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Rangers led the way in the D-Day landings 80 years ago

James Sandy, University of Texas at Arlington, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Among the 150,000 soldiers who landed on and fought across the hostile beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, were 1,000 members of a new, specially trained unit – the U.S. Army Rangers.

Most of them fought across the German beachfront defenses, supported by nearly 7,000 naval vessels and 11,000 Allied aircraft. More than 200 Rangers fought vertically – up the sheer cliff face of Pointe du Hoc, a craggy outcropping overlooking the two American landing beaches – in an effort to capture what was thought to be a key location of German artillery.

As a military historian of what I call the American Ranger tradition, I’ve traced this martial phenomenon from the colonial period to the 21st century. Their pathway to Normandy and their exploits that fateful morning represent a core component of the modern U.S. Army’s culture and evolution in the decades since.

The idea for the U.S. Army Rangers was inspired by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s idea for what he called a “butcher and bolt” force – small teams that would conduct surprise attacks, kill or destroy key enemy targets, and escape undetected. The Commandos, as these British units were called, conducted high-profile and daring raids into occupied Europe from 1940 to the end of the war. Their sudden and shocking assaults along the French and Norwegian coastlines provided a boost in British morale during the dark early days of the war.

In spring 1942, Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, agreed to send a small detachment of Americans to train with the British commandos to gain combat experience. These American troops were then supposed to be sent to units across the United States’ rapidly growing army to share their expertise as new recruits prepared to go to war.

Gen. Lucian Truscott Jr., who had made the initial pitch to Marshall, believed the term “commando” was too British and instead argued that these men should be called “Rangers.” Truscott recalled the tenacity, flexibility and aggressive nature of colonial forces like Rogers’ Rangers, famous for daring raids during the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s. Truscott believed that “few words have a more glamorous connotation in American military history” than the word “ranger.”

 

The 1st Ranger Battalion was trained by the British Commandos. A select few of them joined the British and Canadians in an August 1942 raid across the English Channel into Dieppe, France, which resulted in catastrophic losses and hard-learned lessons for the eventual landings at Normandy. Those Rangers were the first U.S. troops to fight in Europe during World War II.

In November 1942, the 1st Ranger Battalion took part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of northern Africa. They captured the port town of Arzew, Algeria, without firing a shot during the invasion’s opening hours. They conducted daring nighttime raids, like the one on the Italian military outpost at the Sened Station in Tunisia, and were essential to Gen. George Patton’s breakout at Tunisia’s Djebel el Ank in 1943.

The unit was so successful that the Army created additional Ranger battalions for the invasions of Italy and France, which were still being planned and would be undertaken in 1943 and 1944, respectively.

As these new battalions were forming and training, two in Africa and two in Tennessee, there was some confusion among Army commanders about how they would be used in combat. Were they specialized raiding forces like the commandos, or elite infantry meant to spearhead beach landings and other large-scale offensives? The 1st Rangers had done both in Africa, and these new Rangers would be asked to do so as well.

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