Ulster has unique place in American military history

GI arrival pic 1942

NORTHERN IRELAND has a unique place in American military history, the only part of the world where an American regiment has been formed on non-American soil.

The US Rangers was created in Carrickfergus in June 1942, just months after tens of thousands of General Infantry (GI) troops had arrived in Ulster as part of the Allied war effort.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 resulted in the US entering the war, and in January 1942 the first troopship arrived in Belfast.

On board was a young army captain named William Darby. Born at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Darby had been appointed to serve as aide-de-camp to Major General Russell P. Harte, commander of the 34th infantry.

The young army captain, like many thousands of other GIs, could trace his ancestry to Northern Ireland and also like many others was far too busy to look further into his family history.

He was disappointed at his posting as aide to Hartle, and voiced his feelings that he would rather have been assigned command of a combat unit than a staff post.

This situation would dramatically change when the opportunity arose to head up a new unit shortly after arriving in Ulster.

Initially, however, Darby’s personality was utilised as an ambassador in the community to which the Americans had arrived

Paul Jeffers, author of “Onward we charge, The heroic story of Darby’s Rangers in World War II” (2007) notes that “Because his temperament was deemed more congenial than Hartle’s gruff and often brusque bearing, he was given responsibility for engaging socially with the Irish, who suddenly found not only their community inundated with thousands of American soldiers but their quiet countryside, narrow lanes and scenic byways resounding to the rumbling and roar of military vehicles.”

National Geographic 1943 August

Wartime photograph of US soldiers in Ulster

Within a few months around 40,000 US troops had arrived, and a review of the forces led to a decision that commando training would be beneficial. Colonel Lucian K. Truscutt, tasked with considering the value of such training, suggested on May 26, 1942, a that a force of 400-500 men be raised from US troops in Ulster.

The Americans did not wish to use the term commando for their new unit out of deference to the British army.

And after consideration of what they should name the new force, the term Rangers was selected. It is not clear what exact deliberation took place, but the use of Rangers suggests a knowledge of the Scotch-Irish history on the American frontiers in colonial times.

An Ulsterman named Robert Rodgers, from Tyrone, had formed a militia which protected settlements against Indian attacks and the French. It was renowned for its ability to move swiftly and was known as Rodgers Rangers.

Hartle appears to have selected the name and it is likely that recent prominence in the public consciousness through Northwest Passage in 1937, written by novelist Kenneth Roberts, and the 1940 film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Young had brought the legacy of the original Rangers to his attention.

Hartle had been given responsibility for forming the unit and selecting its commander, and in the course of discussion Darby was quick to volunteer.

Over a two-week period, 575 men were chosen from 2000 who had volunteered to serve.

The men were aged between 17 and 35 years and included Corporal James Haines of Kentucky, who had been a lion tamer in the Frank Buck Circus, and Samson P. Oneskunk, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota. Many of the men were from the Mid-West of America.

The Rangers volunteers boarded a convoy of trucks and headed off to training camp in Carrick, where the training was strenuous. In Carrick the early training highlighted that this was to be an elite unit; marching with their full pack and equipment, the Rangers covered five miles in an hour.

On June 19, 1942, the five companies of the Rangers were reviewed on a soccer field, the military band of the Signal Corps playing as Darby and British General Robert Laycock being present. Laycock was to take charge of the Rangers training in Scotland.

The Rangers sailed from Larne to Scotland, then were to travel by train to the Highlands. Arriving at Fort William, they were met by a Cameron Highlander band and made their way to Achnacarry Castle. Situated 18 miles from Ben Nevis, the castle had been loaned to the government for the duration of the war, and the area was ideal for training and honing the speed marches which had been started in Carrickfergus.

The training was more intensive and everyone was treated equally, as Darby expected his officers to be at the front of the line in any training.

There was one fatality in the Highlands, when a Ranger drowned during training. The men were also expected to operate under live fire, their ‘opponents’ deliberately firing over their heads.

It was in the Highlands that the Rangers recorded an impressive 87 minutes to cover 10 miles on one of their speed marches, and this swiftness was later be demonstrated in North Africa during their first operation, the men marching overnight and digging in prior to a surprise attack on Italian positions.

A second phase of training would take place in the highlands and islands of Argyll, which was ideal for mock beach landings and which included a three day exercise involving a raid on Tobermory and Mull.

The landscape changed for the troops when they were moved to Dundee for more training and were taken into the homes of local people, often arriving for their training each morning with their ‘piece’ or lunch provided for them.

The Rangers were then attached to the 1st Infantry Division – known as the ‘Big Red One’ – in Glasgow and were to undergo landing training in the Firth of Forth.

At Gourock, they embarked on three ferries which had been converted as landing ships for the Rangers.

Appropriately, these highlighted the two parts of the UK with which they were now intimately associated; the vessels were the Ulster Monarch, Royal Ulsterman and Royal Scotsman.

They were bound as part of a massive convoy for the Mediterranean and a major assault on North Africa. Ships from the US, Northern Ireland and England were involved in this great convoy, which arrived off Gibraltar on November 5, 1942.

The Rangers objective was Arzew in Algers. The landing at Arzew was highly successful, with few losses or injuries, although there had been a mishap when one of the landing craft tipped a platoon into the sea as they were lowered down from the ship; thankfully, no one had been injured, but equipment was lost and war photographer Phil Stern was distraught about the loss of film.

Darby was for a time military mayor of Arzew, working with the civilian mayor of the town. Charactistically he became bored, as did his men. Further action lay ahead in Tunisia and elsewhere, however, while new Rangers battalions were being raised, the 2nd battalion in Tennessee was preparing to enter the European Theatre of War.

For the 1st and 3rd battalions with their colonel Robert Darby, Operation Torch would take them from North Africa to Sicily and then to the Italian mainland.

Fighting proved intense on the mainland and the Rangers suffered disastrous losses at Cisterna with high casualty rates.

The outcome of the overall war was however becoming clearer and would continue to be so after the Normandy Landings, in which other Rangers battalions were involved.

Darby was sent back to the United States for a time but then returned to Italy, which was to be where he would meet his death after a stray German shell exploded nearby. Darby and other officers had been monitoring the German flight from the area, when the shell was fired back into the town.

Fatally wounded, his death brought to an end an extraordinary personal chapter, and a chapter in the story of the elite regiment.

At home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Darby is remembered through a museum which used to be his family home, a local school named in his honour and a special day in his honour in Arkansas generally.

When new Rangers train they learn about Carrickfergus as the birthplace of the US Ranger and Colonel William Darby, ‘El Darbo’, a man whose promotion from captain to colonel had been rapid and dramatic within a short space of time.

The US Rangers museum in Carrickfergus, which is located at the Andrew Jackson Centre, is a reminder of the outstanding personal story of William Darby and the outstanding military achievements of his beloved Rangers. And also of the strategic importance of Ulster during the Second World War.


Colonel William Darby, leader of the Rangers



Neglecting our history leads to a dangerous place for everyone

ballyclare mural carsonA RECENT wall mural in County Antrim has spoken volumes about our community’s understanding of history.

 The mural, featuring Sir Edward Carson, uses three words to describe the most prominent leader of unionism.

 The words are “Politician”, “Barrister” and “Ulsterman”.

For those of a certain age range, the song title by Meatloaf is appropriate: “Two out of three ain’t bad”.

Because the last designation of Carson as an Ulsterman is decidedly not correct.

Sir Edward Carson was born in Dublin. When he first came north to Ulster his thick Dublin brogue was noticeable and initially is said to have caused some suspicion.

He would have described himself as an Irishman first and foremost. He saw the strength of Ulster Unionism in preventing Home Rule for Ireland as a whole. It is fair to say he emerged disillusioned after the outcome of the Fourth Home Rule Bill – the Government of Ireland (1920) Act – paved the way for partition of Ireland.

The nuances of those positions and outlooks are lost for generations of Ulstermen and women who know little and understand less of the complexities of their own history.

It is not surprising that a mistake like that on the mural should crop up.

And it is not solely the fault of the mural painter. It is symptomatic of a community which is dangerously ignorant of its history.

This is not a recent phenomenon.

Education underachievement in Protestant working class communities has been recognised and documented for years.

Protestant adults often lament that they learned more about the Tudors than they did about their own history.

In maintained schools there is a focus and discussion on Irish history which is largely missing in the state sector.

The roots of this situation may well lie in the educational system which was established when Northern Ireland was created, and the Orange Institution has to bear some of the responsibility for what transpired.

Lord Londonderry, as education minister, proposed that the education system should be a unified one. This suggestion had two main opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orange Order.

Together they ensured that there would be a separate education system. One wanted to ensure that they continued to control their own schools. The other did not want everyone to be educated together.

In the tense period of the 1920s this can perhaps be understood.

But the outcome was that children from Protestant backgrounds were taught more about English history than who they were and what traditions they belonged to. As the state system developed it followed a path which increasingly ensured that Irish history was not a priority. Maybe it was all about trying to appear more British than anyone else. If so, maybe they won the battle. But the war has, it is fair to say, now come close to being lost.

It is very clear that a crisis point is being reached in the state sector. Lack of knowledge about the past is undermining any sense of confidence within what we might describe as the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community.

This is combined with a disengagement of young people from the political system, a fall in church attendance among the young and, indeed, factors such as the age profile of the Orange Institution. The old certainties on which unionism had its building blocks, are shrinking.

Sadly, there are still probably some people who don’t get it: who do not understand that without a sense of the past, people are not confident in their present and unsure of what their future is all about.

While it may be fantastic that such large numbers turn out on the Twelfth, this one day a year phenomenon means very little, as republicans fully realise. What really matters is the cultural struggle which is taking place on all the other days of the year.

In a study on history, identity and the school curriculum in Northern Ireland (2005), authors K C Baron and A W McCully argue that perceptions need to be challenged in relation to history in schools: “…in order to address history’s role in ongoing community conflict, educators may need to challenge more directly the beliefs and assumptions held by students of varied backgrounds, as well as provide a clearer alternative to the partisan histories encountered elsewhere.”

The Key Stage Three curriculum in Northern Ireland pronounces that history develops pupils as individuals by “helping pupils to understand the past so that they can begin to make sense of the world they live in today and learn to investigate where the present values and attitudes come from.”

The situation appears to be, however, that teaching of history is limited in the context of the chronological history of Ireland and post-partition Northern Ireland.

Similarly time spent on focusing on identity is very much dependant on the individual school and teachers. Some are very good. Others avoid any issues which might cause debate on cultural identity.

Often unionist identity is not acknowledged in any meaningful way, nor any effort made to understand the historical perspective. Instead, aspects such as the Troubles are studied by older pupils without context of the centuries of history which shaped them.

While some politicians might feel ‘the hand of history on their shoulders’, no one seemed to want to open the classroom door and have the lessons of the past examined.

The unionist community has, as a consequence, been let down by the system, including, it should be said, their own representatives in that system.

Perhaps where things started to go wrong in the 1920s was not the insistence by the Orange Order and others of a separate schools system based on religion, but on the lack of insistence of a common history curriculum for all schools which would examine the same history.

In Ulster schools today a shared history curriculum which would focus on the history that has shaped us would be beneficial; it would counter ‘community history’ of the street, which can be imbalanced and inaccurate and it would challenge perceptions. It also has the potential to build confidence.

Sadly for many in the unionist community there is no strategic sense of how important that issue is. Middle class unionist children will continue to do well at Grammar schools and then many will make the journey to English or Scottish universities. The majority will not return. They will get jobs and marry.

But there will often be a different story in Protestant working class communities. Universities will not be queuing up to offer places to those who are underachieving. Already lacking in confidence, they will then face the relentless diet of nationalist perceptions of who they are and how they are a collective negative in society.

History has many nuances. Some unionists find it hard to understand, for example, that Presbyterians from Ulster played such a role in the War of Independence in America. One person told me how they were ‘traitors who should have been hanged’ – using a modern perspective which casually ignores the complexity of history. In a country which provided 17 of the Presidents of the United States, such a view is a bit skewed, to be more than kind.

The reason people do not understand the complexity of history in this part of the world is that most of them never appear to have heard it mentioned in the classroom.

The end result is that within the state system and the unionist community, the major manifestations of history have been around the Twelfth, and these have not even been fully understood or articulately explained in most cases.

The end result of all of this is the sort of mural which appeared in Ballyclare recently. A small mistake perhaps in defining Carson as an Ulsterman. But like the iceberg, only the tip of a much deeper and wider problem. And a problem which no one seems to want to address.

This article originally appeared in the Orange Standard newspaper