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Col. William O. Darby

The Ranger Who Led the Way


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.

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.

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.

darby speed march

Darby leads from the front on a speed march with his Rangers in North Africa, 1942. National Archives photo

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.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...