The Devil’s Brigade: How this Second World War elite commando unit became the first of its kind
Published Friday, November 6, 2015 4:00PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 7, 2015 9:27PM EST
It was “kill or be killed.” Seven decades later, that’s how surviving Second World War Two veterans from an elite commando unit recall it. They became known as the Devil’s Brigade. With a menacing name, Hollywood has tried to tell their story, but the script can’t compare to their real life heroics. But as Remembrance Days pass their numbers dwindle and so do the opportunities to hear their stories.
In Washington last February, at perhaps one of the last large gathering of these aging soldiers, the U.S. Congress awarded them its highest civilian honour: the Congressional Gold Medal. But here’s the thing, the three dozen recipients were not just Americans citizens, more than a third were Canadian. They are the granddaddies of all Special Forces units today; such as Canada’s Special Operations Regiment and America’s Navy Seals.
The Devil’s Brigade was the first of its kind because it was comprised of Canadians and Americans fighting together. All of them volunteers in what were described as wartime “suicide missions.”
To commemorate their service, W5 gathered a group of these veterans in Toronto last summer and met with several others in Helena, Montana during their reunion in that city where they trained as young men. To hear their stories you’d think liberating Rome, taking out bridges or overtaking the Nazis on a mountain top in Italy was no big deal. Truth is, these men took on some of the most dangerous and difficult missions you could imagine. They lost many men, but in five campaigns in three theatres of war, they fought in 22 battles and never, ever did they lose a single one. And in doing so, this band of brothers formed lifelong friendships.
They trained in Helena Montana. Why? They told us they figured Hitler would never think to look for the Allies’ new secret weapon in a quiet mining town in the West. But they had to train quickly. Demolitions, hand to hand combat, weapons and survival tactics. They joked with us about the competition. Who was tougher, Canadians or the Americans? The soldiers we spoke to boasted it was the Canucks who taught the Yanks how to land properly after parachuting out of a plane so they wouldn’t break their ankles. Some thought the Americans had better food that is if you call SPAM a delicacy! And they spoke about harrowing adventures, daring night time raids on the Nazis, and their weapon of choice, the V-42 stiletto, a super sharp double-edged dagger. “You could kill somebody and he wouldn’t know he was dead until he was,” says Charlie Mann, originally from Port Hope, Ontario.
And how did they earn that now legendary name? During a 99-day standoff with the Germans on the Anzio beachhead south of Rome, the soldiers would blacken their faces with cork and boot polish and sneak up on the enemy. The story goes that the diary of a German officer was found during one of their missions and he’d written about those ‘black devils’ who were never seen or heard but ‘kill in the dark of night.’ The soldiers, thrilled with their fearsome reputation had calling cards made to leave behind with the enemy. In German they translated as “the worst is yet to come.” It so rattled the enemy that the “the devils” nickname stuck.
This past August at that reunion in Helena, some of the over-ninety year old Devil’s Brigade soldiers gathered once again. Retracing the steps of the parade they marched in 1942 and bringing a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal to Fort William Henry Harrison the army base where they first trained seven decades ago. If you can believe it, the Canadians are still fighting for recognition from Ottawa for their part in the Aleutian Islands campaign. And they would like to see Canada honour their American brothers-in-arms the same way the U.S. Congress honoured the Canadians.
Ordinary men who became elite combat soldiers. But in the last year, more than two dozen “devils” have passed away and time is running out to fully acknowledge their legacy.
At the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony on Capitol Hill in February, 2015, then Speaker of the House John Boehner summarized that legacy: “The force was activated in 1942 as an elite unit of 1,800 American and Canadian commandoes. Just how elite? Well, for every man they lost, they killed 25. For every man captured, they took 235…These men saved, the free world and are now free to savour the triumph.”
Their legacy is a victory worth remembering not only on November 11.
Watch the full interviews:
Canadian Devil's Brigade veteran Jack Callowhill from Hamilton, Ontario talks about earning his paratrooper wings in Helena, Montana, coming across hundreds of dead American during the approach on Mount La Difensa in Italy, how he was injured in the battle for that mountain, the US Congressional Gold Medal and the refusal of a campaign medal to some Canadian veterans who took part in the Battle of Kiska in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands:
Canadian veteran Charlie Mann, originally from Port Hope, Ontario, talks about hand-to-hand combat training in Helena, Montana, Japanese cunning during the Battle for Kiska in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, night raids during the 99-day standoff with the Germans on the Anzio Beachhead in Italy and what it meant to accept the US Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Canadian veterans of the Devil’s Brigade:
Canadian veteran Del Stonehouse of the Devil’s Brigade talks about the V-42 stiletto, commanding officer Robert T. Frederick, why “War is Hell,” politicians, modern technology and reunions:
Canadian veteran Don Ballantyne talks about joining the First Special Service Force, the Battle of Mount La Difensa, the 99-day standoff on the Anzio Beachhead south of Rome, Black Canadian volunteers and one of Canada’s most-decorated First Nations soldiers Tommy Prince:
Canadian veteran Stan McEtchin talks about the differences between Canadians and Americans and food in the Canadian and American armies, how German soldiers did not want to be returned to their army in a prisoner exchange, the 99-day standoff on the Anzio beachhead south of Rome, enduring temporary paralysis, how he became a medic during the invasion of Rome, returning to Canada after the war and post-war camaraderie among the veterans of the Devil’s Brigade:
Canadian veteran Gordon Sims of the First Special Service Force’s HQ Company recalls the Force’s origins, the Battle for Mount La Difensa, how Black Canadian volunteers were rejected by the Americans, the story behind the Black Devils’ name and one of Canada’s most-decorated First Nations soldiers, Tommy Prince. He also provides one theory about why Canadian veterans were not awarded a campaign medal for the Battle of Kiska:
American veteran Herman Kasoff recalls how he went from being a Ranger to a Forceman, how the Black Devils got their name, bonds between Canadian and American soldiers and about the cancellation of the Force’s Norway mission:
Canadian veteran Jim Summersides of Welland, Ontario, recalls how he volunteered for the First Special Service Force in Europe (and the role Canadian army food played in that decision), how he was “the first Canadian out of Rome” during the Allied invasion, Black Canadian volunteers and how they suffered under segregation rules in the US Army, and losing his close friend and fellow soldier Paul M. Cugeber: