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Ranger Patch

US Army rangers in Africa and Italy 1942-1944

By Erik Mozolik

On January 30, 1944 the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger battalions attempted to infiltrate the German held town of Cisterna di Latina to take what was meant to be a lightly held position occupied by second rate troops.

Unfortunately the town’s position in the hills overlooking Anzio made it an ideal staging point for the German counter-attack on the Anzio beachhead. The rangers advanced straight into the heavily occupied German positions.

To understand significance and the outcome of the battle of Cisterna di Latina, we must look at the history of the US Army Ranger units throughout World War II. There were six Ranger battalions created in World War II, and five of the six were stationed in the European Theatre of Operations. Notably, the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions took part in the landings on D-Day, while the 6th Ranger battalion was stationed in the Pacific. The remaining three battalions, the 1st, the 3rd, and the 4th are the main focus of this article.

Many factors, from their initial actions in North Africa to their success at Anzio, contribute to the rangers defeat at Cisterna. What the rangers did, and the tasks they performed, had a heavy influence on the role they would play in combat. Their success, and their failures, would have a heavy influence on the types of missions and the role they would play in the military during World War II.

Right: Colonel William Darby (Photo from Phil Stern collection)

Colonel William Darby

Operation Torch

(Photo from Phil Stern collection) 

Operation Torch

The rangers first operation, Operation Torch of 8 November 1942, began the war in North Africa in support of the Allied landing. Operation Torch would be carried out by three separate task forces. Along with the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st Ranger battalion would land at Oran. In each case, these amphibious landings were supposed to be made in the classical historical mode of pinching off a seaport by attacking from the flanks, rather than head on. The port Darby’s rangers were to take was the heavily fortified port city of Algiers.

The 1st Ranger Battalion made an amphibious landing at Oran and they had two main objectives. The first objective was the taking of the French Fort of Batterie du Nord, which overlooked the harbour of Algiers. 

Four companies of rangers were led by Colonel William Darby. Darby was a leader who had organization and leadership skills that catapulted the rangers toward the front where they distinguished themselves in combat from North Africa and through Europe. The remaining two companies were to assault another French fort, the Fort de la Pointe, led by Major Hermann Dammer.

After mild resistance by the Vichy forces, the forts were captured with no less than fifteen casualties. Outside of several hundred Vichy captured, the rangers inflicted considerable casualties to the enemy.

The rangers won praise from several ranking officials, including General George S. Patton and General Terry Allen, commander of the 1st Infantry Division. It was here that the rangers were highly noted for their bravery and efficiency. Soon after, the War Department authorized the formation of two additional Ranger battalions.

The rangers also took part in the battle for Tunisia fighting during the battle of El Guettar.

Rangers at Dusk

(Photo from Phil Stern collection)

Rangers in Sicily

(Photo from Phil Stern collection) 

Operation Husky ~ Sicily

The next role the rangers would play in the war would be in the invasion of Sicily. The invasion was actually the largest amphibious operation of World War II in terms of the size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day of the invasion. The rangers initially landed on Sicily as assault troops. On July 10th, the 1st and 4th Ranger battalions, led by Darby and Major Murray, assaulted the city of Gela. The goal was to capture the town and its coastal batteries.

The rangers fought for two days and were battling tanks with thermite grenades and a single 37-mm gun in the streets of the town. Ranger units also captured the fortress town of Butera and the harbour of Porto Empedocle, taking over 700 prisoners. Through the rest of the Sicily campaign, the Rangers assisted by guarding the flank of the advance against German counter-attacks. 

Again, the Rangers were highly lauded for their combat abilities. They had taken several key towns and saw to the capture of hundreds of German solders. They managed to complete a wide variety of objectives all without a considerable loss of life. From this point on, Rangers would see action in key battles throughout the world as their level of combat ability and efficiency became known.


Darby began training his men for the imminent invasion of Italy. He became known for his ruthless training exercises so much that General Omar Bradley commented that he trained his men so mercilessly that they soon begged for a combat mission to relieve them of those labours.

The Rangers became a key force used in the Italian campaign as well. The Rangers were attached to the British X Corp as part of the 5th Army’s landing at Salerno on September 9th. The Rangers played yet another key role as they were assigned the task of taking the town of Maiori, some twenty miles west of Salerno. Their mission consisted of several objectives. First, take control of the town itself. Second, and the most crucial part of the mission, was to destroy the nearby coastal batteries, which could possibly rain artillery fire on the invasion force.

From there, the Ranger force would then move to seize the nearby Chiunzi Pass. The goal of this was to prepare to operate within the German rear and prevent against an attempt to hold up the Allied advance through the neighbouring Veitri Pass. 

Coming ashore

(Photo from Phil Stern collection) 

The Rangers experienced several problems at Salerno, which would eventually lead them to the defeat at Cisterna. In the initial plan, the Rangers would hold the Chiunzi Pass and link up with the 5th Army, as it pressed inland, within two days.  However, what was supposed to be an operation scheduled to two days, the operation ended up being two weeks of heavy fighting. The Rangers held the pass, but at a terrible price. Casualty rates soared as they were subjected to massive artillery and counterattacks.

After linking up with the 5th Army, the Rangers spent almost a month and a half of conventional infantry combat on the Winter Line. The German 14th Army had stalled the Allied advance, and the Rangers were used in the offensive to try to drive them out of their positions. The heavy losses they experienced at the Chiunzi Pass were repeated as the Rangers were subjected to front line combat for such a sustained period of time. To many of the Ranger officers, the casualties were mounting at alarming rates.
Rangers on the Italian Coast

Commander of the 4th Ranger battalion, Major Ray Murray, addressed two issues concerning the Rangers in a letter to General Eisenhower, and Allied command. The most pressing issue was concerning the alarming casualty figures. Ranger training was much longer than normal infantry training, and thus the battalions had to remain out of action for a month or more to receive replacements and train them to Ranger standards. Major Murray recommended that replacements be taken from the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions recently activated at Camp Forrest, Tennessee to fill the ranks.

The second issue was the absence of a Ranger Force headquarters. The headquarters would handle the administration, intelligence, planning, assignment of missions to battalions, and, most important, to decide if the missions were proper for the Rangers.

It was recommended that senior command of this Ranger Force be given to Colonel William Darby. While no documents are present in the Rangers’ files to indicate that Army Ground Forces responded to Murray’s letter, several changes were implemented. They were pulled off the front lines and were given the replacements they were needed. Also, on the evening of January 17, 1944, the Rangers got some badly needed training in nighttime operations, just five days before the landings at Anzio beach. Also, the Rangers and the units that had been attached to them for the landing were designated the 6615th Ranger Force. While this was just a temporary unit formation, it gave Darby, and many of the senior officers, the control they wanted.

The Anzio Landing and Cisterna di Latina... 

Last Updated On Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by Blake at Battlefront