History of the 5th Ranger Battalion
In the darkness of 23 February 1945 a long column of Rangers moved quietly through the German woods. Suddenly the lead element of the column stumbled on an enemy strong point. Surprised by an American unit two miles behind their lines, twenty Germans surrendered after a brief firefight, becoming prisoners. On the surface the Ranger mission was simple; seize and hold the key terrain along the Irsch-Zerf road for 48-hours to block a German retreat and/or a reinforcing counterattack from the east. After nine days of heavy fighting, the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion was relieved after suffering ninety casualties. This was one of the notable battles fought by the 5th Rangers in World War II.
The achievements of the 1st Ranger Battalion in North Africa caused Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Theater Commander, to order Lieutenant Colonel William O. Darby to form additional units for the Mediterranean. However, there was a concurrent requirement for an assault force for the invasion of France. As a result, the 2nd Ranger Battalion was activated on 1 April 1943 at Camp Nathan Bedford Forrest, Tennessee. Following the 1st, the 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions were activated on 22 April 1943 in North Africa. All three battalions of “Darby’s Rangers” led the invasions of Sicily (Operation HUSKY) and Italy (Operation AVALANCHE). Although the 2nd Rangers were created in April 1943, training did not begin in earnest until 30 June 1943 when Major James Earl Rudder became the battalion commander.
Forming a Battalion
While the 2nd Rangers trained hard in the summer heat and humidity of Tennessee, Allied planners in England realized that another battalion of assault troops was needed for the D-Day invasion. This led to the formation of the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion, which was activated on 1 September 1943 at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. Major Owen H. Carter assumed command and chose Captain Richard P. Sullivan as the battalion executive officer. In three days they selected 34 officers and 563 enlisted men for the new unit. Many of the Ranger volunteers came from the 26th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from New England (the “Yankee Division”), which was training at Camp Forrest.
Since the unit had to be in England by the beginning of 1944, the 5th Ranger training in the United States was compressed. “The training was ten times more intense than training with the infantry. We were physically stretched to our limits and not all men passed. They were dropped,” said First Lieutenant (1LT) Charles “Ace” Parker, who transferred from the 98th Infantry Division to become a platoon leader in Able Company. After two months of accelerated combat training and hard physical conditioning, the 5th moved south by troop train to Florida. On 5 November 1943, the battalion began two weeks of amphibious training at the U.S. Navy Scout and Raiders School at Fort Pierce, FL. Once done the unit boarded trains on 20 November for Fort Dix, New Jersey.
At Fort Dix the 5th Rangers validated their fitness for combat. Long speed marches culminated in five-day tactical field problems at the company and battalion levels. Having been certified for overseas deployment the 5th Rangers returned to camp and had a shakedown. We had our damaged equipment and clothing replaced. On 20 December, the battalion moved to Camp Kilmer [New Jersey], where all personnel were able to have six days of leave, which was rotated and limited to a distance of fifty miles,” said Staff Sergeant (SSG) Richard N. Hathaway, Jr., of Able Company.
After four months of tough training, the battalion boarded the HMS Mauretania II at the New York port of embarkation. On the night of 8 January 1944, the ship moved out of the harbor where it collided with a blacked out freighter. “We were forced to return to our dock. By the time we docked, scaffolding had been set up and floodlights were ready to illuminate the area that had to be repaired. Repairs were made and we were on our way the next morning,” said SSG Hathaway. The voyage across the Atlantic was not a pleasure cruise for the majority of the Rangers crammed into the former British luxury liner with 14,000 other troops.
The ship immediately hit the rough winter waters of the Atlantic Ocean. To compound matters, the ship zig-zagged as a defense against German submarines. “We traveled alone, not in a convoy, since our speed and maneuvering would normally avoid all enemy submarines,” remembered SSG Hathaway. Many of the soldiers were seasick before the ship was out of sight of land. “We went over in the dead of winter. The Atlantic was hit with terrible storms and high seas. Most troops were seasick and the food was awful and only two meals per day,” remembered SSG John L. Burke. The British menu exacerbated the problem. “The smell of lamb and mutton cooking was too nauseating to eat. I ate Hershey bars and drank Coca Cola from the ship’s store,” said PFC Thomas E. Herring. “I crossed the ocean ‘by rail,’ spending most of my time throwing up over the rail of the ship!” recalled Private First Class (PFC) James Garabee, who had been recruited at Camp Kilmer just before the battalion left for England.
Those not sick enjoyed the voyage. “As an officer we had meal tickets for the 1st or 2nd seating [of a meal]. My roommate was seasick all of the way over. I used his ticket and ate both seatings all of the way across, I never had it so good,” said 1LT John J. Reville.
The ship made it across the Atlantic unmolested by German U-Boats and arrived in England ten days later. “The only scary moment was when we were held in the outer harbor of Liverpool, England, for twenty-four hours because the opening through the minefield was not wide enough to allow our ship to enter the inner harbor,” said SSG Hathaway. A minesweeper temporarily widened the harbor entrance to allow the ship to enter. “We docked in Liverpool on 18 January 1944 and saw for the first time the [German] bomb damage,” said Hathaway. Now in England the 5th Rangers were thrust into a demanding pre-invasion training regimen.
TRAINING IN BRITAIN
Unbeknownst to the 5th Rangers the planned invasion of Europe was just four months away. After the ship docked “we loaded a train and moved to Leominster, England, where we began extensive training in cliff scaling, rappelling, rope bridge crossings, and field exercises,” said SSG Hathaway. After two months of arduous training the unit moved by rail and ship to Tighnabrauch, Scotland for British Commando training.
Rangers who thought that stateside training was tough were in for a big surprise. SSG Henry S. Glassman commented: “It was this training in Scotland that the Rangers believe brought them through the invasion of France and all the difficult assignments that followed. The hills of Scotland proved to be more than anything that had been encountered before and here Rangers were made or lost.”
On the Scottish coast amphibious assault landings were practiced daily. Using Air Corps photographs of the projected Normandy landing beaches, sites with barbed wire, beach obstacles, and anti-assault landing devices had been specially prepared to train the Rangers. From different types of landing craft, the Rangers practiced the battle drill of assembling at a predesignated rally point and continuing the attack until it became second nature. “We did an awful lot of boat landings, coming in on the beach, dropping off in that ice cold water of the damn Scottish fjords, getting sopping wet and then going on to the objective,” said 1LT Parker, a platoon leader in Able Company.
What was different from all previous Ranger training was being billeted in civilian homes. Families provided rooms for the Rangers during Commando training because barracks were short. “Every evening we were told where we were to meet for the next day’s training and what sort of training it was to be. A sandwich lunch with hot coffee was brought to us in the field, [and] often [eaten] in rain or snow,” remembered SSG Hathaway.
April 1944 was a tough month for the 5th Rangers. After finishing Commando training on 2 April, the battalion moved south to the Assault Training Center in Braunton, England. There they practiced amphibious landings in British and American landing craft in a region that closely matched the Normandy coastline.
In the midst of the hazardous training several company commanders complained about LTC Owen H. Carter’s leadership style. Technician 5th Grade James E. Kidwell recorded one incident: “No [Ranger] officer was to ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do. In Scotland our Battalion Commander had the entire battalion walking in a ditch chest deep in water – but he led from the bank.” Corporal Arden V. Mischke commented that, “several company commanders had lost confidence in Colonel Carter’s leadership qualities and had written a letter to higher headquarters about their problems. When Colonel Carter found out about it he shipped the officers out. Captain Heffelfinger must have been one of the officers because we had a new company commander . . . 1LT George Miller.”
The transfers proved to be temporary. “Within a couple of days all of the officers that had been shipped out were back with the 5th Rangers and Colonel Carter was transferred,” said Mischke. The “Captain’s Revolt” brought a new battalion commander with extensive combat experience. Major (MAJ) Max F. Schneider was one of the original company commanders of the 1st Ranger Battalion and later a battalion executive officer in Darby’s Rangers. After being wounded in Italy and medically evacuated, Schneider became LTC James E. Rudder’s 2nd Ranger Battalion executive officer. He took command on 17 April 1944.
After Braunton, the unit moved to Swanage, England for additional training. “There we were introduced to the use of eight-foot sections of aluminum scaling ladders. We were quartered in a hotel on the top of an eighty-foot cliff. When we arrived at the beautiful wide front steps, our battalion commander [LTC Schneider] told us that we would use those stairs only once. At first none of us knew what he meant, but we soon found out. My men and I were quartered on the third floor in two rooms. In each room near the window was a coil of rope tied to a pipe. We were instructed to throw the rope out of the window, then rappel down the wall of the building to the yard, run across the yard, climb over an iron picket fence, and rappel down an eighty-foot cliff to the beach below,” said SSG Richard N. Hathaway, Jr. After just a few weeks of cliff climbing and rappelling, the 5th Rangers joined the 2nd Rangers to finalize preparations for the coming invasion.
The Normandy Invasion
The Allied plan to invade France was massive. Years of planning and training culminated on 6 June 1944. On five designated invasion beaches (Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno), six Allied divisions would assault into Normandy.30 Three airborne divisions, two American and one British, would land by parachute and glider beyond the beaches to secure routes into the interior. The combined Allied invasion force numbered over 2,800,000 men. Over 4,000 ships and almost 12,000 aircraft supported the landing. A total of 174,320 men and 20,018 vehicles had to be loaded aboard ships, airplanes, and gliders to make the D-Day assault.
The D-Day mission of the U.S. V Corps was to assault German coastal defenses on Omaha Beach and establish a beachhead three to four miles deep. The corps sector was a 6,000-yard wide stretch of beach located between Vierville and Colleville, France. Success would enable follow-on forces to push into the interior and continue the fight. The 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions, with engineer and armor attachments, would be the main assault. The Ranger Battalions, attached to the 29th Infantry Division, had a special mission on the corps right flank.
On 9 May 1944 the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions became the “Provisional Ranger Group” for Operation OVERLORD. Previously the European Theater G-3 (Operations) had controlled the two battalions, since there was no overarching “Ranger” headquarters. As the senior battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder was designated the Ranger Group commander. The two battalions were divided into three Ranger task forces. Task Force A, made up of the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s Dog, Easy, and Fox Companies and elements of Headquarters Company, had the daunting task of destroying the six 155 mm guns at Pointe du Hoc. This mission was critical because the guns could fire on two invasion beaches, Omaha and Utah, as well as the massive invasion flotilla in the Channel. Led by LTC Rudder, Task Force A would land and use rocket-propelled grapnel secured ropes to climb the 90-foot cliffs below the guns. Simultaneously four specially-equipped amphibious DUKWs (a 2 ½ ton amphibious truck) would land and place their fire ladders against the cliff. Once atop the cliff, the Rangers would destroy the guns and hold Pointe du Hoc until relieved.
The smallest of the Ranger units, Task Force B, was CPT Ralph Goranson’s Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion. After landing on “Charlie Sector” of Omaha Beach, Task Force B had two “be-prepared” missions. The first was to follow the assault of Able Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, across the beach to seize Vierville and a German strongpoint at Pointe et Raz de la Percée. That element was reinforced with a platoon of amphibious tanks from Baker Company, 743rd Tank Battalion. The second contingency for the Ranger company was to attack Pointe et Raz de la Percée by climbing the cliffs, if the assault was stopped in Vierville. After clearing Pointe et Raz de la Percée, CPT Goranson would link up with LTC Rudder at Pointe du Hoc.
Task Force C, commanded by LTC Max Schneider, was the largest Ranger force. The 5th Ranger Battalion and Able and Baker Companies, 2nd Rangers were the exploitation force. The eight-company force would wait offshore for a prearranged signal from LTC Rudder. The timing of the Ranger mission was critical. If the assault on Pointe du Hoc was successful, Rudder would send the message, “Praise the Lord.” Task Force C would then land at the Pointe du Hoc and move through Task Force A to secure the area and to attack Vierville from the flank. If Schneider did not receive the message by H+30 (30 minutes after the 0630 scheduled landing) or if the mission failure codeword “Tilt” was received, Task Force C would immediately land on Omaha Beach, fight its way through the Vierville draw, and then eastward to Pointe du Hoc.
Since Task Force C was the exploitation force, LTC Schneider and his staff task organized the battalion with additional fire support. During the invasion, the assault units were expected to have significant casualties and were authorized fifteen percent over strength (about seventy extra men). Schneider used some of the additional manpower to form an 81 mm mortar platoon in Charlie Company and a 60 mm mortar platoon in Fox Company.
THE REALITY OF THE RANGER ASSAULT
The military axiom, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” applied to the Rangers on D-Day. The lead landing craft of Task Force A (LTC Rudder) became misoriented and headed toward Pointe et Raz de la Percée, three miles to the east. Seeing the error, Rudder directed his flotilla commander back on course, but it caused Task Force A to land thirty minutes late. LTC Rudder’s three companies charged across the shell pocked beach and quickly climbed the cliffs as the the destroyers USS Saterlee and HMS Talybont provided close-in fire support. Within 45 minutes, the German battery was secure, but the three company force had to hold off several counterattacks. Because of the 30 minute delay and garbled radio transmissions, LTC Schneider did not receive any code word from Pointe du Hoc.
Task Force B landed on Omaha closely behind Able Company, 116th Infantry, and ran into a maelstrom of machinegun fire from the bluffs above the beach. The concentrated fire decimated two-thirds of Able Company and almost half of the Rangers before they could move across the wide beach to the shelter of the sea wall. Overcoming the obstacles and in the face of heavy enemy fire, the Rangers reached the base of the cliff 350 yards from the sea wall. Using bayonets and knifes, SGT Richard Garrett and SGT Julius Belcher began climbing the cliff. Reaching the top, they dropped down ropes and were followed by 1LT Bill Moody and PFC Otto Stephans. But even with gaining the high ground Task Force B was quickly stalled by the intense enemy fire.
In the choppy English Channel LTC Schneider, a veteran of numerous amphibious landings, waited for the signal from Rudder. Receiving none, he ordered the flotilla to Omaha Beach at 0710, ten minutes past the deadline. Schneider was in a unique position as the only Ranger officer in his command who was a combat veteran. Off the coast he could see what was happening on the beaches and had the time, albeit a little, to evaluate the situation. He elected to land his force on the right flank of Omaha Beach, which was receiving relatively light fire (compared to the rest of the area). This decision resulted in Task Force C landing mostly intact.
On Omaha Beach the 29th Infantry Division was stalled. The troops had taken cover behind a seawall. Heavy German machinegun fire raked the beachhead. Brigadier General Norman D. Cota, the assistant division commander of the 29th, walked up to LTC Schneider and said, “We have to get the hell off this beach. Rangers, lead the way!” That was the catalyst. Soon small parties of Rangers, infantry, and engineers scrambled over the seawall to set explosive charges.
On LTC Schneider’s signal, the Rangers breached the barbed wire defenses using Bangalore torpedoes. Momentarily hidden from enemy observation by the clouds of rising smoke from the explosions and grass fires, the Rangers quickly moved through the gaps and up the hill. Dog Company, led by First Lieutenant Francis W. Dawson’s platoon, assaulted the hilltop and eliminated an enemy strongpoint, enabling the rest of the battalion to move inland. After working its way through the belt of German minefields, the battalion began attacking the formidable defenses around Vierville.
1LT “Ace” Parker led Able Company, 5th Rangers to the prearranged rally point, the Chateau de Vaumicel, southwest of Vierville. When the unit stopped, Parker had only 23 men, less than half of his company. Undeterred, 1LT Parker continued on with his mission – the relief of the Rangers at Point du Hoc. On its own, the small force finally reached Rudder’s men at 2200 hours with 20 German prisoners captured during firefights along the way.44 However, the rest of Schneider’s force did not immediately follow.
Still attached to the 116th Infantry Regiment (29th Infantry Division), Colonel Charles D. W. Canham, the regimental commander, ordered the Task Force C Rangers to assist his depleted unit in the defense of Vierville and protect the beachhead against an enemy counterattack. This mission delayed their movement to Pointe du Hoc. Once that mission was accomplished, Schneider’s force fought west to finally relieve Rudder’s battered contingent on 8 June (D+2).
After linking up with Task Force A on 8 June 1944, the 5th Rangers enjoyed a brief respite. On the Cherbourg Peninsula the Allies were inundated by the sudden influx of German prisoners. The First Army Provost Marshal set up temporary POW camps, ranging in size from 500 to 10,000 men. The 5th Ranger Battalion was tasked to guard POW camps at Valognes and Foucarville. “Prisoners were marched down to the beach in groups of about a hundred and loaded onto ships to England or the U.S.,” recalled Sergeant Victor “Baseplate” Miller, Easy Company. Guard duty was interspersed with training replacements and serving as a reaction force, in case by-passed German forces on the Jersey and Guernsey Islands attempted to raid the coast. LTC Schneider left the battalion in July 1944 for an assignment in the United States and Major Richard P. Sullivan, the battalion’s executive officer since activation, assumed command. After the POW security mission, the 5th Rangers were committed to offensive operations in the Brittany Peninsula.
THE BRITTANY CAMPAIGN
As Allied forces pushed inland from the invasion beachhead, enemy forces regrouped and withdrew to secondary defensive positions. The primary Allied push was eastward, with a secondary thrust to the southwest, along the French coast and the Brittany Peninsula. The Germans had fortified and garrisoned several of the major ports in Brittany. The largest of these was Brest, with a civilian population of 80,000. The port was the second largest in the country. Since the French surrender in 1940, Brest had become the principal German submarine base. General der Fallschirmtruppe (paratrooper general) Hermann B. Ramcke and 40-50,000 Germans defended the city. The port’s medieval fortress with its moats and walls had been augmented with minefields, trenches, and pillboxes. Over a hundred cannons and anti-aircraft artillery pieces protected the defenses.
As the Allies moved east toward Germany, they fought three enemies: the Germans, the weather, and the lack of supplies. More ports had to be opened to increase the flow of supplies from England. One of the two “Mulberry” experimental floating docks off Omaha Beach had been ripped apart by a summer storm. The Allies could no longer rely on support coming across the invasion The 5th Rangers formed two task forces for their Brest mission. One task force, consisting of Able, Charlie, and Easy Companies, led by the new battalion XO, MAJ Hugo W. Heffelfinger, relieved elements of the 2nd Infantry Division northwest of Brest. Easy Company was later repositioned into a gap between the 8th and 29th Infantry Divisions near Gousneou to conduct patrols. On 1 September, the rest of the battalion was attached to the 29th Division to “straighten out the lines” of the division by knocking out pockets of German resistance in preparation for the attack on Brest., especially with the stormy fall and winter weather approaching. The Allied armies needed thousands of tons of supplies daily to sustain the push into Germany. Securing the port cities of Cherbourg, Le Havre, and Brest became critical to the Allied effort. In Brittany both the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions served as “fire brigades” to push into hot spots.
The assault on Brest began on 3 September when the 5th Rangers assaulted Fort Toulbrouch, one of the many forts surrounding the harbor. Fighting was so intense that the battalion reserve had to be committed to stop a counterattack and Headquarters Company was reorganized into a rifle company and placed in reserve. The next day the 5th Rangers attacked again with coordinated artillery and air support. CPT Bernard M. Pepper’s Baker Company assaulted just 20 yards behind eight P-47 fighters strafing the German positions. “It was amazing to see the smoke and dirt and Rangers running into it and disappear out of sight. The Germans, before they could recover, found the Rangers on top of them and . . . the fort was captured,” said SGT Arden Mischke.55 The sixty-man Baker Company captured Fort Toulbrouch and over 300 prisoners within 6 minutes of the final attack. On 5 September, the entire 5th Battalion attacked Fort de Mengant supported by a platoon from Able Company, 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. After heavy fighting, Fox Company took the fort with a bayonet charge.
Pulled off the line for a well earned one-day rest, the Rangers “were surprised to see two intoxicated German soldiers walking down the road toward us carrying a suitcase. When we coaxed them up to us we found the suitcase was full of French money. They told us they had robbed their supply store (Post Exchange to us),” said SGT Arden Mischke. The Germans were relieved of their money and left to sober up in a POW camp. The incident provided a brief humorous interlude from the tough fighting.
Heavy fighting continued as the 5th Rangers were shifted to the Le Conquet Peninsula, west of Brest. The Germans, in anticipation of an Allied attack, had improved their defenses. “We didn’t know what to expect as we made our way to the town. Once in, it was dash from building to building, expecting any minute to be fired upon. At last, we had completed our task of securing it [Le Conquet]. At that moment there was a great rumpus and we were . . . ready to repulse whatever was coming. Lo and behold, here came the Free French [Forces] marching in with banners, and the populace now came out and cheered them,” said Sergeant “Baseplate” Miller. The Free French “liberated” Le Conquet at the cost of four wounded Rangers. Despite some machinegun fire from a neighboring town, the French continued their celebration into the night.
The Rangers moved along the coast reducing German fortifications. At Fort du Portzic the 5th Rangers developed a new technique to overcome the pillboxes. In the darkness of 17 September, Lieutenant James F. Greene, Jr. led an eleven-man Easy Company patrol to eliminate a pillbox that had resisted artillery, bombing, and repeated ground attacks. “We carried two 40-lb demo charges and a 50-lb charge, including 20 gallons of a gasoline and heavy oil mixture. We approached the pillbox cautiously, placed the charges around it, and started pouring our mixture into the air vents, then we all took cover . . . an enormous explosion followed at 2210 [hours] The pillbox erupted in bright flames, illuminating the area all around, while we watched full of awe … it had worked!,” recalled Greene. The patrol suffered no casualties. The next day when the Brest garrison surrendered at 1200 hours, the 5th Rangers became the 12th U.S. Army Group reserve.
Conventional units fought the remainder of the campaign in Brittany. The two Ranger battalions were pulled off the line and allowed to recuperate. The 5th Rangers had suffered a 30% casualty rate (137), with 24 killed in action during its nineteen days of fighting around Brest. The Brittany Campaign received scant attention. The Allied armies were racing across France and Belgium and Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery’s Operation MARKET-GARDEN, the ground and airborne invasion in the Netherlands, was beginning. After Brest, the 5th Ranger Battalion was attached to Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army for the drive across France into Germany.
ACROSS FRANCE AND INTO GERMANY
On 1 December 1944, the 5th Rangers were attached to the 6th Cavalry Group. The mechanized reconnaissance units and the Rangers worked well together. A collection of half-tracks, jeeps, and trucks were scrounged to carry the Rangers and the two units were organized to fight as combined arms teams.64 The cavalry had speed and firepower, while the Rangers could seize and hold areas. The unit fought first around Toul, then Nancy. Ranger casualties mounted during the heavy fighting near the German border area. The fight for Lauterbach was typical.
On 4 December 1944, Fox Company attacked across open ground to seize Lauterbach. As the 1st platoon closed to 100 yards of their objective, withering small arms fire erupted from well-concealed enemy positions. Two camouflaged machineguns created an effective crossfire. Mortar and artillery fire stalled the assault. PFC Leo G. Samborowski, a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner, moved to engage the two machineguns. In a desperate move, PFC Somborowski charged forward alone, firing eight magazines from his BAR. He killed one machinegun crew and suppressed the second machinegun long enough for his fellow Rangers to flank the position. As they launched their attack, a hail of enemy machinegun bullets hit Samborowski, killing him. The veteran of Normandy and Brest was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.66 Samborowski’s sacrifice provided the opening into Lauterbach.
The assault continued and the company gained a toehold in the town. The Germans counterattacked with infantry supported by a Tiger tank. The tank smashed into a house forcing the Rangers inside to withdraw next door. From there, Corporal Andrew “Pappy” Speir fired his 2.36-inch Bazooka at the tank from the second floor. The tank fired back at him at point blank range, knocking him off his feet. He scrambled back up, unhurt, to load and fire more rockets. This went on until Ranger mortar and supporting artillery fire drove the German infantry out of town. Without ground support the tank retreated.67 But the fight was not over for the Rangers.
On 16 December 1944, the Germans launched a major counteroffensive in the Belgium Ardennes, known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” The Rangers, still attached to the 6th Cavalry Group, conducted screening operations to deceive the enemy as to their true size. The Ranger and cavalry patrols countered enemy patrols that probed the American lines for a weakness. On 24 December, the 5th Rangers moved to Metz to recuperate, reorganize, and refit. The battalion was then attached to the 94th Infantry Division as it attacked further into Germany.
By mid-January 1945, replacements were trained under the tutelage of veteran Rangers amidst sub-freezing temperatures and snow. Allowed to recruit fifty volunteers from rear echelon troops of the Twelfth Army Group, General Bradley said “It [the 5th Rangers] was almost trampled in the rush of a thousand applicants.”69 After selecting the best candidates, the 5th Ranger Battalion strength was still only 398 men and officers, still some 108 soldiers below its authorized strength. But, the unit in its depleted condition was deemed combat ready.
Lieutenant General Walton Walker’s XX Corps had managed to breach the Siegfried Line and needed to exploit this success. At Weiten, the 5th Rangers received the mission to infiltrate nine miles behind German lines and seize key terrain between the towns of Irsch and Zerf. At the intersection of four valleys, the road from Irsch to Zerf climbs up for two and a quarter miles eastward through open fields onto a treeless plateau. A Ranger blocking position two miles above Zerf provided an almost unobstructed view of the valley. In a double envelopment, an armored task force from the 10th Armored Division would assault from the north, while the 301st Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division attacked from the west. The 301st would relieve the Rangers. Holding the plateau would prevent the enemy from using the Irsch-Zerf road network to launch counter-attacks against the American offensive and would block the best German withdrawal route from its defense along the Saar River. The Rangers had less than 24 hours to plan the operation.
THE IRSCH-ZERF FIGHT
On 23 February 1945 under cover of darkness, the battalion crossed the Saar River on a footbridge. Just before midnight, the 5th Rangers passed through the 302nd Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division. Moving in two columns into enemy territory, each man was heavily burdened by extra ammunition and anti-tank mines. Night movement over the rugged, heavily wooded terrain was made more difficult by harassing enemy artillery fire and occasional ambushes. Captured Germans slowed down the Rangers. “The woods became so heavy we were confused. Then we called for artillery fire, two rounds, on our objective to help us establish our position. We listened to the rounds go over. After that we knew our position and directions,” recalled LTC Sullivan. The advance resumed through thick woods towards the objective.
A break in contact between Baker and Easy Companies stopped the battalion. Patrols failed to reestablish contact between elements. Finally LTC Sullivan could not wait any longer and the unit continued movement. As a result, the separated 2nd Platoon, Baker Company would not rejoin the unit for a day, to further deplete the already under-strength battalion.
As the Rangers moved closer to the objective, contact became more frequent. Enemy patrols blundered into the Ranger formation and more prisoners were taken. The number grew to 110, further slowing movement. The Rangers happened upon a German aid station. “A doctor with a nice white medical vehicle who when captured said, ‘This is 4000 yards behind the lines – No, no! – you can’t be here!” recalled LTC Sullivan. “He stayed with us the next four days taking care of our wounded and the wounded Germans and did a good job.”
The Germans had no idea a battalion was moving behind their lines. By 0800 hours on 25 February, advanced elements of the battalion had reached the objective. LTC Sullivan ordered the companies to set up their defense as planned. Forming an egg-shaped defensive perimeter 200 yards wide and 1,000 yards long, the Rangers effectively blocked the Irsch-Zerf road on the plateau.
Once discovered, the Germans counterattacked the Rangers with rockets, artillery, and infantry. “We saw a Kraut SP [self-propelled gun] coming down the road from the west. The crew, upon seeing us, jumped out and ran like hell before we could get to them. We fired a bazooka [at it] but it didn’t seem to damage the SP. We finally poured gasoline on it and burned it,” said LTC Sullivan. “From that point we had trouble.” With ammunition, water, food, and medical supplies running low, a 94th Infantry Division artillery spotter aircraft dropped some supplies into the defensive perimeter. “I radioed . . . that we could probably hold out if someone came through to relieve us within 48 hours. I told them we did not have to eat, but we must have enough ammo for 48 hours. Our communications were also running out because of weak [radio] batteries,” said LTC Sullivan. The Germans launched repeated counterattacks to dislodge the Rangers.
The next day Task Force Riley (10th Armored Division) managed to reach the Rangers. With them was 1LT Louis J. Gambosi’s “lost” platoon (2nd Platoon, Baker Company). Gambosi had joined Task Force Riley, aboard its half-tracks and cleared three roadblocks for the armored element as it fought toward the beleaguered battalion. The reinforcements did not bring relief to the Rangers as planned.
Instead, the Rangers received orders to attack further into Germany attached to the 301st Infantry Regiment. The 301st Infantry brought food, ammunition, and water for the Rangers. To boost its firepower, a platoon of tanks, a platoon of tank destroyers, and a section (two) of anti-aircraft “quad” .50 caliber machineguns on halftracks were attached to the battalion.
The next morning, the Ranger Battalion repositioned to higher ground further to the south to create a stronger defensive position. The Germans repeatedly counterattacked. The heavy artillery bombardments were brutal. During one attack on 1 March, the Baker Company commander, Captain Bernard M. Pepper, said that in one platoon alone, “10 men were casualties during the first 15 minutes of this fire. Only the platoon leader [1LT Gambosi], a radio man, and one rifleman remained [uninjured].” Finally, on 3 March it was over. The two-day defensive mission had lasted nine days and bled the 5th Battalion dry. Captain Charles H. Parker, the Able Company commander, reported that: “A Co. came out of this operation with one officer and 24 men. F Co. came out with two officers and 18 men.”85 Casualties for the battle at Irsch-Zerf were heavy for the battalion; 34 killed, 140 wounded, and 12 missing, putting the unit strength at only 212 men. Although seriously depleted from sustained combat, the 5th Ranger Battalion continued to serve.
OCCUPATION AND THE END OF THE RANGERS
Army-wide infantry replacements for the European Theater were scarce in March and April 1945. Although fighting in Germany was still fierce, the end was near for the Nazi regime. In April elements of the U.S. First Army met the Soviets on the Elbe River. On 30 April, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the Allies accepted the German surrender on 8 May 1945 – VE Day. When the war ended in Europe the 5th Rangers were in Luxembourg. They then moved into Germany, and finally to Austria supporting Military Government units (today’s Civil Affairs). The 5th Rangers guarded supplies and rounded up German soldiers. SSG Henry S. Glassman, Headquarters Company, recalled that they collected all weapons and cameras in each German town. The battalion formed softball, basketball, and boxing teams to keep the troops out of trouble. Many of the Rangers felt this was the “calm before the storm” anticipating movement to the Pacific Theater. However, Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (VJ Day) and the 5th Ranger Battalion, like the 2nd before them, was shipped back to the United States as a unit. From Camp Lucky Strike, one of the “cigarette-name camps” established around Le Havre, France, the 5th Rangers boarded the USS Sea Snipe for Boston. The 5th Ranger Battalion deactivated without fanfare on 2 October 1945 at Camp Miles Standish, Taunton, Massachusetts. It was an inauspicious end for an elite infantry unit.
While the combat exploits of the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion are less chronicled than those of “Rudder’s Rangers” (the 2nd Ranger Battalion) or “Darby’s Rangers” (the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions) in the Mediterranean, it contributed significantly to winning the war in Europe. Although created for one mission – spearheading the invasion of Europe – its successes on D-Day resulted in the 5th Rangers commitment as a reaction force in France and Germany. The 5th Rangers finished the war in Austria as part of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army and supported Military Government units in the Army of Occupation. The 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion unit decorations included two Distinguished Unit Citations and the French Croix de Guerre.