The Long Range Desert Group were formed in the autumn of 1940, successors to the much smaller Long Range Patrol. They were intended as a covert reconnaissance unit operating deep into the desert to observe enemy movements, a role that they had considerable success with. They also undertook a number of offensive operations, commando type raids that took the enemy by surprise. This role was later largely taken over by the SAS but in 1940 the LRDG were pioneering this type of operation.
‘W’ Patrol of the LRDG had left their base in Cairo on 23rd November and made slow progress across the sand dunes of the desert. They had been spotted by Italian aircraft in the open desert and bombed for over an hour on the 29th. By dispersing and then driving at speed at right angles to the attacking aircraft they had avoided any casualties. By the night of the 30th they were in position outside a remote Italian landing strip at Ain Dua where they they lay up before attacking at dawn with the sun behind them:
There appeared at first to be no sign of life there; but when within 800 yards the patrol halted and fired one round from a Bofors gun. This aroused intermittent M.G. and rifle fire from behind walls and rocks. Major Mitford then attacked. ‘D’ Troop under Lieut. Sutherland was sent round the enemy’s left to make a flank attack on foot, while the rest of the patrol gave covering fire from the front. ‘D’ Troop’s attack was successful and the garrison, believed to consist of about 30 men with 3 M.G’s, abandoned their strong position and retired up the hill after losing three men, of whom one at least was killed.
As a reconnaissance aircraft was expected to make its appearance the action was broken off, and the patrol took cover in the rocks about a mile and a quarter east of Ain Dua. At 1015 hrs two S.79’s arrived and at 1045 a Ghibli aircraft. They disappeared in due course, but as it was not certain whether the patrol had been discovered or not, it lay up until 1500 hrs.
Major Mitford then decided to make a second attack in spite of the strength of the enemy’s position. He hoped to inflict further damage to men and material, and he also wished to show the enemy that one patrol could remain in their immediate vicinity without being spotted by aircraft. This might well create a feeling of uncertainty, and lead them to use up valuable petrol in increased and fruitless patrolling.
The second attack was made from both flanks. ‘D’ Troop with one Bofors gun attacked the enemy’s left over the ground that it knew. Covering fire was given by the H.Q. truck and one Bofors gun. The remainder of the patrol worked round the enemy’s right. Orders were issued that the risk of heavy losses must not be taken.
‘D’ Troop got close enough to inflict further casualties, and silenced two of the three machine guns, but the enemy defended himself stoutly, and the position could not be captured. Lieut. Sutherland and one man got close enough to cause damage with Mills grenades.
Trooper Willcox, who was pinned down by M.G. fire, distinguished himself by getting his Lewis gun into a position from which he killed the machine gunner and silenced the gun. The rest of the patrol were unable owing to the difficulties of the ground, to get near enough to engage the enemy. At 1700 hrs when it was beginning to get dark the patrol was withdrawn.