter and liberate the city on June 4. The FSSF was taken out of Italy after Rome to begin their preparations for Operation Dragoon, the landings in southern France.
The FSSF trained for the missions in southern France at Lake Albano, located south of the recently liberated city of Rome. It was during this training period that Brigadier General Fredrick, the man who had been with the Force from the start, announced he was leaving to assume command of the First Airborne Task Force, which was preparing for the invasion of France. Needless to say, the men of the FSSF were shocked by their commander's announcement.
In early July, the Force moved to Santa Maria di Castelabate for continued amphibious training in preparation for its role in Operation Dragoon. In August it moved to the staging area on the island of Corsica. From Corsica, the FSSF made assault landings at the Ile du Levant and the Ile de Port-Cros, two islands in the Iles d'Hyères chain off the coast of France. The Force's main objective was to knock out the coastal guns that would threaten the main Dragoon assault forces.
On August 14, 1944, the transports carrying the FSSF were positioned roughly three miles off the coast. Early morning on August 15 found the men paddling ashore in rubber boats under the cover of darkness. Knowing the most accessible beaches would obviously be the most heavily guarded, Colonel Edwin A. Walker, the new commander of the FSSF, selected the areas that had steep cliffs on both islands for landing points.
The landings at both Ile de Port-Cros and Ile du Levant went smoothly and virtually undetected. Levant was taken by 8:30 that evening, but Port-Cros held out longer, putting up resistance that led to the deaths of four members of the Force. But eventually, with the assistance of artillery and a rocket attack provided by the HMS Ramillies, the entire mission objective was accomplished. Both Ile de Port-Cros and Ile du Levant were in Allied hands.
The FSSF moved to the mainland, where its new task was to guard the coastal flank of the 7th Army's advance to the Franco-Italian border along the French Riviera. Often referred to as the "Champagne Campaign", it was described by John R. Dawson of the 2nd Regiment as being "more like an extended route march than a battle to...Forcemen who were used to a rougher grade of competition."
From August 21 to September 6, 1944, the FSSF advanced from Planestel near the coast, past Cannes and Nice. Enemy resistance was light. The Force was slowed more by blown bridges and mined roads than by contact with enemy troops.
The toughest fighting occurred on August 25 at Villeneuve Loubet, east of Cannes. The FFSF had captured 73 German prisoners by the time the village fell at 6 a.m. on August 26.
On August 30, the FSSF crossed the Var River with no resistance, and patrols found Menton evacuated on September 6. Over the next seven weeks, the FSSF would hold various defensive positions along the mountains of the Franco-Italian border.