Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall ordered its existence. Gen. Lucian Truscott gave the unit its name. But the father of the Rangers was William Orlando Darby, its first commanding officer. A 1933 West Point graduate, he was a charismatic leader who would become one of the great troop commanders of World War II.
Darby organized, trained, and led the Rangers to triumphs in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He also was there at Anzio, where his beloved Rangers suffered their greatest tragedy. After a period of stateside service, he would return to Italy, ultimately meeting a soldier’s death.
Darby was born in 1911 and raised in Arkansas. During the interwar years, he served a number of assignments. With war appearing imminent, in November 1941, Capt. Darby received orders to go to Hawaii. Before he left, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States officially entered World War II. Darby received new orders sending him in the opposite direction, to Belfast, Northern Ireland, as part of the U.S. Army, Northern Ireland.
On June 8, 1942, Darby, now a major, received orders to form the 1st Ranger Battalion composed of “volunteers not averse to dangerous action.” More than 2,000 men stepped forward. Only about a third made the grade. The 1st Ranger Battalion was officially activated on June 19, 1942.
Training was based at Achnacarry Castle, Scotland, and conducted by British Commandos led by Lt. Col. Charles Vaughan, M.B.E. “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,” Darby said. Officers and enlisted men shared equally in the training, with the officer obliged to be the first to attack any new training obstacle, no matter its difficulty.
During this period, 50 Rangers participated in Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe, on Aug. 19, 1942, designed to test German army defenses on the French coast. When they returned, Darby said, “Their objective view of the Dieppe operation had its influence on future Ranger assaults.” The lessons Darby learned from listening to them was that the Rangers needed to do more: more training, more planning, more reconnaissance, and more intelligence.
In October 1942, Darby, now a lieutenant colonel, and his men boarded ship as one of the lead units in Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. After nine years of service, Darby was going to confront for the first time guns fired in anger against him. “I pondered the job ahead,” Darby said, “certain that my unit would fight smartly and courageously.”
Darby’s Rangers, as the unit was called, were ordered to capture two coastal defense batteries that dominated the landing beaches at Arzew, a port town near Oran – Fort de la Point, located at the water’s edge, and Batterie du Nord, located well inland and on a hill.
Ranger units or task forces were designated with the commanding officer’s name. Darby Force was assigned the larger, inland Batterie du Nord. Maj. Herman Dammer, the battalion’s executive officer, would lead Dammer Force against Fort de la Pointe. They embarked into landing craft the night of Nov. 7-8, 1942, and headed for the dark shore. Surprise was complete. Dammer Force quickly captured its objective. Though Darby Force had to travel more than four miles along a coastal road to reach Batterie du Nord, by 0400 both positions were in Ranger hands.
Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Torch’s overall commander, was so impressed by the Rangers’ action that he attempted to promote Darby to brigadier general. Darby declined, protesting that he was “not ready for it.” Darby knew that promotion would mean transfer to a new command, and he could not bear to leave his beloved Rangers.
After Arzew and a successful raid against Italian positions at Sened Station, where the Rangers earned the nickname “Black Devils,” many Rangers felt themselves blooded and experienced veterans. Darby knew much still needed to be done. He created a new training program that incorporated recent lessons learned in combat. It was “designed to make the experience in Scotland seem easy in comparison.”
At El Guettar, Tunisia, in March 1943, Darby faced a new challenge. Maj. Gen. Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Division, the “Big Red One,” needed to break through Italian army defenses in the rugged hills east of El Guettar. If the 1st Division made a frontal assault down the gravel track named Gumtree Road, it would end in disaster. Allen asked Darby if the Rangers could secretly bypass the Italian defenses and launch a surprise attack from the rear. Ranger patrols had discovered a path in a lightly held section on the northern flank. By following a circuitous, 12-mile route through the gorges of the area, Darby believed he could get his two battalions into attack position just five miles away “as the crow flies.” After taping their dogtags and blackening their faces, on the evening of March 20, Darby led 500 Rangers and 70 mortarmen into the night.
When dawn arrived, the Rangers were in position facing toward their objective: the still-sleeping Italian camp. Darby told the Rangers, “Okay, men, let’s have a shoot.” Bugle notes of “Charge” echoed off the slopes. Shouting Rangers rushed down on the unsuspecting camp. “By 1400,” Darby said, “I was happy to report to 1st Division that the entire valley was in American hands.” By sunset, more than 1,000 Axis troops were captured.
Then came the German counterattacks. Often outnumbered, the Rangers repelled one attack after another until they were relieved on March 27. Darby was proud of his men. Allen issued a letter of commendation that resulted in a Presidential Unit Citation.
While 1st Ranger Battalion went to bivouac, Darby went to Allied Headquarters at Algiers to discuss the Rangers’ role in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. At that meeting, Darby was ordered to create and train in six weeks two additional Ranger battalions.
In recruiting for the 1st Rangers, Darby said, “There were sufficient cases of misfits to cause me to doubt the advisability of depending on volunteers.” Now he decided he would actively search for and select men he wanted. He believed the best men didn’t always volunteer. Darby found his men and within the allotted timeframe, the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions were ready.
For Husky, Darby would lead Force X, composed of the 1st and 4th Rangers and support units, against the port of Gela. First Ranger Battalion would attack the defending fort and 4th Battalion would take out other coastal defenses in a predawn assault on July 10, 1943, before proceeding into the town. Dammer would lead the 3rd Rangers in the attack on Licata on the left flank.
Together with support from the cruiser Savannah, Darby’s Rangers achieved their goals shortly after sunrise. Then, Darby noted, things got “hectic.” The Axis launched counterattacks that came perilously close to driving the Americans into the sea. In the morning, Darby personally repelled attacks by Italian tanks using first a 37 mm anti-tank gun and later a heavy machine gun. Around noon, Darby fought off another counterattack led by German tanks. In the middle of this, Darby also found himself face to face with Seventh Army commander Lt. Gen. George Patton. Patton asked him to point out the enemy counterattack. The harried Darby responded, “Which one do you want to see, Gen. Patton?”
For his extraordinary efforts that day, Patton presented Darby with the Distinguished Service Cross and the offer of a promotion and a new command. Again, Darby declined promotion. He said, “I felt that I could do more good with my Ranger boys than I could with a regiment in a division.”
Husky was followed by Operation Avalanche, the invasion of Italy at Salerno. The Rangers’ assignment was the seizure of the Sorrento Peninsula west of the city. Darby, commanding both Rangers and a British Commando force, surprised German troops north of the landing site and secured the high ground anchoring the Allied left flank. They had a clear view of the valley where German attacks would originate. This was crucial, for German response was furious. Darby later said, “If it hadn’t been for our standard operating procedure of carrying extra mortar shells ashore in the assault boats, we might well have lost our hold on Sorrento Peninsula.” Despite seven German counterattacks, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army and later 15th Army Group, noted, “Darby’s fine leadership and the determination of his men turned back all assaults.”
In his report to Gen. Eisenhower, Clark stated, “Darby has done his usual grand job and I recommend that he be promoted to colonel.” Additionally, the 1st Ranger Battalion received its second Presidential Unit Citation and the 3rd Ranger Battalion its first.
Such were the demands of the frustrating combat in the misnamed “soft underbelly of Europe” that the elite Rangers had to be employed as regular infantry in the fight up the Italian boot. When his Ranger battalions were withdrawn in December 1943,
Darby proudly said, “The Rangers were giving more than they received.” Also in December, Clark finally pinned colonel’s eagles on Darby, who remained in command of his Rangers. Clark also informed him of his next mission. The Rangers would help break the stalemate in Italy in Operation Shingle, the amphibious assault on the port of Anzio.
Shingle was launched on Jan. 22, 1944. Initially, everything went well for Maj. Gen. John Lucas’ VI Corps. The landing was unopposed. Lucas immediately built up the shallow beachhead and cleared the port. But by the time Lucas turned his attention to the Alban hills, which dominated the landing site, the enemy had created a fearsome defense.
Lucas planned for a two-prong thrust on Jan. 30. The main attack would be on the left flank at Campoleone. Darby’s Rangers would participate in a secondary attack on the right at Cisterna. The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions would infiltrate what were believed to be thinly-held German lines and capture and hold the town until the 4th Ranger Battalion and other units arrived.
At 0100 on Jan. 30, with Darby controlling the action from a farmhouse headquarters, the Rangers began slipping through enemy lines. Too late, they discovered that the enemy was there in overwhelming force. The two battalions were trapped. Closest was the 4th Battalion, and it was stopped cold at Isola Bella, approximately two miles away. There was nothing Darby or Maj. Gen. Truscott, overall commander of the attack, could do.
Darby’s last recorded contact with the 1st Battalion before its surrender reflected his anguish and helplessness, “Issue some orders but don’t let the boys give up! … We’re coming through. Hang onto this radio until the last minute … stick together … use your head and do what’s best. … You’re there and I’m here, unfortunately, and I can’t help you, but whatever happens, God bless you!”
The Army’s official history recorded that “Of the 767 Rangers who had started toward Cisterna, only 6 returned; the rest were either dead or captured.” The surviving 4th Ranger Battalion suffered 50 percent casualties. Darby, devastated, blamed himself. The survivors were soon disbanded. Darby’s Rangers were no more.
On Feb. 16, the Germans launched a counteroffensive to destroy the Anzio beachhead. For five furious days, 10 German divisions smashed against five Allied divisions, driving them back to their final beachhead defensive line. One of the most beleaguered units was the U.S. 179th Infantry Regiment, which had suffered horrendous losses. By noon on Feb. 17, it was in danger of dissolving. Lucas ordered Darby to replace the exhausted commander and somehow restore order. Shortly after Darby arrived, the commander of the regiment’s 3rd Battalion appeared at Darby’s headquarters and said, “Sir, I guess you will relieve me for losing my battalion.” Darby patted the man on the back and said, “Cheer up, son. I just lost three of them, but the war must go on.” This comment, other words of encouragement, and vigorous action on Darby’s part restored the morale and confidence of the 179th. A shift of the German attack allowed Darby to stabilize his line. After a final, convulsive effort on Feb. 20, the German counteroffensive ended, a failure.
About two months later, Darby was assigned to the Operations Division of the War Department General Staff in Washington, D.C. He wrote reports, toured camps, and advised on training. Hating staff work, Darby constantly petitioned to return overseas. On March 29, 1945, he was assigned to evaluate aerial support of ground combat in Europe. While visiting the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, its assistant division commander was wounded and evacuated. Darby replaced him. Two days before the German surrender in Italy, Darby was fatally wounded by an 88 mm artillery round. He died at age 34.
Lt. Gen. Lucian Truscott, then commanding general of the Fifth Army, wrote, “Never in this war have I known a more gallant, heroic officer.” Fifteenth Army Group commander Gen. Mark Clark noted, “He died exactly the way he would have had it – out in front of his men in hot pursuit of the enemy. I asked General Marshall to promote him to a brigadier general posthumously, and he did.”
In 1950, Darby’s memory was honored with the christening of the troop transport General William O. Darby. It would see service in Korea and Vietnam.
The Rangers honor him with the William O. Darby Award, given to a graduating Ranger class member who “is the top Distinguished Honor Graduate” and who “clearly demonstrated himself as being a cut above all other Rangers.” The award is notable because each Ranger class is not required to have a recipient.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2005 Edition.