Weaponry and Wartime Experience

Canadians on the Cote d’Azur, 1944

First Special Service Force

In August 1939 a young Montreal lawyer, Ralph Wilson Becket, was sent to Prince Edward Island to manage a trust for one of his firm's senior partners. The 31-year-old Becket enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Prince Edward Island Highlanders and on 1 August 1940 his regiment, headquartered in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was mobilized. Its first assignment was to defend the east coast. On a train journey that November he read in Liberty magazine that Americans were receiving parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Becket draughted a memorandum on the value of a parachute unit for combatting enemy landings on the Canadian coast. Since Canada could hardly be expected to launch its own training programme, he wrote, Canadian parachutists could be trained in the United States - although, he added, it was unlikely that such a unit would remain long in Canada if the conflict continued.

In 1942, when he was a staff officer in the 18th Brigade just formed at Prince George, British Columbia, Becket saw a Top Secret message announcing the formation of the volunteer 2nd Parachute Battalion to be trained at Helena, Montana. The unit would be part of a Canadian American venture named the 1st Special Service Force. Surmounting some difficulties (he was short-sighted), Becket managed to get accepted.

The disciplined arrival of the first detachment of Canadians, each in the uniform of his home regiment, behind a bagpiper at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena caused a stir among the Americans present, though not as great as depicted in the film The Devil's Brigade, says Becket.

The Force was organized on American lines with three regiments of two battalions, each with three companies. In August 1944 Becket commanded the Force's 3rd Regiment, whose 2nd Battalion was led by john Bourne of the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch) of Montreal.

The Force was preparing for an amphibious landing in the Toulon area of France. Two Canadian troop transport vessels would be on duty for the occasion. Becket's objective was to take, at H-5, Levant Island, one of the Hyères Islands east of the landing area. A coastal battery had been recorded on Levant Island. The landing took place on the night of 14/15 August 1944, one year to the day after the Kiska landing in which the Force, and Becket, had participated, and its purpose was to protect one flank of the main attack on the continent. Indeed Levant Island turned out to be a Kiska of sorts. Few Germans and a false battery were found. However, one of Becket's battalions met with some resistance and took a few prisoners. After helping the 2nd Regiment secure the hardest positions to take on Port-Cros Island on 15-16 August, Becket was transferred to the mainland, first to Frejus, where he had to fight, then to the advance towards Grasse. The 3rd Regiment was assigned to cross the Alpes Maritimes during this advance. The fierce fighting on the approaches to the perfume capital of the world, says Becket, bore no resemblance to the chapter entitled "The Champagne Campaign" in the book The Devil's Brigade. The advance to the Italian border was fairly rapid, as the German divisions were not at their best. However, men were killed, wounded or permanently disabled on the Côte dAzur, the very name of which evokes the pleasures of life. Becket and his men liberated Biot, the German artillery managing to inflict little damage. Here they encountered female collaborators having their heads shaved. Becket put a stop to this practice, to the great displeasure of the women's tormenters, resisters to the end.