Veteran Stories:
Donald Ballantyne

Army

  • This shoulder flash, in the shape of a spearhead, designates a member of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), an elite unit of paratroop infantry formed of Canadian and American soldiers. The FSSF is better known by its nickname, the Devil's Brigade.

    Donald Ballantyne
  • This braided and dyed shoulder cord made from parachute suspension lines was an essential part of the service uniform of members of the First Special Service Force. Each soldier was required to purchase one before being given a pass to leave base.

    Donald Ballantyne
  • Canadian FSSF soldiers were permitted to wear this cloth badge with silver wings, an open parachute and a gold maple leaf on their US issue service uniform.

    Donald Ballantyne
  • This photograph of Donald Ballantyne at age 20 was taken while he was on leave in August 1943. It shows him wearing the identifying uniform and insignia of the First Special Service Force.

    Donald Ballantyne
  • This document, kept tucked in Donald Ballantyne's pay book, demonstrates the intensive and specialized training undergone by members of the First Special Service Force.

    Donald Ballantyne
Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

""Units of the First Special Service Force were the first soldiers to liberate the City of Rome.""

Transcript

My name is Donald Ballantyne. I was in the Parachute Infantry for most of World War II. Prior to that I was in the regular Canadian Army Infantry Regiment, The Victoria Rifles of Canada.

In September 1940, I was only 17 and a half at the time, but I made myself out to be 18 and I got away with it. The call went out to all of the army units in the Canadian Army asking for volunteers for some new hush-hush, elite outfit that was being assembled. Not much was known about this formation, except that it was to be a sort of a commando unit and it attracted me at the time because I was getting a little bored with parading on guard duty with a rifle over my shoulder. In any event, a lot of volunteers stepped forward and after medical and fitness and IQ tests and so on, those few that were selected found themselves on a train headed west - and I was one of them. I was on my way to Helena, Montana, the training site for a new unit which was eventually to be called The First Special Service Force. The idea for this force came out of England when planners decided that a highly, mobile small force could be quite effective in pinning down large numbers of German troops in Europe. And three areas were selected for special attention: the Hydro Electric and Heavy Water Installations in Norway, the oil refineries in Romania and the Hydro Electric Generating Stations in Italy. Training was pretty arduous. Parachute training, mountain climbing, demolitions with weapons of all kinds. Hand-to-hand combat, skiing, operations with snow vehicles. Particularly fitness. The thing I recall about Helena, Montana, was that we never walked anywhere - we ran everywhere. And we became very fit after a very short period of time.

The high command had changed its plans. It was decided that these original three targets in Norway, Romania and Italy were too risky to attack and other plans were then made for the force. The first of these was to remove the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands. They were occupying the island of Kiska. So Force that arrived there, only to discover that the Japanese had evacuated mere days before. So we returned to the United States and embarked for North Africa, Casablanca. Crossed the North Atlantic on a steamship and then by train to Oran and then by ship again to Naples, Italy. The Germans were behind the defensive line, called the Winter Line, which was dominated by a high mountain, 3100 foot high rocky ridge, Mount Defensa, which was the first objective of the Force. This was our first combat action. The 5th Army had previously attempted to take Mount Defensa on three different occasions and casualties were very, very heavy. But the force was able to do the job in a mere 6 hours, using mountain climbing techniques in a heavy fog at night, climbing the mountain by rope, and surprising the Germans. This wasn't without numerous casualties, however. The force was then embarked for Anzio, which had been opened up, south of Rome as a diverting tactic in the hope that the Germans would move some of their forces to defend against Anzio and open the way for the advance to Rome. Unfortunately, the Germans were too tough. Anzio became a stalemate and we were on Anzio beachhead for 3 months before we were able to break out and advance on Rome. And units of the First Special Service Force were the first soldiers to liberate the City of Rome.

Follow us