On The War Memorial Trail…..A PEI Soldier In The Devil’s Brigade


First Special Services Force patch.  (Image courtesy of  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Special_Service_Force)

October 26, 2020.  The spark to inspire research into a Canadian soldier tends to happen in the most innocuous of circumstances.  For Pieter, it was while standing at the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion on a blustery November 11 several years ago.  Unlike many of us, he looked at the names and wondered who they were.  Had any of them been in The Netherlands, the country of his birth, and helped liberate it?   That moment sent him on a quest that has involved lots of research, many visits to archives, cemeteries, and monuments in several provinces and four European countries.  And he’s not finished.

For North Rustico resident Paul Keleher, that moment happened at Michael’s picture framing counter in Charlottetown.  “… A clerk brought out a Devils Brigade poster and I noticed a name from North Rustico… Keleher said.  “…Until then, I had no idea there were Canadians in the Devils Brigade, let alone any from Prince Edward Island!…”  The name he noticed on the poster was Joseph Robert GAUTHIER.

That was the spark that initially piqued Paul’s interest, and then  “…I bumped into a relative who mentioned where he was buried and said that his widow was still alive and living in Drummondville, Quebec….

Paul found the grave in the St Augustine Cemetery in South Rustico and decided he wanted to learn more.  Like Pieter, who served in the Dutch Air Force, Paul Keleher is also a veteran, having served in the British Army. “I was in the Royal Green Jackets and served in Malaya and then Borneo on active service 1963 to 66.  I was later posted to Berlin.  This was shortly after the wall went up...

IMG_1680 Cemetery photo from Paul Keleher

Grave of Joseph Robert Gauthier. (Photo credit: Paul Keleher)

After speaking to Gauthier’s widow Dorothy, a British war bride from the southern part of England, he contacted us Pieter for a bit of advice from Pieter on how to proceed with further research.  “I enjoy your articles on local Canadian Soldiers so when I heard about Joey I thought of you...

CIMG4448 Sep 20 2020 meeting with Paul Keleher

Pieter (standing) with Paul Keleher and his wife Hasmah. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

So, what was the Devil’s Brigade?  Officially known as First Special Service Force (FSSF), this was an American-Canadian commando unit, formed in 1942, and commanded by the US Army’s Fifth Army. The unit trained in Helena, Montana and served in the Aleutian Islands, then fought in Italy and France before being disbanded in December 1944.  (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Special_Service_Force)

In Canada, the Minister of Defence approved sending soldiers to the unit, but decided to say they were forming the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.  Volunteers were recruited under that name, and were also known as the ‘2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion’.  No mention was made of ‘First Special Service Force’ or that it was to be an international unit at the time.  However, in April–May 1943 they received the designation 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion.

Peter Layton Cottingham, author of ‘Once Upon A Wartime: A Canadian Who Survived the Devil’s Brigade’ noted that all the men wore the same uniform.  “…we were issued American Army clothing which was ‘space age’ compared to the ‘King’s Burlap’ we had all worn in the Canadian Army…

The name ‘Devil’s Brigade’ came after a diary was found on the body of a German lieutenant in Italy, according to an account in ‘The Devil’s Brigade’ by Robert H. Adelman and George Walton:  “…In it was written ‘The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line, and we never hear them come’….” 

Adelman and Walton go on to explain that the reference to Black Devils came from an initiative by the unit’s commander.  “...He had ordered a printed supply of paper stickers upon which was reproduced the insignia of his Brigade and, underneath, was a statement in German to the effect that ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’.  The Forcemen, after killing a German, would paste one of these stickers on the German’s forehead or helmet, and then go on.  This tactic, executed by a band of blackfaced guerrillas moving soundlessly through the night, not only frightened the enemy, it also produced a mighty effect on the other beachhead soldiers and war correspondents…

cfl_1876 Joseph Robert Gauthier

Joseph Robert Gauthier in his First Special Service Force uniform.  (Photo courtesy of Linda Craig Family Collection)

Born on February 24, 1924 in Rusticoville, Prince Edward Island, Joseph Robert Gauthier enlisted with the Carleton & York Regiment, before going into the FSSF.  He was a T4, a technical ranking which paid the same as a sergeant, but without the authority of a sergeant.  As seen on the sleeve of his uniform, a T4 wore 3 stripes with a T under the stripes. 

The unit was disbanded on December 5, 1944 near the village of Villeneuve-Loubet, France. In Cottingham’s memoir, he explained that they then travelled by boat from Marseille to Naples.   “…At Avellino we were divested of our American uniforms, being allowed to keep only our treasured and distinctive parachute boots.  We spent a few hours every day being reintroduced to Canadian Army commands and drill.  We also needed to have our new Canadian uniforms adjusted and decked out with our various insignia and chevrons of rank.  It was quite a transition. One small compensation was that we were issued the cherry berets of the Airborne regiments….

After spending Christmas in Avellino, Italy, the Canadians returned to England in January 1945.  Cottingham noted that “…Those of us who were not sent to officers training were absorbed into the First Canadian Parachute Battalion and, following a brief course in Canadian weaponry and parachute drill, were dispatched to join the regiment already in contact with the enemy near the Rhine River…”  Family members told Paul Keleher that Gauthier joined the Black Watch after the FSSF disbanded.

In his research, Paul learned that Gauthier met his wife Dorothy Howard at a dance in Aldershot, England in 1945, and they married on December 12, 1945 in Cathedral Church of St. Michael and St. George, a Catholic church in Aldershot.

improved_photo-1 Gauthier and wife

Dorothy and Joseph Gauthier.  (Photo courtesy of Linda Craig Family Collection.  Photo restoration and colourization by Pieter Valkenburg)

In January 1946 Gauthier was discharged and returned to Canada.   War Bride Dorothy was able to follow him to Canada in July 1946. Gauthier became a fisherman, but after a few years he rejoined the Armed Forces, and served for an additional 32 years.  As part of a peacekeeping force he was in Korea in 1951 and later in Egypt.  He and Dorothy had 6 children:  3 daughters, 1 son Raymond, and 2 who have passed away.

Gauthier passed away on February 27, 1987 in Montreal and was returned back to the Island for burial. 

In addition to Joseph Robert Gauthier, Paul wrote down the names of other Islanders who served in this special unit that had been identified on the poster he saw in Michael’s.  They are:

  • Lieutenant Colonel R. W. (Bill) BECKETT of  Charlottetown
  • Private L. E. (Lawrence ‘Junior’) DURANT of  Charlottetown
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 Wilfred MACDONALD of Glenwilliam
  • Sergeant E. L. (‘Tiny’) MACLEAN of Ocean View
  • Private J. H. MCINNIS of Morrel
  • Private C. W. (Charlie) DEIGHAN of Summerside
  • Private J. F. CHAPPEL of Charlottetown
  • Private A. J. BURDETTE of Charlottetown
  • Private F. C. MCCORMICK of Ebbsfleet
  • Private C. W. (Clarence)THOMPSON of Summerside
  • Private J. (Joe) JAMIESON of North Rustico
  • Private R. E. TRAINOR of Charlottetown
  • Private W.F. (William) DOUGLAS of Mount Stewart
  • Private E. J. (‘Ping Pong’) GALLANT of Summerside
  • Private W. P. (Wilfred) DOWLING of Charlottetown
  • Private R. J. (Ray) DURANT of Summerside

William Douglas of Mount Stewart was the only Islander killed in action while serving with the First Special Service Force.


Thank you to Paul Keleher for letting us know about the Island connection to the Devil’s Brigade, and the service of Joseph Robert Gauthier.  This Remembrance Day, if you find yourself in St Augustine Cemetery in South Rustico, lay a flag down by his grave as a thank you for his service.

If you have information to share about Joseph Robert Gauthier, or any of the other Islanders who were in the Devil’s Brigade, please contact Pieter at dariadv@yahoo.ca or comment on the blog. 

© Daria Valkenburg

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