Pushing eastwards in the Maritime Alps, the First Special Service Force participates during twenty days in the liberation of numerous localities on the coastal strip and in the hinterland, as far as the Italian border. Throughout its journey, the FSSF is transported in vehicles of the 8th Naval Beach Battalion. On August 31, it blamed 369 wounded and 21 dead.
After changing the areas of responsibility of the First Airborne Task Force units, the FSSF must travel south to the coast, starting from l’Escarene area and the Col de Braus, thus becoming the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team’ combat zone
The 1st Regiment then evolves on the heights to the west of the Castillon-Menton road. Captain William H. Bennett’ 5-2 does wonders on September 7th on the side of Menton, where he takes an enemy position on the border and will be decorated with the French Croix de Guerre for this action. The 3rd Regiment set up roadblocks around Castillon, while initiating a siege of several months against a French fort on the Maginot line guarding the border, where enemy soldiers were holed up. While the 1st and 3rd Regiment take positions north and northwest of Menton, especially around Castillon (Mont Ours and Mont Meras) where the Germans hold an important fort, the 2nd Regiment of Lt. Col. Robert Moore settles on Monti and the village of Castellar dominating Menton, at the foot of Monte Grammondo (1378 meters) held by the enemy from the Italian side to the east. The 148. Reserve-Infantry Division, which has 60% non-German, disorganized and relying on a weak artillery, failed to counter-attack and stop its progression.
The unit is accompanied during its advance by a team of naval artillery observers, whose assistance is very effective. The FSSF, commonly known as the Force, grounded in mountain combat techniques, will for the first time hold an active defense front at altitude for a long time.
The 2nd Regiment is the one that stands right on the Italian border, between Plan de Lion and Monte Grammondo, the 3rd Regiment is the most northern one of the 1SSF occupation area and is often in contact with the patrols of the 517th PIR. The 1st Regiment is between 2nd and 3rd Regiment. The FSSF Command Post is located in Menton.
The 3rd Regiment caused heavy losses to the 8. Grenadier-Regiment thanks to artillery strikes in the area of l'Escarène, while the 1st and 2nd Regiment broke the resistance of 239. Grenadier-Regiment, exhausted and disorganized, which however, mines and traps on the roads. Once the FSSF has reached its breakpoint, the German units recover with what remains to them as effective, the available elements of the 34. Infantry Division. Many artillery and mortar positions are seated on the border, which will heavily shell the sectors of the FSSF and 517th PIR (Sospel) for several weeks.
Since August 21, the 602nd GFAB is attached to the FSSF. The 602nd GFAB leaves La Colle du Loup that they joined on August 31st, on September 4th to go on their new position in the vicinity of La Pointe de Contes northwest of Monaco. From there, the battalion fired more than a hundred shells but the 75mm Howitzer Pack can only fire up to 8 and a half kilometers and can not cover the full range of the FSSF on the Italian border. .
On September 7th, the 5-3 reached Mont Ours, chasing the Germans and preparing for an impending counter-attack.
The major offensive German offensive
On the morning of the 11th September, the Americans in the coastal sector end up occupying the entire border ridge line east of Menton from where they have an excellent view of the German scheme.
While the FSSF reached the ridge in the morning, a German counterattack, likely led by the new reinforcements of the 107th Division 34th Battalion, rejected the Canadian-Americans on their original position. In the course of the evening, the Americans helped by the naval artillery, shooting at sight, can recover the position.
During this day, the German losses are 16 dead and 51 prisoners.
The Mont Ours battle of September 13, 1944 during the major offensive is so fierce and so close that the enemy is forced to abandon the position, resulting in the capture of five prisoners and the surrender of twenty-five more late in the day, at this time the Forcemen learn that the assault of four German companies were completely halted and 32 wounded are inflicted by a bold attack of this section of fourteen Forcemen. The Battle of Mont Ours distinguished five members of 2-3, all Canadian: The Pvt. Douglas E. Dickie and Sgt. Lawrence H. Devison, both from the Nova Scotia area, Pvt. Donald L. Fitzpatrick and Sgt. George T. Bundy both from Ontario, Quebec Sgt. John Barnett who was French the S/Sgt. Solomon M. Biblowitz killed in the fight.
During the German offensive, Pvt. Robert C. Anderson, from Southey Saskatchewan, Canada is killed on Monte Grammondo. Anderson had participated in all First Special Service Force campaigns and had participated in the Dieppe Raid while serving with the Canadian Army before enlisting in the Force.
The most violent fights took places around the village of Castillon. These begin on September 4 when the 517th PIR arrives on the crest line where 15 enemy soldiers are captured at Mount Meras. The Americans are rejected the next day and reoccupy this position again on September 7th. The southern sector, from Castillon to the sea is vested in the FSSF whose 3rd Regiment occupies Mont Ours at the moment when the German reinforcements belonging to the 80th Regiment of the 34th Division arrive in the sector to replace the soldiers of the 148th division. During the following week, September 8, when it was decided to stop troops on the Franco-Italian border, the FSSF's defensive line in the coastal sector recedes from the border ridge because of better ground defensive on the ridge line west of Castillon. This decision of a withdrawal of the troops turns out to be a fatal error and the American troops then had to resume these positions to have observatories on the German positions and to prevent the Germans to have views in the valley where their own supply routes .
On September 9th, the 3rd Regiment of the FSSF sends its first patrols in the village of Castillon which is attached to the fortress but they are pushed out. From this day, the front stabilizes and for the first time the Germans begin to prepare entrenched positions. On September 10, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Regiment attacked Fort Castillon. After an inefficient artillery preparation, the Americans launch the assault, cut the supply route north of the fort and reach the superstructures but are unable to open. The Germans then organized a counter attack from the east with two companies to clear the fortress and the north with, for the first time, the presence of armored vehicles from Sospel. The fight lasts all day, centered around Fort Castillon. The 3rd Regiment of the FSSF is forced to retreat from the edge of the fortress and evacuate the outposts, as it is caught under the combined fire of automatic weapons, grenades and German mortar fire. It is the American artillery aided by the support of the Allied Navy which allows to stop the German counter-attack.
Colonel Walker commanding the FSSF then estimates that the fortress can not be taken by the infantry and orders that it is subject to harassing fire by artillery. The failure of this operation is not the fault of the FSSF's lack of experience fighting on mountain terrain that is particularly familiar to it. Rather, it is the result of the lack of training in fortification assault, as well as the order given to the FSSF not to cross the border to the east, which makes it impossible to encircle the structure. This allows the German troops to reorganize.
On September 15th, the FSSF sends reconnaissance patrols to prepare an operation to encircle the fort, but this can not be done because of Frederick's orders. The Americans overhanging the fortress then bombards it daily with all the means at their disposal. At the end of the month, the 1st Battalion of the 34th German Division executes an attack against the 3rd Regiment of the FSSF. This is the only major attack by the Germans against the FSSF. On September 21st, the FSSF dominates the fortress of Castillon and pounding it constantly. German counterattacks against US observation positions are postponed on 2 October.
Direct contact with patrolling encounters or strained ambushes is very rare after the clashes in September. In the area of the 3rd Regiment, north-west of Castillon, only one contact is established during the night of 23 to 24 October, after more than a month of patrol. Americans are warned by French civilians of the presence of a German patrol. The ambush by the Forcemen on a German patrol of 16 to 20 men is a success and it is completely destroyed. It is clear that Fort Castillon blocked the advance of the 517th PIR and the FSSF.
On October 25, the Germans sabotage the facilities of Fort Castillon and during the night of October 27 to 28, they withdraw. On the morning of the 28th, the Forcemen occupy Fort Castillon, which they took so long to conquer.
A static warfare
The consolidation and the improvement of the positions is a primary concern, each gain of time makes it possible to establish more advanced positions, particularly on the heights dominating Italy until San Remo. Heavy artillery fire and mortar fire can be directed more effectively, particularly in the Roya Valley, which remains under German control. The FSSF receives the help of Professor Henri Chrétien, an astrophysicist from Nice observatory who has made available a telescopes battery ultra powerful, to better direct the artillery fire on the back of the German lines . This ability to put a lot of strength into the game allows the FSSF to measure itself against a more powerful opponent.
Lieutenant MacIntosh's Cannon Company, equipped with a 75mm howitzer on Half-tracks M3, is particularly effective thanks to its mobility, giving the illusion of superiority in artillery support.
The support of the 887th Airborne Aviation Engineer Company, which has been with the FSSF since September 1, allows a rapid network of barbed wire and mines to be established at the front of the positions, as well as improving the network of trails and roads. suitable for the jeeps to approach closer to the positions at the top of the mountains.
FFIs, in particular the Saint Just and Prath Brigades (Monaco), are volunteering to transport ammunition and supplies. These reinforcements represent a valuable contribution and, in a letter to the Head Quartermaster of Menton on September 22, Lieutenant Colonel Moore pays tribute to the courage of these "patriotic militias", and allowed them to stock up on clothing and equipment in the FSSF depots. The Force even focuses on organized groups, such as the Hochcom Battalion, or the Albertini Group. The reinforcing battalion of the FSSF arrives on September 27 in Nice from Santa Maria di Capua-Verde, marking the end of the Italian stay of the Force. Some of the educated staff are immediately assigned to a unit. Daily life is then reduced to a duel of incessant artillery, especially in the sectors of the 1st and 2nd Regiments, punctuated by patrol day and night.
The Force is supported by the 602nd Glider Field Artillery Battalion but also by the A and D Company of the 2nd Chemical Battalion installed near Menton since September 18th. The D Company remains in reserve until September 24th, but quickly gets under way, seeing the difficulties the FSSF encounters.
All types of missions are performed by 2nd Chemical Bn. Repeatedly, enemy counterattacks are so successful that they are divided and never reach their end.
Allied patrols are often supported by mortars that open fire on enemy positions by well-adjusted shots at times within 100 meters of them. At night, in almost all sections, harassment and indirect fire are launched on bivouacs and supply routes giving the enemy endless difficulties. An enemy prisoner, a doctor, indicates that he personally treated 70 wounded victims of phosphorus mortar fire within 3 days. German documents captured in the area show that the 4.2 inch mortars were priority targets for the German artillery and for its counter-battery fire, attesting to the accuracy of the fire and casualties produced by its fire.
Hard weeks follow each other, undermining the physical and moral resistance of the soldiers. The situation is frozen, creating a no-man's land between the two camps.
For the first time, cases of desertion and indiscipline are reported, and many are treated in courts martial. The rumor speaks of an imminent succession by the French troops, which is delayed throughout the month of October. Morale declines, but the FSSF still holds its positions despite artillery fire, especially in the 2nd Regiment where the facilities are more concentrated.
The 602nd GFAB remains in position from 1 to 21 October delivering the requested firepower. On October 4, the shooting is suspended for about 6 hours to allow the evacuation of part of the civilian population. Directives are received saying to limit the consumption of ammunition 33 shots per piece per day! The forward observation post was shelled on October 10th, slightly injuring an officer and a troop man who received first aid at the battalion's Aid Station and then returned to their duty right after.
On October 22, their old friends from the 463rd PFAB who come down from Barcelonnette come to support. Fort Castillon still held by the Germans (two companies), only gives way on October 28, after two months of shelling and assaults, marking the beginning of the retirement of the 34. Division to Breil, significantly reducing the pressure on the FSSF. They make 24 prisoners. Combat patrols and reconnaissance along the front line maintain communications with the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment on an adjacent line near Mount Diaurus northeast of the village of Castillon east of Sospel.
On the night of October 29, Force patrols approach Sospel without contact with the enemy after Mont Razet and Fort Castillon.
Starting in November, the patrols that are sinking further and further from the Italian side have almost no contact with the enemy who has gradually withdrawn to the Brenner pass. Each of the three Regiments has only 3 companies permanently on the border.
Eldredge Walter J. Finding My Father's War: A Baby Boomer and the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion in World War II Dragonscribes LLC, 2004.
Ross Robert Todd, The Supercommandos: First Special Service Force, 1942-1944 an Illustrated History. Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 9 septembre 2004
Springer Joseph A., The Black Devil Brigade: The True Story of the First Special Service Force. Pacifica Military History, July 2001