Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

75 Years of U.S. Army Rangers: A Legend Begins, 1942

He did not look like an American soldier. This man, walking up a street in Liverpool in 1942, was wearing a big pot-like helmet and an olive-drab uniform. While none had yet landed in England, Peggy Carpenter knew what American soldiers looked like. She had a reference book that showed them wearing elegant little British-style saucer-like helmets, overseas caps, or the campaign hats that, in Britain, were associated with the Boy Scouts. What made this soldier appear even more alien was the black dagger carried in his boot-top. Any British Tommy doing the same on a Liverpool street could expect to be stopped by the police.

The 18-year-old typist – working for a maritime insurer since her family had been bombed out of her native London – in the years to come was to see many people – men and women, black and white – wearing American uniforms. She even ended up marrying someone she met while he was wearing one. But she never saw another with the boot-top black dagger. It was only years later that her son (the present author) suggested that the soldier she had seen in 1942 had indeed been something then new and rare: a U.S. Army Ranger.

A Ranger leaps from an obstacle during training. The British Commando standing by seems to be dreading the coming impact with the ground.

A Ranger leaps from an obstacle during training. The British Commando standing by seems to be dreading the coming impact with the ground.

FORMING THE RANGERS

While the U.S. Ranger tradition originated with Roger’s Rangers in the French and Indian War, the first 1942 Rangers were organized in Northern Ireland. The first U.S. troops had landed there soon after Pearl Harbor, still wearing their prewar helmets and carrying prewar rifles.

Since being driven from France in 1940, the British Army hit back at German forces on the coasts of Europe with the Commandos, a force of elite raiders that had captured the popular imagination. The British had Commando training facilities and much hard-earned experience to share with the U.S. Army. U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. George C. Marshall received a proposal, written by Col. Lucian Truscott, to train U.S. Army personnel with the British, go on Commando operations, and then disperse them among U.S. Army divisions, providing a cadre of battle-experienced personnel. Truscott selected the name “Ranger” for these new battalions.

Approval came within days. On June 7,1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion was formed in Northern Ireland. Its 29 officers and 488 enlisted personnel were volunteers from the 34th Infantry – many of them National Guardsmen – and 1st Armored Divisions. Its first commanding officer was the newly promoted Maj. William Orlando Darby. The only professional soldier in the original battalion, Darby was a West Pointer – Class of ’33 – and an artilleryman. He became the driving force behind the Rangers.

The U.S. Army had long since forgotten its Ranger traditions, so Darby had to write on a clean sheet with no high-level guidance. He selected the 1st Ranger Battalion personnel from the thousands of volunteers, decided on the battalion’s organization and equipment, and determined how it would be trained. It would be about half the size of an infantry battalion, but with additional infantry weapons for intense rather than sustained combat.

Training stated in Northern Ireland. Darby led the Rangers through the training. To ensure cohesion among volunteers from different units, Darby introduced the Ranger “buddy system,” demanding teamwork. He also envisioned the Rangers as a permanent unit rather than a provisional training force and more than a U.S. version of Britain’s Commandos. Private First Class (PFC) Thomas Sullivan, a radio operator, wrote in his diary “Major Darby an impressive man – real soldier all the way.” Darby himself wrote “I told the Ranger officers they would receive the same training as their men. Furthermore, the ranking officer present would be the first to tackle every new obstacle, no matter what its difficulty. I included myself in this rule.”

Rangers come ashore from a small boat during amphibious training. They wear the old World War I-era "Brodie" helmets but are armed with M1 Garands.

Rangers come ashore from a small boat during amphibious training. They wear the old World War I-era “Brodie” helmets but are armed with M1 Garands.

At the end of June, the 1st Ranger Battalion received new-issue U.S. helmets and M1 Garand rifles and deployed to the British Commando training center at Achnacarry Castle in the Scottish Highlands.

FIRST COMBAT: THE DIEPPE RAID

While taking part in the intense training, the Rangers had an opportunity to go to war for real – the first U.S. Army ground forces to do so in Europe. Five officers and 44 enlisted Rangers, detached for a secret raid, started rehearsing amphibious operations with British Commandos. Darby and the Ranger command staff had been ordered to remain behind.

Lt. Leonard F. Dirks, a former National Guard officer, was one of the Rangers attached to 3 Commando. “The training program emphasized,” he reported, “exercises over ground very similar to that which was to be covered in the actual raid. The first exercise was made during daylight hours on the Isle of Wight. Those that followed took place at night. … Training during the time we were not on exercises consisted of weapons training, cliff scaling, fieldcraft and some range work. Cliff scaling was done with the aid of scaling ladders.”

The operation turned out to be the Dieppe raid on Aug. 19, 1942. The Rangers were split up between two British Army Commando battalions and the Canadian units that made up the main force of the raid.

Sgt. Franklin "Zip" Koons of the 1st Rangers was reckoned to be the first U.S. Army soldier to fire a shot in anger in Europe. For his bravery in the Dieppe raid, he received the British Military Medal – the second-award for bravery – awarded by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Sgt. Franklin “Zip” Koons of the 1st Rangers was reckoned to be the first U.S. Army soldier to fire a shot in anger in Europe. For his bravery in the Dieppe raid, he received the British Military Medal – the second-award for bravery – awarded by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The operation encountered strong German defenses from the start. Rangers became the first U.S. soldiers killed in action in Europe. Dirks reported that his landing craft carrying 3 Commando, encountered enemy torpedo boats offshore and was “under fire from that time on. Our boat officer did not know his location because we had dispersed trying to duck the enemy fire. When we did get straightened around it was getting daylight. When we started ashore we were fired upon form coast guns and machine guns. We did not get ashore.” Those from 3 Commando that made it ashore were unable to take their objectives.

The British Army’s 4 Commando, including its attached Rangers, made it ashore and was responsible for the only Allied successes that day, taking and destroying a German coast defense battery. Ranger Cpl. Franklin “Zip” Koons fired the first U.S. Army shots in anger in Europe as he joined a group of Commando snipers suppressing the gunners. “I found a good spot for sniping,” Koons recalled. “It was over a manger, and I fired through a slit in a brick wall.” Koons received both British and U.S. decorations for his actions.

Dieppe was a disaster. The Canadians suffered heavy losses to the German defenders and were unable to advance off the beaches. The only success of the day came from the Commandos that successfully landed, destroyed German coast defenses including an artillery battery, and reembarked. With six killed, seven wounded, and four captured, the Rangers’ first combat had proved costly. But the first ground combat by U.S. forces in Europe received much attention at home.

For most of what was now known as “Darby’s Rangers,” the tough British Commando training continued, at Dundee. Speed marches honed dismounted mobility. The Rangers enjoyed being billeted on the local population in a way that would be not only illegal but unconstitutional back home, and taking streetcars to the rifle range.

Darby's Rangers training featured extensive speed marching for all personnel, including Darby (in the middle in this photo). Arzew, 1942.

Darby’s Rangers training featured extensive speed marching for all personnel, including Darby (in the middle in this photo). Arzew, 1942.

Completing British Commando training, the Rangers were issued with the British Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife. Jet black – and often carried in the boot-top – these were designed to silently eliminate sentries. While the knife’s utility as a weapon may have been questionable, as a mark of a Commando-trained elite soldier, they served an important purpose. The Rangers also followed the Commando model in adopting their shoulder title scrolls – continued to this day and the forerunner of the Ranger tab – designed by one of the original volunteers.

Darby, promoted to lieutenant colonel, had been planning raids on occupied Norway with the Commandos when he was informed that, in 1942, his battalion would have an important combat mission, this time under U.S. command. The Rangers embarked on assault transport ships for amphibious warfare training against Scottish islands. Sullivan wrote in his diary “Something big is coming off and Rangers will be in the middle.”

ARZEW: RANGERS LEAD THE WAY

Loaded aboard assault transports in Scotland, the Rangers were at sea before they learned their mission in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. The Rangers would carry out night-time amphibious landings at Arzew, then take out two separated batteries of pro-German Vichy French coastal guns defending the eastern flank of their main naval base at Oran. The plan was to take the batteries from behind, in simultaneous attacks, before they could inflict casualties on Maj. Gen. Terry Allen’s U.S. 1st Infantry Division, which would be making the main amphibious landing to secure Oran.

The U.S. was hoping the French would be won over to the Free French cause and fight with the Allies. Instead of using an intensive naval or air bombardment that would inflict civilian casualties and damage needed port facilities, the U.S. plan stressed the use of special operations before the main force came ashore. In addition to the Rangers, a force of volunteer infantrymen from the 1st Armored Division would make a direct attack on Oran harbor to surprise the defenses, sailing in on two up-armored British-manned former Coast Guard cutters.

Rangers set up a Browning M1919 .30-caliber light machine gun to secure one of the French gun positions they captured at Arzew.

Rangers set up a Browning M1919 .30-caliber light machine gun to secure one of the French gun positions they captured at Arzew.

The Rangers were to demonstrate that they were not only raiders, like the Commandos. They would fight as a coup de main force, spearheading offensive action, seizing critical objectives long enough for heavier forces to arrive and relieve them before the enemy could react. Rangers studied models of the terrain where they would land and advance as they headed into the Mediterranean as part of what Sullivan described as a “Gigantic convoy – five lanes of transports and two of warships on the flanks as far as the eye can see. A magnificent sight.”

In the pre-dawn darkness of November 8, the Rangers landed at Arzew. British landing craft with two companies of Rangers under Capt. Herman Dammer, Darby’s executive officer who had worked closely with him to plan the operation, navigated into the entrance to the inner harbor of Arzew. Their objective: three French 75mm coastal guns at Fort de la Pointe that covered the entrance to the harbor. The Rangers would have to penetrate the harbor itself to come ashore.

Despite navigational errors in the dark, the landing craft came alongside a quay without opposition. At 0100, the Rangers climbed over the seawall and cut through barbed wire obstacles. While Company B established a blocking position, Company A assaulted the fort from opposite directions. Within fifteen minutes of landing, the now-disabled guns and 50 French prisoners were in their hands. Dammer called Darby on the voice radio “I’ve captured my objective.”

Rangers about to board a British LCA landing craft, to be lowered over the side of the assault transport off Arzew. They wear the U.S. flag shoulder insignia intended to deter the French from shooting.

Rangers about to board a British LCA landing craft, to be lowered over the side of the assault transport off Arzew. They wear the U.S. flag shoulder insignia intended to deter the French from shooting.

The rest of the battalion, in nine British LCA landing craft led by Darby, landed undetected at 0130 on a 100-yard strip of beach four miles northwest near Cap Carbon. Silently capturing French sentries and moving inland, they infiltrated through the Vichy beach defenses. Cpl. James Altieri and the other Rangers “marched for about two and a half miles up winding, tortuous draws then stopped at the base of a wide ravine.”

Darby’s objective was Batterie Superieur, four 105mm guns and a blockhouse overlooking Arzew harbor. When the Rangers were cutting through the battery’s barbed wire perimeter, the French sptted them and opened fire. Darby pulled back. The Ranger’s four 81 mm mortars opened fire. Altieri watched as “the shells came crashing down, their flaming bursts illuminating the area in eerie shadows. For two minutes the mortar bombardment continued, then the order was passed ‘prepare to assault.’”

The defenders, mistaking the mortar bursts for an air raid, abandoned the perimeter for shelters. At 0300 the Rangers assaulted the battery, taking the guns and another 300 prisoners. To signal mission accomplished to the ships offshore, Darby, his radio lost while his landing craft was being lowered from the ship, fired off green flares. After dawn, Darby asked for and received the surrender of the French garrison at Arzew’s Fort du Nord.

Rangers on the hills around Arzew, the route that they used to outflank and take the Batterie Superiere, here being used for training.

Rangers on the hills around Arzew, the route that they used to outflank and take the Batterie Superiere, here being used for training.

The Rangers had carried out their mission with few casualties and had taken care to inflict as few as possible on the French, while the improvised force penetrating Oran harbor, 20 miles to the west, was forced to surrender after suffering heavy casualties. It reflected not only the Rangers tough training, that had created in a few months a crack battalion from a crowd of volunteers, but also Darby’s leadership and effective planning of the operation. He demonstrated that those that will have to execute an operation need to be the ones that plan it. Darby had been able to take the battalion’s Commando training and build on it to create a powerful offensive capability.

FIGHTING IN ALGERIA

After Arzew had surrendered, the Rangers started to take more losses. Pro-Vichy French and Algerians continued to fight. Within hours after Arzew was taken, Ranger companies were used as infantry and sent, one at a time, to secure the town and reinforce the 1st Infantry Division in house-to-house fighting as it expanded its beachhead out from Oran.

After the Rangers were sent into urban combat at St. Cloud, Darby added it to the training program he set up at Arzew.

After the Rangers were sent into urban combat at St. Cloud, Darby added it to the training program he set up at Arzew.

Company E was loaded onto a French troop train and sent by rail to take the town of La Macta, some five miles to the west. Company C was attached to an infantry battalion for house-to-house fighting in the town of St. Cloud, defended by 400 Vichy troops. Without artillery support due to collateral damage concerns, the Ranger company fought a hard battle, losing its commander and several other Rangers. Darby himself was appointed mayor of Arzew.

In the days after the invasion, the Rangers supported mopping-up operations and guarded the port facilities and oil refinery. Separated from the British training infrastructure, Darby planned and carried out battalion-wide training, emphasizing amphibious operations.

The Rangers were to lead Operation Peashooter, a raid on the Italian-held island of Galita off Tunisia, destroying its radar installation and coastal guns. Darby and Dammer, as before, planned the operation. On December 27, the Rangers boarded an attack transport for rehearsals and then set sail for Galita. On January 2, they received the recall signal: operation cancelled.

The Allied 1942 campaign to liberate Tunisia, planned to be a lightning advance, had instead become a bitter battle from hilltop to hilltop. The Allies were still far from their objectives. That would be the Rangers’ next battle.

THE RANGER REBIRTH

The first year of the U.S. Army’s Rangers demonstrated the potential and pitfalls that they would have to deal with for the rest of the war and, indeed, for decades to come. No one in the prewar U.S. Army had given much thought to special operations, but Darby, building on the British experience and training infrastructure, was able to turn enthusiastic volunteers into an effective fighting battalion while showing high-level leaders (and a public hungry for heroes) that they provided unique capabilities.

Maj. William O. Darby, commanding officer of the 1st Ranger Battalion, in Algeria, 1942. He used the motorcycle as his usual transportation around the battalion when not in combat. Note the M1903 Springfield in the motorcycle's scabbard.

Maj. William O. Darby, commanding officer of the 1st Ranger Battalion, in Algeria, 1942. He used the motorcycle as his usual transportation around the battalion when not in combat. Note the M1903 Springfield in the motorcycle’s scabbard.

The Rangers had shared in the only success at Dieppe, provided by the British Commandos. Arzew showed what the Rangers could do when they were responsible for both planning and executing their operations, using surprise and maneuver rather than numbers and firepower. Rangers would plan many more operations than they would execute. The potential for misuse of the Rangers, however, was also apparent, as seen in their use to reinforce infantry battalions.

The events of 1942 would set the direction for the successes – and disasters – the Rangers would encounter throughout the war. Many of the original Rangers would not be there to see the war’s end.

1942 saw the greatest expansion and most extensive change of any year in the history of the U.S. Army. Over its course, the 1918 helmets and bolt-action rifles that Peggy Carpenter had associated with American soldiers were swept aside by new helmets, new rifles and a new type of soldier, the GI. The Rangers brought this new soldier and new equipment together in a new type of unit that would face the challenges of a global war.

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of  The Year in Special Operations.