By Christian Beekman
During World War II, Darby’s Rangers embodied the spirit of today’s forces: Rangers lead the way.
June 19, 1942, is not a familiar date to most. But members of the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment know it well; it’s the date of activation of the 1st Ranger Battalion, under the command of Lt. Col. William Darby. Colloquially known as “Darby’s Rangers,” 1st Battalion and several subsequent Ranger battalions formed during World War II represented the genesis of the modern Ranger role of performing large-scale objective raids and direct-action missions. The 1st Ranger Battalion was created in order to address a daunting problem faced in 1942 by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall: The American troops fighting in Europe had no combat experience. Marshall needed a force extender — a method to gain combat experience early in the war and disseminate that expertise to other units. He looked to the British for inspiration; they had developed the legendary Commando units, designed to strike back early in the war and gather intelligence on German forces. The American equivalent would have a similar mission, but would not be a permanent formation.
As author Ross Hall relates in his comprehensive history of the Rangers, “The Ranger Book,” this was done to “mollify stubborn commanders when they figured they would get their soldiers back with a lot more education.” Darby was selected to head this new special unit named after a particularly elite group of soldiers from the early day of the American colonies: Rangers. On June 19, 1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion was activated.
As Darby’s Rangers trained with Commando teachers in Scotland, separate Ranger training facilities were being established back in the United States. Aside from a few Rangers who participated in the Dieppe raid in August 1942, as detailed by James DeFelice, Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion would not face its first action until North Africa.
The Ranger involvement in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of the North African coast, provided the first indication that American military commanders did not fully understand or grasp the capabilities that Darby’s unit provided. After the Torch landings, no suitable Ranger missions presented themselves. As Hall explains, American commanders had little clue on how to employ the new unit. “In fact, the whole concept of raiding Rangers, a quick-strike force without heavy weapons, was so new that most of the field commanders had little knowledge of how to use them properly. In many cases they were fed into the mill, and did so well they kept being sent back,” Hall writes. The beginning of this meat-grinder mentality foreshadowed eventual tragedy.
Read the Remainder at Task and Purpose.