79 years ago on December 2nd 1943, the First Special Service Force had their baptism by fire. While technically their first operation or battle was the attack on Kiska, there were no Japanese troops present by they time the landing force arrived. The mountain had been holding up US and British units due to it’s steep sides and defenses. The FSSF (or 1st SSF or Devils Brigade etc. etc.) was tasked with finding a way to seize the peak and breach the Bernhardt or Winter Line.

A heavily laden Force man and his buddy take a break during a march near Cevaro, east of Cassino, January 1944

The battle is pretty famous with tons of articles, books and even a cheesy movie so I won’t go into too much detail. The FSSF marched around to the back side of the mountain under the cover of darkness the night before and hid in the brush until nightfall the following day. As dusk fell on the 2nd a heavy artillery barrage was fired at the mountain to cover the Forcemens’ climb up the cliffs. By 5am three companies were on the summit and in place to assault the German positions. After a few hours of intense close quarter fighting the crest was theirs. Honestly it’s a hell of a story so make sure to read one of the full length articles. Here or here.

The Gear
Having always been envisioned as mountain or artic troops the troops of the First Special Service Force were well supplied with cold weather gear. While not limited to the unit, the reversible ski parkas and mountain trousers make them stand out. A FSSF specific item was their V-42 dagger. Although I have not been able to find much of any photos of them being worn. Just one so far at a field kitchen. Some other items that stand out are their Jump boots (as the men were paratrooper trained) and the common use of helmet bands. As far as I can tell they were cut from inner tubes but I could be wrong.

Like some of the early airborne units, all men in the combat roles were issued sidearms. In that vein a decent number of mounted cartridge belts turn up. As well the FSSF seems to have used every type of field jacket at the same time, but the M1943 seems to be most common around the time of the battle. Well the parka is the most common but that’s a parka not a jacket. I can’t be sure but It looks like the common practice was to wear the regular M1937 wool uniform and 5 button or high neck sweater under the parka. I’m sure some would have worn the field jacket under the parka as well but I would imagine it would be excessively bulky. Besides the sweater the pile liner of the M1943 would have been worn but it is near impossible to tell what is under the parkas so this is mostly speculation and what little I can glean from the photos.

Along with the other cold weather gear the first pattern trigger finger mittens are seen in photos. These early ones have the finger on the underside instead of the back of the hand and only a single strap. Field gear wise the basic pack was the M1936 musette bag, but since this lacks room to hold much it was often attached to a Yukon packboard. I don’t have the correct packboard so I have the later style as a stand in. The mountain rucksack is often associated with the FSSF but the packboard seems to have been more common. Likely due to it’s load carriage abilities in the rough terrain of Italy where most supplies had to be packed in. along with the mountain rucksack I have the associated shovel/e-tool carrier with the low mounted M1910 hanger. The regular carrier has the hanger on the top or nose which would have the shovel hang a good 6 inches below the bottom of the rucksack.

Close ups of the of the spread. Tucking the chinstraps of the helmet under the band seems to have been fairly common, as well as the C-ration key. The small green cylinder is face paint.

Here can be seen the mountain rucksack and sleeping bag and cover. While mounting of the bayonet to either the belt or pack were both seen it seems like they tended to have them on the packs a little more often in the photos. Also they all appear to have the then new 10″ M1 bayonets. The flashlight is the TL-122-A.

Below is the M1937 wool uniform and belt, with the famous V-42 stiletto or dagger next to it. The extra long sheath was to allow it to hang below the rest of the web gear to remain accessible. Next is a compass and pouch and bandolier. you also get a decent view of the mountain trousers with the buttoned thigh pockets and zippered hip pockets. As well as the elastic at the bottom. The M1 Garand was the standard weapon of the First Special Service Force although they are famous for use of the Johnson LMG for their support weapon. M1A1 carbines were also used, although in small numbers and according to the T0&E only by higher ranks.

A good shot of the Mounted Cartridge Belt or “9 Pocket Belt.” These would have either been the WWI vintage M1912 or later M1923 variety. The suspenders are the ubiquitous M1936. The Boots are the famous Jump Boots. The weapons are the M1911A1 pistol and the M1 Garand with M8 grenade launcher on it. It seems the forcemen just used the pockets of their pants to carry the rifle grenades instead of GP or Thompson bags.

Now for a quick look at some period photos. Below we have mounted cartridge belts, Musette bags and a helmet band. Likely during stateside training.

The Parkas almost always seem to be worn with the khaki or greenish side out.

Special Service Force at clearing station at Noci 1944-01-02

One of the only time I can see what’s under the parka, Looks to just be the high neck sweater although I imaging the wool service shirt is under that.

Special Service Force at clearing station near Venafro 1944-01,
Alternate caption: Lt Joseph Kostelec (1 Company 2 Regiment) Lt H.C. Wilson (Washington State,USA) at FSSF Clearing Station,near Venafro,Italy January 1944

While I don’t have a pair in the display the Arctic overshoes were pretty popular with the FSSF although I think they were not worn for this battle as the pictures I can find closest to it don’t show them being worn and I would imagine they would be terrible for climbing. Also another 9 pocket/mounted cartridge belt is peaking out on the right.

Canadian personnel of the First Special Service Force awaiting medical evacuation, near Venafro, Italy, January 1944.
Sergeant Roy Cooper, Portage LaPrairie, MB; Sergeant Fred Hill, Havelock, ON; and Sergeant Norman D. Torpe, Metiskou, AB.
All three men served in the 1st Regiment, SSF. According to Ken Joyce, the photo was taken “in the shadow of Mount Sammucro in the vicinity of Ceppagna.” The white tags are casualty tags; Joyce surmises that these NCOs were wounded during the actions of the 1st Regiment around Mount Vischiataro (Hill 1109) on January 6-7, 1944.  LAC photo
Soldiers from the joint U.S.-Canadian Special Service Force firing on German forces that had abandonded this village, outside Radicosa, Italy. Date: January 4, 1944. Photographer: Robert Capa.

One of the few times the parka is seen white side out. A decent shot of the mittens too.

A good shot of the helmet bands and the C-rat key.

Force Headquarters scouts, Private D. M. M. Hill (L) and Private Francis B. Wright disarm a German mine. Both men would later be killed; Wright on Monte Majo, and Hill at Anzio.

A parka, mounted belt, rolled up trousers, jump boots and fingerless knit gloves. Definitely not a surprise that The FSSF has had such a long streak of popularity and reputation with style like this.

Parkas, sweaters and service shirts. I don’t see any of the pile liners (which are said to have often been in short supply or never shipped with the M1943 jackets. Since this seems to be the set up here and the bulk looks pretty similar to other photos that is how I drew the conclusion that the ski parka was worn over just the sweater and service shirt and not the field jacket as well.

Personnel being briefed before setting out on a patrol at the Anzio beachhead

Thankfully this is a pretty well documented unit so there is a good deal of further reading. I hope this wets your appetite for more, if it did here, are a few of the sources I used for this article.

Further Reading links
https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/deadly-duel-for-an-italian-mountain/

https://arsof-history.org/articles/v5n2_better_country_page_1.html

https://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/italiancampaign/difensa.htm

https://www.army.mil/article/214610/75th_anniversary_of_first_special_service_force_at_monte_la_difensa

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Monte_la_Difensa

5 Comments

  1. COtt says:

    I think you have collected the most photos I’ve seen of the band being used on the helmet. To my knowledge, they weren’t used extensively at all. I’d be curious on the date those photos were taken. Thanks for the post, and once again, nice collection of items. Although the M36 and compass carrying case look like reproductions.

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    1. BAP45 says:

      Yeah the musette is. I should have just grabbed the original but didn’t think about it. And this one was loose. Compass pouch actually splits the difference. A reproduction but made from original fabric. The bands were definitely popular with fssf and rarely seen outside them for some reason until that M1944 helmet net and band starts turning up late in 44. The marines did seem to use some of the same on iwo and I think Tarawa.
      Speaking of bands I’ve been selling them the last few months actually. Putting the old jeep innertubes to good use haha.

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  2. Pathfinder says:

    Good article.

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  3. Pathfinder says:

    Good write up and pics.

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    1. BAP45 says:

      Thanks, Hemingway or Hognose I am not, but I try not to just copy another source and keep it concise. Figure that way it’s at least original, gives credit to others and is digestible.

      Like

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