Surprise LRDG attack in the desert

A9 Cruiser tanks in the Western Desert, 1 November 1940.

A9 Cruiser tanks in the Western Desert, 1 November 1940.

A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940.

A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940.

The legendary Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) had still not been formally christened. At the end of October 1940 it was only just coming out of its formative stage, known as the Long Range Patrol.

The were many in the traditional military who distrusted unconventional formations. Major Ralph Bagnold had proposed deep penetration reconnaissance behind the lines of the enemy, travelling by land across vast expanses of desert, in June 1940. He was met by scepticism when he personally put the scheme to General Archibald Wavell. But Bagnold had credibility as an experienced desert explorer. When he suggested that their role would also encompass “a bit of piracy” he won the General over.

The following extended extract comes from a newly published (October 2015) study. It explores the very earliest days of the LRDG, culminating in a successful attack on the 1st November 1940:

The desert was a unique and harsh environment. Yet many who rode out with LRP/LRDG patrols were intensely moved by its qualities, the harsh, primeval purity. Though now largely denuded of humanity, the raiders were constantly reminded that man had once lived here:

Ten thousand years ago the climate was kinder, there was more rain and men lived in what is now desert, hunting ostrich and antelope and keeping milk cattle. Often we found traces of them – paintings and engravings on the rocks and stone implements at their camping places. There must have heen many places which we passed through on LRDG journeys where no man had been for five thousand years.

On 5th September three LRP patrols set out from Cairo, just ahead of the major Italian offensive in the north which would kick-start the desert war. Marshal Graziani didn’t advance further that Sidi Barrani, more of a Sitzkrieg. There remained the fear he might try and be more adventurous in the south, as Bagnold had originally warned. LRP was tasked to check the lie of the land, ascertain enemy intentions, hopefully netting some prisoners and generally beat up any targets of opportunity that might cross their sights.

Teddy Mitford, with Bill Kennedy Shaw, was to check out a couple of landing strips on the Jalo—Kufra route. They dealt with fuel reserves there before bumping a small Italian convoy a couple of days later. Only two trucks, swiftly cowed by a burst from a Lewis gun, and LRP had its first haul of captives, including a goat! A modest if satisfying encounter, yet this single rattle of fire persuaded the Italians they had to escort their convoys in future, a significant diversion of resources.

LRP activity would never open gaping wounds in the enemy’s flanks but could create persistent ulcers, draining out precious reserves, taking away from offensive capacity further north.

Neither of the other patrols met any enemy but accomplished much useful intelligence gathering. By the end of the month all three were safely back in Cairo. General Wavell was still ready to be impressed.

An important benefit conferred by these early patrols was in myth-busting. Most of the staff in Cairo and most of Middle East Command shunned the deep desert to the same fearful extent as their Axis adversaries. Bagnold was demonstrating that the Allied forces could trump the enemy by learning to operate effectively in all conditions.

To us now this seems an obvious role for Special Forces; however, at the time it was something of an epiphany. Bagnold’s patrols had covered 1,300 miles completely self-contained. They had impressed everyone, and even the most doubtful of their critics hud hegun to see what possibilities there were the exposed southern flank — which was thought to he quite impenetruhle — could he used with impunity hy the LRDG.

Success brought expansion and the unit was increased in size to two full squadrons, each of three patrols, with a HQ section and a lieutenant- colonelcy for Bagnold. General Freyberg was making increasingly loud noises for the return of his Kiwis though Wavell was able to persuade him to grant an extension while new volunteers, primarily from Rhodesian and British units, were being trained up.

Having tested the crust of the Italian defences in the south and detected no appetite for offensive action, LRP could continue to make life uncomfortable for these nervous frontier outposts. The year 1940 had been a very bad one for the Allies but at least, as the autumn drew towards winter, the British were attacking somewhere, if on a very small scale.

The replacement scheme which had received War Office approval on 25th October had provided for six new patrols to be formed, one from each of the Guards, South Rhodesians, Highlanders, Yeomanry, Rifles and Home Counties Regiments. This was rather ambitious at the time as the whole theatre suffered from a chronic lack of both good officers and men. Regiments were understandably loath to part with their bravest and best for what many regarded as a maverick and madcap formation.

Bagnold, again in October, found he had competition from the brilliant if unorthodox Orde Wingate, later famous for the formation of the Chindits. Wingate wanted an all-arms, mechanized raiding force far larger than the LRP, virtually at divisional strength. This was plainly impractical, and Wingate had no real appreciation of the distances and ground involved. Bagnold, who understood both, countered with a watered-down proposal suggesting a gradual build up of all-arms capability.

The prevailing shortages of men and materiel and the dearth of desert-worthy vehicles doomed Wingate’s scheme. By the time these shortages had been, to a degree at least, overcome, LRP/LRDG had more than proved itself as the ideal solution.

During the last week of October the LRP launched another sortie. The objectives were:

To harass the enemy by mining the Uweinat-Kufra-Jedabia track.
To gain intelligence of enemy strength and movement in this area.
To recover and utilise the two lorries captured earlier (these had been left hidden).

T Patrol, led by Clayton, moved out from Cairo on 23rd October; mine laying its primary function. The raiders passed via Ain Dalla, over the surreal reaches of the Sand Sea to Big Cairn where Clayton levelled an ad hoc airstrip. No. 26 (Bomber Transport) Squadron was detailed to carry out re-supply. Next, they drove towards Jalo, 260 miles northwest, and by 30th October were planting mines along the roadway.

On 1st November, after only token resistance, Clayton easily subdued the fort at Aujila whose garrison fled at the first burst. In all, the patrol covered 2,140 miles in 15 days.

T and R patrols with HQ and N troops were equally active. Italian stores together with a Savoia-Machetti S.79 (a three-engine, medium bomber) were destroyed. Though enemy aircraft did make an appearance, no casualties or damage were sustained.

These raids were textbook examples of what the LRP had been raised for. Results were not overly dramatic, as these were pinpricks rather than body blows, but the cumulative effect was telling: enemy communications were disrupted and his transport damaged or destroyed, but the main value was psychological.

After so many bruising defeats, the Allies were taking the initiative and getting the better of the enemy. The Italians suffered a consequential slump in morale. Nowhere was too remote to escape the raiders’ intention. All movement was fraught. This was not a defeated army, a tottering empire. Britain still had teeth.

See John Sadler: Ghost Patrol: A History of the Long Range Desert Group, 1940 – 1945.

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A13 Cruiser Mk IVA tank being checked over shortly after arrival in Egypt, 1 November 1940. Note 'Caunter' camouflage.

A13 Cruiser Mk IVA tank being checked over shortly after arrival in Egypt, 1 November 1940. Note ‘Caunter’ camouflage.

A 4.5 inch Howitzer camouflaged in its emplacement at Palm Grove, Western Desert, 1 November 1940.

A 4.5 inch Howitzer camouflaged in its emplacement at Palm Grove, Western Desert, 1 November 1940.

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