1ST RANGER BATTALION
In 1942 the world landscape had been transformed into a maelstrom of death and destruction. Everywhere they were fighting, Allied Forces were pushed back by their better trained and led opponents. Unprepared for the war it was entering, the US Army still needed to gain the confidence of the people back home. Positive action was needed in order to restore the morale of the citizens of the remaining, and ever-shrinking, free world. In the United States, President Roosevelt sought to create commando style units to do just that — strike back at the enemy and restore confidence in the American military.
In the Spring of 1942, General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, sent Colonel Lucian K. Truscott Jr. to England to coordinate training between the inexperienced US troops and the already battle-proven British Commandos. On June 1, 1942, General Marshall, impressed with his visit to the British Commando Training Depot, ordered the creation of an American commando unit. This unit became known as the Rangers, so-called after the famous 18th century Rangers of the French and Indian War. Initially, the Ranger unit was formed for the specific purpose of training soldiers in commando skills and then reassigning them to other units. Thus providing a well-trained core for the newly forming American units. On June 7, 1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion was formed and its camp established at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. The unit’s core came from the 34th Infantry and 1st Armored divisions as well as the V Corps.
The 1st Ranger Battalion, commanded by Major William O. Darby, was officially activated on June 19, 1942. The original battalion consisted of a headquarters company of 8 officers and 69 enlisted men as well as 6 companies of 3 officers and 63 enlisted men each. The size of these companies was determined by the need to accommodate the small landing crafts used by the British Commandos. The original Darby Rangers were a varied lot: The youngest man was 17 and the oldest 35. The average age was 25. Sixty percent of the Ranger enlistees came from the 34th Division, 30% joined from the 1st Armored Division, and the remaining 10% were from medical, quartermaster and signal troops from the V Corps. The Ranger officers did not field one regular Army officer with the notable exception of Darby himself. All others were guardsmen or reservists. Although some enlisted personnel came from regular army units, the majority were draftees who volunteered for the new Ranger unit.
On June 28, Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion moved to the Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry Castle, Scotland. Here the Americans were introduced to the man tasked with guiding the training of the Rangers –Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan, a ruddy-cheeked, husky British officer who radiated enthusiasm and good will.
“The tremendous personality of Colonel Vaughan pervaded the atmosphere of the Commando Depot. A former Guards drill sergeant and an officer in World War I with later experience in commando raids in World War II, he was highly qualified for his job. He had served with distinction during the commando raids against Vaagso and the Lofoten Islands in Norway. A burly man, about six feet two, strongly built and of ruddy complexion, he had a face which at times showed storm clouds and at other times, warm sunniness. A man of about 50 years of age, he was in excellent physical condition and was remarkably agile. He was constantly in the field, participating in, observing, and criticizing the training of the men. During it all he was highly enthusiastic. Observing a mistake he would jump in and personally demonstrate how to correct it. He insisted on rigid discipline, and officers and men alike respected him. He was quick to think up means of harassing the poor weary Rangers, and as he put it, “To give all members the full benefit of the course.” The British Commandos did all in their power to test us to find out what sort of men we were.
Then, apparently liking us, they did all in their power to prepare us for battle. There were British veterans who had raided Norway at Vaagso and at the Lofoten Islands, men who had escaped from Singapore, and others who had slipped from the Italians in Somaliland. As instructors at the depot, these men were a constant source of inspiration to my Rangers and, at the same time, a vivid reminder of the difficulties of the job ahead. At the beginning of the training, in the presence of the commanding officer of the Commando Depot, I told the Ranger officers that they would receive the same training as their men. Furthermore, the ranking officer present was to be the first to tackle every new obstacle, no matter what its difficulty. I included myself in this rule, believing deeply that no American soldier will refuse to go as far forward in combat as his officer.”
The 1st Ranger Battalion moved to Argyle, Scotland on August 1 for amphibious training with the Royal Navy. On August 19, 1942, 50 Rangers were attached to a 1000 Canadian/British force for a large scale raid on the French coastal town of Dieppe. Forty Rangers were attached to No. 3 Commando, six to No. 4 Commando and the remaining four Rangers were attached to the Canadians. Ranger losses from these engagements included six killed, seven wounded and four captured. The casualties suffered by the Canadian/British troops were horrific. Dieppe provided the Rangers invaluable lessons to be applied to future Ranger actions. The importance of detailed intelligence and reconnaissance was fully realized by the Ranger staff. In addition, Darby understood the value of discipline and training. These were necessary qualities to manage and overcome the fear and the subsequent paralysis inherent in battle.
Shortly after the raid on Dieppe, the Battalion moved to Dundee for coastal raiding training. The Rangers practiced attacking pillboxes, gun batteries and other coastal defenses. In Dundee, the Rangers stayed with families in town as there were no barracks available to them. To this date, there is a close relationship between the Rangers and their newly founded families.
It was also during this time that one of the most beloved and colorful characters joined the Rangers. Father Albert E. Basil, a Chaplain Captain, who was attached to the British Special Service Brigade, first met the Rangers when he arrived to conduct the funeral of a Ranger killed during a training exercise. Ranger Darby recalled fondly:
“I asked if he could be permitted to stay with us until after we had landed in North Africa. In fact he stayed on with us through the Tunisian campaign until the British Army discovered they had one missing chaplain. Unfortunately for us, Father Basil was then returned to the British Army. During his nine months with the Rangers, he was a constant source of inspiration and comfort to us. Slight of build, about medium height, with large horn-rimmed spectacles punctuating a very sharp-featured, intelligent, and happy face, he became a familiar sight as his uniform began to look like that of the Rangers. His one unfailing exception to complete Americanization was his insistence on wearing the Commando’s Green Beret and shoulder patch.”
The Rangers left Dundee for Glasgow on September 24th, 1942 and were attached to the 1st Infantry Division. They continued training until the end of October when they boarded the Ulster Monarch, Royal Scotsman, and the Royal Ulsterman, launching the North African campaign. The Rangers had undergone intense training for many months, ranging from basic infantry skills to advanced amphibious assaults. Men were killed during training and in raids. The Rangers had become a hardened, well-trained, well-led and close-knit unit. They were highly trained American infantrymen able to operate in any kind of warfare. [Co. D temporarily reorganized as 81mm mortar unit.]
Africa (Landing through Sened Raid)
The Ranger unit was given an important job during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. The Rangers, attached to General Terry Allen’s 1st Division, had to conduct difficult nighttime amphibious landings in order to seize batteries which threatened the Arzew beachheads. En route to Tunisia, the Rangers continuously reviewed their plans to seize the gun batteries which dominated the Arzew beachheads. Plaster-paris models, maps and intelligence reports were analyzed to find any flaws in their operation’s order. Every section and platoon reviewed their missions. The Rangers had learned that proper planning had to be based on timely intelligence and reconnaissance reports in order to avoid any mishaps.
There were two coastal batteries at Arzew, and the Rangers decided that a simultaneous attack was the best way to execute their mission. The Dammer Force, named after Darby’s right hand man Herman Dammer, consisted of Cos. A and B and seized the smaller gun battery at Fort de la Pointe. The rest of the Rangers, code-named the Darby Force, landed four miles northwest and secured the larger gun emplacements of Batterie du Nord from behind. These operations were executed with few casualties. Proper planning and training had prepared Darby’s Rangers very well. Some companies assisted in continued mop-up operations of nearby towns.
Training continued to keep the men sharp. They were attached to the 5th Infantry Training Center at Arzew to act as a demonstration unit for the new amphibious-assault depot. January 1943 saw the formation of Company G which was to train replacements for the Rangers. Company D, which had been reorganized temporarily as an 81mm mortar unit in Dundee, divested itself of its mortars and returned to its original function as an assault company.
On Feb. 11, 1943, Cos. A, E and F set out to raid the Italian positions at Station de Sened, defended by the Centauro Division and the elite Bersaglieri mountain troops. With eight miles of rough terrain to cover, the Rangers carried no packs, travelling light with a canteen of water, a C ration and a shelterhalf each. The raid was carefully planned and exceeded all expectations. Ranger Darby recalls one incident when he was in radio communication with Captain Max Schneider, future commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion:
During the action I called Captain Max Schneider to find out how many prisoners he had taken. The captain replied, “I think I have two, sir.” The field radio connection was bad, and I asked for a repeat. The two Italians tried to pull a getaway, and the captain fired two quick shots, answering in the same breath, “Well, sir, I had two prisoners.”
The raid resulted in at least 50 Italian dead and 11 prisoners from the famed 10th Bersaglieri Regiment. The fighting was very close and personal. One Ranger recalls, “There was some pretty intense in-fighting there, but a man doesn’t talk about what he does with a bayonet.” Five officers and nine enlisted men were awarded the Silver Star for their part in the Sened raid.
The Rangers continued to conduct numerous combat patrols. It was during this time that the 7th Regiment Tirailleurs Algeriens inducted the 1st Ranger Battalion as honorary members of their regiment.
During the large German attack through the Kasserine Pass, the battalion fought a rear-guard action through Feriana to the Dernaia Pass, where the enemy was stopped. From March 19 through March 27, the Rangers assisted in the El Guettar attacks, and then held their positions against a series of enemy counterattacks. After March 28, the battalion maintained outposts at Nogene El Fedge, and then moved to Gafsa and Nemours where it provided men for the 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions, and helped train these new units.
On July 9, the men of the 1st Battalion made an assault landing at Gela, Sicily, and captured part of the city against heavy German resistance. After fighting off enemy counterattacks, the Rangers moved inland where they stormed the city of San Nicola and captured and held the fortress of Butera. Following the battle, the Rangers trained and also guarded enemy prisoners and war stores.
On September 9, the battalion made another assault landing at Maiori (several miles North of Salerno) on the Italian mainland and pushed inland to seize Chiunzi Pass in a surprise attack. The Rangers held the Pass against great odds until September 23, and fought off seven major counterattacks before joining in the advance on Naples. After a brief rest, the battalion was assigned to the Venafro Sector. After two weeks of bitter mountain fighting against a well-emplaced enemy force, they captured the heights and beat back several counterattacks before being given a rest on December 15.
On January 22, 1944, the men of the battalion made their fourth combat assault, on Anzio, and assisted in widening the beachhead into a salient flanking the Carrocetra-Aprilla factory area. On January 30, a combined Ranger force, consisting of the 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions, began a night infiltration attack from the northeast flank of the beachhead towards Cisterna. After killing the enemy sentries, the 1st and 3rd Battalions reached the outskirts of Cisterna when the 4th Battalion, which was advancing up the Anzio-Cisterna Road, became engaged in a night battle, alerting the enemy defenders of the attack.
Unknown to the Americans, the Cisterna Sector had been reinforced by elements of a German parachute division that were supported by heavy tanks. The Rangers soon found themselves cutoff and surrounded by tanks and numerically superior enemy forces. The Germans trapped approximately 900 Rangers in a pocket. The men of 4th Battalion fought to a road junction near Cisterna, before a wall of steel stopped them. Attacks by American units on the left and right of the 4th Battalion also made little headway, and were costly in casualties; relief of the trapped units became impossible.
German points of view of the battle around Cisterna from The Green Devils by Jean-Yves Nasse:
Fallschirmjäger Lehr-Regiment versus the Rangers
In Winter 1943, Fallschirmjäger Lehr-Battalion was deployed at Terracina, to the south of Rome. In January 1944 the unit was expanded into a regiment while based at Citta di Castello to the north of Perugia. During the AnziolNettuno landings, it was part of Kampfgruppe Herrmann which fought in the Cisterna sector in late January.
Recently promoted to the rank of Oberjäger Hermsen recalls:
‘Our unit was being restructured when the Allies landed at AnzioINettuno. We were deployed in that sector to keep the enemy forces away from via Appia. We checked them near Cisterna. Our regiment was highly praised for its achievements, particularly, Feldwebel Kempe who destroyed several tanks with his gun. But these successes were dearly paid for as of a 750-man force, only 52 survived. I was among the wounded.’
Here is the account of Oberleutnant Opel, one of the regiment’s company commanders:
‘We had no heavy weapons, only FG 42 submachineguns. We were deployed to protect the coun-ter-attacks of our tanks. I only remember one episode of these actions. To check a force of Rangers who had thrust into the positions held by a neighbouring company, I launched a counter-attack at one of their flanks, thus cutting off a large number of Americans from their unit. About 4-500 Americans fell into our hands. However others had escaped and entrenched them-selves in surrounding farms. They surrendered after a heroic stand. During this action, I was shot twice, but kept on fighting until relieved by reinforcements.’
But matters were different for Lt. Wolter, one of 2nd Company’s squad leaders:
‘The composition of our force was that of a standard paratroop company My squad, organised into three groups, was armed with six MG 42s, a few submachine-guns and one mortar A couple of Paks may have also been issued at battalion level. Artillery support was provided by a neighbouring Heer unit. We had no details about the direction of the thrust, as the operation was primarily aimed at keeping the enemy from outflanking us.
On 1O February ]944, at night, while opposing afron-tal raid by American Rangers, I was captured along with two comrades.’
The few survivors of the 1st Ranger Battalion remained at Anzio until ordered to return to the United States, in March of 1944. The unit was disbanded on August 15, 1944.
A trip to Anzio in 1999:
On January 30, 1944 Darby’s Rangers seized to exist as a fighting force. Although the 4th Ranger Battalion was not deactivated until a few months later, it was never the same after 2 of its battalions were captured near Anzio, Italy, in the town of Cisterna.
Some 55 years later, I was able to retrace some of their footsteps. My guide was US Air Force Technical Sergeant Angelo Munsel who currently works out of the US Embassy at Rome. Angelo is fluent in Italian and I want to express my deepest thanks to him for his extraordinary talents of finding individuals and places. When in Rome, he is a must POC (point of contact).
As part of Operation Shingle, Darby commanded Ranger Force 6615 that included 3 Ranger Battalions plus Headquarters, the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, the 509th Parachute Bn and a company of the 36th Engineers. This force was tasked with the capture of Anzio and Nettuno. This was done successfully, although the 83rd Chemical company’s landing crafts hit several mines which resulted in hundreds killed. Darby landed almost directly in front of the main landmark, the casino at Anzio. Another succesful amphibious landing for the Rangers.
Subsequently, Darby was tasked with a night infiltration into the town of Cisterna. 1st and 3rd Bns were assigned with the mission while 4th Bn was held in reserve just below the hamlet, Conca. The advance roughly followed the Conca-Cisterna road across the Mussolini Canal. The two battalions moved ahead, eventually using a large ditch to mask their movement. When the ditch ended, the Rangers traversed a large open area, daylight just starting. Along with some sentries, a German company was encountered and eliminated. German resistance stiffened immediately, and veterans of the Herman Göring Division and the Lehr Parachute Battalion surrounded and captured the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions after several hours. Of the 767 Rangers near Cisterna, 12 men were killed, 6 escaped to Allied lines and over 700 were captured.
The 4th Ranger Battalion tried desperately to reach the trapped sister units but was stopped.
There are several reasons why the Rangers were unsuccessful in their mission. A large number of their replacements were not well trained but there were far more significant factors. The command failed to provide proper air cover and artillery support. Virtually non-existent communication hampered coordinations between the various units. But singularly the greatest failure to be borne by the commanders, including William Darby, was the lack of proper intelligence. The Rangers unknowingly entered an area that had become heavily reinforced by veteran German units. Lightly equipped Rangers without proper support were no match for experienced battle-hardened mechanized German units. It was an unfortunate ending to one of the great fighting forces of World War Two.
3RD RANGER BATTALION
The 3rd Ranger Battalion was organized on May 21, 1943, in the vicinity of Nemours, Algeria, from a cadre of personnel from the 1st Ranger Battalion. After training in Nemours and at Zeralda, Algeria, the Battalion was assigned to support the Green Assault Force in the invasion of Sicily, and made a combat assault on July 10, 1943, near Licata. After reducing the beach defenses, the Rangers attacked the Port and City of Licata, and then captured Hill 313, East of Favara.
Attached to the 3rd Infantry Division, the Rangers moved West from Licata and helped secure Porto Empedocle and continued to fight across the island, capturing and holding a series of roadblocks. On August 12, the Rangers captured Popo di Norco and helped to cut the main road along the north coast of the island. Crossing overland, the battalion moved to Monaforte and on August 16, made a reconnaissance of the Straits of Messina, and entered Messina the following day as the campaign in Sicily came to a close.
After moving to Coreone to rest and train replacements, the battalion made its second combat assault on September 9, at Maiori, Italy, as part of a Ranger force formed to protect the left flank of the Fifth Army. After securing their sectors, the Rangers rapidly advanced inland and captured the Chiunzi Pass where a combined Ranger Force of the 1st and 3rd Battalions was hit with artillery and mortar fire, and was attacked by an enemy force of greatly superior numbers.
The Rangers stopped seven major enemy attacks and a large number of enemy patrols in hand-to-hand fighting. Fighting mostly with small arms and mortars, the Rangers established a line and held out for 14 days without rest or relief and with little food or water. On September 17, the Rangers were reinforced and immediately mounted an attack on enemy positions, broke through, and reached the Plains of Naples, and were among the first troops to enter the City of Naples. After a rest at Naples and San Lassaro, the 3rd Battalion entered into a fight against the German Winter Line.
On November 29, they infiltrated and fought their way down the San Pietro Valley, into San Pietro and out again. Although the battalion was almost completely surrounded and had suffered terrible losses, the Rangers launched an attack towards the high ground above San Pietro on November 30, and reached the crest of Hill 950 only to have to withdraw when they ran out of ammunition. After two more days of hard fighting, the Rangers reached the point for further attacks towards San Pietro and Cassino.
After a period of offensive patrolling and rest, the 3rd Battalion made their third combat assault at Anzio on January 22, 1944, and advanced inland capturing objectives and widening the beachhead. On January 30, the 1st and 3rd Battalions advanced into the outskirts of Cisterna, where the two battalions were cut off and surrounded by a vastly superior force. The few survivors from the battalion returned home on April 15, 1944, after having fought in four campaigns. The battalion was disbanded August 15, 1944, in the United States.
4TH RANGER BATTALION
The 4th Ranger Battalion was organized on June 8, 1943, at Nemours, Algeria, from a cadre of personnel furnished by the 1st Ranger Battalion. After training at Nemours and at Zeralda, the battalion was assigned to Force X for the invasion of Sicily and made a combat landing at Gela on July 10, 1943. Landing in two waves, the Rangers assaulted and held the eastern half of Gela and advanced through the town eliminating enemy resistance. The battalion then dug in and repulsed a series of enemy infantry and tank attacks which threatened to drive the force back into the sea.
After the beachhead was secured, the Rangers remained attached to Force X and occupied Salemi on July 21, establishing a civil affairs office and a perimeter defense while guarding ammunition and gasoline dumps. Records were not available to indicate the battalion’s combat highlights from July 11 to September 8, but on September 9, the battalion was assigned to the Ranger Force and made a combat assault on the Italian mainland at Capo D’Orso, near Maiori. After helping to establish the beachhead, the battalion cleared Maiori and Minori, and neutralized enemy observation points and gun positions along the coastal roads to Salerno.
Separated from the Ranger Force, the 4th Battalion cleared the Sorrento-Meta area and reinforced the troops at Salerno. From September 14 through September 27, the battalion remained in continuous contact with the enemy and was subjected to heavy mortar and artillery fire. After a brief rest, the Rangers marched to Sesto Campano and established a radio relay station there while fighting off enemy patrols.
Earl Morris, HQ 4th Ranger Bn., Darby’s Rangers, 43-45 recalls:
“A Lt. Marshner came to our outfit somewhere in Sicily. He was assigned as our communications officer. I think he had some training with either the 2nd or 5th Ranger Bn in England. I’m not sure. We had pulled back from the front and the 36th Division moved on ahead towards Naples, while we bedded down on a hillside in a big olive grove. Well, our new Lt. Marshner and a Ranger named Stewart got into one hell of a hassle. They both claimed the same sleeping spot. To tell the truth, Stewart had it first. I was there and I know. When Stewart left the area the Lt. moved Stewart’s equipment and took the spot. That Lt. should have gotten more training because he sure as hell didn’t know Rangers.
Later Stewart came back from wherever and saw what had happened. He tore down Lt. Marshner’s setup, kicked his stuff around, said something about repossessing territory, rolled out his own bedroll and went to sleep, I think. When Marshner came back, he almost had a heart attack. To think an enlisted man could do this to him. It freaked him out. He went to Col. Darby, and they say, almost “demanded” (and maybe rightfully so) that Stewart be court martialed for insubordination refusing a direct order & etc… Well one of our officers came down, disarmed and put old Stewart under arrest and guard. After that we had to build a stockade. Simple we just strung three strands of barbed wire around four different tree trunks, let old Stewart crawl in and that was that. Then we got to wondering what would happen to old Stewart. Someone suggested that he could even be shot, and maybe could have, being in a combat situation and all that B.S. From here on no one explains anything. No pre-op or later post-op briefings, no nothing. But the same night or the next we got an alert with orders for everyone to pack up with everything ready to move out A.S.A.P.
Shortly afterwards, we loaded up on great big ass earth moving trucks belonging to the combat engineers. How we ever came by them is still a mystery. But leave it to Darby. He could do anything. We could have used a cherry picker and a parachute to get on and off those damn trucks. We moved out, no one knew where or why. The best I can remember we rode around most of the night. It wasn’t a joy ride. At one time we could smell sulphur burning from sulphur pits that dated back to Biblical times, I’m told. Hours later we off loaded, exactly where we started from. Same spot. When we got the alert Stewart was given back his side arms, and turned back to duty with his unit. After the joy ride (we named it) nothing was ever said about Stewart’s court martial. We were given the understanding that by rearming and turning Stewart back to duty, it nullified the pending court martial. Anyway it didn’t happen. And there’s not a Ranger who was there, who will ever believe anything other than Col. Darby initiated this joy ride to save old Stewart’s ass from a court martial.
Almost forgot! Stewart kept his sleeping spot. We built his stockade around it.”
During the terrible fighting against the German Winter Line, the battalion was attached to the 45th Division, and was given the mission of protecting the flanks of the 3rd and 45th Divisions in their attacks on the heights above San Pietro Valley. On November 9, the Rangers moved to an area northeast of Ceppagna, and two days later, were attacking south to capture the high ground above the village. After advancing to the crest of the mountain, the Rangers were forced back by an attack on their open left flank, but re-grouped to attack again, take the hill, and advance down the ridge.
The following day, the Germans launched a series of counterattacks in strength, and one extremely heavy attack forced the battalion back to their original objective and closed around both their flanks. With the help of mortar support from the 83d Chemical Mortar Battalion, the Rangers held until they were relieved on November 14th. The men of the 4th Battalion maintained defensive positions, engaged in aggressive patrol activity, and rested until they were called upon to make their third combat assault.