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Aspirant US Ranger to British Commando!

G W McCurdy, Golden, Colorado, USA.

How one US soldier's war was changed by a late night in a Belfast city pub! The personal reminiscences of an aspirant US Ranger, who became a British Commando.


I was 20 years old when I sailed from New York to Belfast, Northern Ireland on HMS Duchess of Athol in Feb, '42. Our base with L Company, 133rd Battalion, 34th Division, lay between Belfast and Londonderry. The daily routine soon had me looking for more adventure and I volunteered for Darby's 1st Rangers, who were based near Carrickfergus.

[Photo; 'Mac' McGurdy, centre.]

The US Rangers

Two weeks into our training, my buddy and I were delighted to receive passes to Belfast. We were determined to make the most of them! Looking back, it's clear our enthusiasm for sampling the local brew in as many pubs as possible caused us to miss the last train out of Belfast...  but in mitigation, we did catch the first one out in the morning! 

We arrived back at base out of breath and, unfortunately for us, in the middle of morning roll call. An unsympathetic 1st Sgt told us in no uncertain terms "You're too late, go pack your bags boys, you are gone". We had to return to our unit and face the taunts from some of the guys we left behind - "ha, too tough for you guys huh?", "couldn't take it huh?" When we were later offered the chance to volunteer for the British Commandos, we resolved not to mess up a second time! 

The Commandos

So we found ourselves attached to the British No 6 Commando. We moved from Northern Ireland to the River Clyde area in Scotland. We wore British uniforms but had a US flag patch on one shoulder and a Combined Operations patch on the other. I suppose there were 50 to 100 of us, who were accepted to go in with the Commandos, all of us under British officers, who were super people.

[Map of Northern Ireland & Central Scotland, courtesy of Google, 2019.]

The picture above left, was taken at 90, West Princess St in Helensburgh, Scotland, where we were "billeted" while training with No 6 commando. I'm the guy in the middle. Us yanks made extra money for our service and we found board and room in private homes from June through August '42 at least. Three of us stayed with Mrs Donaghy, who treated us like her own sons. There was a lovely young daughter named Peggy, with whom we were forbidden to "fraternize" on pain of being sent back to our outfits. I often wondered about her life. We had many an enjoyable night in the Red Lion pub in Glasgow.

We did our training around Helensburgh on the Clyde and Inveraray on Loch Fyne. In the early stages, there was a physical fitness test in the form of a 5 mile trek, which I completed in 37 minutes. The incentive to succeed was great, since stragglers suffered the ignominy of being returned to their units, or RTU'd as it was known. I was 7th and made it. Over the succeeding months, we were trained in hand to hand combat, night manoeuvres using compass bearings, Thompson machine gun practice, use of plastic explosives, amphibious landings and so on.

North Africa

Before we sailed for our first tour of duty in late October, 1942, on HMS Awatea, General Isenhower and Mountbatten, head of the Combined Operations Command, came aboard. Ike said "I can't tell you men where you're going nor what you're about to do but the world will hear and read about you and you can be proud".  Wow! I think I grew an inch taller!

The voyage itself took 28 days, because we joined a convoy out of Newfoundland. There was safety in numbers, since U-boats were active in the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the time. On the evening of Nov 6th, I was on guard duty on the officers' deck when Col McAlpine, in his kilt, approached. After a salute, he asked me how I was and "is your heart up to it son?" I replied emphatically "YES SIR, thank you". Many years later, I read a story in Readers Digest about him and wish I'd saved it. We must have been at sea about two weeks before we were told that we were part of the invasion force of North Africa, which we now know started on  Nov 8, 1942. 

We disembarked into LCAs (landing craft assault) in the dark and set down on a beach outside Algiers. We were the first to arrive on our beach and, after overcoming minor resistance, we took Fort Du Pere (?). Us Yanks were left behind as the British Commandos marched away playing their bagpipes. It was a highly emotional occasion and most of us were very young. Many of us wept tears. 

The next day we went down to the docks and boarded two British destroyers and we were soon reunited with our respected Commando colleagues. We sailed to Bone, where we secured an airfield for the use of Spitfires operating in the area.

[Photo courtesy of 'Mac' McCurdy shows a group of Americans attached to No 6 Commando. It was taken in North Africa probably in November or December of ’42.  Four of them were volunteers from L Co of the 133rd regiment of the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division. Additional information below the photo provided by David Kohnen.]

We were strafed almost every day by either Necci 202s (?) and/or ME 109s. They didn't have it all their own way, however, since one was shot down with a 40 mm Bofors gun. It was hit as it strafed our positions, looped and then came straight down to earth. The pilot ejected way too late and his parachute failed to open.

Back to the USA

On Nov 22, we boarded some flatcars of a train. Along the line, we were strafed by an ME109 and I was wounded by 20 mm shrapnel. That was the end of my service with the Commandos, as I ended up in a British manned hospital overlooking Algiers. I was then, and still am, very proud to have been associated with such an elite, respected group of men. 

I spent about six weeks in hospital and, in March 1943, returned to the USA on the USS Grothaus with a load of German prisoners. My guard post was to the rear of the officer's mess, in the gangway on the deck just above the prisoners. On one occasion, they watched, in some envy I have to say, as I finished off a turkey carcass and tucked in to some fresh ice-cream! What a treat!

I became an instructor but found it boring, so once more I volunteered for active service. After several months, it seemed my request had disappeared into the military bureaucracy, so I planned a different future. I cancelled my request and married my high school sweetheart. About a month later, I received orders to ship out and in September 1944 reported to Fort Meade, Maryland, my port of embarkation.

2nd Tour of Duty

For my second tour of duty, I sailed to England on the Mauritania and later to France on HMS Cutlass. I suffered a lot from seasickness, and being an enlisted infantryman, was always in the lower decks. The steam from boiled potatoes made the smell of mutton linger and it was too much to handle and I would lose it pretty quick! We kept ourselves amused as best we could and one yarn concerned the naming of ships in the various navies - in Britain, Royal Navy ships are called 'His Majesty's Ship', in our navy they are 'US Ship' and in the Italian Navy they are 'Thatsa My Boat!'

This time, I was sent as a replacement to an Infantry Company of the 104th Timberwolfe Division in Germany. We passed through many towns, including Duren and we saw the bombed out streets of Cologne. We crossed the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen, in Mar 1945 and dug in on a high ridge overlooking the river. After a few days avoiding German artillery shells, we climbed aboard tanks for the final push into the German heartland. A major event was meeting up with the Russians.

I was wounded again on April 1, this time by shrapnel from a Panzerfaust (a hand held anti-tank weapon) fired by an SS trooper. The tank, about 15 metres behind me, was hit, killing my sergeant. I spent a month in hospital and returned to the USA in September, 1945 and the end of my military service.

There was no way of knowing in advance how my war would turn out but, in many cases, survival was a matter of luck, good fortune or the passage of a split second. In hindsight, being kicked out of the Rangers probably saved my life, because they later suffered casualties at Dieppe, Tunisia and particularly Anzio, in Italy, where virtually all of the 660 men were captured, killed or injured.

Post War

After the war, I had a varied career, including: 3 years electronic engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during which time we also raised chinchillas; photographer; pool hall and tavern owner in Iowa; fishing resort owner in northern Minnesota; electronic technician in an iron ore plant; instrumentation job at a ramjet missile testing facility in Utah; followed by a similar job at the Titan missile site at Moses Lake, Washington; then to Toronto, Canada as a instrumentation design engineer (mining equipment) and finally, for 18 years, until my retirement in 1985, an instrumentation and controls design supervisor in Golden, Colorado.

In between times, my wife and I raised two daughters and enjoyed a good outdoor life. I continue a lifetime's devotion to a little Scotch Whisky but these days its for medicinal purposes only!!

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Operation Torch


Written by G W McCurdy, Golden, Colorado, USA.

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