RANGER CAPTAIN ALBERT E. BASIL
1st Ranger BattalionDuring the drench of a Glasgow Fall long ago, a slender British Army officer appeared at the flap of Headquarters tent, 1st US Ranger Battalion, on the Clyde, at Corker Hill. His erect figure in battledress, topped with a green Commando beret was militarily correct except for clerical collar ("dogcollar," he called it) and the effects of the incessant rain. Muck of the company street compelled him to roll his trousers to midthigh and carry boots and gaiters. Below the knees, his limbs were clumps of Clydesdale mud.
With a toothy grinmischievous eyes dancing behind enormous hornrimshe announced he'd come to 'look after' the Rangers. Lilting, melodic tones filled the tent and stilled the chatter of mouth and typewriter. It slowed traffic slogging near in the Company street; it was the voice of a Burton or a Booth, whispers in which reached the last row of the house. Cheery banter and wisecrack in faultless diction and sculpted phrase honed as at Eton and Oxford, stamped him master of southern aristocratic English. He charmed lately bored clerks and surly noncoms, quickly learning their names and origins and regaling them with jolly quip and query. He was Captain (Father) Albert Basil, Catholic chaplain to the British Commandos, on everchanging "circuit", "looking after" Commando soldiers whenever and wherever their units encamped.
A service in the field led by Father Basil.
Photo: Darby's Rangers 1942-45, by Mir Bahmanyar.
Father Basil had first visited the Rangers when they were at Dundee for the final phase of their training before they came to the port of embarkation at Corker Hill. It was at Dundee he so impressed Colonel Darby that the latter implored Brigadier Laycock to permit the Father to come with the Rangers on the forthcoming invasion of North Africa. Basil was delighted with the assignment because he "had struck gold"he was "looking after" a unit that was near eighty percent Roman Catholic! Commandos averaged, at most, two percent. Nevertheless, he "looked after" Jew and Protestant, same as Catholic.
At Arbroath, a coastal town near Dundee, the Rangers concluded a training session and were dismissed to return, individually, to their billets in Dundee. The harbor area that was the site of their exercise, was in 1940, like all potential landing areas, mined and wired as defense against German invasion. One of the men, jumping from a platform over a section of concertina wire, landed on an antitank mine and was blown to pieces. The soldier following him was horribly wounded and blinded. Father Basil was in the operating room as a team of surgeons labored to save the man's life. One, despairing, suggested that even upon the unlikely if they were successful in saving his life, that life would not be worth living, and that he would benefit if he died in that room. The suggestion gained some apparent approval among those in the room. At this point, Father Basil said:
"If that boy dies, I shall repeat your words to the proper authority."
At this writing, that Jewish boy still lives.
According to General Darby, shortly before landing at Arzew, North Africa, Fr. Basil reported to him genuinely distressed that he was not scheduled to land with the assault. He talked Darby into permitting him to land with Battalion Headquarters. A few days later he said Mass over the first Ranger dead in Africa.
He had become so much "one of the guys" that many Catholic Rangers could not regard him as they did other priests and were reluctant to face him in Confessional. He understood and engaged a French priest in Arzew to hear the confessions of these reluctant penitents. Since the Froggy spoke no English, Fr. Basil furnished him with a list of sins in French with a parallel column of English translations, with the English query, "How many times?" and the translation of "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers." Some young Rangers reported sins on that list they had never dreamed existed.
After the actions and more training in Algeria, First Rangers was flown to the Tunisian front near Tebessa and Gafsa where it operated on the left of 2nd Corps, luckily free of the brunt of Rommel's smash at nearby Kasserine. Shortly, the Rangers advanced on El Guetar, occupied former Italian positions near there and actively patrolled the desert wastes and barren foothills of the Atlas mountains. An outflanking "left hook' through nearly impassable mountain terrain brought the Battalion down upon a superior but shocked and surprised Italian force. Father Basil, speaking fluent Italian, was instrumental in inducing the surrender of hundreds of Italian soldiers.
Shortly before this action, General Patton, after assuming command of 2nd Corps upon Fredendall's relief, established an advanced headquarters in El Guetar. He lashed about with a will, shrilling at any soldier without a tie or with unfastened helmet strap, and being his usual painintheass. From his second floor office, he spotted Father Basil G.I. from head to toe, except for the green beret.
"Bring that officer to me at once, I'll kick his ass!"
"No you don't," said Darby, "that's our British Chaplain, and you have no right to discipline him."
Sometime during this phase of the African war, British Army located its "lost" chaplainsupposed to return to the UK immediately after the landingand sent for him. He ignored these orders at first, despite the threat to stop his pay. "I'll live off the collection plate." he said. When this was insufficient for his various projects, he "cut" the crap and poker games. Finally, under serious threat of courtsmartial, he took tearful leave of his beloved Rangers. With him went a final "collection" out of a hat passed throughout the Battalion. It was enough for him to buy a beaten silver chalice and have "First Ranger Battalion" inscribed on its base, so that thereafter, when he raised it in the Mass, he was reminded.
Every man of the Battalion knew that rough language and bawdy stories did not phase the Father. He'd heard alland still laughed at the dirty jokes and bawdy remarks. A blasphemy which made him cringe, spiritually, mentally and physically however, was the usage of the Lord's name in vain. Soon every person who let slip a JC or a "Ceerist" got immediate dirty looks from all in earshot. Neighboring 1st Division people were utterly confused by Rangers' insistence upon this cleansing of their language when they were in the Rangers' area.
Many years later he revealed another substantial reason he valued his relationship with the Rangers so highly.
"When I first came to you, " he related once a long time after the War, "I had been having some problems with the Faith. I was doubting things about which there should have been no doubt; I was losing my focus during my daily prayers and wondering if I'd chose the wrong profession."
"But then I was invited to an Ameddican officers' mess and there introduced to your Ameddican Burrrrban! Suddenly it became clearwhat Paradise was all about! What nectar what ambrosia! When I go to my reward, I shall be seated at the right hand of the Lord in a mist of Kentucky Burrrban!"
Except for one brief visit when the Rangers were refitting in Naples, his duties carried him to other theaters of the War, and he was unable to "look after" his beloved Rangers except through letters. He served in Commandos in Greece and Yugoslavia and spent a considerable amount of time in the same Commando as Evelyn Waugh, the author, whom he reckoned as one of the bravest of Commando officers.
Not until 1961 when the Ranger Battalions Association held its biennial Reunion in Baltimore did Father Basil and the Rangers again meet. At the prior (Detroit) Reunion, two of his former "alterboys," John Higgins and Bob Chesher decided to locate and then invite him to the next one. Bob consulted a parish priest about how best to locate the Father: "No problem, a Catholic Priest in England is such a rarity, he is easy to find."
When located, Father Basil was teaching philosophy at Loughborough University. Of course, he desperately wanted to come, but he had to get the permission of the head of the Rossminian Order in England. He was nearly certain permission would be denied but nevertheless wrote an extensive plea setting out his history with the Rangers. He was shortly ordered to his superior's office in London and found that he was not only given permission he was ordered to go.
From then on, for many years, he attended Ranger Reunions and continued "looking after" his Rangers (and their families) at such gatherings and by copious correspondence between times.
His attendance at the Baltimore Reunion was most memorable. He renewed many of those dear relationships formed in Scotland and North Africa, and began many more among the veterans and families of the six battalions. He was principle speaker at the banquet and induced reactions from bellylaughs to tears. He was afforded the main Mass that Sunday at the newlybuilt Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and for his sermon took that day's Gospel, Luke, 10:30. He spoke of the kinship of Samaritan and Jew and the slight differences between their language and customs and likened their ties to the bonds between Ranger and Commando soldier. From time to time thereafter, parishioners commented upon the appropriateness of the message and the excellence of his language and style. Rangers in the first pews with emotions elevated by awful hangovers, labored desperately for control.
He insisted that California wines are for the most part, far superior to the French. At Delmonico's in New York, he refused the waiter's proffer of a French wine and asked for a California Cabernet. The Chef then asked permission to speak to the Catholic priest who had the good taste and sense not to spoil his wonderful food with bad French wine.
At a coffeeshop in Miami Beach, he asked the waitress to provide him with a "bagel". Noting her obvious inability to understand, he pointed to the item on the menu, and repeated,"bag el".
"Oh! You mean 'baygel'!"
"No," he explained patiently, pointing to the lettering of the item, "I want a bag, as in 'bag', 'el', as in'L'; just the way it is spelled."
In Philadelphia, having ordered a California Pino Noir of which he was fond, he was irritated when the waitress presented it in a icebucket.
"My dear young lady," he announced in tones loud enough to carry to nearby tables, "I may not look the part, because I am wearing vacation clothing, but I am a Catholic priest; I have the power to baptize all manner of persons, to bind them to each other in matrimony, to forgive their sins and consign their remains to the grave; I can absolve you from the most heinous of sins adultery, fornication, even murder but I cannot forgive you for chilling this fine red wine."
His advocacy of Ameddican bourbon whiskey ended in 1969 in the home of a Baltimore Ranger after the Miami Reunion. The Ranger, an outstanding amateur chef, had prepared an elaborate feast for the Father and a young priest from the Baltimore Archdiocese. Both were gourmets and connoisseurs and they approved of the food and wine in most complimentary terms. Their host went to the liquor cabinet and was at first irked to find there was no brandy. He poured the brandy snifters with Jack Daniel's Tennessee Sour Mash and set them before his guests who at once set them twirling and swirling as they warmed the glasses in their palms. They sniffed and sipped with appreciation and approval. Father Basil then said,
"You know, this is probably one of the best brandies I have ever tasted, but I can't quite place it."
## "Try harder, Father," said the Host, "you must recognize it." #
Try as they might, the clerics could not identify the "brandy." From then on, JD was Father Basil's drink of choice.
Those Rangers who spent many hours in conversation with him were enriched by his tales of missions as soldier, teacher, and priest. His insights, serious and otherwise, on many subjects, was enormously enriching. A few hours with him produced a smattering of his views on Abortion, Acoustics, Catholicism, Death, English, Food, Italy, Homosexuality, Jack Daniels, Judaism, Lust, Luther, Philosophy, Rangers, Theology, USA, Waugh, Wines, Women, Yanks and Zoology (didn't like dogs).
The Rangers were saddened by his passing.
Written by Carl H. Lehmann
1st Ranger battalion Veteran