AUTOWEEK: THE HELLCAT AND THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE
THE HELLCAT AND THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE: A TRANSNATIONAL JOURNEY IN A CHALLENGER WIDEBODY
Blasting through the borderlands in a supercharged testament to Canadian-American teamwork
JULY 1, 2018
Lethbridge, Alberta — In the spring of 1942, 700 Canadian volunteers marched south from here to Montana to join their American counterparts in forming a secret combined commando unit. At first, the allies fought it out in chaos, bruised knuckles and broken heads. The conflict served to forge and temper an alloyed dagger, a deadly specialist unit that never once failed to take an objective. Officially, the men were called the First Special Service Force. The enemy knew them as the Devil’s Brigade.
In the history of human conflict, there are blades and there are blunt instruments, and big, blown Dodges are most emphatically the latter. Everything imaginable has already been written about this machine and the 707-hp Hemi haymaker under its aircraft-carrier-size hood. Collectively, Hellcat burnouts have already produced enough tire smoke to successfully obscure a battalion of advancing M4 Shermans.
Yet one consistently overlooked detail about this most seemingly American of cars is that it’s actually manufactured in Canada. Built in the mid-1980s to produce cars for AMC, Brampton Assembly in Ontario currently builds all trims of the Chrysler 300, the Charger and the Challenger. The facility spreads across 68 acres and is by far the largest employer in town, with more than 3,000 shift workers clocking in every day.
The people’s hellion. (
The First Special Service was made up of ordinary working people like those who fit the doors and dashboard to this green Hellcat. The Canadians were handpicked for discipline and toughness, but only few were professional soldiers. The men were blue-collar industrial workers, farmers from Saskatchewan, hunters from Northern Ontario, fishermen from the western and eastern coasts, and yes, lumberjacks too.
The Americans, numbering 1,100, were a more motley crew. Ordered to recommend troops for some secretive task force, many Army officers took the opportunity to empty their stockades and send on their troublemakers. The men were still volunteers in name, but many came with reputations for insubordination, theft and worse.
In the heat and disarray of a hastily repurposed National Guard base, the two sides came together like hammer and anvil. The ranks didn’t translate. The uniforms weren’t uniform — some of the Canadian officers wandered around base in regulation kilts and tam o’ shanters. It soon emerged that the American enlisted men were paid better than the Canadians, and the Yanks weren’t above jeering the Canucks for paying taxes and fealty to the British Crown.
Dodge has gone insane, and we mean that in the best way possible. While the car market has withered, the Charger and Challenger have thrived. In the past 10 years, sales are up 70 …
A roadside memorial for the Devil’s Brigade, WWII’s sole American/Canadian joint fighting force.
Loping across the empty prairie in a cross between a Saturn V and an overstuffed armchair, it’s not hard to see how the pressure of the landscape focused an initial antipathy. Dropped into such a vast and lonely place, you might well pick a side based on whether you pronounced it “left-tenant” or “loo-tenant,” and then duke it out.
On the Canadian side of the 49th parallel, Alberta Highway 4 heads south-southeast to the border town of Coutts. It was named the First Special Service Memorial Highway in 1999; three years earlier, the name was first given to Interstate 15, running south to Helena. After an hour or so on the road, the Challenger rolls up to the line for inspection.
A friendly border guard takes my passport and listens, head cocked, as I explain my destination. “Only a Hellcat?” he asks with a grin, “C’mon man, that’s bullcrap — why not a Demon?”
Americans. Never change, you magnificent heathens.
Out of earshot of the border post, it’s hammer down and up to speed. A signpost marks the continuation of the memorial highway with the Force’s emblem: a red spearhead inscribed with both “USA” and “Canada.”
Signs now read in miles instead of kilometers, but in the landscape and the people, there is no real change. The beauty of traveling long distance by car — and the Challenger Hellcat is just the tactical nuclear chesterfield to do it in — is that you improve your understanding of a place. Fly over, look down, and you miss things. Drive and differences fade, replaced by the things we have in common.
After just a few weeks of training, the Devils clearly felt the same way. They swapped uniform coats instead of punches, bought each other rounds and starting tossing MPs through plate glass windows. The weapon was forged: Canadian brass, American balls.
If you were to make a movie about the Devil’s Brigade — and Hollywood did — the real-life characters involved would be laughed off as being totally unrealistic. The brains behind the creation of the Force was a genius British civilian named Geoffrey Pyke; he rarely bathed, was offensively arrogant to pretty much everyone and also came up with a working idea to build an aircraft carrier out of an iceberg.
The First Special Service Force’s shoulder patch was fitting: A red spearhead. (
Maj. John Shinberger, a paratrooper in charge of troop training, was afraid of reptiles, so he kept a footlocker of live rattlesnakes under his cot. Dermot “Pat” O’Neill, an ex-officer in the Shanghai International Police, instructed the men in unarmed combat, mixing jiujitsu, karate and who knows what else into a lethal blend. A Forceman’s blunt battle report: “I killed (him) with an O’Neill in the nuts.”
Overseeing everything was Col. Robert Frederick, a quiet, slight man, who nonetheless radiated authority and led from the front. Over the course of commanding the Force, he was wounded nine times, and he was known to pitch in as stretcher bearer and chaplain when the situation demanded. And it was needed all too often.
Stopping at a gas station to slake the Challenger’s thirst, I look up to see a veterans memorial perched on a hill overlooking the highway. It’s a somber reminder of the high cost borne by the Force. Originally intended for a suicidal strike against occupied Norway, the Brigade was instead deployed against hardened targets on the Italian front.
At Mount La Difensa, a fortified position held by two German Panzergrenadier regiments, 600 Forcemen moved into position under one of the largest Allied artillery barrages of the war. Some 20,000 shells dropped on la Difensa in a single hour. It looked like the mountain was on fire, as if they were marching into hell.
In the rain-slicked darkness, the heavily armed soldiers scaled a sheer 200-foot cliff to come at the entrenched enemy at a weak point. In the ensuing firefight atop the mountain, the Force lost a third of its fighting strength, including the death of the Canadian commanding officer, Lt. Col. Tom MacWilliam. But, in doing so, they smashed the German defenses where others had failed, opening a path to Rome.
It was later, at Anzio, that the Devils got their name. Small patrols moved into enemy territory with their specially issued daggers drawn and faces blackened with burnt cork and shoe polish. A note found scrawled in a German infantryman’s diary read, “The black devils (die schwarzen teufel) are all around us every time we come into the line.” The Force took to leaving warnings when they left, cards reading, “Das dicke ende kommt noch!” — colloquially, “the worst is yet to come!”
Also, at some point during a lull in the fighting, they found time to break into the Pope’s summer residence and steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. Enlisted men stuffed their sleeping bags with stationery bearing the papal letterhead. Later, an inventory of camp equipment turned up twice the number of Jeeps as was officially on the books, “liberated” from nearby allied units.
The Devil’s Brigade proved itself in the costly assault on Italy’s Mount La Difensa — a fortified position held by two German Panzergrenadier regiments. (
In some ways, it’s hard to believe that the wild Brigade would become the template for all tightly disciplined modern special forces, from the Green Berets to the Canadian counterterrorism unit JTF2. The bravery of these men was without question; adherence to any rulebook was somewhat flexible.
The Hellcat feels the same way, a workmanlike chassis hammered into a rough and likable hooligan. It is occasionally greeted by locals with awe, but never with the jealous stares you’d get in an exotic. It’s a hellion, but it’s the people’s hellion.
When the Challenger pulls into Fort Harrison, the National Guard base in Helena, a school bus is already parked out front of the museum. Inside, arranged around a diorama of the Mount la Difensa campaign, a group of elementary school students listened to a docent in a Vietnam veteran hat relating the history of the First Special Service Force.
“You have to remember what you owe to these men,” he explained to a group of respectful but uncomprehending young faces.
Their teacher spoke up. “I know some of you have family in the military,” he says, “And I know a couple of you have moms and dads who are deploying overseas soon. It’s just like that.”
Nods of understanding. These kids understand worry and loss and duty. It’s something they share with the thousands of other families of those that serve, whether a uniform carries the U.S. flag or the maple leaf.
With today’s politics, the invisible line between our countries is underscored whenever it might suit short-term political gain. Trade wars and tariffs loom, talking heads on both sides of the border try to score points by playing to national differences, and social media replaces dialogue with overlapping monologues and an inflated sense of outrage.
The men of the First Special Service Force wouldn’t have understood any of this modern prattle, nor would the Canadian and American troops of Korea and Afghanistan, nor would the oft-forgotten 30,000 Canadian volunteers who fought with U.S. forces in Vietnam. To them, the nationality of the man standing shoulder to shoulder at the line was of little importance. When the Force was finally dissolved in France, the last parade on Dec. 5, 1944, it was like a family being torn apart.
As I fire up the Hellcat and head out on the 700-mile drive back to the coast, it’s a lesson that sinks in as bugs spatter the windshield and the sun dips below the horizon. On the surface, the people of both countries live in a divided time, superficially separated by creed, by beliefs, by values. Dig deeper, listen as much as you’d speak, and a stranger reveals themselves to be a good neighbor.
More than a neighbor. A brother in arms.
“Das dicke ende kommt noch!” — “the worst is yet to come!” — was the Devil’s Brigade’s ominous warning for the enemy. (