Col William Orlando Darby (Feb 8, 1911 – Apr 30, 1945) was an US Army officer who fought during WW-2 and was killed in action in Italy. He was posthumously promoted to brigadier general. Darby’s first assignment was as assistant executive and supply officer with the 82nd Field Artillery at Fort Bliss, Texas. In July 1934, he transferred to Cloudcroft, New Mexico, where he commanded the 1st Cavalry Division detachment. He received intensive artillery training from September 1937 to June 1938 while attending Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On Sep 9, 1940, he was promoted to captain and subsequently served with the 80th Division at Camp Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Benning, Georgia; Camp Beauregard, Louisiana and Fort Des Moines, Iowa. While WW-2 progressed, Darby saw rapid promotion to the grade of lieutenant colonel. He was with the first US troops sent to Northern Ireland after the US entry into war and during his stay there, he became interested in the British Commandos.
On Jun 19, 1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion was activated and began training in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. When the US Army decided to establish its Ranger units, Darby gained the desired assignment to direct their organization and training. Many of the original Rangers were volunteers from the Red Bull Division (34th Infantry Division), a National Guard Division and the first ground combat troops to arrive in Europe. Darby’s Rangers trained with their British counterparts in Scotland. In 1943, the 1st Ranger Battalion made its first assault at Arzew, North Africa. Darby was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on March 21–25 during Operation Torch.
The citation stated: 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 Mar 22, Col Darby directed his battalion in advance on Bon Hamedan, capturing prisoners and destroying a battery of self-propelled artillery.. The 1st Ranger Battalion saw further action in the Italian Campaign. Darby received a second award (oak leaf cluster) of the DSC for extraordinary heroism in July 1943, in Sicily: Lt Col Darby, with the use of one 37-MM 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.
Darby was also awarded the Silver Star for his actions in North Africa on Feb 12, 1943: without regard for his personal safety, the day previous to a raid, he reconnoitered enemy positions and planned the attack which he led the following morning. The thorough organization and successful attack led by Col Darby revealed his initiative, courage, and devotion to duty which is a credit to the Armed Forces of the United States.
Darby took part in the Allied invasion of Italy in Sep 1943 and was promoted to full colonel on Dec 11, 1943. He commanded the 179-ID (45-ID) during the Rome-Arno and Anzio campaigns from Feb 18 to Apr 2, 1944. He was then ordered to Washington DC for duty with the Army Ground Forces and later with the War Department General Staff at The Pentagon. In Mar 1945, he returned to Italy for an observation tour with Gen Henry H. Arnold.
On Apr 23, 1945, Gen Robinson E. Duff, ADC (Assistant Division Commander) of the US 10th Mountain Division, was wounded; Darby took over for Duff. Task Force Darby spearheaded the breakout of the American 5-A from the Po River valley bridgehead during the Spring of 1945 offensive and reached Torbole at the head of Lake Garda. On Apr 30, while Darby was issuing orders for the attack on Trento to cut off a German retreat, an artillery shell burst in the middle of the assembled officers and NCOs, killing Darby, a sergeant, and wounding several others. Task Force Darby continued with their mission. Two days later, on May 2, all German forces in Italy surrendered. William O. Darby, aged 34 at the time of his death, was posthumously promoted to brigadier general on May 15. He was buried in Cisterna, Italy, and later re-interred at Fort Smith National Cemetery, Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 11, 1949.
Djebel el Ank – 1942 – Preparation
The 1-RB went into action as a unit for the first time on Nov 8, 1942, Operation Torch, the landings into French Morrocco, North Africa. The Rangers made a surprise night landing in and north of Arzew in Algeria neutralized its main coastal defenses and captured its docks. Due largely to rigorous training and thorough planning, they accomplished their mission with the loss of only one Ranger life (Subject letter ‘Commando Organization’ from Gen James W. Chaney to CG-USANIF, June 1, 1942).
Before and after Arzew, however, the Rangers began to evolve from a lightly armed unit organized to conduct special operations into a more heavily armed force organized for conventional combat. This was the result of two tendencies that reinforced one another throughout the existence of Darby’s Rangers.
The first tendency was the adoption of heavier weapons than were specified in the Rangers’ original Table of Equipment (TOE) because of the occasional need for more firepower. The second tendency was the use of the Rangers in conventional operations when necessary or expedient. Ironically, the more the Rangers were used as conventional infantry, the more firepower they needed; and the more firepower they got, the more likely it became that the headquarters that controlled them would use them conventionally.
Col Darby accommodated this evolution. He had been commissioned into the field artillery when he graduated from West Point in 1933 and had served only with artillery units until he became Hartle’s aide-de-camp in January 1942. After he took command of the 1st Ranger Battalion, he retained such a strong, appreciation of artillery that the battalion executive officer, Maj Herman Dammer, would later say that Darby had a fetish for firepower.
The transition began during the planning for Operation Torch when Darby temporarily replaced the battalion’s 60-MM mortars with 81-MM tubes because he believed the latter would be more effective against the fortified positions that guarded Arzew. It proved to be a wise decision, as the French defenders of the ‘Batterie Superieure’, one of Arzew’s major forts, resisted, and it was necessary for the Rangers to use the mortars against it.
Although the Rangers accomplished their mission quickly and smoothly, troops advancing inland did not have the advantage of surprise and encountered more determined French resistance, Gen Terry Allen, CG of the 1-ID, to which the 1-RB was attached, called upon the battalion to assist in conventional operations. During Nov 9 and Nov 10, Easy Co and elements of the 16-IR (1-ID) captured the town of La Macta (Sidi Bel Abbès), and on Nov 10, Charlie Co helped the 18-IR (1-ID) to take Saint Cloud.
Three Rangers were killed in the fight for the latter town. The use of the Rangers in conventional infantry operations only fourteen and one-half hours after they had set foot in North Africa bothered some of the men. What was the purpose in organizing and training Rangers for Commando-type operations if they are going to be frittered away in mass battles, thought Ranger James Altieri. Dammer, however, sensed no resentment by Darby over the La Macta and Saint Cloud battles. He seemed to believe that there had been a job to do and that the Rangers had done it.
The Rangers were not used in combat for almost three months following Arzew but trained near the city and were then assigned to Gen Mark Wayne Clark’s Fifth Army Invasion Training Center (ITC) as a demonstration and experimental troops. Many men transferred out of the battalion during this period, believing that the war was passing them by and Darby found it necessary to recruit new volunteers. On Jan 31, 1943, 7 officer and 101 enlisted replacements reported for duty and were formed into a seventh company that Darby had established for training purposes. No longer attached to the British, the Rangers now had to train themselves.
Quite naturally, many of the training techniques introduced by the British were kept by Darby, and speed marching, cliff climbing, rappelling, and night amphibious landings continued to be integral parts of the Rangers Regiment. Darby strongly emphasized the buddy system or working in pairs. The men chose their own buddies from within their own platoons and then ate, performed details, and trained as a team. In what was called the Bullet and Bayonet course, the men negotiated obstacles and reacted to surprise targets in buddy teams. Each team going through the course advanced using fire and maneuver and fire and movement. Another course, called Me and My Pal, was similar in concept but served as a street-fighting exercise.
William Darby and Terry Allen – Combat Report
En route to Arzew, the Rangers continuously reviewed their plans. Every platoon and section reviewed their missions. Plaster of Paris models, maps, and intelligence reports were analyzed to find any flaws in their assault plans. The Dieppe Raid was a vivid reminder that proper planning depended on timely intelligence and recon reports. There were two coastal batteries at Arzew, and the Rangers decided that a simultaneous attack was the best way to execute their mission. The Dammer Force, named after Darby’s right-hand man Capt Herman Dammer, consisted of Able and Baker Cos and seized the smaller gun battery at the Fort de la Pointe. The rest of the Rangers, code-named the Darby Force, landed 4 miles northwest, infiltrated and attacked from the rear to secure the larger gun emplacements of the Batterie du Nord. These operations were executed with few casualties on Nov 8, 1942, a tribute to the Rangers’ meticulous planning and training.
After the successful attacks on Arzew, some Ranger companies assisted in mop-up operations of nearby towns. Training continued to keep the men sharp. They were attached to the 5th Infantry Training Center at Arzew to act as a demonstration unit for the newly founded amphibious-assault depot. January 1943 saw the formation of George Co which was to train 106 replacements for the Rangers. Dog Co, which had been reorganized temporarily as an 81-MM mortar unit in Dundee, returned to its original function as an assault company.
On Feb 11, 1943, Able, Easy, and Fox Cos, 1st Rangers set out to raid Italian positions at Station de Sened, Tunisia, which was defended by the Italian Centauro Division and the elite Bersaglieri Mountain troops. With eight miles of rough terrain to cover, the Rangers carried only a canteen of water, one C ration, and a shelter-half each. The raid was carefully planned and exceeded all expectations. After closely fought combat, it resulted in at least 50 Italian dead and 12 prisoners from the famed 10th Bersaglieri Regiment. Five officers and nine enlisted men were awarded the Silver Star for their part in the Sened raid.
As in Northern Ireland and Scotland, realism was achieved through the use of live ammunition. Men simulating the enemy used captured German and Italian weapons so the new Rangers would learn to distinguish between the sounds of American and enemy guns. Thus, if a training problem required the taking of a machine-gun nest, a captured enemy machine gun would be set up to fire live ammunition in a fixed direction.
After the new men completed their initial hardening, most trainings were done at night. When tactical problems were conducted during darkness, Rangers simulating the enemy added to the realism by using flares. The Rangers also experimented with techniques of controlling tactical formations at night. Darby favored moving the battalion to an objective in a column for ease of control. Once the objective was reached and the companies went abreast in preparation for the assault, dim, shielded, colored lights were used to maintain formation. Each company used a different colored light. When a company reached a predetermined location, it would signal its position to the rear. Company commanders would signal with uninterrupted beams, while platoon leaders would signal with dots and dashes. Darby, who would temporarily be to the rear where he could see the lights, could then be certain that his men were where they were supposed to be when beginning an assault.
The 1-RB took part in several major actions during the month of February and March of 1943. On Feb 11, Darby led Able, Easy, Fox Cos, and HQs element on a night raid against Italian front line positions near the city of Sened located in the triangle Majoura, A Sanad, Gafsa, in central Tunisia. The attacking Rangers, carrying out a mission appropriate to their training and organization, killed or wounded an estimated seventy-five Italians, destroyed one AT gun, five machine-guns, and captured eleven members of the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment at the cost of one of their own men killed and twenty wounded.
The TOE authorized the battalion 441 enlisted men. 488 men included a small over strength in each grade to offset attrition anticipated during training. The 1-RB withdrew with II Corps prior to the battle of the Kasserine Pass, Feb 19/22, and remained in defensive positions south of Bou Chebka until March. From Feb 16 through Mar 1, the Rangers were involved in several clashes in which they killed six Italians, captured eight Italians and eight Germans, and destroyed three-wheeled vehicles and captured another three.
One Ranger was killed or captured while on patrol during this period. With the end of the Axis’ February offensive, the Allies began to prepare for the next phase of the Tunisian campaign, Montgomery’s Eighth Army would attack northward along Tunisia’s east coast, while the II Corps and the British First Army would threaten the enemy from the west and draw his reserves away toward the west.
By mid-March, the British 8-A had driven the Axis forces westward until the latter took up defensive positions along the Mareth Line. The line was about twenty-five miles long and extended northeast from the vicinity of Cheguimu in the Matmata Hills toward the Wadi Zigzauo, and along the wadi to the Gulf of Gabes. The 8-A was to begin an attack on the line during the night of Mar 16. The II Corps, over which Patton had recently assumed command, would play a supporting role in the attack.
Operation Wop, as the II Corps’ role, was named, called for the corps to capture and hold Gafsa, which would then serve as a logistical base for the British 8-A. After taking Gafsa, the II Corps would conduct operations toward Maknassy to threaten Axis lines of communication and supply. This plan would require the 9-ID and 34-ID to defend the approaches to Rohia, Sbeitla, Kasserine, and Bou Chebka while the 1-ID took Gafsa. The 1-AD (Reinforced) would then advance on Maknassy.
On the evening of Mar 13, the 1-RB, which had been in corps reserve, was attached to the 1-ID. At 1000 on Mar 17, 16-CT and 18-CT attacked Gafsa with the Rangers, found the town lightly defended and quickly captured it. No Rangers were killed or wounded in the attack.
Djebel el Ank – Combat
The ease with which Gafsa fell revealed that the enemy had almost completely withdrawn from the area. Allied intelligence reported that about two thousand Axis troops were at El Guettar and that they were also organized in strength at Djebel el Ank. Although Patton did not intend to continue the attack toward El Guettar immediately, it was necessary to reestablish contact with the enemy and maintain the initiative. On Mar 17, Gen Terry Allen (1-ID) sent Darby a memo ordering him to move the Rangers toward El Guettar after dark; reestablish contact with the enemy; determine enemy strength, dispositions, and unit designation; and maintain his unit in the area. Allen considered Darby’s mission crucial because the requested information was essential to planning an attack on El Guettar. Darby was directed to act aggressively but cautioned not to commit the Rangers to any action from which they could not disengage.
Darby received Allen’s memo at 0200 the following morning and immediately began moving his men through Gafsa toward El Guettar. In spite of intelligence reports that there were Italians in the area, the Rangers found El Guettar undefended, occupied it, and extended their search for the enemy farther to the east. By means of patrols and surveillance, they found troops of the Italian Centauro Division astride the Gafsa-Gabes road at the Djebel el Ank Pass. This was about four miles east of El Guettar and three miles west of Bou Hamran. It was to be the site of the Rangers’ first real battle since the Station de Sened raid. With the capture of Gafsa and El Guettar, the II Corps’ attack entered a second phase.
At 1630 on Mar 20, the 1-ID received a warning. Order from corps to prepare to attack along the Gafsa-Gabes road and to take the high ground east of El Guettar about eighteen miles southeast of Gafsa. The Gafsa-Gabes road split into two branches less than a mile east of El Guettar. The southern branch was a continuation of the main road and led into Gabes, The northern branch, dubbed Gumtree Road, passed through Djebel el Ank Pass and south of Bou Hamran to Mahares on the sea.
The plan developed by the division required the 18-CT to attack along the south branch of the Gafsa-Gabes road and for the Rangers and the 26-CT to attack along the north branch. The 16-CT would be held in the division reserve. Djebel el Ank Pass opened to the west like a funnel with rocky heights on both sides, and the Italians had barred its entrance with mines, barbed wire, roadblocks, and had covered its approaches with automatic weapons and AT guns. An unsupported frontal attack on the pass would risk heavy casualties and a high likelihood of failure, but a frontal attack combined with a surprise Ranger attack from the rear would be more likely to succeed with fewer losses. The plan thus developed required the Rangers to infiltrate enemy lines and attack the Italians defending the pass from behind. With the start of the Ranger attack, the 26-CT would make a frontal attack into the pass and, after securing it, continue on to Bou Hamran.
The Rangers, as ordered, remained in the Djebel el Ank area after locating the enemy and conducted recon patrols against the Italian positions. Darby made a personal daylight recon against the north wall of the pass, and Lt Walter Wojcik led a couple of night patrols into the mountains behind the enemy.
The Italians knew that American troops were to their front and brought the Rangers under artillery fire on Mar 18 and Mar 19, but did not realize that the Rangers were operating to their rear. During these recons, the Rangers mapped a tortuous ten-mile-long route among fissures, cliffs, and saddles to an unguarded rocky plateau that overlooked the Italian positions from behind. The Italians, believing themselves safe in their naturally strong position, had not established effective local security.
At 1800, Mar 20, the 1-ID received the order from the II Corps to attack along the Gafsa-Gabes road and seize the high ground east of El Guettar. The 26-CT held a meeting of unit commanders at 2165 to issue the regimental order. The regiment would attack Djebel el Ank Pass along the axis of Gumtree Road with the 3/26 on the left, the 1/26 on the right astride the road, and the 2/26 in reserve at El Guettar. The 3/26 would attack the north wall after the Rangers struck it from behind.
Bou Hamran, the first objective beyond the pass, was to be attacked only on division order. So, on the night of Mar 20, Darby led the 1-RB and an attached 4.2-inch mortar company along the previously reconnoitered route to the plateau behind the Italians. There, with their faces blackened with camouflage, the Rangers awaited the dawn. The mortar company, impeded by the weight of its weapons and the ruggedness of the terrain, had fallen behind and was still en route to the plateau.
Shortly after 0600, as first light brightened the sky to the east, waiting troops of the 26-CT heard the sound of battle burst forth suddenly from the north wall of the pass. The Rangers had taken the unsuspecting Italians completely by surprise. With machine-gun and rifle fire, a Ranger support element sent the Italians on the south side of the pass scurrying for cover, while the rest of the Ranger battalion swarmed down on the stunned defenders of the north wall. With the sound of a bugle, the assault element jumped from rock to rock shouting Indian war cries and formed into skirmish lines to close with the Italians. They rushed forward firing their weapons, throwing hand grenades, and bayoneting as Darby repeatedly shouted, give them some steel.
The first twenty minutes of the battle all but broke enemy resistance on the north wall. Dead Italians sprawled next to their unfired weapons while many of the living frantically waved white flags from their dugouts and trenches. The Rangers gathered prisoners while their mortars fired on those Italians who were still fighting from the other side of the road. By 0830, the Rangers held the most important positions on the pass, and the attached 4.2-inch mortars, which had only recently arrived, were adding their fire to the bombardment of the south wall.
With the north side of the pass cleared, Darby sent one company to silence the several machine-guns that could still fire on the entrance of the pass from the south wall. The attacking Rangers descended to the floor of the pass using a spur for cover and concealment, dashed across an open area to the base of the south wall, and slowly fought their way up the ridge in a rough skirmish line. The south side of the pass thus fell into the Ranger’s hands. Casualties were limited during this final mop-up thanks to the Rangers Italian-speaking British Chaplain, Father Albert E. Basil, who talked an Italian officer into surrendering his men.
While the Rangers were overrunning the heights, the 26-CT began moving into the pass. Because of the natural strength of the Italian position, the infantry could advance only slowly. A wadi cut across the mouth of the pass, and even with Rangers to guide them and with no opposition, each company took forty-five minutes to cross it.
At 1120, the division’s G-3 felt confident enough of the situation to direct Darby and the 26-CT to clean up what little resistance remained in the pass and take the high ground beyond Bou Hamran.
Although Darby would only claim taking about two hundred Italian prisoners in his after-action report, the Rangers and infantry together took more than a thousand prisoners by 1215. (II Corps, G-3 Journal and File, Telephone conversation, Capt Lord to Maj Chase, 1215 March 21, 1943).
The need for the Rangers passed as American forces continued their attack to the east, and the battalion was returned to its bivouac and division reserve at El Guettar at 1610. The taking of Djebel el Ank Pass was conducted in the successful tradition of Arzew and the raid at Station de Sened. Ranger losses in the operation amounted to only one officer wounded.