These Elite Soldiers Gave the Axis Powers Chills

These Elite Soldiers Gave the Axis Powers Chills

U.S. Army Rangers were some of America's finest soldiers in the Second World War.

Key Point: They were members of the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion, recruited earlier that month in Northern Ireland from among the 34th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division. Their leader was a lean, young West Pointer from Arkansas named William Orlando Darby. He marched resolutely ahead, setting an example for his men to keep up the pace.

On a June morning in 1942, a battalion of American soldiers stepped down from a train at Fort William in the northern highlands of Scotland. Bagpipes of the Cameron Highlanders’ band sounded the call to battle, and the Americans were greeted by Lt. Col. Charles Vaughan, a burly, ruddy-cheeked British Army officer. Radiating enthusiasm and goodwill, he welcomed the Americans to Scotland and told them he would lead the way to Achnacarry Castle, site of the British Commando training depot.

The GIs slung their rifles and packs, formed a column, and followed the band up a hilly road. Heartened by the skirling of the pipes, the Americans strode toward misty blue hills in the distance. The road grew steeper and feet began to drag after the first mile or two. On the Americans marched, mile after mile, as their packs seemed to grow heavier and sweat trickled down their backs.

The band played louder, as if to encourage the GIs, and Colonel Vaughan marched steadily ahead. Feet began to blister and the Americans groused to themselves, but they dared not fall out. They were all volunteers and had made a choice for action with a new, elite unit.

They were members of the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion, recruited earlier that month in Northern Ireland from among the 34th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division. Their leader was a lean, young West Pointer from Arkansas named William Orlando Darby. He marched resolutely ahead, setting an example for his men to keep up the pace.

On the column marched through a picture-book landscape of forested mountains, tangled undergrowth, lakes, and cold streams plunging down steep glens. The Camerons’ bagpipers skirled, and the weary Americans struggled on. At last, after 14 miles, the ancient turrets of Achnacarry Castle came into view, and then its vine-clad walls and emerald lawns. They had made it.

Colonel Vaughan praised the GIs on their marching and, with an impish grin, promised them more of the same in the future. The Americans rested and then toured their new home where they were to undergo training with the legendary British Commandos.

Set in a remote glen between Loch Arkaig and Loch Lochy, the Inverness-shire castle had served for centuries as the seat of Lochiel, chieftain of the Cameron Clan. Once a refuge for Bonnie Prince Charlie, it was now the finest infantry training center in the world, due largely to the untiring efforts of Colonel Vaughan, nicknamed the “Laird of Achnacarry” and “Rommel of the North.” Darby’s Rangers made their quarters in British bell tents and were invited to use a nearby icy stream for bathing. They had to get used to unappetizing British Army food—bully beef, beans, porridge, fish, and plum pudding—and endless quantities of tea. The Americans chafed, but when they complained, Colonel Vaughan would tell Darby, “It’s all part of the training, William, it’s all part of the training.”

The Rangers began their training without delay, and the Commandos did all they could both to make them feel at home and to find out what sort of men they were. At the depot were also Free French and Dutch soldiers, as well as Commando veterans of the ill-fated Norway and Lofoten Islands campaigns, numerous hit-and-run raids on the European coasts, and some who had escaped from Singapore and Somaliland.

Colonel Vaughan’s personality dominated the depot. A former drill sergeant in the crack Coldstream Guards and an officer in World War I, he had served as deputy commander of No. 4 Commando during the Norway raids in March 1941. He was tough but fair, and exacted maximum effort from his trainees. Vaughan and Darby quickly grew to like and respect each other, although some of the Britons harbored doubts about the stamina of the Americans.

William Darby was born on February 11, 1911, in Fort Smith, Ark., where he had a typical small-town childhood. He was a Boy Scout, part-time delivery boy, churchgoer, and avid reader. In high school, he displayed a flair for leadership and also seemed to be a born salesman. Friendly and willing, he was a handsome youth with blue eyes, a high forehead, a firm jaw, and a ready smile.

Young Bill decided on a military career, but it was not easy to secure appointments to the U.S. Military Academy in the 1920s. The Darbys persuaded their local congressman to recommend their son as a second alternate candidate. The young man eventually won a nomination and was admitted to West Point on July 1, 1929.

Darby became an enthusiastic member of the Long Gray Line. He was an exemplary cadet and a conscientious student, showing a fine balance of mental ability, leadership, and personality. He became a cadet company commander in his first class year, and was active in soccer, the glee club, 100th night shows, and as hop (dance) manager. When he graduated on June 13, 1933, with a bachelor of science degree, he stood 177th in a class of 346. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery.

Darby served with the 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, the only horse artillery regiment left in the Army, and fulfilled assignments in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Iowa. He gained experience as a troop leader, took school courses, and was rated as a superior young officer on his efficiency reports. In October 1940, at the age of 29, he was promoted to captain.

Early the following year, Darby was chosen to learn about amphibious warfare by taking part in a joint Army-Navy training operation in Puerto Rico. In November 1941, he was assigned to duty in Hawaii, but after the Pearl Harbor attack, he was reassigned as aide to Maj. Gen. Russell P. Hartle, commanding the 34th Infantry Division. The division sailed for Northern Ireland in January 1942. Early that May, Darby, itching for action, requested a transfer. It was turned down, but his chance was coming.

While the division had been training in Ulster, General George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, had visited the Achnacarry depot and decided that an American commando force should be formed. It would be called the “Rangers,” after the famous hit-and-run raiders led by Major Robert Rogers in the French and Indian Wars preceding the American Revolution. Marshall wanted U.S. troops to gain combat experience before the eventual Allied invasion of continental Europe. Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of British Combined Operations, agreed to allow the Americans to train under his Commandos in Scotland.

Almost 2,000 Enlisted Soldiers Volunteered to Serve As Rangers; 575 Were Chosen

General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., implemented the project and authorized Hartle to raise the first American commando unit. Darby was assigned to it, and the 1st Ranger Battalion was activated on June 19, 1942. Notices were pinned on bulletin boards at the American camps in Ulster inviting GIs to sign up for adventure and a hardy life in the new Rangers. Darby set up a headquarters in Carrickfergus, 20 miles north of Belfast, and spent almost two weeks interviewing officer volunteers and about 2,000 enlisted men. Only those in good physical shape with athletic ability, stamina, and good judgment were chosen.

The original 1st Battalion comprised 575 officers and men organized in a headquarters company and six line companies. Truscott and Hartle took a special interest in the new unit. The volunteers ranged in age from 17 to 35 years and came from all parts of the United States. There were few regular soldiers and Darby was the only regular officer. The first Rangers included a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a bull fighter, a lion tamer, a wrestler, a professional gambler, a jazz trumpeter, a burlesque stagehand, a hotel detective, a Hollywood screenwriter, a church deacon, cowpunchers, American Indians, and a Cuban who was a machine-gun expert.

They were a tough bunch, but Colonel Vaughan’s grueling 12-week training course at Achnacarry was a rude awakening for them. They marched, ran, and climbed over the moors, up cliffs, and across frigid rivers as charges exploded in the water and live rounds were fired at them. Darby pushed them on, and Colonel Vaughan told the Americans, “It’s all in the mind and the heart.” After an unimpressive first 10 days, according to a British instructor, the fledgling Rangers “got with it.” They mastered a tough assault course, crawled across rope bridges, scaled cliffs, and paddled across the lochs while instructors fired machine guns at them.

They learned to kill with a twist of rope, a knife, or their boots or bare hands. They trained to fire a weapon accurately on the run, march 14 miles in just over two hours, build shelters from tree boughs, make a cooking fire that gave off little smoke, and to butcher and cook a doe in the woods. Some trainees even cooked and ate rats.

Most important, the Rangers learned the value of stealth and surprise in combat. The Commando training was rigorous and realistic (40 recruits were killed at Achnacarry during the war). The Americans adopted the Commandos’ methods and added some of their own. They specialized in night fighting, sleeping by day and rising at nightfall. They sat for an hour in darkness to adjust their eyes, and learned that you can hear distant sounds better if you stick a bayonet in the ground and put your ear to it.