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 When his Ranger battalions were withdrawn in December 1943, Darby proudly said, “The Rangers were giving more than they received.”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.
“Of the 767 Rangers who had started toward Cisterna, only 6 returned; the rest were either dead or captured.”
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.
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.”
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.