On February 11th 1943, Darby’s 1st Battalion Rangers conducted their first night raid of WWII on a rail town in Southern Tunisia called Sened Station. They did not have the technology or weapons that modern-day Rangers are blessed with, but their willingness, tactical knowledge, and mastery of the night was very similar to the Rangers of today.
During this time of the North African Theatre, General von Arnim was commander of the 5th Panzer Army under Erwin Rommel. Darby’s goal was to attack two encamped companies of Italy’s élite Bersaglieri mountain troops. The Axis elements were not using the railroad due to Ally air cover, but von Arnim knew that he must protect a potentially vital route to the sea.
By disturbing the Italian presence at Sened, the Italians would be forced to call for Panzer reinforcements that were very limited and thus disturb the plans of the 5th Panzer Army. Instead of doing a “hit and run” style of raid on Sened, Darby’s men would have to stay on the objective long enough for the Germans to commit their tanks to the Italians. Although the Italian troops were considered élite, they lacked the patience and planning to support observation and listening posts around their position at Sened Station.
Do to lack of aircraft given to Darby, he was unable to do an aerial recon and thus needed to perform a leader’s recon by foot before setting the assault in motion. The night of the 10th, Darby, along with a small element, traveled 12 miles over the rocky and open terrain of Southern Tunisia to gain observation of the enemy’s post. Once Darby had determined the best method for eliminating the Axis forces, he and his men, consisting of Companies A, E, and F, bedded down in a small ravine about two miles from enemy forces.
Once the sun had set on the evening of the 11th, the Rangers moved out toward their goal. There wasn’t a “no later than time” scheduled for the hit and therefore allowed the US Forces to move as stealthily as necessary. To cut their chances of detection, Darby had the men wear black watch caps, tape down buckles and metal pieces, and blacken their skin with burnt cork. The methods that Darby’s men used, though slightly altered, are still in use today and are many of the techniques taught in today’s US Army Ranger School.
After the moon had set at 2300 hours, the friendly elements used red lens flashlights to signal columns in the rear and move into a half-mile long skirmish line 500 meters from enemy forces. From Darby’s position he could see the red light signals which confirmed his elements were online. With Able Company at the left, Easy Company at the center, and Fox Company at the right, the men fixed bayonets and quietly approached their objective.
By the time the Rangers had snuck within 200 meters of the Italians, the rough rocky terrain started to give away the friendly elements. As the men inched closer to their goal, an Italian sentry on the left started a reconnaissance by fire with his machine gun. Luckily the Able Company men were patient and aware that the rounds of the machine gun were firing over the Rangers heads. By the time that the machine gun reached close enough to the Rangers, they were within hand grenade range of the Italians.
Darby’s men opened all hell upon the Bersaglieri. Grenades, submachine gun, and precise rifle fire began to lay waste to the Italian troops. The violence of action and screaming wounded enemy soldiers only fueled the rest of the assaulting troops. The Italians who chose to stay were torn apart, and the enemy that attempted retreat were decimated by Darby’s 81mm mortar teams. After 20 minutes, all fighting had ceased and the Rangers had secured the objective.
Much of the fighting during the assault was very close man-to-man combat, as one Ranger recalled,
There was some pretty intense in-fighting there, but a man doesn’t talk about what he does with a bayonet.”
By the end of the fight, Ranger Garrison was killed and 20 other Rangers were wounded, although none of the 20 needed litter assistance. In all, the Rangers had killed over 50 Bersaglieri mountain troops and taken 11 prisoners by the time the last round fired.
Darby recalled one radio communication with Captain Max Schneider, future commander of 5th Ranger Battalion during the D-Day Invasion.
During the action, I called Captain Max Schneider to find out how many prisoners he had taken. The captain replied, ‘I think I have two, sir.’ The field radio connection was bad, and I asked for a repeat. The two Italians tried to pull a getaway, and the captain fired two quick shots, answering in the same breath, ‘Well, sir, I had two prisoners.’”
The Rangers stayed on the objective as long as possible until they heard the German Panzers in the distant night air. Upon hearing the Panzers and knowing they would surely be outgunned, Darby called for evacuation and the men headed off into the cool night air. The next day from an observation post, Darby observed Panzers sweeping the desert terrain in search of the battle hardened Rangers and knew the overarching goal had been achieved.
Due to the speed, precision, and decision-making during the raid on Sened Station, 12 1st Battalion Rangers, including Lieutenant Colonel Darby, were awarded the Silver Star. As well, Bing Evans and Walter Wojcik were awarded battlefield commissions. The mission was a textbook start to 1st Ranger Battalion’s campaign in Northern Africa and set the standard for the success that would continue throughout World War II.
Although the raid on Sened Station was over 70 years ago, many of the tactics and strategies remain the same with the current Rangers. Let us not forget these men who fought long and hard against tyrants and fascists for future freedoms that we now enjoy in the 21st Century.