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'Let Us Dare': A History of the Canadian Special Forces

By: Warren Gray

The Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), whose motto in Latin is Audeamus (“let us dare”), officially traces its roots back to the First Special Service Force (FSSF), the joint, Canadian-American, special forces/commando unit activated on July 9, 1942 at Fort William Henry Harrison, near Helena, Montana.

The FSSF was specially trained in parachuting, hand-to-hand combat tactics, snow skiing, and mountain warfare, and was intended to be used for sabotage missions in German-occupied Norway.

But their actual, initial, combat action took place on December 3, 1943, at Monte La Difensa (Hill 960), Italy, eight miles (13 kilometers) southeast of Cassino, where they valiantly assaulted a heavily fortified German artillery position atop the 3,143-foot (952- meter) heights, ascending a sheer, one-thousand-foot-tall, 70-degree cliff face in the dead of night with only 29-percent lunar illumination, a seemingly-impossible task, under the very capable command of Canadian Lieutenant Colonel (LCol) Donald Dobie “Windy Willy” Williamson.

Fierce fighting began at 4:30 in the morning and lasted until 7:00 a.m., with the remaining German defenders retreating to another nearby mountain. A captured German commander stated in astonishment that, “You can’t be up here. It’s impossible to come up those rocks.”

The hallmark symbol of the FSSF was their now-famous, custom-designed Case V-42 combat dagger, made by W.R. Case and Sons Cutlery of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Three thousand V-42s were produced from 1942 to 1943, with at least 1,750 going directly to the FSSF. Factory reproductions were later created from 1989 to 1993 and again in 2015. Production knives from this latter batch are still available for purchase for $455 USD and upward. This same dagger was later used in the badge designs of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), CSOR, and the élite Joint Task Force 2.

The First Special Service Force continued its mountain campaign for the next five weeks after storming Monte La Difensa, sustaining 77-percent casualties, including 91 men killed and 313 wounded. Then, they took part in the dramatic beachhead landings at Anzio, south of Rome, on February 1, 1944, and fought for 99 consecutive days without relief. It was at Anzio that the force was dubbed the “Devil’s Brigade,” and the “Black Devils” by the Germans, because the men smeared their faces with boot polish for night combat and were amazingly stealthy on covert operations.

The special group subsequently captured seven key bridges enroute to Rome and was one of the first Allied units to enter the capital city on June 4, 1944. On August 14th, they took part in amphibious landings during Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France, and fought their way to the Franco-Italian border region before being disbanded at Menton, France, on December 5, 1944. During the war, the 1,800-man FSSF accounted for approximately 12,000 German casualties, captured 7,000 live prisoners, and sustained an attrition rate of over 600 percent.

This historic unit evolved into the U.S. Army Special Forces by 1952, and much more recently, in 2006, all Canadian FSSF members were retroactively awarded the U.S. Combat Infantry Badge. In addition, all American and Canadian force members have been awarded the Special Forces shoulder tab, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015, the highest award that Congress can give to civilians.

The original, red spearhead shoulder patch of the FSSF bore the white lettering “USA – CANADA,” and their branch of service insignia was the crossed arrows of the former U.S. Army Indian Scouts. Today, CANSOFCOM units still wear a plain, red spearhead (called an arrowhead in Canada) patch on their left shoulders, with golden, crossed-arrow insignia on their shoulder epaulets, just as the U.S. Special Forces have adopted the same crossed arrows for their own branch insignia.

In 1977, The Canadian Airborne Regiment (since disbanded) and 2 Combat Group were joined together, forming the new Special Service Force (SSF), whose motto in French was Osons (“We dare”), emblazoned beneath a generic, winged dagger (not a V-42) on their shoulder patches. This was a brigade-sized command of 3,500 men, to provide small, highly-mobile forces when required. It included 427 Tactical Helicopter Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force for rapid air transportation, but overall, the SSF was a rapid-reaction force, not a Special Forces unit. It was disbanded in 1995, two years after the March 1993 Somalia Affair scandal.

By April 1, 1993, the Canadian government had decided to transfer responsibility for counterterrorism (CT) operations from the police to the armed forces, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) tactical unit at Dwyer Hill, near Ottawa, was deactivated, and replaced at the same location by Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2), a new, military, special operations unit initially formed with 100 veteran paratroopers from the Canadian Airborne Regiment and the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) Regiment.

JTF 2 was Canada’s first genuine Special Forces unit since World War Two, and today it remains the élite centerpiece of the nation’s Special Operations Forces Command. As Canada’s counterpart to the British Special Air Service (SAS) and U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta, the unit is primarily tasked with counterterrorism, but it also specializes in direct action, hostage rescue, personnel recovery, and foreign internal defense. JTF 2 operators are known as “assaulters,” not “commandos,” their average age is 37, and they adopted the tan beret, inspired by the SAS, as their own headgear. Their motto is “Deeds, not words.”

They are recognized experts at “precision shooting, moving, communicating, intelligence support, (and) sustainment,” according to Lieutenant General Michael “Mike” Rouleau, the former CANSOFCOM commander, now in charge of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.

“All of it is extremely precise,” Rouleau said. “We are capable of assaulting...any (terrorist) stronghold in Canada (or overseas), whether it’s a train, an airplane, a ship, a building, (or) moving vehicles. It can be very low-signature. It can be very clandestine in the way that it is used.”

JTF 2 saw its initial action in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1994, operating in very small teams hunting for Bosnian Serb snipers who were targeting U.N. forces, especially in the bloody and infamous “Sniper Alley” of the Balkan city. During this same period, the United Nations’ leadership timidly decided that the word “sniper” had a bad connotation, especially in relation to the dedicated, allied marksmen assigned to the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Yugoslavia, including the JTF 2 counter-sniper teams.

But retired, Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie, who ran the Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, home to the Canadian Army sniper school in the late 1980s, offered this blunt response: “I must admit that political correctness does not fit within a military structure. So, they’re snipers, they’re good at it, and their job is to kill people. It’s about that simple.”

In 1996, JTF 2 deployed to Haiti to advise the security forces of the president there, and in 2004, they protected the Canadian Embassy and secured the airport during a coup that ousted the incumbent president from power. But it was the Global War on Terror that truly expanded the unit’s combat operations and manpower, to 600 active members by 2005.

In the aftermath of the horrific, September 11 attacks, 40 JTF 2 soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan in early December 2001, working directly with the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group on direct-action missions against Taliban and al-Qa’ida insurgents. JTF 2 reconnaissance teams scouted enemy cave networks at Zhawar Kili, and took part in 42 direct-action missions during Operation Anaconda in March 2002. They also carried out extensive operations jointly with New Zealand SAS forces.

In late 2005, JTF 2 deployed to Iraq, where terrorists had kidnapped four members (including two Canadians) of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Baghdad. Canadian assaulters joined with British SAS commandos in searching for the hostages, launching raids across the city, until the SAS eventually recovered the three surviving hostages in March 2006. They also returned to Afghanistan in 2005 for nocturnal, “kill-and-capture” missions against hostile, insurgent leaders.

JTF 2 was later very active as a security force at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, and has served as bodyguards for Canadian VIPs travelling overseas. The unit operated in conjunction with British Special Forces during the 2011 Libyan Civil War, and has been active in Iraq since 2014 under Operation Impact, the Canadian military intervention against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. 69 Canadian Special Forces advisors were sent to train the Iraqi government’s military, along with six CF-18A/B (officially CF-188A/B) Hornet fighter aircraft for conducting airstrikes.

Beginning in April 2015, Canadian jets also conducted airstrikes on ISIS units in Syria, but all strikes by Canadian fighters in Iraq and Syria ended on February 15, 2016. Air support continued, however, in the form of two CC-130J Super Hercules transports and three CH-146 Griffon helicopters for carrying as many as 596 Canadian ground troops throughout Iraq, Syria, and two more countries in the region. Two CP-140M Aurora (P-3C Orion) patrol aircraft and a CC-177 (C-17A) Globemaster III heavy transport are sometimes used in-theater, but no fighters since early 2016.

Canadian soldiers, including JTF 2, are technically not supposed to participate in actual combat operations, except for facilitating airstrikes from a distance, but they have frequently come under enemy fire while supporting friendly, Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga militia troops, and have certainly exchanged gunfire with ISIS rebels. JTF 2 troops were often described by their U.S. and NATO allies as “world-class,” on par with the best special operations forces in the world.

One website lists them ranked as number seven among the “15 Most-Dangerous Special Forces in the World,” with the British SAS in first place, U.S. Navy SEALS in second place, Delta Force in fifth place, and the Australian SAS Regiment (SASR) in sixth place. Another site lists JTF 2 as fourth among the “Top 10 Most-Dangerous Special Forces Around the World,” after the British SAS, Delta Force, and Australian SASR, so the two separate lists seem fairly accurate and consistent.

JTF 2 assaulters have a vast array of weapons to employ, including Colt Canada C8A3, C8A4 (MRR), C8 SFW, and C8 CQB assault carbines, H&K MP-5A2/A3/SD submachine guns, FN P90 personal defense weapons, SIG Sauer P226, P228, or P229 service pistols, Remington Model 870 and Benelli M3 Super 90 shotguns, FN Minimi C9A2 light machine guns, and Browning M2HB heavy machine guns. Sniper rifles include the C14 Timberwolf in .338 Lapua Magnum, C15A1 (MacMillan TAC-50A1) in .50 BMG, and Barrett M82A1 in .50 BMG. The new SIG Sauer 716G2 Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) in 7.62mm NATO has also been tested recently. Many of these weapons are suppressed, for reduced muzzle flash and acoustic signature. For heavier firepower, they may employ H&K GMG or HK69A1 grenade launchers, or the 84mm Saab Bofors AT-4 anti-tank missile.

JTF 2 drives the M1113 and M1117 High-Mobility, Multipurpose, Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, or “Humvee”) special operations versions, and up to 78 newer, Polaris Defense DAGOR (Deployable, Advanced Ground, Off-Road) A1 vehicles. Most of these rugged, tactical vehicles are painted desert tan, and are heavily armed, with M2HB and C6A1 FLEX machine guns.

In 2013, SIG Sauer produced a special, limited-edition, “JTF 2 20th Anniversary” P226R pistol, and in 2018, Douglas Knives of Stittsville, Ontario, Canada, made a very fine, “JTF 25th Anniversary” Knife for sale to the general public for $262.50 CAD. JTF 2 members are apparently issued Emerson (USA) Karambit folding, survival/combat knives, an inwardly curved, Indonesian design resembled a sharpened, tiger’s claw.

JTF 2 uniforms have included the standard, Canadian Disruptive Pattern (CADPAT) digital camouflage in its temperate woodland (TW), arid region (AR), and winter/arctic (WA) variations since 2002, but in recent years, the highly effective, Crye Precision MultiCam is the most-favored pattern. A variety of footwear is available, including Gore-Tex-lined, all-weather, field boots by Salomon, Scarpa, La Sportiva, Lowa, and Danner.

All JTF 2 assaulters are fully qualified paratroopers, wearing gold, Canadian jump wings with either a red maple leaf after basic qualification, or later, a white maple leaf for constant service in a designated, parachutist position. They also wear the Special Operations Assaulter skill badge, and red, CANSOFCOM pocket badge, bearing the exact likeness of a Case V-42 combat dagger of the FSSF.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, JTF 2 and CSOR assaulters have been photographed wearing various sizes of the red, FSSF spearhead/arrowhead patch on their camouflaged uniforms as unofficial symbols of unit morale. These same, readily-recognizable patches have also been seen and photographed on American Special Forces, Delta Force, and Navy SEAL operators in Middle Eastern combat zones.

By early 2006, the expansion of JTF 2 missions in combat areas led to the official formation of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), with 2,500 members, currently led by Major General Peter Dawe, since 2018. This new command is responsible for all Canadian SOF units, with a primary mission of counterterrorism, but also tasked to handle hostage rescue, direct action, chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear responses, maritime special operations, special protection operations, sensitive site exploitation, combatting weapons of mass destruction, and support to noncombatant evacuation operations. General Dawe reports directly to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and has five major, assigned components:

  1. JTF 2: This is Canada’s premier Special Forces/CT unit, which also serves as the lead element in the Immediate-Response Task Force (IRTF), the highest-readiness task force in the nation, available on extremely short notice.

  2. CSOR: Created on August 13, 2006, at CFB Petawawa, this regiment handles especially-difficult, direct-action raids, capturing strategic facilities, and undertaking special reconnaissance missions. In this regard, they are similar to U.S. Army Rangers. The unit, commanded by Lt. Col. (LCol) Andrew Vivian, consists of 250 men, with combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. CSOR troops are issued an RMJ Tactical Shrike “lightweight, combat utility tool,” actually a steel, tactical tomahawk, representing the contributions of Canada’s indigenous people to the development of irregular and special warfare. In 2016, SIG Sauer produced a special, limited-edition, “CSOR 10th Anniversary Edition” P226R pistol for sale to the general public for $1,300. They also apparently drive Humvees, DAGOR A1s, and six-wheeled ATVs.

  3. 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron (427 SOAS): A Royal Canadian Air Force unit (the “Lions”) at CFB Petawawa, flying the CH-146 Griffon (Bell 412EP) helicopter (without FLIR sensors) in direct support of CANSOFCOM forces. Their motto is “Strike with a sure hand,” and they also have combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their helicopters are now painted semi-matte, dark bluish-black, often with GAU-21/A door guns in combat, and fast-roping systems for assaulters.

Commanded by Lt. Col. (LCol) Jeremy Fountain, the pilots carry SIG P226 or P228 pistols, with C8 carbines beside their seats for self-defense. They are not to be confused with the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret 427th Special Operations Squadron at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, which has no helicopters, but shares the same mission of supporting a North American nation’s very finest CT forces.

  1. Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit-Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CJIRU-CBRN): The “Dragon Hunters,” at CFB Trenton.

  2. Canadian Special Operations Training Centre (CSOTC): At CFB Petawawa.

CANSOFCOM forces wear the tan beret, inspired by the British SAS, whose motto is “Who Dares, Wins.” The Canadian SSF response, “We Dare,” and the CSOR motto, “Let Us Dare,” are indicative of this shared heritage, since Canada is part of the 53-member (British) Commonwealth of Nations, all recognizing Queen Elizabeth II as their sovereign. As of 2017, CANSOFCOM soldiers also wear a new, dress uniform (Distinctive, Environmental Uniform, or DEU) reminiscent of the FSSF uniforms from World War II, with brown jackets and khaki pants.

CANSOFCOM uses the Spartan Blades (of Southern Pines, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg) Harsey Difensa knife, designed by acclaimed knifemaker William W. “Bill” Harsey, Jr.: “When the Canadian special forces (JTF 2, according to one Canadian source, and other available evidence) commissioned Spartan Blades and master knifemaker William Harsey to produce a blade for them, we knew we wanted to create something special...The result was the Spartan Harsey Difensa, named after the infamous and hard-fought victory achieved...this custom, combat knife offers the wielder a comfortable, confident grip, whether wet or dry.”

Field and Stream magazine reviewed this new product in early 2014, noting that, “The Difensa is a heavy, overbuilt, utility knife...(with) a very sharp point...Difensa is for people who put their lives on the line on a…regular basis. It is an exceedingly tough piece of equipment...first-class life insurance.”

With an urgent, wartime requirement for airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, CANSOFCOM will soon be acquiring three MC-12W Liberty (Beechcraft King Air 350ER) special-mission aircraft, fitted with MX-15D infrared sensors, at an overall cost of $300 million. Deliveries will begin in 2020, and they will presumably be stationed at Petawawa Airport, near Garrison Petawawa and 427 SOAS, which is at the military heliport northwest of town, although no official, basing decision has yet been announced.

Before revealing JTF 2’s incredible sniper shot of May 2017, let’s briefly examine the nation’s wartime history of long-range marksmanship. The first Canadian experience with sniping occurred during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, where the Boers were armed with Mauser Model 1895 rifles in 7mm, which completely outclassed the British .303 rifle in use by Canadian forces. The Boers were an army of snipers, and these combat lessons gave Sir Charles Ross the idea of equipping Canadian forces with a superior weapon, his new Ross rifle in .280 Ross caliber.

In World War I, the most successful sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow (nicknamed “Peggy”), a native-Canadian, Shawanaga First Nation member of the Ojibwa people, who joined the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion despite overt discrimination against minorities, and fought with distinction in four major battles over three years of continuous warfare (the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, Battle of the Somme in 1916, Second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and Battle of the Scarp in 1918.)

Using a standard, Canadian-manufactured, M-1910 Mk. III Ross rifle in .303 British with a Warner and Swasey M1913 5.2X telescopic sight, Pegahmagabow established a sterling reputation as a sniper and scout, scoring an incredible 378 confirmed kills on his own, without using a spotter to assist him, and he also captured 300 live, German prisoners. These battlefield accomplishments earned him the prestigious Military Medal three times, despite being seriously wounded in action, as he rose to the rank of sergeant-major by the end of the war. He was the world’s top-scoring sniper for the next 21 years, until the Winter War of 1939-’40 in Finland and Russia, and now remains the sixth-highest-scoring sniper in history.

Military historian Martin Pegler noted that, “Most of the finest Canadian snipers proved to be Natives, whose backwoods skills, patience, and acute eyesight made them ideally suited to the task. Canadian soldiers proved some of the best snipers of the war. Their kill rate was extraordinary.”

In Afghanistan in March 2002, Master Corporal Graham Ragsdale, commanding a 3 PPCLI sniper team in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, recorded over 20 sniper kills with an outdated, C3A1 (Parker Hale M82) sniper rifle in 7.62mm NATO caliber. His rifle is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and this weapon series has since been replaced in Canadian service by the much-more-powerful C14 Timberwolf Medium-Range, Sniper Weapon System (MRSWS.)

Then, in May 2017, JTF 2 came out of the shadows of secrecy when one of its top snipers, who remains unnamed even today, set a new, official, world’s record for the longest-range, combat sniper kill in history during Operation Impact in downtown Mosul, Iraq. Firing from the rooftop of a high-rise building in the heart of the city, this expert sniper targeted an ISIS terrorist insurgent 2.2 miles away (3,540 meters, or 3,871 yards) with his bolt-action, C15A1 (McMillan TAC-50A1, or “Big Mac”) Long-Range, Sniper Weapon (LRSW) high-precision rifle, using .50-caliber, Hornady A-MAX (unofficially, Accuracy-Maximum) ultra-low-drag, aluminum-ballistic-tip ammunition and a $4,330 USD, Schmidt & Bender (German) 5-25X 56mm PM (Police Marksman) II/LP scope.

The terrorist was about to lead an attack against nearby, Iraqi security forces, and this astounding, ultra-long-range kill instantly disrupted the attack, with the sleek bullet travelling for a full 9.7 seconds to reach its distant target, the ISIS leader’s chest.

The C15A1 rifle is also favored by U.S. Navy SEAL teams, designated as the Mk. 15 Mod. 0 (or Mod. 1) Special-Applications, Sniper Rifle (SASR.) This includes use by the élite, Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) CT team.

The previous world’s record was set by two Australian snipers of the 2nd Commando Regiment on April 2, 2012, firing Barrett M82A1 rifles simultaneously against a Taliban rebel commander in Afghanistan from a breath-taking 3,079 yards (2,815 meters.) However, because two snipers fired at the same time, and only one bullet killed the enemy leader, it could not be conclusively determined who fired the fatal shot.

Among the top five long-range sniper kills in history, three of those kills, now in first, fourth, and fifth place, were all made by Canadian snipers, including rifle shots in March 2002 by Corporal Rob Furlong and Master Corporal Aaron Perry of 3 PPCLI, also using the C15 rifle with Hornady A-MAX ammunition.

The JTF 2 sniper kill was confirmed by the Canadian government in June 2017, as reported in The Washington Post: “For the soldier to hit his target at 3,540 meters (3,871 yards), he would need to account for every atmospheric factor available. Wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, the bullet’s yaw, and the rotation of the Earth would all need to be considered before pulling the trigger.

“These variables, once harnessed from devices such as a handheld (Kestrel-series) weather meter and potentially range-finding equipment (Leica Vector laser-ranging binoculars)...would then be processed through a ballistic calculator (Canadian-made, ApexO Firing System, or AFS) that would let the shooter make necessary adjustments on the rifle’s scope.”

Master Corporal Jody Mitic, a former Canadian sniper serving as an Ottawa city counsellor, quite accurately described this noteworthy, even historical incident as “a hell of a shot.”

Thus, from their early origins of hunting for renegade, Serb snipers in Bosnia, to the Global War on Terror in Iraq, JTF 2 has remarkably demonstrated its first-rate, counterterrorism skills, including very-long-range, sniper operations. While General Rouleau highlighted JTF 2 in 2016 as the “jewel in the crown” of Canadian Special Operations Forces, the indisputable reality is that the entire CANSOFCOM organization serves daily with great honor, distinction, and courage in defending peaceful Canada from the dual scourges of domestic and international terrorism.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, eight more military qualification badges, two command badges, 19 U.S. military medals, and three foreign medals. He also earned four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.

Photo Credit: By USASOC News Service - 130425-A-YI554-051, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29891613

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