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America’s Elite Troops in World War II

The Force

Converted for the Web from “Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat” by Patrick K. O’Donnell

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Of all of the elite units, the 1st Special Service Force had the most bizarre beginning. The Force was the brainchild of Englishman Geoffrey Pyke, an inventor, propagandist, statistician, financier, economist, and foreign correspondent. Pyke rarely bathed, shaved, or cut his hair, did not like to wear socks, and dressed in a badly stained, crumpled suit. Pyke’s personality matched his appearance.

But for all his shortcomings, Pyke was a brilliant man, and many of his ideas became the basis for important advances in a variety of disparate fields. Most important, Pyke had the ear of several powerful people, including Winston Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten, who introduced Pyke to General George Marshall.

One of Pyke’s schemes was built on snow — the simple realization that, for nearly half the year, much of Europe was covered in snow. Pyke theorized that whatever country mastered the snow would control Europe. He devised the Plough Project, which involved parachuting men and “snow tanks” into snow-covered areas. The men would ride the tanks across the snow and destroy strategic Axis targets such as hydroelectric plants in Norway and Italy. Just how they would get out remained a mystery. Nevertheless, the plan captured the imagination of Churchill and Mountbatten, who convinced a weary Eisenhower and Marshall to move forward on the idea. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick was given the task of creating the specialized unit for the Plough Project, surely a surprise to Frederick, who had written a War Department report against its feasibility.

To form the unit, calls were put out for lumberjacks, prospectors, game wardens, and forest rangers, basically all men who felt at home in the outdoors. The Canadians also wanted to be involved in the Plough Project, and with Churchill’s backing, Canadians were integrated into the Force, which became known as the North Americans. All together, three six-hundred-man regiments were created along with a service unit. The Force hovered around twenty-three hundred men and was staffed with roughly equal numbers of Canadians and Americans, with Americans slowly coming to outnumber Canadians as time went by.

The skills needed to carry out the Plough Project demanded rigorous training in a wide variety of disciplines. Men learned every available weapon, becoming masters of demolition, qualified skiers, and paratroopers, and learned how to drive and repair the Weasel, the tracked “snow vehicle” developed for the project. Hand-to-hand fighting was taught as well as personal initiative. Thus one of the toughest fighting units of the war was born, and the modern U.S. Special Forces, considered by many the elite of the elite, trace their lineage to this group.

By September 1942, political interest in the project had waned and the bombers needed to transport the Force to Norway were not available, so the Plough Project was canceled. Pressure began to mount to disband the unit, but Marshall felt the unit could be deployed elsewhere. It was first shipped to the Aleutian Islands, where it made a bloodless landing at Kiska Island in August 1943. Shortly after the operation, the North Americans were transferred to Italy, where they would play a decisive role, and from there they went on to southern France, where the unit was finally deactivated.

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Copyright © 2001 by Patrick K. O’Donnell. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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