The 1st Ranger Battalion’s First Adversary Wasn’t the Nazis …

Staff Sgt. Les Kness, 23, glanced at his pal as their U.S. Army troop truck lurched and banged over the rugged terrain from the dusty airfield. Sergeant Les Cook, a fellow Iowan, was once totally engaged with packing his pipe stuffed with Prince Albert tobacco as he jostled from side to side towards his fellow Rangers.

Cook, 21, gave the impression as content material as standard. While maximum people who smoke in his corporate most well-liked cigarettes, Cook discovered being within the minority paid dividends: he at all times had a barracks bag stuffed with red-tin smoking tobacco for his pipe. Kness’s ideas became to the challenge to hand. It was once February 7, 1943, and his unit had simply landed at the Allied airfield of Youks-les-Bains in northern Algeria. Located simply 17 miles from the military’s II Corps headquarters in Tébessa, the airstrip had observed dozens of C-47 troop shipping planes contact down, wearing 1000’s of heaps of particular apparatus and just about 500 elite warriors.

It were 3 months since Allied forces had effectively landed in Vichy-held French North Africa as a part of Operation Torch, a three-pronged assault at the towns of Casablanca in Morocco and Oran and Algiers in Algeria. While British forces driven west from Egypt, American floor forces drove south from the coast towards territories aligned with Nazi Germany. Since then, the Germans and Italians excited about build up their forces in Tunisia; an upcoming Allied thrust into that nation was once to incorporate particular operations paintings performed by means of Kness, Cook, and their comrades.


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They have been handpicked contributors of the military’s 1st Ranger Battalion, beneath the command of William Orlando Darby, 32, from Fort Smith, Arkansas. A 1933 West Point graduate, he were more than happy to go away his body of workers place to take command of a brand new, bare-boned abnormal unit that may surely see battle. The so-called “Darby’s Rangers” have been a commando outfit whose title referenced a identical drive beneath Major Robert Rogers that had fought at the French and Indian War frontiers within the 18th century. Rogers’s Rangers were popularized in American literature and, maximum lately, within the 1940 movie Northwest Passage, starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Young. 

Now Darby’s Rangers have been about to embark on their very own film-worthy exploits in North Africa, whole with triumphs and tragedies. Their adventures would come with a run-in with their new corps commander, George S. Patton Jr.—a person first of all a lot adversarial to the Rangers’ rough-cut look and cocky swagger. In due time, Patton would discover ways to tolerate a few of their unorthodox habits—and would receive advantages considerably from the bravery of Darby’s males. 

The Rangers got here to be referred to as “Darby’s Rangers” after their charismatic chief, Lieutenant Colonel William Orlando Darby, right here stress-free out of doors Arzew, Algeria. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

the selected few

DARBY’S BATTALION had shaped in June 1942 in Northern Ireland, the place American troops have been getting ready for Operation Torch, culling recruits from greater than 2,000 infantrymen who had volunteered from quite a lot of Fifth Army divisions. Within two weeks, Darby and his senior officials had weeded out just about three-quarters of those males; the ones 481 officials and enlisted males decided on have been from all varieties of army specialties, however have been required to be of remarkable bodily talent, possess sound judgment, and be capable of paintings autonomously in small teams to make use of hit-and-run commando ways. 

Somewhere on this procedure—and for causes no longer recorded—Kness had didn’t make the lower. Hailing from Audubon, Iowa, Lester Elwood Kness was once the dark-haired, blue-eyed fourth of six kids raised by means of a highschool custodian father after the demise in their mom in 1923. Les and his more youthful brother, Marvin “Mike” Eugene Kness, had enlisted within the U.S. Army in early 1942 and shipped to Northern Ireland that yr for additional coaching. Weary of the monotonous drills, each brothers jumped on the likelihood to sign up for Darby’s outfit.

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Les Cook (above) and Les Kness (beneath) had extra in commonplace than their first names: each had served within the Iowa National Guard ahead of transferring directly to the U.S. Army and the first Ranger Battalion’s E Company. “I didn’t know what a Ranger was once, however I volunteered,” Cook recalled. (Courtesy of the creator)
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(Courtesy of the creator)

Mike were briefly authorised, however Les was once crestfallen to be told that he was once amongst the ones lower within the weeding-out procedure. In his new function as a clerk for Darby’s Rangers, Corporal Mike Kness remedied the placement by means of typing his brother’s title and serial quantity into the newly shaped corporate rosters as a part of his personal E Company. The sleight of hand was once by no means found out.

The battalion was once divided into six firms, A via F. By the time the Rangers moved to Scotland in August 1942 for amphibious coaching operations with the British Royal Navy, Staff Sergeant Les Kness had turn into a piece chief for First Lieutenant Max Schneider’s E Company. As such, he was once quickly in control of 11 males: an assistant segment chief, a Browning computerized rifleman, 7 riflemen, and a couple of scouts. 

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The newly shaped Rangers, their faces darkened as though for a middle of the night raid, educate on the British Commando Center in Scotland in summer time 1942. (AP/Shutterstock)

Kness tapped Corporal Lester Cook to be the automated rifleman. Having each served within the National Guard in Iowa, the pair briefly was inseparable. With a boyish face and weighing simply 97 kilos proper out of highschool, Cook had enlisted within the military in February 1941, at age 18. When he discovered of a posting for Rangers recruitment, he was once fast to behave. “I used to be bored to tears,” Cook defined. “I didn’t know what a Ranger was once, however I volunteered.”

Both males driven during the rigors of coaching with out a lot drawback. Les Kness’s talents drew consideration, and he was certainly one of 7 officials and 12 sergeants tapped for transient responsibility to watch the Second Canadian Division get ready to participate in a British-Canadian raid set for July at the German-occupied port of Dieppe in France. Planners knew from the outset that the meant seize of the port and destruction of German coastal defenses would have an handiest transient impact, and was once meant principally to spice up Allied morale and show the United Kingdom’s dedication to reopen the Western Front. Learning of the deliberate assault from British high minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that American troops be incorporated. Lieutenant Colonel Darby known as the small workforce of Rangers slated to watch and take part “the selected few.” 

Originally deliberate for July 4, 1942, the Dieppe operation was once postponed on account of unfavourable climate and harm from a German fighter-bomber assault to 2 of the touchdown ships slated to be used. By August 1, the first Ranger Battalion moved to Argyll, Scotland, for his or her amphibious coaching, then directly to Dundee for follow attacking pillboxes and coastal defenses.

It was once at a coaching base in central Scotland that Kness struck up a friendship with every other E Company Ranger, First Sergeant Warren Evans, a powerfully constructed six-foot-three-inch local of South Dakota. A former South Dakota State soccer famous person and an excellent baritone singer, Evans was once referred to as “Bing” after common singer Bing Crosby.

Evans and Kness loved boxing all through their downtime. Evans discovered that even supposing Kness was once some six inches shorter than him, “he had fingers that hung all the way down to his knees. He saved me in the market together with his lengthy fingers and would give me a horny excellent beating.”

Kness were a talented fighter lengthy ahead of becoming a member of the Rangers. He was once no longer overly enforcing at 5 foot ten, however he was once broad-shouldered and powerfully constructed, with robust legs neatly suited to the pressured marches the Rangers continued in coaching. Added to his rugged body was once an innate quickness, a capability to strike like lightning with each his palms and toes. Growing up filth deficient in rural Iowa, Kness were ashamed to confess that from time to time he were pressured to scrounge for burnt toast and spoiled oranges within the waste containers at the back of eating places. He had misplaced a few of his everlasting tooth at an early age, and he were fast to react to any teasing about his smile together with his fists.

During their loose time in the summertime of 1942, Kness and Evans frequented the pubs within the Scottish the city of Fort William, close to their central Scotland base. “Les and I loved ourselves and fought any one,” Evans recalled. “Every position we went, Les would get started a battle after which go away me with it.” Kness insulted British infantrymen, or any person feisty sufficient to strike again, and Evans would briefly to find himself in the course of a first class brawl.

The rough-and-tumble lifetime of being a Ranger have compatibility the pair neatly. Weeks into the educational in Scotland, alternatively, their tight bond was once challenged when Evans was once promoted because the battalion’s sergeant main. Because of his promotion, Evans was once no longer allowed to take part within the Dieppe Raid when it was once after all put into movement later in August. In his position was once Kness, freshly promoted to E Company’s first sergeant. 

Kness and 50 different Rangers accompanied British commandos and Canadian soldiers once they embarked for Dieppe the evening of August 18, 1942. The touchdown flotilla wearing different commandos, together with one of the Rangers, got here beneath attack by means of German “E-boats,” very similar to American PT boats. “Shells that seemed like little yellow balls have been floating during the air, simply gorgeous,” Kness stated. “It was once just like the Fourth of July.” 

Although his boat by no means made it ashore to sign up for the battle, 15 of Kness’s fellow Rangers did take part within the raid, changing into the primary American floor infantrymen to look motion towards the Germans in occupied Europe. Several have been killed and every other 3 have been captured all through the raid, which was once thought to be a failure total. But in taking a German battery, the Rangers had carried out a fashion commando attack. And all, Kness felt, had won treasured enjoy and enhanced stature amongst their friends. 

Their new-won self assurance confirmed in November 1942 when, as a part of Operation Torch in North Africa, Darby and his particular forces battalion have been tasked with shooting two coastal protection batteries dominating the touchdown seashores at Arzew, a port the city close to Oran. By 4 a.m. on November 8—simply hours after the landings had commenced—each enemy batteries have been in Ranger palms. 

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Two Rangers duvet Arzew Harbor on November 8, 1942. Charged with seizing two coastal protection batteries there, the Rangers completed their purpose within the early morning, simply hours after their landings. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

challenge finished

NOW, AS NEW ARRIVALS in northern Algeria, Kness, Cook, and their fellow Rangers started putting in camp within the picturesque the city of Tébessa. Bill Darby, in the meantime, went to the headquarters of Major General Lloyd Fredendall, 59—the sandy-haired, blue-eyed, commander of the U.S. Army’s II Corps—for a briefing. There, his drive was once given a unique challenge—undertaking darting, pinpricking middle of the night raids to provide their Axis enemy the affect that Allied power in central Tunisia was once more than it in reality was once. Tasked with shooting prisoners and causing heavy losses at the enemy with fewer than 500 males beneath his command, Darby believed that in the event that they completed this challenge, his males had the risk to face out to the military’s excessive command.

The first raid could be towards Sened Station, a railway junction and Axis provide depot situated close to Sened Pass in Tunisia—one reportedly occupied by means of Italian infantrymen of the Centauro Division of the Bersaglieri, an armored department of the Italian Army. The morning after he talked to Fredendall, Darby led a small patrol there on a reconnaissance challenge to assemble intelligence.

Three firms of Darby’s Rangers, Kness and Cook’s E Company incorporated, would take part within the attack on Sened Station. “We’re gonna throw the commando guide at them—bayonets, knives, grenades—the works!” Captain Roy A. Murray informed his F Company in a pre-raid briefing. “They’ve were given to grasp they’ve been labored over by means of Rangers.”

Early at the morning of February 11, 1943, 200 Rangers complicated over 8 miles of rugged barren region terrain to succeed in their function by means of break of day. Kness and the Rangers in his corporate finished the hike with out match—even supposing Cook took his percentage of teasing all through the development. With a name for purchasing tangled in barbed cord all through earlier evening marches, he was once razzed that if there was once barbed cord inside of 100 miles of the Rangers in North Africa, he’d be the one guy to get tangled in it. 

The Rangers hid themselves all through sunlight, finding out their enemy’s actions 4 miles away with box glasses. Around nighttime, they have been at the transfer once more, using stealth and silence to ease in at the Axis strongpoint. They had camouflaged themselves by means of smearing their faces and palms with filth, their canine tags taped in combination to forestall any clinking sounds. “We would leap up and down in entrance of the blokes beside us, so lets take a look at one every other for any unfastened rattle of kit and quieten it,” Cook stated. “We became our wristwatches over to cover the glow of the face and made positive our blouse sleeves lined them.”

Kness had the lads of his platoon don brimless knit caps as an alternative of metal struggle helmets, as the lads within the different firms had carried out. Each guy’s again bore a work of white tape marked with an X, Y, or Z, relying at the corporate, to assist them care for formation. They’d been ordered to kill any person with out tape on his again, or any person dressed in a helmet.

Darby’s males complicated unexpectedly over rocks, ravines, and boulders to succeed in some degree about 600 yards from the Italian put up at Sened Station. At 1:20 a.m. on February 12, Darby ordered the fee. When the sergeant of E Company’s first platoon yelled, his males started to run. But the second one platoon, led by means of two more recent officials, was once gradual. Kness jumped into motion, hollering on the males till they took off at a useless fee, with Kness operating proper along them over the hill.

During the fee, the Rangers confronted Italian device weapons and a 47mm cannon. Within 20 mins of combating—a few of it hand at hand—Darby’s males killed a minimum of 50 combatants, wounded many extra, and took 11 prisoners. One Ranger was once killed and every other 18 have been wounded by the point they fell again towards their origination level. During the day, Sergeant Kness’s platoon assisted their maximum critically injured males again to Tébessa. 

In the afternoon of day after today, February 13, Major General Fredendall arrived to pin decorations at the courageous Rangers. Fourteen officials and males won the Silver Star, and 4 different males got battlefield
commissions. Among them was once Les Kness, complicated to the officer’s rank of 2nd lieutenant. Nine months after his brother Mike had hired muster-roll trickery to get Les into Darby’s elite battalion, he had turn into certainly one of handiest 22 Rangers who had participated in each the Dieppe and Sened Station raids.


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punished by means of patton

ELEVEN DAYS LATER, the U.S. Army was once in a nasty state, having suffered heavy losses in battles at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass close to the western border of Tunisia—battle that hadn’t concerned the Rangers in any important approach. Fredendall was once relieved of the command of II Corps, changed by means of a fiery former tank commander, George Patton.

Upon arriving at his new headquarters on March 6, 1943, Patton, then a big normal, got to work enforcing more potent self-discipline inside of his corps. He began with probably the most fundamental regulations, together with methods to salute and methods to get dressed. During the following week, “Old Blood and Guts”—who discovered he were promoted to lieutenant normal on March 12—railed at infantrymen he discovered with out neckties or the much-disliked gaiters, which lined boots from the ankle as much as stay out rocks and dirt. On March 13, Lieutenant Kness and a few of his fellow Rangers have been amongst the ones fined for no longer being in right kind uniform.

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George S. Patton, right here a big normal, surveys a seaside in Morocco in November 1942, all through the primary days of the U.S. marketing campaign in North Africa. He assumed command of the military’s II Corps—and were given his 3rd famous person—the next March. (Corbis by means of Getty Images)

Darby’s battalion—now working with the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division—were getting ready for every other raid towards a German place in Tunisia when the brand new commander arrived at the scene. Kness had taken 14 Rangers into town of Le Kef to retailer their barracks baggage for the attack. All have been wearing work-detail clothes and comfortable cranium caps. Brigadier General Hugh Gaffey, Patton’s corps leader of body of workers, chewed out Kness for the sloppy look of his males and marched them again to Patton’s headquarters. Kness was once hauled in ahead of Patton to deal with fees that his males have been out of right kind uniform and had proven no appreciate to Gaffey.

Patton, in his function high-pitched voice, requested Kness: “Is this true?”

Kness’s combating instincts kicked in; his change with the brand new commander was heated, bringing a danger from Patton to send Kness again to the States and separate him from carrier. The normal hammered his fist on his table, his face aflame and indignant. The lieutenant attempted to give an explanation for how he was once newly commissioned and that no right kind officer uniforms have been to be had to him, however Patton berated him for no longer dressed in his necktie. 

“Sir, we’re within the strategy of transferring out this night time to assault an enemy artillery place,” Kness remembered announcing. “We had permission to take away our neckties for the battle.”

“No one can rescind certainly one of my orders!” Patton yelled. “Do you already know?”

The normal passed down orders that every Ranger be fined $25 and held within the stockade in a single day. Once Patton and Gaffey had departed, Kness was once summoned again into the place of job to pay his high-quality. Irritated, he muttered “armchair commando” towards certainly one of Patton’s staffers seated at the back of the table. “He raised up and, to my wonder, was once a complete chicken colonel,” Kness recalled. “I discovered what a grasp at reaming was once in point of fact like.”

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Patton later fined a few of his new fees—right here commandeering a French coastal gun—for no longer appearing sufficient spit and varnish in camp, an act that created lingering resentment some of the Rangers. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

the rangers’ large win

ONE WEEK AFTER his crude advent to George Patton, Lieutenant Kness and his Rangers have been getting ready for every other essential in a single day raid. It was once March 20, 1943; 3 days prior, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division had taken the Tunisian town of Gafsa to be used as a ahead provide base. The following day, March 18, the Rangers had occupied the oasis of El Guettar with little or no opposition. Now Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion had orders to occupy an commentary put up on a definite knob categorized “Djebel Orbata” on North African maps. East of Gafsa, the Orbata mountain rose sharply to a peak of three,800 toes and kind of paralleled the process the primary street from Gafsa during the the city of El Guettar. 

Two of Darby’s patrols had reconnoitered the slopes the former evening. They discovered its ridge infested with Italian infantrymen who had fired upon them. To make the attack, Darby hired his whole battalion. The just about 500 Rangers had rifles, grenades, knives, and two 60mm M2 mortars according to corporate, and the battalion additionally had 12 .30-caliber M1919-A4 device weapons. Moving with them was once an organization of the first Engineer Battalion, who known as themselves “hell squads,” every unit towing 37mm antiaircraft weapons and pairs of 81mm mortars.

The trek started at 11 p.m. The terrain was once depraved within the darkness, stuffed with knife-like ridges, boulder-strewn hills, and precipitous dry ravines referred to as wadis. Toggle ropes have been continuously important to assist transfer males and kit up and down cliffs and over ravines. They stumbled and cursed silently, groping via tricky gorges, respiring onerous as they lugged their heavy tools and helped to tug different males up steep attracts. Kness was once up for the problem. He thought to be the tough climb to be simply the article his unit were coaching for. 

Five hours into their adventure, the Rangers reached a pointy drop that required males to climb hand-over-hand down the cliff, silently passing apparatus to one another. Daylight was once rapid coming near on Djebel Orbata as Darby directed his firms towards their ultimate positions. As Kness’s males got here up over the mountain rim to confront the enemy, they have been closest to the middle of attack. His Second Platoon moved out to move over the rim towards the enemy positions. Leading a squad from E Company, Sergeant Les Cook was once sweating from the exertion. For his Tommy gun, Cook was once wearing 10 magazines with 20 rounds every, 5 on every facet of his belt. 

At 5 a.m. at the twenty first, a bugle name signaled the assault towards Djebel Orbata. Surprise was once whole in the beginning, however the Rangers have been quickly confronted with silencing a German artillery piece and an Italian device gun nest. Rangers, their faces darkened, surged ahead, firing their weapons and bayonetting Italian infantrymen who resisted. In quick order, dozens of Italians have been waving white flags of give up. 

The subsequent part hour deteriorated into a chain of scattered attacks. Small wallet of resistance remained to be cleared, whilst different Italians gave up the battle in teams. Two hours after the attack commenced, a straggling mortar squad arrived and briefly knocked out every other Italian device gun nest. By the time two battalions of the twenty sixth Infantry reached the move, the Rangers had the placement neatly in hand, their handiest arranged resistance being different dug-in device gun positions south of the street. 

All six Ranger firms fought during the morning hours and, by means of 12:20 p.m., Darby was once ready to file by means of radio that the interior parts of the move were cleared. By past due afternoon, some 1,400 Axis prisoners were rounded up and marched down from the hills. The Rangers returned to their bivouac house at El Guettar by means of past due afternoon, turning over their prisoners for processing.

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A German soldier lies useless after the Rangers’ a hit raid on Tunisia’s Sened Station in early February 1943. More accomplishments adopted, developing groundwork for the U.S. Army’s—and Patton’s—first important victory over Nazi Germany. (Bob Landry/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

Compared to the bloody battle the Rangers had continued within the Dieppe and Sened Station raids, Kness thought to be the wonder attack on Djebel Orbata to be “a cakewalk.” Darby’s males had conquered the coveted excessive floor with handiest six males wounded. The weary 1st Ranger Battalion was once satisfied to simply accept sizzling stew, ladled into their helmets, and canteen cups from kitchen truck chefs, whilst infantry regiments of the first Division driven southeast of El Guettar ahead of digging in for the night time. Lieutenant General Patton may just now boast that his troops had reclaimed greater than 2,000 sq. miles of territory—shooting Sened Station, Gafsa, and El Guettar—in an insignificant 5 days.

Proudly wearing his new 3 stars, Patton went to the entrance strains to look at the display on March 21. During the afternoon, his command workforce left its department put up and headed east towards some degree the place the 18th Infantry Regiment was once combating. “The infantrymen informed me to get again, which, in fact, avoided me from doing so,” wrote Patton, who was hoping to instill braveness in his males.

The battle that was referred to as the Battle of El Guettar was once in its opening levels, and would devour extra days ahead of the result was once made up our minds early in April 1943. It was once the U.S. Army’s first main victory towards Axis troops within the European Theater of Operations—an actual morale booster that may flush the warriors with nice self assurance for the lengthy street to final victory that lay forward. But issues by no means moved rapid sufficient to thrill Patton. 

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From North Africa, Darby’s Rangers moved directly to Sicily, the place, in August 1943, Patton congratulated Darby on taking the port the city of Gela. (U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The very males Patton had railed towards in mid-March, Rangers like Les Kness and Les Cook, had performed a key function in serving to protected that victory. By the top of the El Guettar marketing campaign, Bill Darby thought to be his males to be “battle-tested veterans, skilled in mountain and hit-and-run war.” A yr later, his battalion—a forerunner to nowadays’s U.S. Army Special Forces—could be commemorated with a Presidential Unit Citation for its valor in North Africa.

Patton later declared Darby to be “the bravest guy I ever knew.” His first impressions of the radical 1st Ranger Battalion had no longer been type or pleasing, and a few of them would perpetually resent the overall. But Patton would no longer glance down on those warriors once more.

Adapted from PATTON’S PAYBACK by means of Stephen L. Moore, printed on May 17, 2022, by means of Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a department of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by means of Stephen L. Moore. 

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