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Pirates of the Sand Seas

By Gavin Mortimer
11/27/2017 • World War II Magazine

How a group of gentleman explorers became Britain’s legendary Long Range Desert Group.

MAJ. RALPH A. BAGNOLD sat before the commander of British forces in the Middle East. He watched nervously as Gen. Archibald Wavell picked up the note Bagnold had sent him half an hour earlier outlining why, in Bagnold’s view, it was imperative to send men into the interior of the Libyan Desert. Wavell fixed his one good eye on the man in front of him.

“Tell me about this,” he said.

It was June 23, 1940—13 days after Italy declared war on Britain, an act of belligerence that had ominous implications for His Majesty’s forces in Egypt and their control of the Suez Canal. Italy had garrisons in southeast Libya; it might launch an attack from there, or from the south—from Eritrea and Ethiopia, and then across Sudan. Faced with such a dire situation, Wavell had been immediately intrigued when Bagnold’s note landed on his desk.

The 44-year-old Bagnold explained that “we ought to have some mobile ground scouting force, even a very small scouting force, to be able to penetrate the desert to the west of Egypt, to see what was going on.”

“What if you find the Italians are not doing anything in the interior?” Wavell retorted.

Bagnold thought for a moment. “How about some piracy on the high desert?”

Wavell grinned, then asked Bagnold if he could be ready to start operation in six weeks.

“Yes,” said Bagnold, “provided…”

“Yes, I know, there’ll be opposition and delay,” Wavell interjected, picking up a small bell on his desk.

At the sound of the bell, Wavell’s chief of staff entered the room and Wavell instructed him to type up an order: “I wish that any request by Major Bagnold in person should be met instantly and without question.”

And with that order, the Long Range Desert Group was born.

Over the next five years the LRDG would carry out more than 200 operations behind enemy lines, from the deserts of North Africa, to the islands of the Aegean Sea, to the mountains of the Balkans. But it was in the Libyan Desert—an ocean of sand stretching 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean coast to Sudan in the south, and a similar distance from the Nile Valley in the east to the Tunisian border in the west—that the LRDG established its illustrious reputation. Before the group’s arrival, much of this expanse was uncharted territory. The men of the LRDG not only charted it, they became the ears and eyes of the Allied forces that eventually defeated the Axis armies, while throwing some hard punches against the Axis on their own. David Stirling, the Scot who in 1941 created the British Army’s foremost special forces unit, the Special Air Service—which is still in existence and active alongside the U.S. Army’s Delta Force in Iraq and Afghanistan—paid tribute to the LRDG in his memoir. “We had learned so much from them,” he wrote, “it is debatable whether we could have got off the ground so swiftly without them.”

That Ralph Bagnold was in Egypt at all was only by a stroke of good fortune—or misfortune, depending on one’s interpretations of events that led the intellectual Englishman to Cairo. A tall, wiry man with an air of reserve, and a veteran of the First World War, Bagnold was recalled to the colors and given his old rank of major not long after Britain declared war on Germany. But with the shortsightedness that characterized much of British military thinking in the early days of World War II, Bagnold, a world-renowned expert on the deserts of North Africa, was ordered instead to Kenya, in East Africa. Then fate intervened. Bagnold’s troopship was involved in a collision in the Mediterranean en route to Kenya in the winter of 1939–1940.

The damage forced the ship’s captain to divert to Port Said, on the Egyptian coast, and Bagnold and his fellow passengers disembarked while the vessel was repaired.

Bagnold installed himself in the bar of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, the fashionable meeting place for British officers and the city’s affluent expatriate community, where a society reporter for the Egyptian Gazette spotted him. A couple of days later the paper’s gossip column contained news of the famous desert explorer’s arrival: “Major Bagnold’s presence in Egypt at this time seems a reassuring indication that one of the cardinal errors of 1914–18 is not to be repeated. During that war, if a man had made a name for himself as an explorer of Egyptian deserts, he would almost certainly have been sent to Jamaica to report on the possibilities of increasing rum production…. Nowadays, of course, everything is done much better.”

On reading the column Wavell canceled Bagnold’s posting to Kenya and transferred him to the 7th Armored Division, based on the Egyptian coast, as a signals officer. There, Bagnold gauged the precarious situation confronting the British. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, commander of the Italian army in North Africa, was estimated to have around 500,000 troops at his disposal, a force far superior to the 50,000 men under General Wavell’s command. There were Italian garrisons in southeast Libya at Kufra and Uweinat, the latter uncomfortably close to the borders of Egypt and Sudan.

It was imperative, in Bagnold’s view, that the British learn precisely where the Italian forces were and in what strength; otherwise there was the very real likelihood the enemy would strike east and seize the Nile and then Cairo. His mind turned to the 1920s, when he and a small group of like-minded explorers “drove model T Ford cars out into the desert at a time when people thought that cars were for use on roads…out into the Libyan Desert further than anyone before,” as he wrote in 1935’s Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World.

As a result of his epic adventures Bagnold knew the Libyan Desert—with its landmass of approximately 750,000 square miles—better than any other white man. He knew its harshness, its pitilessness. But he also knew how to harness its immense power.

It was Bagnold’s exploration team that in 1928 developed a sun compass, a modification on the sundial, for use in the desert, where it was more reliable than a magnetic compass. They also learned then how to conserve that most precious of desert commodities, water; they introduced sand channels (five-foot-long sheets of steel that slid under a vehicle’s rear wheels for support on the sand); and they discovered how to surmount the desert’s towering sand dunes in a two-wheel-drive Ford truck. As Bagnold later recalled, it entailed driving 40 mph at the dune and putting one’s trust in the vehicle (and God) as a “glaring wall of yellow shot up high…the lorry tipped violently backwards, and we rose as in a lift, smoothly and without vibration. We floated up…all the accustomed car movements had ceased; only the speedometer told us we were still moving fast.”

Armed with this experience, Bagnold formulated his plan for small patrols of highly trained men to penetrate deep into the Libyan Desert to gather information on Italian forces. It was this scheme that Bagnold took to Wavell—and Wavell swiftly accepted—in June 1940.

Who to recruit to his fledgling enterprise? That was Bagnold’s first concern. Experience had told him that the merciless hinterland of a desert either made or broke a man. He contacted some of his old exploring friends, and before long Bill Kennedy Shaw, Pat Clayton, Teddy Mitford, and Rupert Harding-Newman had joined him in Cairo. Bagnold overcame the fact that Kennedy Shaw and Clayton were civilians by having them commissioned as officers in the British Intelligence Corps. For the small cadre of enlisted men he needed, Bagnold chose New Zealanders because, he wrote, “I wanted responsible volunteers who knew how to look after things and maintain things rather than the British Tommy who is apt to be wasteful.”

The second pressing issue was transport. Bagnold needed reliable vehicles capable of covering in excess of 1,500 miles without breaking down. The British Army possessed no such thing, so Bagnold turned to a commercial Chevrolet one-and-a-half-ton truck with a single 20-gallon fuel tank. Thirty-three of them were purchased from the Egyptian army and from vehicle dealers in Cairo, and fitted with machine guns front and back. As for sun compasses, sand channels, radios, and medical supplies, they were begged, borrowed, or stolen in the weeks following the unit’s formation. So were the Arab headdresses and leather sandals that replaced the army-issued leather boots and service dress caps.

Bagnold organized the Long Range Desert Group into three patrols—R, T, and W (the letters chosen at random), each comprising two officers and about 30 men. The patrols were assigned 10 one-and-a-half-ton trucks and a three-quarter–ton car apiece, along with 10 Lewis guns of World War I vintage, 4 Boys antitank rifles, a Bofors antiaircraft gun, and an assortment of small arms.

Pat Clayton, an 18-year veteran of the Egyptian Survey Department, led the first LRDG patrol in August 1940. It was a reconnaissance of the route the Italians used out of the port at Benghazi, on the northern coastline of Libya, to resupply their garrisons at Kufra and Uweinat. Clayton’s twovehicle patrol drove west into Libya and watched the track for three days, but observed no enemy vehicles. It wasn’t a wasted expedition, however. Clayton returned to Egypt with two important details: He discovered that enemy aircraft rarely detected sand-colored vehicles in the desert as long as they were stationary. And he found a route that crossed the Egyptian Sand Sea and, inside Libya, the Kalansho Sand Sea. The two “seas”— vast landscapes of continuous rolling sand dunes—were in fact connected further north to form, as Bagnold later described, “an irregular horseshoe” shape in the south. The route Clayton pioneered would become the entry point into Libya for future LRDG patrols.

The Egyptian Sand Sea is a breathtaking phenomenon. Roughly the size of Ireland, it stretches from the Siwa oasis, in northwest Egypt, almost as far south as Sudan, and its fearsome reputation is just as imposing as its size. One LRDG officer, Capt. Michael Crichton-Stuart, never forgot his first sight of it: “The parallel lines of dunes run almost north and south, rising to some 500 feet in the centre of the Sand Sea. Packed and shaped by the prevailing wind over thousands of years, this Sand Sea compares in shape and form with a great Atlantic swell; long rollers, crested here and there, with great troughs between. It is utterly lifeless, without a blade of grass or a stone to break the monotony of sand and sky.”

On September 5, 1940, Bagnold led the entire LRDG into Libya on the trail Clayton had blazed a month earlier. He was delighted with the way the New Zealanders adapted to their unfamiliar surroundings, and they were soon averaging 30 miles a day as they pierced the interior of the Libyan Desert. There they split, with R Patrol returning to their base in Siwa to resupply, while W reconnoitered north towards Kufra, and T went south as far as the border with Chad.

The three patrols returned to Cairo with little to report. Marshal Graziani was safely ensconced in his Egyptian coastal base of Sidi Barrani, and the Italian troops garrisoned inland apparently never ventured out of their forts unless it was necessary.

The news prompted Wavell to amend the unit’s operational instructions in October. Instead of carrying out reconnaissance missions, they were to go on the offensive and, as Bagnold later wrote, “stir up trouble in any part of Libya we liked, with the object of drawing off as much enemy transport and troops as possible from the coastal front [around Sidi Barrani] to defend their remote and useless inland garrisons.”

The LRDG threw themselves into their new role with gusto. While some patrols mined roads, others blew up bomb dumps or attacked isolated desert outposts manned by bored Italians. Just as Wavell had hoped, Graziani diverted troops from the coastal regions into the interior to escort supply columns and reinforce outposts.

Encouraged, the LRDG planned an audacious assault against a well-defended Italian fort and nearby airfield in Murzuk, in south-central Libya. As Bagnold noted, the fort—approximately 1,500 miles west of Cairo—“was far beyond our self-contained range but a raid on it seemed possible geographically if we could get some extra supplies from the French Army in Chad.” But no one in Cairo knew whose side the French forces in Chad were on. Other French dependencies had declared for the Vichy regime; Chad had made no such announcement. Bagnold and Wavell thought that inviting the French to support a daring raid might be just the sort of escapade to rally them to Britain’s cause.

Bagnold flew to Chad and met the commander of its French troops, Lt. Col. Jean Colonna d’Ornano, who demanded to know the purpose of Bagnold’s visit. “I told him frankly what I wanted— petrol, rations and water,” Bagnold recalled.

“I’ll do all you ask but on one condition,” d’Ornano replied. “You take me with you to Murzuk with one of my junior officers and one NCO and we fly the French flag alongside yours.”

By the time the LRDG rendezvoused near Taiserbo—350 miles east of Murzuk—on January 4, 1941, the composition of the unit had changed. The commander of the New Zealand division in the desert had recalled most of his countrymen now that his resources were more stretched than they had been six months earlier. To compensate for the loss, Bagnold had formed a new patrol— G Patrol—composed of skilled soldiers from the British Army’s Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. This patrol, along with T Patrol, made up the LRDG’s attacking force, under the overall command of Pat Clayton.

D’Ornano delivered the supplies Bagnold requested, and the Frenchman, along with nine of his men, was seconded to the LRDG as they struck out west toward their objective. On January 11 the force divided just a few miles from Murzuk, with Clayton’s T Patrol heading for the airfield while G Patrol targeted the fort. “As the convoy approached the fort, above the main central tower of which the Italian flag flew proudly, the Guard turned out,” Captain Crichton-Stuart recalled. “We were rather sorry for them, but they probably never knew what hit them.”

In the maelstrom of fire that followed, the LRDG lost two men (including Lieutenant Colonel d’Ornano) and suffered several casualties, but the damage inflicted on the Italians was far worse. A withering mortar barrage destroyed the main block of the fort. The garrison commander had the misfortune to return from lunch midway through the onslaught; neither his staff car nor the escort vehicle made it through the fort’s gates.

Clayton arrived at the fort having wreaked havoc on the airfield, where his patrol destroyed three light bombers and a sizeable fuel dump, and killed or captured all 20 guards. Now he ordered the LRDG to withdraw into the vastness of the desert before the inevitable aerial reinforcements arrived from Hon, a large Italian air base 250 miles northeast.

The decision to court the French in Chad had been a sound one. Though d’Ornano had died, his successor, Gen. Philippe Leclerc, formed an effective alliance with the LRDG. On March 1, 1941, a Free French force, guided by T and G Patrols, captured the Italian fort at Kufra and its 400-strong garrison. But that success was a rarity for the Allies in what was an otherwise wretched few months. German general Erwin Rommel had arrived in North Africa on February 12; by the end of April, his Afrikakorps had pushed back the Allies’ Western Desert Force (later known as Eighth Army) to the Egyptian frontier, leaving the Mediterranean port of Tobruk as the sole remaining British possession in the eastern coastal region of Libya known as Cyrenaica.

By that summer, the LRDG was in an upheaval of its own. It grew to include two more patrols: S, composed of southern Rhodesian recruits, and Y, drawn from the British 1st Cavalry Division in Palestine. It also had a new commanding officer, Maj. Guy Prendergast, a desert explorer of some repute and a good friend of Bagnold—who, in August 1941, was ordered back to Cairo to oversee the raising of five more formations similar to the LRDG.

Prendergast was barely less audacious than the man he was replacing. Besides having explored the desert by motor vehicle between the wars, the Englishman had also mapped it from the cockpit of an airplane.

Another new addition to the LRDG was Capt. David Lloyd Owen, who had spent the first half of the year as a training officer in Palestine with the Queen’s Royal Regiment, hoping in vain to see some action. Around the time Bagnold returned to Cairo, Lloyd Owen left it to join Y Patrol. It was a unit, and a landscape, in which he reveled. In his war memoir Providence Their Guide, he described the wonder of life in the desert with the LRDG: “There are no buildings, no roads, no street lights…no need for anyone to shout or to have money or to pretend about anything; those human beings who are with you are probably fairly well known to you, and are there for the same reason that you are—they know the dangers and delights of solitude just the same as you do, and they will react to the unblemished and staggering loveliness of a huge expanse of desert sky, deep blue by day and of a marvelous purple at night.”

In early November 1941, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, who had taken over for Wavell in the Middle East, was finalizing plans for an offensive code-named Crusader, which was intended to rid Cyrenaica of the Afrika korps. One of the tasks the LRDG assumed then would lead to a famous partnership for the rest of the desert war.

Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) had come into being that summer, the brainchild of a charismatic young Scots Guards officer, Capt. David Stirling. Having overcome fierce hostility to his concept of a small force of paratroopers waging war behind enemy lines, Stirling had won permission to lead raids against five coastal airfields strung out along the Cyrenaica coast. Once they had dropped into the desert on the night of November 16, the SAS would attack the airfields and then march to a rendezvous point 50 miles inland. There the LRDG would be waiting to transport them back to base.

But the assault began at the same time as what one war correspondent described as “the most spectacular thunderstorm within living memory.” None of the raiding party got close to their objectives and the terrible conditions resulted in the deaths of 34 of the party’s 55 men. For those lucky enough to land in one piece, survival was the only thing on their minds. “All that night we marched or rather waded through water which was sometimes up to our knees,” Jeff Du Vivier, a sergeant in the SAS, wrote in his diary. “I could not explain how cold it actually was, to believe it one would have to experience it. I was not shivering but shaking. All the bones in my body were numbed.”

The exhausted survivors from the SAS staggered to the rendezvous, with Stirling among the last to arrive. Waiting for him was Lloyd Owen, who brewed a pot of tea and listened as Stirling described the doomed raid. Stirling didn’t seem defeated by the failure, merely frustrated at how best to get at the Germans. Suddenly an idea struck Lloyd Owen: “Surely the answer was for the LRDG to convey the SAS parties to within a few miles of their targets. We would then lie off while they were doing whatever they had in mind, and we could return a day or so later to collect them.”

Three weeks later, on the night of December 8, the SAS put the idea into action, with spectacular results. Four SAS soldiers blew up 24 aircraft at Tamit, a coastal airfield in Libya, while at nearby Agedabia, another group of SAS saboteurs destroyed 37 planes. On both occasions the LRDG drove the SAS close to the target and then waited with a hot breakfast at the rendezvous. “After a while we started to call them the Long Range Taxi Service,” Du Vivier recalled, “but it was a joke the LRDG took well. They knew how much we respected them.”

The SAS weren’t alone in their respect for the LRDG. Throughout their operational life in the North African desert—which ended in March 1943, when the American First Army, advancing from the west, and the British Eighth Army, coming from the east, trapped Axis forces in a small pocket of Tunisia—the LRDG won plaudits for their pluck and professionalism.

During the Second Battle of El Alamein in autumn 1942, the LRDG carried out invaluable reconnaissance patrols on the German forces, as well as laying mines and strafing enemy transport columns. Y Patrol, for example, spent several perilous days concealed near Marble Arch, 600 miles west of El Alamein, reporting on the Axis army as it fled towards Tunisia. Between October 30 and November 10, 1942, the number of enemy vehicles headed west each day rose—from 100 to 3,500. At times the retreating Germans pulled off the road and rested, their lorries and tanks a matter of yards from the hidden LRDG patrol.

In his report on their exploits during this period, the British Army’s director of military intelligence in Cairo wrote, “Not only is the standard of accuracy and observation exceptionally high but the Patrols are familiar with the most recent illustration of enemy vehicles and weapons…. Without their reports we should frequently have been in doubt as to the enemy’s intentions, when knowledge of them was all important.”

In the final two years of the Second World War, the Long Range Desert Group served with distinction in the Aegean and the Balkans. But the desert is where their indelible legacy remains. “Never during our peace-time travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled off as it has always been by sheer distance, by lack of water, and by impassable seas of huge dunes,” Bagnold recalled in 1945. The success of the war the LRDG waged in the desert owed much to their courage and resourcefulness, but just as important was their maverick spirit, daring to venture where others had feared to tread.

 

Originally published in the August 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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