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An Idea is Born

Long before it was every formally named "First Special Service Force", the idea of a novel commando unit specifically trained to fight behind enemy lines in winter warfare originated in the eccentric mind of British inventor Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke proposed that an elite group trained in winter warfare could be dropped into German occupied Norway to target key infrastructure, such as hydroelectric power stations, and in turn tie up large amounts of enemy forces by holding out in naturally defensible mountains and glaciers. The plan also called for the development of a small tracked vehicle capable of tackling winter conditions across rough, snowy terrain. The plan was dubbed Operation Plough.

Geoffrey Pyke

Geoffrey Pyke

Map of Norway in WW2

Norway, 1940

Robert T. Frederick

Robert T. Frederick

M29 Weasel

M29 Weasel

Operation Plough

Operation Plough gained traction as a potential option for disrupting the German war machine in the Spring of 1942. While the British endorsed the idea, they soon discovered that their ability to field the manpower, equipment, and resources for such an ambitious project was lacking due to wartime shortages, losses, and commitments to other campaigns. The project was passed over to the United States, who had plenty of resources and industrial capacity to possibly see Operation Plough through to fruition. The file came to the desk of an aspiring and upcoming officer by the name of Robert T. Frederick, who was charged with analyzing the details of Operation Plough to see how feasible it was. Upon closer inspection, Frederick quickly realized that the plan was doomed to fail for several reasons. For one, the plan called for a couple thousand men to be air dropped behind enemy lines, where they would be expected to fight an enemy with limited possibility of resupply. Frederick deemed the mission objectives far too unreasonable for such a small and lightly equipped force to do any serious impact. It was also determined that there was a significant shortage of supporting aircraft available for any air drop or resupply missions to take place. After the objectives had theoretically been completed, there was no concrete plan to evacuate the troops and equipment, which could further jeopardize the operation and create more risks. Frederick concluded that the infrastructure targets in Norway could just as easily be destroyed with strategic bombing with less risk. While the plan was tenuous, efforts pushed forward with the development of the specially designed snow vehicle, which was later called the M29 Weasel. The formation of a new commando group was soon to follow. As he was most familiar with Operation Plough and proving himself capable, Frederick was promoted to Colonel and tasked with creating and commanding the specialized unit with urgency.

Dawn of the First Special Service Force

The First Special Service Force was formally created on July 9th, 1942. As Operation Plough called for winter warfare specialists, the unit's makeup was initially supposed to include Americans, Canadians, and Norwegians. The Norwegian element was dropped due to a lack of available candidates, and the Force was changed to include 50% Americans and 50% Canadians. Total strength for the Force was set at 1800 men. The Canadians would still be paid by the Canadian government and subject to Canadian military law, but training, equipment, and accommodations were to be footed by the Americans. When looking for a suitable location for the unit to train, Frederick found an ideal home in Fort William Henry Harrison based near Helena, Montana. Its vast fields proved suitable for parachute training, while nearby mountains would be used for skiing and mountain warfare training. Nearby Helena welcomed the new troops and rapid development of the military base with open arms, with several of the Force's soldiers establishing roots in marrying local women. The Forcemen, as they would be nicknamed, would occasionally get into bar fights in town, with the local bar having to replace the broken glass windows many times. Despite the rough and tumble behaviour, the townspeople adored their newly adopted service men.

Fort William Henry Harrison

Fort William Henry Harrison, 1942

Farewell Parade in Helena, Montana

The FSSF marching through Helena, Montana


The men of the FSSF were quickly put through their paces with rigorous physical training and a wide array of specializations. Training covered several different topics, such as parachuting, mountaineering, skiing, demolitions, small unit tactics, hand to hand combat, enemy weapons, and operation of the M-29 Weasel. 

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