William Orlando Darby is one of the icons of the Army’s Special Operations community. He organized, trained, and led the first of the Army’s Ranger Battalions during World War II. He fought in North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Italy. Later, as the Assistant Division Commander of the 10th Mountain Division, he was killed in action and subsequently promoted to Brigadier General. He was just 34 years old at the time of his death.
Darby was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 8, 1911. He was a 1933 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry, at Fort Bliss, Texas as a supply officer.
He followed that up with assignments in New Mexico with the 1st Cavalry Division, and the Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Later in 1940, he was promoted to Captain and assigned to the 80th Infantry Division at Ft. Benning, GA.
When the U.S. entered World War II, the Army was woefully unprepared. There was no Special Operations capability, no intelligence service and a general lack of equipment and training. Brigadier General Lucian Truscott, the liaison officer to the British Army, floated the idea to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall in May of 1942 that “we undertake immediately the organization of an American unit along [British] Commando lines.”
The idea was that the 1st Ranger Battalion would only be a temporary organization to disseminate combat experience to new American infantry units. The battalion would temporarily attach Rangers to British Commando units when they conducted their hit and run raids of German-held countries in Europe. Then, the Rangers, now with combat experience, would return to the army and spread out to share their newfound experience. Additional Rangers, having undertaken British Commando training, would return to the United States to train more troops.
Truscott chose the name “Rangers” for two reasons: Firstly, the Brits had already taken the name “Commandos.” Secondly, the Americans during the French and Indian War had organized “Rogers’ Rangers” under the command of Robert Rogers. Truscott had seen the recent film of Rogers’ exploits, “Northwest Passage” with Spencer Tracy portraying the Colonial leader and Robert Rogers was already a famous name in American history.
Darby was selected as the new commander for this Ranger battalion and promoted to Major. Darby was already in Northern Ireland with the first American troops to go to Europe. He immediately called for volunteers and got men from the V Corps, the 1st Armored Division, 34th Infantry Division, and other smaller units.
Darby began his initial selection and assessment of 575 volunteers and about a month later had 473 officers and men. They then began in July of 1942 a very intensive training program in Scotland with the British Commandos as their trainers. The Brits steeped their American cousins in the tenets of Special Operations and the Rangers quickly became masters at forced marches, patrolling, hand-to-hand combat, raids, and small boat operations.
While 51 Rangers accompanied the Canadian division and Commandos to the disastrous raid on Dieppe, Darby took the rest of the battalion and prepared for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.
Darby led the 1st Ranger Bn. on the assault of Arzew on the Algerian coast. Capturing the coastal defenses with minimal casualties, the Rangers opened up the invasion beaches for the 1st Infantry Division. After remaining in Algeria for two months the 1st Ranger Bn. was transferred to Tunisia as part of II Corps. There, they conducted hit and run raids against the Germans and Italians. During that time Darby was awarded a Silver Star for bravery.
Darby, now a Lieutenant Colonel, led the assault against the Germans at El Guettar and opened the path for the new II Corps commander, George Patton to drive into the heart of the German positions in Tunisia. The Rangers were given the Presidential Unit Citation and Darby was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
His citation read:
“Lt. Col. Darby struck with his force with complete surprise at dawn in the rear of a strongly fortified enemy position. Always conspicuously at the head of his troops, he personally led assaults against the enemy line in the face of heavy machine gun and artillery fire, establishing the fury of the Ranger attack by his skillful employment of hand grenades in close-quarter fighting. On March 22, Lt. Col. Darby directed his battalion in advance on Bon Hamean, capturing prisoners and destroying a battery of self-propelled artillery.”
After the fall of North Africa, the Army liked what they saw in the 1st Ranger Bn., and decided to create two more, the 3rd and the 4th Battalions. The training they attempted in North Africa wasn’t quite up to the standards of the Commandos in Scotland. They, therefore, broke one of the SOF Truths that would come into being 40 years later: “SOF Units Can’t Be Mass Produced”. They had only six weeks to create, train, and prepare the men for the invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky.
Darby would be the overall commander of the Ranger force and retain the 1st Bn. command. He and the 1st Bn., along with the 3rd Bn., would land at Gela and clear the way for the 1st Division to come ashore. They captured small 37mm anti-tank guns and were successful in knocking out enemy tanks and clearing the way.
The narrative for this citation of Derby reads: “Lt. Col. Darby, with the use of one 37mm gun, which he personally manned, managed not only to repulse an enemy attack but succeeded with this weapon in destroying one tank, while two others were accounted for by well-directed hand grenade fire.”
At the end of the Sicilian campaign, the three battalions reformed in Corleone, Sicily to prepare for Operation Avalanche, the invasion of mainland Italy at Salerno.
The Rangers went ashore on the far left of the invasion force and quickly captured their assigned objectives. But the rest of the Fifth Army was moving slowly: the Germans had reacted and were slowing the advance. The lightly armed Rangers were supposed to be on the line for two days after seizing their objectives. But they remained there for two weeks.
Although the 1st and 3rd Bn. were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their actions in seizing the Chiunzi Pass, casualties were high, about 10 percent of the force. Darby and his men were misused as regular line infantry in the bitter mountain fighting for the next few months.
But then the three Ranger Battalions were re-designated the 6615 Ranger Force (Provisional) with Darby as the commander. He was promoted to Colonel. His unit also consisted of a cannon company, a chemical warfare mortar battalion, engineers and the 509th Parachute Infantry Bn.
Darby was tasked to be the spearhead for Operation Shingle, the Anzio landings. This was to open the door to Rome. But the overall commander, MG John Lucas of the VI Corps was the wrong commander. This operation demanded an audacious, aggressive commander. Lucas was timid and unsure of himself, something that would end in disaster for the Rangers.
Darby and his Ranger unit accomplished their objectives easily. They came ashore quickly, seized the port, knocked out the gun batteries covering the beaches, and secured the beachhead for the remaining assault troops.
But Lucas didn’t move off the beaches thus allowing the Germans to move eight divisions on to the high ground covering the Allied advance. Soon the entire invasion was bottled up on the beach and under murderous German artillery fire.
Lucas decided to finally penetrate the German lines at Cisterna di Littoria using the 1st and 3rd Bns. with the 4th Bn. attacking to clear the main road. Because the area around Cisterna was open farmland, the 1st and 3rd Bn. would use the irrigation ditches to move.
After a break in contact between the 1st and 3rd Bns., three companies from 1st Bn. and the 3rd Bn. began their assault on the town. But they were held up short 800 meters from it. The 4th Bn. was stopped cold by German tanks and artillery.
The Germans had the 1st and 3rd Bns. pinned down and began to attack with tanks and self-propelled artillery. Cut off, the Rangers fought until they ran out of ammunition. Only eight men of the 1st and 3rd Ranger Bns. made it back to friendly lines. They had 12 killed, 36 wounded, and 743 men captured. The 4th Bn., trying to come to their aid, suffered a bloody nose with 30 killed and 58 wounded.
That was the end of the Ranger force: The remaining troops were disbanded and most were assigned to the 1st Special Service Force.
Colonel Darby would be reassigned to command the 179th Infantry Regiment in the 45th Division for two months before being sent to Washington DC for an assignment to the War Department. On April 23, BG Robinson Duff, the assistant division commander with the 10th Mountain Division was wounded and Darby was assigned there to take his place.
Seven days later on April 30, 1945, Darby was issuing orders for an attack on Trento when a German artillery shell landed right among the assembled officers and NCOs. Darby and a Sgt were killed and several others wounded. He was just 34 years old.
Darby was initially buried with the Rangers in Cisterna and post-humously promoted to Brigadier General. In 1949, his body was removed from there and interred in a cemetery in his hometown of Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Camp Darby, where the Benning phase of Ranger School is conducted, as well as the Ranger obstacle course, are named after him.
His famous quote from the Sicily campaign is always remembered, “Onward we stagger and if the tanks come, then God help the tanks.”