The Rangers in the South

The U.S. Army Rangers in Africa and Italy

Members of 1st Ranger Battalion in a mock charge during training (Photo: U.S. Army)

Members of 1st Ranger Battalion in a mock charge during training (Photo: U.S. Army)

We have recently celebrated the birthday of the U.S. Army Rangers with an article on their precursors in colonial times. (Read our earlier article - Birth of the Army Rangers) This present article is about the formation of the first Ranger units in World War II, and their service in Africa and Italy – a story that begins with high hopes and ends in catastrophe, though no without a strong promise for the future.
 
The United States did not have any units dedicated to special operations when it entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The need for such units, however, was evident, and the British Commandos served as an obvious example. Inspired by the Boer Commandos that fought against the British Empire in the Second Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the century, the British Commandos of World War II were rigorously trained light infantry battalions that executed stealthy, sudden raids along the coasts of German-occupied Europe. (Read our earlier article about one such mission - "The greatest raid of all")

British Commandos on a raid in German-occupied Norway (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
British Commandos on a raid in German-occupied Norway (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Unlike their British counterparts, the equivalent American units were originally envisioned as a temporary arrangement: selected American soldiers would train and fight alongside British Commandos, then go back to their original units to share their experience, or would return to the States to train more “Commando-style” units. The name “Ranger” was chosen by General Lucian K. Truscott, who wanted a more American-sounding name (and because “Commando” was already taken by the British). He wrote:
“I selected ‘Rangers’ because few words have a more glamorous connotation in American military history. . . . It was therefore fitting that the organization destined to be the first of the American ground forces to battle Germans on the European continent in World War II should be called Rangers—in compliment to those in American history who exemplified such high standards of individual courage, initiative, determination and ruggedness, fighting ability, and achievement.”

General Lucian K. Truscott, the man who activated 1st Ranger Battalion (Photo: Getty Images)
General Lucian K. Truscott, the man who activated 1st Ranger Battalion (Photo: Getty Images)

The commander of the first Ranger battalion was Captain William Orlando Darby, and artillery officer who also had infantry and cavalry experience as well as amphibious training. Darby was promoted to major and immediately began seeking volunteers in American units already stationed in Northern Ireland in preparation of the eventual Allied invasion of Northern Africa. 1st Ranger Battalion was activated on June 19, 1942, with 473 men.

William Orlando Darby in Britain (Photo: Phil Stern)
William Orlando Darby in Britain (Photo: Phil Stern)

The 1st Rangers spent three months at the Commando Basic Training Centre in Scotland. Here they’ve performed numerous speed marches across the rugged countryside and learned the operation of a wide variety of weapons, hand-to-hand combat, street fighting, night operations and boat handling under the tutelage of British Commando instructors. Weapon handling was taught with live ammunitions, which was unheard of in the U.S. at the time and led to the death of one Ranger and the wounding of several. Once they were done at the Training Centre, the Rangers were transferred to receive more amphibious training and practice landing operations on various Scottish islands.

B Company 1st Ranger Battalion on a training march in Scotland (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Rangers, or at least some of them, first saw action during the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942. The raid (Read our earlier article – The Dieppe Raid) was an amphibious attack on the German-held French town of Dieppe, used to test the equipment and training that would be eventually needed for D-Day. 51 Rangers were selected to participate in the operation. Most of them were attached to two Commando battalions who were to attack two coastal artillery batteries flanking the town. The others were detailed to the Canadian main force that would land directly in front of Dieppe in the center. These 51 men became the first American soldiers to see combat in Europe in World War II.

A British Commando instructor observes a Ranger during bayonet training (Photo: National Archives)
A British Commando instructor observes a Ranger during bayonet training (Photo: National Archives)

No. 4 Commando and the attached Rangers successfully destroyed the battery to the west of Dieppe and withdrew. On the east, the landing craft of No. 3 Commando were attacked by German S-boats (fast attack craft similar to Patrol Torpedo Boats (Read our earlier article – The “devil boats” of America)), causing them to disperse. Some men reached the shore and the German battery, and while they couldn’t destroy it, they harassed the artillery crews with sniper fire, rendering them inefficient. The main attack, however, ended in disaster, as tanks and most infantrymen were trapped on the beach and suffered appalling casualties before the survivors could retreat.

Lord Lovat and his No. 4 Commando, with some Rangers in their ranks, returning from the Dieppe Raid (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Lord Lovat and his No. 4 Commando, with some Rangers in their ranks, returning from the Dieppe Raid (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Four months later, the obscure 29th Ranger Battalion (provisional) was formed in December 1942. It existed for less than a year. It received Commando training and accompanied Commandos on various reconnaissance and raid mission, then was disbanded in October 1943, with members sent back to their previous units. While the men were disappointed, this was, in fact, the way American planners originally envisioned Rangers: temporary units whose job was to gather Commando experience then spread the knowledge among regular troops.
 
Meanwhile, the Rangers’ first true test came in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. The operation was spearheaded by the 1st Rangers Battalion. At 1 a.m., on November 8, 1942, the battalion’s landing craft split up into two groups outside the port of the city of Arzew in Algeria, held by Vichy French forces. Two companies of Rangers, led by Major Herman Dammer, entered the inner harbor under the cover darkness, made landfall at the dock, and stormed the defensive fort, capturing 60 surprised French soldiers, including the commandant, who was still in pajamas. Meanwhile, three companies led directly by Darby landed outside the harbor and captured the artillery battery overlooking it. The rapid capture of Arzew helped Allied forces to quickly capture the major port of Oran some 19 miles (30 km) away.

Soldiers of 1st Ranger Battalion at a captured coastal gun at Arzew (Photo: U.S. Army)
Soldiers of 1st Ranger Battalion at a captured coastal gun at Arzew (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Rangers remained in Arzew for two months, acting as a military government, with Major Darby becoming the town’s unofficial mayor. Other units might have spent this time with R&R, but Darby did the opposite and started improving his men’s stamina via forced marches that made the ones in Scotland feel easy.

Major Darby as the unofficial mayor of Arzew (Photo: U.S. Army)
Major Darby as the unofficial mayor of Arzew (Photo: U.S. Army)

The battalion was airlifted to Tunisia in February 1943 to help the American eastward advance that would catch Italian troops and the German Afrika Korps in a pincer between U.S. forces in the west and British ones in Egypt in the east. Here they proved their worth in two more Ranger-style engagements: the capture of the train station at Sened, and of Djebel el Ank, a critical mountain pass to the east of El Guettar. In both cases, they’ve crossed difficult terrain under the cover of the night to get behind Italian forces (hiding during the day if the distance made it necessary), then attacking with the advantage of surprise.

Two Rangers engaging snipers in Arzew (Photo: the Darby Foundation)
Two Rangers engaging snipers in Arzew (Photo: the Darby Foundation)

The Rangers’ success, as well as the need for similar operations in the upcoming liberation of Sicily, convinced American planners to triple the size of the force. Darby was told to set up two new battalions, the 3rd and 4th Rangers, in the spring of 1943. (2nd Rangers had already been formed in the States. They would go on to make a name for themselves by capturing Pointe du Hoc on D-Day (Read our earlier article - Pointe du Hoc)). The three battalions were independent of each other on paper, but in practice, now-Lieutenant Colonel Darby oversaw the operation of all three, collective nicknamed Darby Ranger Force.
 
Interestingly, the Rangers’ problems began at this point, just as their successes were starting to be recognized. Firstly, the officer and enlisted core of the two new battalions had to come from 1st Rangers, which in turn left the original outfit short-staffed with veteran Rangers. Secondly, the men recruited from other units to fill out the three battalions were veterans, but Operation Husky in Sicily was drawing near, and Darby only had three weeks to train them in Ranger-style operations; it was impossible to provide the same amount of training as the first batch of Rangers received in Scotland over three months. Thirdly, the Army still considered the Rangers to be temporary units that would be eventually broken up, and thus didn’t see the need to assign manpower to a special headquarters unit that would have overseen their operations. Without a Ranger HQ that could have ensured that the Rangers were used for the types of special missions they trained for, they would often be subordinate to commanders who did not understand the utility of Rangers and only thought of them as regular line infantry “only better.” Consequently, they were often used in large-scale combat, which squandered their skills and lives. Every time the Rangers suffered casualties in such poorly conceived missions, the arrival of new, green replacements with no opportunity to properly train them further diluted the fighting ability of the three battalions.

General Patton greeting Darby after the successful landings in Gela, Sicily (Photo: U.S. Army)
General Patton greeting Darby after the successful landings in Gela, Sicily (Photo: U.S. Army)

To make things worse, Ranger companies consisted of 63-67 men due to the stealth and mobility requirements of their profile; they were much smaller than the standard 193-man battalions. Therefore, not only were they miscast when put on the front line, but they also had to fight the wrong type of battle with fewer men than other units. This, in turn, further increased Ranger casualty rates.
 
The consequences of these problems, however, were still in the unforeseeable future, and for the time being, the Rangers were concentrating on Operation Husky. The three battalions spearheaded the invasion of Sicily just as they did the invasion of North Africa. General Terry de la Mesa Allen (Read our earlier article - "Terrible" Terry, the bad boy general), commanding officer of the 1st Infantry Division, combined the 1st and 4th Ranger Battalions and several other units into Force X under Darby’s command, tasked with leading the assault on the port of Gela in southern Sicily. Meanwhile, 2nd Ranger Battalion was to capture the port of Licata to the west.

General Allen (white armband) and Darby (third from right) during a training exercise in North Africa (Photo: U.S. Army)
General Allen (white armband) and Darby (third from right) during a training exercise in North Africa (Photo: U.S. Army)

The assaults were successful, but Force X found itself going up against an Italian tank column in Gela. Mortars and several captured anti-tank guns helped them prevail, but the fight convinced Darby that the Rangers badly needed more anti-armor firepower. He acquired four M-3 Half-tracks mounting 75 mm anti-tank guns. This provisional “Cannon Company” earned the nickname “Darby’s Ace in the Hole,” and the vehicles were christened “Ace of Spades,” “Ace of Hearts,” “Ace of Clubs,” and “Ace of Diamonds.”

Ace of Spades in Southern France, after Darby’s Ranger force was disbanded (Photo: U.S. Army)
Ace of Spades in Southern France, after Darby’s Ranger force was disbanded (Photo: U.S. Army)

The Rangers continued to help the Allies push the Axis out of Sicily; the time was ripe to land in mainland Italy. Operation Avalanche was the landing at Salerno to the southeast of Naples. The landings began on September 9, 1943, one day after Italy surrendered and switched sides. Unfortunately for the Allies, German forces were quick to disarm Italian soldiers and were prepared to resist any landings.
 
The Rangers, accompanied by two British Commando and two mortar battalions, came ashore at the town of Maiori, 20 miles (32 km) west of Salerno, on the left flank of the amphibious force. They captured the town, destroyed nearby coastal defenses, then moved inland, up to the Chiunzi Pass. The pass was the main route between Naples and Salerno, and German forces were bound to show up. The Rangers’ job was to hold the pass until they could be reinforced by regular forces coming in from the beaches the following day.

Rangers fighting in the mountains of Italy, November 1943 (Photo: U.S. Army)
Rangers fighting in the mountains of Italy, November 1943 (Photo: U.S. Army)

What was supposed to be a two-day mission ended up lasting over two weeks. The main invasion force got bogged down on the beaches and was almost pushed back into the sea by the Germans. Reinforcements eventually reached the Rangers in the pass, but the drawn-out fighting took its toll on them, and they suffered 10% casualties. As was the case in general, there was no time to properly train replacement troops, diluting the force’s effectiveness. Over the next few months, more heavy but conventional fighting further eroded the Rangers’ highly trained and experienced core.
 
The Winter Line, one of several German defensive lines, proved impossible to crack, not in the least because of tenacious German defense in and around the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino. (Read our earlier article: Razing Monte Cassino) Operation Shingle, launched in late January 1944, was an attempt to outflank the defensive line. Amphibious troops landed behind the line at Anzio, from where they could threaten Rome. The Allied planners’ hope was that this would force the German to move troops away from the Winter Line to react to the landings, and this would finally weaken the line enough that it could be broken. Unfortunately, the Allied troops landing at Anzio were paralyzed by indecisive leadership and got bottled up by the Germans much like it happened at Salerno.

American POWs at Nettuno beachhead near Anzio (Photo: National Archives of Poland)
American POWs at Nettuno beachhead near Anzio (Photo: National Archives of Poland)

A plan was hatched for the Rangers, supplemented by other forces and redesignated as a regiment under the name 6615th Ranger Force, to break the stalemate. It looked like a good plan, and it gave the Rangers to sort of mission they were trained for. And yet, it ended up destroying them.
The plan called for a two-pronged attack against the Germans, by British forces in the west, and American troops in the east. This latter was to be preceded by the Rangers advancing under the cover of darkness on to capture the town of Cisterna di Latina, where U.S. troops would then pass through the next day as they attacked.

British Commandos and U.S. Rangers meeting on the road between Anzio and Rome (Photo: commandoveterans.org)
British Commandos and U.S. Rangers meeting on the road between Anzio and Rome (Photo: commandoveterans.org)

The Rangers departed on the night of January 30, with 1st Battalion in the front. The area was one of open farmlands, so they avoided the Germans by travelling down drainage ditches. 3rd Battalion followed 15 minutes later. Their job was to catch up with 1st Battalion if the latter made enemy contact. They would then engage the enemy, allowing 1st Battalion to disengage and continue their advance. Meanwhile, 4th Battalion would advance on Cisterna along a road, clearing it of mines and Germans.
 
Things started going wrong even before they reached the town. Four radio operators got lost in the darkness and returned to friendly lines. 1st and 3rd Battalions lost contact with others. 1st Battalion split up into several groups. All of these might have been avoided had the men been more thoroughly trained and more experienced. The commander of 3rd Battalion was killed by a German tank round, but the battalion continued onward instead of engaging the enemy. 4th Battalion, travelling up the road, was stopped by German forces.

Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division fighting in Cisterna at a later date (Photo: U.S. Army)
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division fighting in Cisterna at a later date (Photo: U.S. Army)

 Eventually, 1st and 3rd Battalions reached an open field just outside Cisterna in the morning and charged across it. As they were running, they realized that the field was full of sleeping Germans; unknown to Allied planners, Cisterna was the staging point for an upcoming German attack. Before the Rangers could reach the nearest buildings, the Germans inside opened up on them, trapping them in the open field.
 
Pinned down in indefensible locations by heavy fire from tanks, flak wagons, artillery and Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, Ranger units were cut off from each other and defeated one by one. On several occasions the Germans used captured Rangers against their comrades, bayoneting one to death for each German soldier shot by marksmen.  Eventually, many Rangers, especially less experienced ones, gave up; others held out to the end. The last radio contact was between Darby and Sergeant Major Ehalt, one of the original 1st Battalion Rangers. At 12:15, Ehalt stated in an unhurried and unexcited voice: "Some of the fellows are giving up. Colonel, we are awfully sorry... They can’t help it, because we are running out of ammunition. But I ain’t surrendering. They are coming into the building now" before connection was lost.

Private First Class Ed Wall of the 4th Ranger Battalion. The 4th Battalion fared better than 1st and 3rd. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Ranger Force was effectively destroyed. Only six men out of 767 returning to Allied lines from Cisterna.  Darby’s Ranger Force was disbanded, and the survivors, including the men of 4th Battalion, were sent to other units. Colonel Darby went on to serve in other units until he was killed by an artillery shell burst on April 30, 1945, two days before all German forces in Italy surrendered. He was posthumously promoted to brigadier general.
 
Darby’s Rangers launched the history of Ranger units of World War II, but misuse gradually eroded them until the force met its end in Italy. The genie, however, was already out of the bottle, and other Ranger units carried on the legacy. 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions distinguished themselves on and after D-Day, and other units served honorably in the Pacific. The U.S. Army Rangers were born, and there was no stopping them.

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WWII veteran, Jack Appel celebrated by the visitors of the Normandy American Cemetery (Photo: Author’s own)

On the occasion of the upcoming Veterans Day we are offering most of our tours in 2023 and 2024 at a discount price until November 11, 2022. You can either save 10% if you pay the registration fee of $490 now, and the rest of the tour price 90 days before the tour, or 15% if you choose to pay in full now. This promotion is valid only in case of new bookings. Please note that this offer cannot be combined with other special promotions and does not apply to those 3 tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in Normandy.

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Veterans Day originates from Armistice Day marking the end of World War I, which formally ended on November 11, 1918. It is still known as Armistice Day in France and Belgium, while the UK and Commonwealth countries celebrate Remembrance Day or Poppy Day.

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