Army

Rangers – the American history behind the new British Army regiment

How British Rangers might compare with American Green Berets and Rangers

Fighting on foreign soil is something the British Army has done for centuries.

Training the troops of allied nations is also something that has become commonplace.

Now, the Army has a new outfit that will go one step further: the Ranger Regiment is now operational, after being officially stood up on 1 December 2021. Its foreign-language-speaking personnel will not only train allied soldiers but live and fight alongside them as well.

That, at least, is the vision of the MOD, which has created the new Ranger Regiment with around 250 personnel each drawn from four existing Army battalions: 1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS, and 4 RIFLES. These soldiers will serve in the newly created Army Special Operations Brigade, and will likely deploy in the near future to Africa and the Middle East.

Although the Ranger Regiment has just been created, it already has a long military history. It is just that the military history behind it is not really British, but American.

Beginnings

As it turns out, the term ‘ranger’ is not a recent one for either the British or the American military lexicons.

Gordon L Rottman explains in  ‘US Army Rangers and LRRP Units 1942-87’ that the word was initially used to describe a far-ranging forester all the way back in 13th Century England.

By the 17th Century, it had acquired a military meaning, with the ‘Border Rangers ‘ who guarded England’s border with Scotland.

Later in the 17th and then into the 18th Century, the term came to mean something closer to the way it is used today, to describe well-trained troops who reconnoitred or fought deep within difficult terrain. This new kind of soldier belonged to units made up of irregular hunters and frontiersmen who performed scouting and raiding for the British in the dense forests of North America.

The most well-known of these units fought in the 1754 – 1763 French and Indian War and it was led by Captain Robert Rogers, and therefore came to be known as ‘Rogers Rangers’.

Rottman’s book features a list of Standing Orders for Rogers Rangers that give a window into the kind of hybridisation that was occurring in such units between regular military discipline and irregular fronter life. For instance, some of the orders just sound like good military common sense for the era:

“When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.”

“Don’t sit down to eat without posting sentries.”

And:

“Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.”

Others help illustrate the importance of using one’s initiative while ranging deep within forests:

“If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it’s hard to track us.”

And:

“If somebody’s trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.”

Rangers like those serving with Rogers were particularly needed by the British during the French and Indian War. This is because the French had considerably more American Indians on their side, and it was these warriors who did ranging in forests for them. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ aside, without nearly as many of their own American-Indian allies, the British had to learn to range for themselves.

The thick forests of late 18th-Century North America were a particularly challenging environment in which to operate. Speaking on PBS, author and historian Stephen Brumwell says:

“The kind of warfare that Rogers was involved in was a very, very high-risk game. A lot of fighting occurred in a no-man’s-land where you couldn’t just call in instant support for your wounded, you couldn’t evacuate casualties, and if things went wrong, then potentially your entire command could be wiped out.”

Rogers Rangers American Revolutionary War
A Member of the Queen’s Rangers (Picture: Courtesy of Toronto Public Library).

Rogers' Rangers were disbanded at the end of the French and Indian War, though Rangers played a role on both the British and the American sides during the American Revolutionary War. Rogers himself led the Queen’s Rangers in the early part of the conflict (the unit was named after the consort of George III, Queen Charlotte.)

The Queen’s Rangers were later disbanded and the loss of the American colonies and their associated forested frontiers meant that the British Army had no ongoing need for Rangers. Although other British Army units would carry the name ‘Ranger’, they would not be rangers in the sense of being light, mobile raiding and reconnaissance troops.

The US did continue to make use of them during the 19th Century, but there too the units had fallen out of use by the early 20th Century.

Rangers revived

While British and American antagonism had characterised the early years of Ranger history, it was World War 2 Allied cooperation and coordination that would see a renewal of the Rangers.

This process began with the British, since it was they who were involved in the war in Europe from the outset, and they who pioneered new kinds of troops and doctrines to fight it.

Most notable were the Commandos, who were light, well-trained infantry that carried out coastal and later inland raiding.

These elite troops were formed from both the Army and the Royal Marines and would later be the basis for American equivalents dubbed ‘Rangers’.

American Rangers certainly had a baptism of fire, with 50 of them present at the failed Dieppe raid in 1942 before going on to participate in the Allied invasion of North Africa. They also fought in the Pacific and in Italy and France, including on D-Day. In fact, a number of Ranger companies exemplified the daring and physical prowess of commando training by scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc on 6 June 1944.

While the end of the war would see the British retain their Commandos (largely within the Royal Marines), the Americans almost gave up their Rangers, or at least their Ranger units. These were used early on in the Korean War, but soon disbanded when it was decided that non-oriental (i.e. American) troops were not much use trying to blend in while operating behind enemy lines on the peninsula.

D-Day cliffs
Rangers on cliffs during the Normandy landings (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration)

However, this time the know-how would not disappear. Instead, it continued as part of the Ranger training school, or more precisely the Ranger Department, established in October 1951 at the US Army Infantry School (in Fort Benning in Georgia) following the disbandment of the Ranger units.

Ever since its creation, the Ranger Course has aimed to disseminate high-level patrolling and small-unit combat skills throughout the US Army by offering such training to various Army personnel. Rottman explains that the aim between 1954 and 1970 was for there to be one Ranger-qualified NCO per infantry platoon, and one Ranger-qualified officer per company.

This objective was not met, but Ranger skills were still learnt by plenty of US Army personnel, and their allies. Indeed, one small historical overlap with today’s British Army Rangers is that Ranger qualified personnel provided Ranger training to South Vietnamese allies during the Vietnam War. That conflict also saw the deployment of a small number of Ranger troops (or those referred to as ‘Rangers’), often taking part in LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) missions behind enemy lines.

Following the Vietnam War, official Ranger units were themselves re-established in the 1970s, with a full Ranger Regiment (the 75th Infantry Regiment) coming into existence in the 1980s. This unit absorbed all the old traditions of the prior Ranger units, from the old-American frontier up through World War 2, including those of Merrill’s Marauders – the American long-range patrol and raiding soldiers modelled on British Chindits in Burma.

Nowadays, while the training school still exists, the focus of American Ranger operations is on multiple high-end conventional warfare tasks, which the Rangers perform very well. As Rottman explains:

“Ranger battalion missions are intended to be of limited duration, and include: raids against high value targets; interdiction of lines of communications; attacks on command, control, and communications facilities; as well as service support elements. Intended for direct action missions, they were also tasked initially to conduct LRRP and rear area security missions for which they were ill-suited; these tasks have been dropped. They have since been additionally tasked with supporting counterterrorist and hostage rescue missions. Battalion training is intense and diversified, with required environmental/specialised training … “

The environmental specialised training involves developing expertise in urban, jungle, desert, mountain, extreme-cold and amphibious environments. Additionally, Rangers are often Airborne trained and the US Army's official website goarmy.com indicates that Rangers do in fact perform some special reconnaissance tasks.

US Army Rangers in Europe NATO
Rangers training in Germany in 2018 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Today then, US Rangers are more like well-rounded commandos or paratroopers than Special Forces. Indeed, former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter has specifically pointed out that paratroopers and Royal Marines are high-end conventional forces rather than Special Forces. The new British Army Ranger Regiment, meanwhile, is at the heart of the Army Special Operations Brigade and will take over some of the tasks formerly performed by Special Forces.

It is worth pointing out that American Rangers do participate in Special Forces operations. Some of the roles they perform might involve setting up and defending a perimeter within which higher-tier Special Forces (like Delta Force) can operate. For instance, this was how US Rangers were deployed during the Black Hawk Down mission in Somalia in 1993.

However, here too the Rangers have a parallel in British Royal Marine Commandos and Paras. Britain’s Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) might be called upon to perform similar perimeter-establishing missions for, say, the SAS, who might then conduct some kind of raid. And it is Paras and Royal Marines who largely make up the SFSG.

In other words, while US and British Rangers have a certain amount of overlap historically, today the roles performed by the US Rangers and those to be taken up by British Rangers have diverged.

According to General Carter, a closer model for today’s British Rangers lies in US Army Special Forces.

Winter training US Special Forces
US Green Berets (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration).

The Green Berets

While the Green Berets’ history is far shorter than that of the Rangers, they too have a certain amount of overlap with the British military. In fact, the green beret was adopted by US Army Special Forces when they were formed in 1952 as a throwback to the wartime Commandos (who wore, and still wear, green berets.)

These days, US Army Special Forces does not strictly mean just Green Berets - Delta Force are also Army Special Forces, and Rangers are even sometimes referred to as Special Forces. However, during its formation in the 1950s, Special Forces essentially meant Green Berets, whose mission was to operate behind enemy lines, usually with foreign allies.

As Leigh Neville explains in ‘US Army Green Beret in Afghanistan 2001-02’, the Green Beret mission was really a fusion of three traditions: the Canadian-US 1st Special Service Force of World War 2, which was a commando formation with troops trained in mountain, waterborne and airborne operations; the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services – a World War 2 forerunner of the CIA; and Jedburgh Teams, small units of three individuals that operated behind enemy lines against the Nazis.

As with any Special Operations unit, particularly a new one, specific information on training for the British Rangers is somewhat limited.

SOE OSS
Jedburgh training on an obstacle course in England in 1944 (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration).

However, one can look to the last two parts of the Green Berets’ historical foundations to get a sense of the direction future British Ranger missions might go in.

Naturally, the commando-like qualities of the Special Service Force have already been outlined in the kinds of activities and training undertaken by British Commandos and US Army Rangers. It is the operations of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and the associated Jedburghs that are perhaps less well known.

Put simply, the OSS was both an intelligence service that aimed to collect information on Nazi Germany and occupied countries, as well as an operational organisation. In this capacity, it dispatched commando-type units to, for instance, work alongside the SAS to conduct industrial sabotage in Nazi-occupied countries (i.e. by blowing up factories.)

The Jedburghs, meanwhile, were three-man, or woman, teams consisting of one British SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent, one OSS agent and a native of either France, Holland or Belgium. In the case of France, for instance, the last team member would likely be recruited from the Free French forces – those who had escaped from and continued to fight against Nazi occupation from outside France. The Jedburgh teams also had a radio operator who might be the Free French member, or possibly the American OSS or British SOE members of the team instead. 

OSS SOE Second World War
Jedburghs in England about to take off in a B-24 and go on a mission to Nazi-occupied Europe (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration).

Rather than committing direct sabotage like the OSS units, Jedburghs were tasked with finding, recruiting, training and then supporting foreign resistance fighters to launch guerrilla operations against the Nazis. This kind of operation was used during the D-Day landings to create havoc behind the lines and delay German responses to the invasion.

These kinds of operations (i.e. using local forces to undermine a ruling power that opposes the US or Britain) are known as UW, or Unconventional Warfare. However, since the Second World War, Green Berets have also performed the opposite role, that of FID (Foreign Internal Defence.) For instance, during the Vietnam War they too were involved in training South Vietnamese forces, to resist Viet Cong insurgency tactics.

Furthermore, Green Berets often fight alongside the local troops that they train.

Afghan War US Special Forces
Green Berets fighting in Afghanistan in 2001 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

A particularly noteworthy example of this was the role played by the Green Berets in the earliest days of the War in Afghanistan. They were inserted into the country in the days after 9-11 to work alongside the Northern Alliance in overthrowing the Taliban. They participated in combat themselves, which saw Green Beret personnel ending up on horseback in the tough Afghan terrain, something now commemorated by a statue at Ground Zero in New York.

Whether or not British Rangers end up on horseback themselves, it is the idea of training and then fighting alongside foreign allied fighters that British Rangers will be borrowing from American Green Berets.

While this means their role will differ from today’s US Rangers, here too both units still share a certain amount of overlap in their varied and fascinating respective military histories.

Cover image: MOD.

9-11 War in Afghanistan
Green Berets on horseback fighting alongside the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001 (Picture: US Department of Defense).