By Dwight Jon Zimmerman
“You can’t be here. It is impossible to come up those rocks.”—captured German captain on La Difensa
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the soft underbelly of Europe.” War correspondent Ernie Pyle called it that “tough old gut.” “It” was Italy. The two-year Italian campaign of World War II was heartbreakingly brutal. Fighting in rugged terrain that gave all advantage to the German defenders, Allied gains were too often measured in yards and high casualty rates—at one point the price paid was an average of one casualty for every two yards. In November 1943, the Allied advance had stalled at the formidable Winter Line located about seventy miles south of Rome. These fortifications that stretched from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic coast included the main Gustav Line supported by the Bernhardt and Hitler lines. American Fifth Army commander Lieutenant General Mark Clark was determined to breach the German defenses and reach the Liri Valley, the “gateway to Rome,” before the onset of winter. He codenamed his plan Operation Raincoat; as it turned out, an appropriate name because it rained for days before and during the attack.
Strategically, Clark recognized that Italian topography granted him few options. He later wrote, “There was only one sector on which we could move in strength; that was on either side of Mount Camino, beyond which lay the Liri River Valley leading to the Italian capital. To reach the Liri Valley, we first had to drive the Germans off the Camino hill mass, which included Mount Lungo, Mount La Difensa, Mount La Remetanea, Mount Maggiore, and a little town called San Pietro Infine. . . . We had little choice but to blast our way through the narrow Mignano Gap adjacent to Mount Camino, and [German theater commander Field Marshal Albert] Kesselring knew it despite our feints along the coast and elsewhere.” Operation Raincoat’s success depended on the early conquest of the German fortifications on Hill 960, Mount La Difensa. The mission to capture La Difensa went to a recently arrived unit as tough as the Italian terrain. It was one originally assigned to conduct large-scale guerilla operations in occupied Norway. Following the cancellation of that, it participated what proved to be bloodless landings of the Aleutian island of Kiska that had been held, and then abandoned, by the Japanese. Now, and for the first time, the unit with the misleading name of the First Special Service Force was going to see combat.
Even among the special operations units formed in World War II, the First Special Service Force was unique. A bi-national unit of Canadian-Americans, its leader, Colonel Robert T. Frederick (West Point 1928), who had given the unit its innocuous name in order to disguise its purpose, requested that volunteers be “single men between ages of 21 and 35 who had completed three years or more grammar school within the occupational range of Lumberjacks, Forest Rangers, Hunters, North woodsmen, Game Wardens, Prospectors, and Explorers.” Frederick was also willing—even eager—to accept troublemakers from other units. It became a perverse point of pride for some braves, as they called themselves, to state, “I got into the Force without a criminal record!”
The Force’s training was designed to prepare the men for operations in cold weather and mountainous regions. To say that the training was physically rigorous was an understatement. An official Canadian report noted, “The programme of physical training was designed to produce a standard of general fitness and stamina capable of meeting the severest demands made upon it by fatigue of combat, unfavorable terrain or adverse weather. This physical training has been built up to such a pitch that an ordinary person would drop from sheer exhaustion in its early stages.” The braves learned how to ski, climb steep slopes, and travel long distances over rugged terrain while carrying a rucksack and weapons with a total weight of more than seventy pounds.
The “Force” as it was informally called, was classified as light infantry. It contained a total of 2,400 men composed entirely of officers and non-commissioned officers. The combat echelon included the Force Headquarters and three regiments of two battalions each. Each battalion was divided into three companies, each company into three platoons, and each platoon into two sections of twelve to sixteen men each. Officer and NCO appointments were integrated, without regard to nationality, on a proportionate basis to personnel of both countries. The only exception to this integrated arrangement was that the service echelon was composed entirely of U.S. personnel. This was because the unit would be supplied through the U.S. Army G-4 system. Thanks to the unit’s unique administrative position as part of the General Staff (which meant Frederick reported directly to Army chief of staff General George Marshall), Frederick was able to requisition for his men weapons, vehicles, and supplies that other, less well-connected units, could only envy. It may have been light infantry, but it was heavily armed light infantry.
The First Special Service Force’s administrative classification placed it outside the control of Lt. General Leslie McNair’s Army Ground Force (AGF), a fact that did not sit well with McNair. Before the Force could be deployed, McNair insisted that it prove it was up to AGF standards.
On June 15, 1943, an AGF inspection team arrived to certify the Force was qualified for commitment overseas. The inspection included road marching, physical fitness, and individual tests on military subjects. Minimum passing grade was 75 percent. The braves’ scores were literally off the charts—the average score for the unit itself was 125 percent. On some tests, like those that measured strength and speed, individuals scored as high as 200 percent. Colonel Frederick had so thoroughly trained his men that tests designed to assess night operations proficiency proved to be child’s play; the braves were so skilled in the use of map and compass that they never got lost, no matter how dark the night, the unfamiliarity of the terrain, and regardless of weather conditions. In its report to AGF headquarters, the inspectors stated that the First Special Service Force “was ready for combat.” Additionally, they informed Frederick that the Force demonstrated the coordination and teamwork of a championship professional ball club.
Their extraordinary physical condition, and their many technical and combat skills, would be put to the test in the capture of La Difensa.
La Difensa was a part of a six mile long, four mile wide complex of steep peaks and ridgelines averaging about 3,000 feet in height known as the Camino hill mass. La Difensa formed the “forward position” facing Clark’s troops, and as its name suggests, seemed designed for defense. The northeast face was particularly imposing. Near the top was a cliff 200 feet high with a seventy-degree slope, and above that was a series of six ledges, each averaging about thirty feet in height. Only after all that was overcome was the summit reached.
Defending the mountain were about 400 men including the veteran 3d Battalion, 104th Panzergrenadier Regiment and elements of the 3d Battalion, 129th Panzergranadier Regiment. The 115th Reconnaissance Battalion was held in reserve. The German defenses were formidable. Interlocking machine gun and mortar positions were dug into the rock, making them impervious to artillery fire. Narrow trails and natural approaches were mined and covered by well-camouflaged snipers. German forward observers could call down accurate artillery fire, and forces on one hill could count on support from other units stationed on nearby summits and ridges. The only weakness in La Difensa’s defenses was on the northeast side. Deemed impassible even by locals, this part was lightly guarded.
The First Special Service Force arrived in Naples on November 19 and was quickly transported to the staging area. Colonel Frederick was told the Force would be assigned to II Corps and attached to the 36th Division. Its mission was to take La Difensa on December 3 and then press forward and take Hill La Remetanea. Simultaneous attacks by X Corps and the 36th Division would be conducted against Mount Camino and Mount Maggiore respectively. The attacks would be preceded by combined air raids and artillery barrages.
While his men got ready for their first battle, Colonel Frederick conducted reconnaissance. He then devised an audacious plan of his own, one that called for speed, surprise, and shock to swiftly overcome the enemy. He decided to attack at night and directly up the steep northeast slope. If things went as he believed they would, his men would conquer La Difensa before the Germans realized what had happened.
The artillery and air attacks began on December 2. About nine hundred guns delivered high explosive, white phosphorous, and smoke shells in what was the largest artillery barrage at the time. During one hour alone, 22,000 rounds blanketed La Difensa. Though participants later said that it appeared as if “the whole mountain was on fire,” the results would prove mixed. Some areas suffered heavy casualties, and other, more well protected emplacements, experienced no greater discomfort than a loss of sleep.
The task of seizing the mountain was given to the 2nd Regiment under the command of Canadian Lieutenant Colonel D.D. “Windy Willy” Williamson. Supporting it would be the 3rd Regiment commanded by the polo-playing Texan, Lt. Colonel Edwin A. Walker. The 1st Regiment, under West Pointer Lt. Colonel Alfred C. Marshall, was held in reserve. At approximately 1800, the 2d Regiment began its assault. Scaling rope ladders and groping for crevice hand and foot holds in the rain-slick rock wall and carrying a pack and weapon load that “would have forced lesser men to the ground,” the 600-man force silently made its way to the summit. By 0430, three companies had reached the summit undetected. As they were preparing an assault line, some men tripped over loose stones placed there by the Germans to provide a warning.
Suddenly the night sky was illuminated by red and green flares. As one participant later said, “All hell broke loose.” The German defenders frantically worked to reposition their emplaced weapons to address attack from the unexpected quarter. Though the braves came under heavy fire, it was uncoordinated; surprise was on the Force’s side. The braves advanced, breaking into smaller units to conduct fire and maneuver assaults against one German strongpoint after another. By 0700, the Force was in possession of the summit.
The original plan called for the Force to promptly exploit the success with an attack on La Remetanea. But exhaustion, a lack of ammunition, and the fact that it would take at least six hours to get sufficiently resupplied caused Colonel Frederick, who had accompanied the battalion, to suspend that part of the assault until December 5. The Force reorganized and consolidated its position on La Difensa in anticipation of the German response. Because the British X Corps’ 56th Division had failed to take nearby Mount Camino, and would not succeed in doing so until December 6, the braves on La Difensa were subjected to punishing mortar, long-range machine gun, nebelwerfer rocket artillery, and sniper fire from both Camino and La Rementanea. Adding to the Force’s plight was the constant rain and sleet and brutal cold.
Supplying the men on the summit became a supreme test. Because mules could not handle the steep grade or treacherous footing, everything had to be hand carried. At one point, Frederick sent down a special request for medical supplies: six cases of bourbon and six gross of condoms. When this request reached II Corps, the outraged quartermaster demanded to know what exactly the Force had discovered on the top of La Difensa that called for prophylactics and liquor. As Geoffrey Perret wrote in There’s a War to be Won, “Alas, what the braves had found wasn’t party-loving, free-spirited women but coldness so intense it froze the sweat under a man’s clothing the moment he stopped moving. A shot of bourbon would help warm him up. The condoms were for protection against the incessant sleet that the howling wind blew down rifle barrels.”
The next two days became a chaotic, seesaw battle under some of the worst weather conditions imaginable in which each side attempted to gain the advantage over the other. Finally, on December 5, the Force launched an attack on La Remetanea with two reinforced battalions. The attack was stopped at the mid-way point by a desperate German defense. But that defense proved to be a thin—though hard—crust. A follow-up attack early the next morning encountered light opposition. By noon the next day, the braves had captured Remetanea. During the next two days they conducted mopping up operations.
On Monday, December 6, in tidy, precise penmanship and punctuation, Frederick wrote a dispatch to his command post. The only hint of his exhaustion was the fact that he erroneously dated the message “November 6”: “We have passed the crest of 907 [La Remetanea]. We are receiving much machine gun and mortar fire from several directions. . . . Men are getting in bad shape. . . . I have stopped burying the dead. . . . German snipers are giving us hell and it is extremely difficult to catch them.” He concluded by writing, “I am OK, just uncomfortable and tired.”
The Fifth Army’s left flank was secure, but it was a costly victory. The Force had sustained more than thirty percent casualties, 73 killed, 9 missing, 313 wounded or injured, and 116 incapacitated from exhaustion and exposure.
The official history of the Italian campaign noted, “The mission against La Difensa was fully suited to the First Special Service Force. It took advantage of the Force’s special training in night fighting, mountain climbing, cold weather, and lightning assault. No conventional unit, without special training, could have accomplished the mission.”
Clark and the rest of the Fifth Army were in awe over the unit’s accomplishment. He and his planners estimated that the First Special Service Force would take La Difensa in three days. It was captured in two hours. In its first real battle, the First Special Service Force’s reputation as an extremely capable and hard-hitting raiding force for mountain operations was made.
General Dwight Eisenhower, who knew Frederick from their General Staff days and who was the person who ordered Frederick to organize and command the unit, paid a visit to the area shortly after the capture of Mt. Camino. In his book Crusade in Europe, he wrote, “I was taken to a spot where, in order to outflank on these mountain strong points, a small detachment had put on a remarkable exhibition of mountain climbing. With the aid of ropes, a few of them climbed steep cliffs of great height. I have never understood how, encumbered by their equipment, they were able to do it. In fact, I think that any Alpine climber would have examined the place doubtfully before attempting to scale it. Nevertheless, the detachment reached the top and ferreted out the German Company Headquarters. They entered and seized the Captain, who ejaculated, ‘You can’t be here. It is impossible to come up those rocks.’”