The 75th Ranger Regiment is the world’s premier airborne, light infantry force and part of the U.S. Special Operations Command. The Rangers of today trace their lineage back to the days before the Revolutionary War.
The first mention of Rangers goes all the way back to 1622. In 1676, Colonel Benjamin Church created the first Ranger company during King Philip’s War. But it was during the French and Indian War that Colonel Robert Rogers created nine companies of Rangers who are credited with being the forerunners of today’s 75th Ranger Regiment. Rogers’s 28 “Rules of Ranging” still make part of today’s Ranger Battalions dogma.
The Rangers During World War Two
During World War II, General Lucian Truscott, who was the American liaison officer to the British General Staff, submitted a proposal to General George Marshall in 1942 that the U.S. Army create units “along the lines of the British Commandos.” Five Ranger Battalions would be organized in the European Theatre including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th; the 6th would be organized and be deployed in the Pacific against the Japanese.
While the 1st Ranger Battalion had already been in combat with British Commandos at Dieppe, the Allied invasion of France would require Rangers to take down German defenses in Normandy. Thus, the 29th Ranger Battalion was born. Although its life as a dedicated Ranger Battalion was short, it would be instrumental in saving lives on the battlefield during D-Day.
The 29th Ranger Battalion (Provisional) was formed in December 1942 in England as a volunteer detachment from the 29th Infantry Division.
The 29th Ranger Battalion’s Scottish Training
Training began in earnest for the unit on February 4, 1943, when 10 officers and 166 NCOs and enlisted men of the 500 who had volunteered were sent to Achnacarry, Scotland, home of the British Commando training center. Major Randy Millholland of the 115th Infantry Regiment was the commander of the battalion. The tough, widely respected leader of the Rangers advised his men to “keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut.”
The training was conducted by Lord Lovatt’s #4 Commando unit who had fought at Dieppe. Lovatt would famously come ashore at D-Day, while his bagpiper played, and relieve Major John Howard’s men who had seized the “Pegasus Bridge” over the Caen Canal.
In an article published in the 29th Division newsletter in 1993, J. Robert Slaughter, one of the 29th’s Rangers described the training with the Commandos,
“Basic Commando training consisted of getting into top physical shape by speed marching seven-15 miles; running the toughest obstacle course in the world; mountain and cliff climbing; abseiling down cliffs and buildings; unarmed combat; plus stripped-to-the-waist physical exercises using 10-foot logs to throw around. In addition to this we had to be proficient [in] firing our weapons; finding one’s way on those desolate moors with nothing but a map and compass, and [finding] and [cooking] food (living off the land). We learned to employ and defuse explosives including plastics.
Speed marches were a British Commando specialty that propelled the troops into quick-hitting strikes that were designed to surprise the enemy. Stealth was another tactic that made up for the heavy firepower that ordinary infantry troops employ. The terrain around Fort William was hilly. We quick-stepped uphill and double-timed down the other side.
The prescribed time for short hikes was seven mph; longer ones, five mph. We traveled light — rifle, carbine, BAR, 60mm mortar, cartridge belt, and light pack.
Near the conclusion of these debilitating speed-marches and just before rounding the curve up the last hill to camp, Captain Hoar would yell in his curt British brogue, ‘Straighten up, mytees! [mates!’] Get in step!’ Camp was still a mile away, and the wail of bagpipes could be heard in the distance. The kilted pipers, standing at the entrance to camp, greeted us with one of the traditional Highland tunes. This did wonders for morale. No matter how tired we were, the sound of bagpipe music sent adrenalin flowing. With tremendous pride, we marched into camp in step and with heads held high.”
Upon graduation from Commando training, the Rangers were awarded a pair of “paratrooper” boots and a three-inch felt patch sewn on their jackets. The rainbow-shaped patch with red background and blue lettering read “29th RANGERS.”
Soon after, the newly formed Rangers were tasked with testing the Army’s new field rations while conducting a daily series of long-range movements. One company tested Army C-Rations, another tested K-rations, a third tested 10-in-1 rations, while a fourth tested the Army’s 10-in-1 rations along with chocolate D-bars. For 10 days the men averaged rucks of 25 miles a day, with the first day consisting of a 37-mile smoker.
Disagreements Over its Missions
It is here that official stories differ. Slaughter, who was in the unit from its inception until its disbanding, claimed that he had no knowledge of the battalion accompanying any British Commando raids into Norway. However, later Brigadier General (Ret.) Milholland relayed to other future officers that indeed Rangers were attached to Lord Lovat’s No. 4 Commando and that he himself participated in three raids with the British Commando Unit on the coast of Norway.
The U.S. Army put any controversy to rest, however, saying that the 29th Rangers had in fact conducted three raids on German-held territory before D-Day.
“Through the summer and fall of 1943, the 29th Ranger Battalion joined the British commandos in a series of raids on the Norwegian and French coasts. The first, an attempt to destroy a bridge over a fjord, ended in failure when the Norwegian guide dropped the magazine for his submachine gun on a concrete quay, alerting the German guards.
The Rangers met with more success in their second mission, a three-day reconnaissance of a harbor, but a third foray to the Norwegian coast proved abortive when they found that their objective, a German command post, had been abandoned.
After more amphibious training during the summer of 1943, the entire battalion landed on the Ile d’Ouessant, a small island off the Atlantic coast of Brittany, and destroyed a German radar installation. As the raiders departed, they left Milholland’s helmet and cartridge belt on the beach as calling cards.”
The 29th Ranger Battalion Was Disbanded but Kept on Giving
Nevertheless, many of the higher-ups in the chain of command rejected any notion of elite units — as some still do. So, on October 15, 1943, the 29th Ranger Battalion was deactivated and the highly trained men were all sent back to their parent units.
LTG Lesley J. McNair, the chief of Army Ground Forces preferred building versatile conventional units instead of specialized units for special operations. Permanent Ranger units, he feared, would constantly seek unprofitable secondary missions to justify their existence and absorb too many of the Army’s better junior combat leaders. These arguments would continue to be heard well into the 1980s until the Special Operations Command and the Special Forces Branch were instituted.
General George Marshall, however, listened to his field commanders and in March 1943 ordered the formation of at least one Ranger battalion to replace the 29th.
The 2nd Ranger Battalion would later storm the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day while the 5th Rangers would take part in the assault on Omaha Beach. BG Norman “Dutch” Cota, the assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry, would utter the famous line that is now part of Ranger lore.
Major Max F. Schneider, commanding the 5th Ranger Battalion, met with General Cota while the assault infantry troops were pinned down under murderous German fire. When Schneider was asked his unit by Cota, someone yelled out “5th Rangers,” to which Cota replied, “Well then Goddammit, Rangers, lead the way!”
And the training that the officers and men of the 29th Ranger Battalion received from the British Commandos wasn’t wasted. When the green assault troops of the 29th hit the beaches in Normandy, the combination of German fire and their lack of experience would result in men freezing as soon as they hit the shore. But those Ranger veterans sprinkled among the infantry units would indeed lead the way.