The Force

The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII's Mission Impossible


By Saul David

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Hailed as "masterly" (Wall Street Journal) and a "monumental achievement" (Douglas Brinkley), this book tells the riveting, true story of the group of elite US and Canadian soldiers who sacrificed everything to accomplish a crucial but nearly impossible WWII mission.

In December of 1943, as Nazi forces sprawled around the world and the future of civilization hung in the balance, a group of highly trained U.S. and Canadian soldiers from humble backgrounds was asked to do the impossible: capture a crucial Nazi stronghold perched atop stunningly steep cliffs. The men were a rough-and-ready group, assembled from towns nested in North America's most unforgiving terrain, where many of them had struggled through the Great Depression relying on canny survival skills and the fearlessness of youth. Brought together by the promise to take part in the military's most elite missions, they formed a unique brotherhood tested first by the crucible of state-of-the-art training—including skiing, rock climbing, and parachuting—and then tragically by the vicious fighting they would face.

The early battle in the Italian theatre for the strategic fort cost the heroic U.S.-Canadian commando unit—their first special forces unit ever assembled—enormous casualties. Yet the victory put them in position to continue their drive into Italy, setting the stage for the Allies' resurgence toward victory in WWII. The unit, with its vast range of capabilities and mission-specific exercises, became a model for the "Green Berets" and other special forces groups that would go on to accomplish America's most challenging undertakings behind enemy lines.

Knitting first-hand accounts seamlessly into the narrative-drawing on interviews with surviving members and their families; the memoirs, letters, and diaries of Forcemen; and declassified documents in the American, Canadian, British, and German archives—The Force tells a story that is as deeply personal as it is inspiring.


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“It seemed like the
mountain was on fire”

As darkness fell on December 2, 1943, Captain Bill Rothlin, a no-nonsense former metalworker from Berkeley, California, ordered the 88 men of his company to shoulder their weapons and packs and begin the steep climb up Monte la Difensa, the keystone to a formidable German defensive position in southern Italy known as the Winter Line. Difensa’s 3,000-foot-high summit was held by the crack troops of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, veterans of the fighting in North Africa and Sicily, and all previous Allied efforts to take the position had failed: four weeks earlier, multiple attacks by two battalions of the US 7th Infantry had been repulsed with heavy casualties (91 dead and 538 wounded). Bloated American bodies still lay on the lower slopes. Now this mission impossible was being given to the First Special Service Force (“the Force”)—later dubbed the “Black Devils” by the awestruck Germans—an elite unit of Canadians and Americans trained for winter warfare behind enemy lines.

Ten days earlier, an officer and a scout with Native American blood had reconnoitered the mountain. The only militarily feasible approach to the summit was thought to be via a gulley that ran up its eastern face. But the open terrain would expose an attacker to direct fire from the summit above and to enfilade fire from machine-gun nests that had been cleverly sited on a spur that ran down the mountain. So the scout suggested an alternative: to work around to the steeper northern face of the mountain and use ropes to scale the collar of near-vertical 200-foot cliffs that lay just below the summit. This assault route had two main advantages: it would allow the Forcemen to utilize their training as mountaineers and, more important, it was so steep it was unlikely to be defended. The final go-ahead was given after the Force commander had made a personal reconnaissance over the target area in his Piper Cub light plane. But he knew he was taking a big risk: if the Germans got wind of the attack before the men had scaled the cliffs, they would be caught in the open and cut to pieces.

The Force was made up of three combat regiments—each composed of two battalions—totaling around 1,650 men. Yet just a single battalion of 291 men was assigned to the initial night assault on Monte la Difensa. Its spearhead was Rothlin’s company. Commanding the point platoon was a 26-year-old lieutenant from Appleton, Wisconsin. The son of a millwright, with film-star looks, the lieutenant was the first of his family to go to college. He had joined up as a private and trained as a medic, but his leadership potential was quickly recognized and he was persuaded to go through Officer Candidate School where, like Rothlin, he volunteered for a new unit specializing in “parachute jumping, mountain climbing and skiing.”1 Though put in charge of arguably the most unruly and ill-disciplined platoon in the Force—full of tough former miners, loggers and trappers—the lieutenant soon became something of a father figure to his young NCOs and privates.

Among them was an athletic and adventurous 18-year-old private from Saint-Lambert, Quebec, who had just finished Grade 9 when he lied about his age to join the Canadian Army in 1941. As he climbed on December 2, the young Quebecois was astonished by the number of Allied shells exploding on the upper slopes of the mountain and its neighboring peaks (where a British assault was in progress): 925 guns fired 22,000 shells in the first hour of the barrage, or 11 tons a minute. German guns were responding in kind. “Shells roared overhead in both directions like freight trains,” recalled the private.2

Rothlin and his men reached the base of the northern cliffs and waited while the artillery continued its saturation shelling of the peak. “It seemed like the mountain was on fire,” wrote a 19-year-old from North Carolina who had been facing a court-martial for striking an officer when he signed up for the Force. “I never saw a barrage like it during our whole time. You wouldn’t think an ant could crawl out of it alive.”3

It was well after midnight, and the barrage had lifted, when two scouts led Rothlin’s men up the cliff. Encumbered as they were by packs, weapons and extra ammunition, the climb was only possible because the scouts had earlier fixed two rope lines to the rock face. Even with the help of ropes, the ascent up the dark, slippery slope was an exhausting and nerve-jangling experience. “The climb under combat load,” noted the battalion’s XO, “was incredibly difficult. Scrambling up cliffs with every foot and handhold doubtful demanded superhuman effort by men loaded with weapons, ammunition, radios and litters. To our ears, every rock displaced clattered downhill with sound magnified a thousand times and raised the question in our minds, ‘Did the enemy hear this?’—a not very comforting thought.”4

At the top of the cliff, the assault platoon dumped its packs while the two scouts searched for a route up the 200 yards of gently rising scree to the summit. It was 4:30 a.m. when one returned to say he had found it. By now the whole of Rothlin’s 1-2 Company had made it up the cliff. Led by the scouts, they edged “along a narrow, rough and rocky path toward the German positions concentrated in a saucer-like area ahead of us.” The young Quebecois could see the rocks of the peak silhouetted against the skyline. He knew that German sentries were just yards away. “We tried to make as little noise as possible,” he wrote. “2 and 1 Platoons were close behind us.”5

They were nearing the top when a German sentry shouted a challenge. He was shot by one of the scouts and, seconds later, the German defenders fired flares and swiveled their MG 42 machine guns and Schmeisser machine pistols to meet this unexpected threat from the rear. The stillness of the night was shattered by the roar of German machine-gun bullets, fired mostly blind but no less deadly for that as they pinged off rocks and sent lethal fragments in all directions.6 “All hell broke loose,” recalled a staff sergeant, as he and his men dived for cover.

It was 5:00 a.m. and still dark. The battle for Monte la Difensa had begun.


So how did this elite fighting force—made up of an assortment of men from two countries, all with unusual skills, who had spent more than a year preparing for a mission such as this in a remote location in the United States—come to fight on a barren hillside in Italy? The answer lies in decisions made at the very highest level of Allied planning by the US president, the British prime minister and their respective military chiefs. But first we must go back to a hot summer’s day in 1942, when Force recruits started arriving at a former National Guard camp in the vast northwestern state of Montana to begin one of the toughest military training regimes ever devised.




With a blast of its whistle and a final hiss of steam, the train clanked to a halt in a dusty siding near Helena, Montana. It was just after noon on Thursday, August 6, 1942, and many of the 480 Canadian officers and men on board were bleary-eyed and grimy after the three-day journey from Ottawa, Ontario, a distance of just under 2,000 miles, though some had made the much shorter trip from Calgary in western Canada. Apart from occasional stops for exercise, the men had passed the time eating, playing cards and trying to sleep on the hard horsehair seats in the 14 “immigrant-style day coaches.” Despite the discomfort, most had enjoyed the long trip across the flat prairies of central Canada, excited by what lay ahead.7

At dinner the night before, as they were about to leave the province of Alberta and cross into the United States, the officers had raised their glasses of port to toast their monarch, George VI, with cries of “God Save the King.” They knew it would be quite some time before they returned to “British” soil—if ever.8

All had volunteered for the First Special Service Force, a joint Canadian/American para-ski unit that was being raised for a top secret mission behind enemy lines. The standard expected of recruits was very high: the Canadians had to be “active personnel” with “high physical standards,” military trained and ideally possessing the “combined qualities of mountaineer, northwoodsman and skier.” It helped to have a working knowledge of engines, and, given the fact that the lowest rank in the Force “would ultimately be that of sergeant,” all recruits had to be “good NCO material.”9

One of the Canadian officers who arrived that day was 27-year-old Captain Tom MacWilliam, a schoolteacher from the eastern Maritime province of New Brunswick. The youngest of six siblings, he had grown up on a farm in Fords Mills on the Richibucto River, 40 miles north of the city of Moncton. He did well at school and won a place at Mount Allison University in Sackville, one of Canada’s finest, where he excelled at track and rugby and joined the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps (COTC), receiving a second lieutenant’s commission in the New Brunswick Rangers, a local militia battalion, in November 1939. It was also during his time at “Mount A” that he met his future wife, Harriet “Bobby” Robinson, just five feet two inches tall but iron-willed and extremely pretty.

MacWilliam was teaching at his old school, Mount Allison Academy, when his battalion was activated for war service in July 1940. For the next two years he was either on coastal outpost duty in small towns or villages, keeping a watch for German submarines, or attending various courses. In 1941, he and Bobby got married. A year later he was close to completing a company commanders’ course at the Royal Military College in Ottawa when he saw a notice requesting volunteers for a special parachute unit. He applied because he was “ambitious and wanted to make a contribution to the war effort, rather than sitting on guard duty.” Though far from physically imposing—he stood just five feet eight inches tall and weighed 135 pounds—he was a talented athlete, deceptively strong, and had recently completed a ski instructor course. With born leadership qualities, he was just what the Force was looking for.10

Most of the ordinary soldiers on the train were poorly educated and unskilled. They came from families that had struggled to make ends meet during the depression of the 1930s and were typically streetwise, resilient and unsentimental. But there were exceptions. Twenty-nine-year-old Sergeant Percy Crichlow, for example, had been born in the sunny climes of Barbados, a British colony in the eastern Caribbean, and educated at Harrison and Codrington Colleges in Bridgetown, the island’s capital, graduating from the latter in 1934 with a first-class honors degree in Classics. He was, therefore, something of a nerd and soon got a job teaching at the Lodge School on the east of the island. Unlike MacWilliam, his fellow teacher and future battalion commander, Crichlow was not an athlete. But he did have experience in soldiering, having served as a lieutenant in the Barbados Volunteer Force, a part-time unit that was deployed during the civil disturbances on the island in 1937.

Three years later, with France overrun and Britain threatened by invasion, Crichlow went to Canada and enlisted in the Victoria Rifles, determined to do his bit. But garrison and outpost duty across Canada were not what he had hoped for, and it was something of a relief when he heard the call for volunteers to join a parachute unit that would be trained in the United States and serve under American command. He put himself forward, easily passing the IQ and attainment tests he was set at Lansdowne Barracks in Ottawa. He was hardly the ideal recruit for the Force: a little too old and with no experience of outdoor living in harsh environments. But he had military experience, intelligence and obvious leadership potential. His interviewer gave him the thumbs-up, and he was right to do so. The mustachioed and slightly built Crichlow was tougher than he looked. Within days he was on the train to Helena.11

Also on board was a soldier Crichlow would come to know well: 22-year-old Private Joe Dauphinais, a handsome, broad-chested farm boy and former miner from Starbuck, Manitoba, who had been furious to be left behind when his original unit was posted overseas. So Dauphinais made the best of it by qualifying as a diesel mechanic at a top school in Calgary before undertaking a course in mechanical engineering at the Canadian Army Trade School in Hamilton, southern Ontario. It was in Hamilton that the then Corporal Dauphinais volunteered for the Force, his mechanical expertise and mining background both counting in his favor. He was accepted, but not before he had been busted back to private for going on an all-night drinking spree.12

From a relatively well-to-do background, but one not unaffected by the economic downturn of the 1930s (“We were never allowed to put butter on bread”), was 19-year-old Jack Callowhill, the son of a manager at the American Can Company in Hamilton. Callowhill senior had fought with a Highland Scottish regiment in France in the previous war, reaching the rank of regimental sergeant major (equivalent to first sergeant in the US Army). His son was recruited into the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry by a schoolteacher who was also an officer in the reserves, first as a part-timer and then, after he turned 18 in April 1941, a regular. His chief motive was to “get out from under my family” and look “for a bit of adventure.” The alternative was to get a job, but he hadn’t excelled at school and his prospects were not good.

A likable fellow with an easy grin, Callowhill took life as it came, unlike his more intense elder brother Bill who, thanks to a football injury, was barred from the air force and army and eventually joined the Royal Canadian Navy. Also a decent athlete, short and wiry, Callowhill was stationed with his regiment in Quebec when he heard about the special mission in 1942. His decision to volunteer was more about relieving the boredom of garrison duty than because he was eager for combat. In Ottawa, once selected, he was told to put on his dress uniform, dump the rest of his kit and board a train for an unknown destination.13

The youngest soldier on the train was almost certainly Don MacKinnon from Saint-Lambert, Quebec. MacKinnon had left school after Grade 9 and was working in a “dead-end” job in Montreal when he was inspired by his father’s World War One service, and the fact that his elder brother had just joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, to enlist a month before his 17th birthday. Tall and well built, he told the recruiting officer he was 19. It was easy to believe. The plan was for MacKinnon to join his unit, the Royal 22nd Regiment (the “Van Doos”), in England after he had completed his advanced training at Trois-Rivières. Instead, tired of waiting, he applied for and was accepted into the Force. It helped that he was an athletic daredevil who had ridden the ice floes on the Saint Lawrence River as a boy and who excelled at swimming, hockey, football and skiing.14

He and the other Canadian officers and men had volunteered for special service for an indefinite period, agreed to undergo training in parachute jumping and in “warfare under winter conditions,” and would serve “wherever required.” They were prepared, moreover, both to serve under and command officers and personnel from the US Army, and would obey their US superiors’ orders as if they were Canadians of relative rank. Yet they would continue to be subject to Canadian military law and would receive Canadian Army pay and allowances, including parachute pay.15 This last, seemingly innocuous point would prove to be a major bone of contention.


As MacWilliam, Crichlow and the others jumped down from the train and formed up in ranks of three, Canadian style, they were met by the astonished stares of their welcoming party, a small group of American officers and enlisted men,* who wondered: “Who the hell are these people?”

* Canadian NCOs and privates were known as “other ranks” or ORs.

Some of the watching Americans were from the Force’s noncombat Service Battalion, which had been formed several weeks before to provide cooks, bakers, kitchen porters, latrine workers, firemen, MPs, drivers, ammunition suppliers and parachute riggers—thus allowing the combat echelon of 1,200 men to concentrate on its mission. Others were destined, like the Canadians, for the three fighting regiments, and had come from across the continent and from every different type of US Army unit, including the Army Air Corps.

Among them was 24-year-old Second Lieutenant Bill Rothlin, a recent graduate of the US Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Born and raised in a middle-class detached home in Berkeley, California, Rothlin had completed both high school and a two-year nondegree program at the University of California’s College of Agriculture at Davis before working for a time as a semiskilled metalworker. In February 1941 he enlisted as a private and was posted to the 2nd Infantry Regiment in Michigan. By the time the 2nd Infantry departed New York for Iceland, en route to the United Kingdom, in April 1942, the tall and intelligent Rothlin, with obvious leadership qualities, had been selected for officer training at Benning. Though not due to complete his 17-week course at Benning until late September, Rothlin was among the first batch of 35 officer candidates who applied for and were accepted as new second lieutenants in the Force in mid-July. All had to report to the Force’s base at Fort Harrison, Helena, no later than July 25.16

The notice posted at Benning and, among other places, Fort Ord in California and the Corps of Engineers Officer Candidate School* at Fort Belvoir in Virginia had asked for “volunteers for special training, which would include parachute jumping, mountain climbing and skiing.”17 Applicants then had to fill out a questionnaire detailing educational background, occupation and hobbies, experience of outdoor life and reason for applying to join the Force. One officer applicant, a former plant manager from New York State, wrote that he liked hunting, fishing and knife collecting and had spent practically all his life outdoors in the mountainous climate of the Adirondacks. He was, moreover, keen to get into action. His form was marked “Highly Recommended.”

* The Force actively recruited among the graduating classes of officer candidate schools because its commander, Colonel Frederick, did not want junior officers “conditioned by other commanders” (Hicks, The Last Fighting General, p. 71).

The successful applicants, Rothlin included, were then interviewed by a Lieutenant Colonel Ken Wickham, the Force’s adjutant, who had traveled down from his office in Washington. One officer selected with Rothlin was handed a sheet of paper by Wickham and asked: “Lieutenant, is that your signature?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You have just been selected for a special project called Plough and you have four hours to clear this post. You will report to the commanding officer of Fort Harrison located west of Helena, Montana.”

Four hours later, Rothlin and the others were on their way.18

The rules laid down for American soldier volunteers were a little more specific. According to a letter sent by Wickham to military headquarters across the country, the Force was looking for single men between the ages of 21 and 35 who had completed three or more grades of grammar school and whose occupation or hobby included lumberjack, forest ranger, hunter, trapper, north woodsman (guide), game warden, prospector and explorer.19

Two of the men who answered the call were serving at Fort Ord on picturesque Monterey Bay, California, the headquarters of the 7th Infantry Division.20 The eldest was 37-year-old Private First Class Howard Van Ausdale, a half-Dutch/half–Native American* gold prospector and sometime trapper from Arizona who had lived most of his adult life in the largely forested and mountainous northwest state of Oregon. Olive-skinned and classically handsome, with a straight nose, full lips and wide-spaced eyes, his black hair slicked back from a side parting, Van Ausdale looked more like a Latin film star than a soldier. He had enlisted in February 1941, later joining the 15th Infantry, and though he was slightly older than the ideal Forceman, his teak toughness and familiarity with mountains and the wilderness made it impossible for the recruiters to turn him away.21

* Van Ausdale’s mother was said to be a member of either the Apache or Yavapai tribe.

The other volunteer from Fort Ord was 26-year-old Ray Holbrook from Washington State. The eldest of four siblings, Holbrook had had a far-from-idyllic childhood. Thanks to his mother Etta’s mental health issues, his parents separated in 1926 and later divorced. Ray and his younger brother lived either with their father or with relatives in Spokane, where Ray attended high school. After graduating in 1934, he worked for his father’s lumber business in Inchelium, close to the Canadian border, supervising the cutting of trees and maintaining the machinery. In late 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war, Holbrook joined the army. Perhaps he had seen the writing on the wall, or maybe he was just bored with manual labor. By the summer of 1942, the Force offered an exciting alternative to service with the 15th Infantry in California, and he took it. Square-jawed and stockily built, with light brown hair and dark eyes, Holbrook’s one slight physical defect was his nearsightedness, which he wore wire-rimmed glasses to correct.22

Popular myth has it that many of the Force’s US recruits were taken straight from army jails. This is not true. But a few, like 18-year-old Bob Davis from North Carolina, were given the opportunity to join the Force rather than face military justice. Davis had been rebellious since the age of 13, often in trouble with the police and rarely attending school. His only steady job before joining the armored corps had been as a bootlegger. He was facing a court-martial for striking an officer when he volunteered for and was accepted into the Force. Did his camp commander agree to drop the charges because he was glad to see the back of Davis? Possibly. But for every potential troublemaker like Davis, there were many more recruits who joined for less cynical reasons. Once in, even Davis put up with the harsh training regime, because he enjoyed the feeling of “security and comradeship” the Force provided.23


“Where you from, soldier?”

As the two nationalities sized each other up, they were struck by the unfamiliarity of each other’s uniforms. The American dress ranged from summer khaki to green herringbone twill, from the officers’ distinctive pink pants and green tunics to the jodhpurs and high caps of the US Cavalry. One newcomer, reminded of the hat he had worn in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, quipped: “Hey, I should have brought my old uniform.”


On Sale
Nov 2, 2021
Page Count
368 pages
Hachette Books

Saul David

About the Author

Saul David is a military historian and broadcaster. He is the author of The Indian Mutiny, which was shortlisted for the Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature, Military Blunders, Zulu: the Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (a Waterstone’s Military History Book of the Year),Victoria’s Wars, and Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History, an Amazon History Book of the Year. He lives outside of Bath, England, where he is a professor of military history at the University of Buckingham.

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