Ralph Bagnold was as unlikely a special forces commander as anyone could imagine. His war had been the Great War, when as a junior signals officer he had survived the carnage of the Western Front. When World War II began in September 1939, Bagnold was 43 and earning a comfortable living as a scientist and writer.
Recalled to the colours four years after he had retired from the army, Major Bagnold was posted to Officer Commanding, East Africa Signals, and dispatched on a troopship to Kenya. But he never arrived. In early October, Bagnold’s vessel, RMS Franconia, collided with a merchant cruiser in the Mediterranean. He and the rest of his troop transferred to another vessel and sailed to Port Said in Egypt to await the first available ship to Kenya.
Bagnold was delighted. Egypt was a country he knew well, better in fact than nearly any other Briton. He had spent most of the 1920s in Egypt with his regiment, entranced by the culture and the vast desert that stretched west into Libya. In 1927, he made his first foray into the Libyan desert, leading a small band of explorers in a fleet of Model T Fords. More expeditions followed, penetrating farther into the desert’s brutal interior than any other European had. Bagnold’s fascination was as much motivated by science as by exploration, and he began studying the terrain, leading him to publish the critically acclaimed The Physics of Blown Sand And Desert Dunes in 1939.
Back in Egypt, Bagnold took the train from Port Said to Cairo to look up old friends. He dined with one such acquaintance in the restaurant of the exclusive Shepheard’s Hotel, where he was spotted by the gossip columnist of The Egyptian Gazette newspaper. A few days later, the word was out that Bagnold was back in town, and within a matter of days he was summoned to the office of General Archibald Wavell, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Middle East Command.
Wavell pumped Bagnold for information on the accessibility of the Libyan Desert – the general was increasingly concerned by intelligence reports that the Italians had as many as 250,000 men in 15 divisions under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. So impressed was he by what Bagnold told him that Wavell arranged for his permanent transfer to North Africa.
Bagnold’s vision brought to life
Bagnold was sent to Mersa Matruh – 135 miles west of Cairo – where he discovered that the most up-to-date map the British forces possessed of Libya dated from 1915. He was similarly appalled by the indifference of senior officers to the threat posed by the Italians – they believed the enemy would make a full-frontal attack on Mersa Matruh, which they would easily repel, but Bagnold suspected the Italians, some of whom he had encountered during his expeditions of the 1920s, would launch surprise attacks on British positions in Egypt from further south.
Bagnold’s idea was to form a small reconnaissance force to patrol the 700-mile frontier with Libya. This was rejected, as it was when he submitted it again in January 1940, and the following month Bagnold was posted as a military advisor to Turkey, presumably to give Middle East Headquarters (MEHQ) in Cairo some peace and quiet.
But Bagnold wouldn’t give up, and after Italy declared war on Britain on 10 June 1940, he tried for a third time to convince the top brass of his idea, explaining in an additional paragraph that there would be three patrols:
“Every vehicle of which, with a crew of three and a machine gun, was to carry its own supplies of food and water for three weeks, and its own petrol for 2,500 miles of travel across average soft desert surface… [each] patrol to carry a wireless set, navigating and other equipment, medical stores, spare parts and further tools.”
This time Bagnold entrusted his friend, Brigadier Dick Baker, to ensure the proposal was put directly into the hands of Wavell. Baker obliged and within four days of receiving Bagnold’s proposition, Wavell had authorised him to form the new unit, provisionally entitled the Long Range Patrol (LRP).
Wavell was a hard taskmaster, however, giving Bagnold just six weeks to make his vision a reality. Men, equipment, rations, weapons, vehicles… it was a formidable challenge but one that Bagnold rose to. First, he searched for the soldiers; he tracked down most of his old companions from his exploration days, and while one or two were unable to secure a release from their military duty, Bagnold was soon joined in Cairo by Bill Kennedy-Shaw and Pat Clayton, who by 1940 had accumulated nearly 20 years of experience with the Egyptian Survey Department. Also recruited to the new unit was captain Teddy Mitford, a relative of the infamous sisters and a desert explorer in his own right during the late 1930s.
While Clayton, Mitford and Kennedy-Shaw started to hunt down the necessary equipment, Bagnold flew to Palestine on 29 June to see Lt-General Thomas Blamey, commander of the Australian Corps. Bagnold requested permission to recruit 80 Australian soldiers, explaining that in his view Australians would be the Allied soldiers most likely to adapt quickest to desert reconnaissance. Blamey, on the orders of his government, refused, so Bagnold turned to the New Zealand forces in Egypt.
This time he met with success, and 80 officers, non-commissioned officers and men from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and Machine-Gun Battalion volunteered to be part of the LRP. Bagnold took an instant shine to the Kiwis, saying:
“They made an impressive party by English standards. Tougher and more weather-beaten in looks, a sturdy basis of sheep-farmers, leavened by technicians, property-owners and professional men, and including a few Maoris. Shrewd, dry-humoured, curious of every new thing, and quietly thrilled when I told them what we were to do.”
July was spent assembling the vehicles and equipment and training the New Zealanders in the rudiments of desert motoring and navigation. Kennedy-Shaw, appointed the unit’s intelligence officer, told the Kiwis that the Libyan Desert measured 1,200 miles by 1,000 – or put another way, was roughly the size of India. It was bordered by the Nile in the east and the Mediterranean in the north. In the south, which was limestone compared to the sandstone in the north, the desert extended as far as the Tibesti Mountains, while the political frontier with Tunisia and Algeria marked its western limits.
The unit proves its worth
By the first week of August 1940, the unit was ready for its first patrol and the honour fell to 44-year-old Captain Pat Clayton. He and his small hand-picked party of seven left Cairo in two Chevrolet trucks. Crossing the border into Libya, they continued on to Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great had led his army in 332 BCE. “The little patrol of two cars then struck due west, exploring, and made the unwelcome discovery of a large strip of sand sea between the frontier and the Jalo-Kufra road,” wrote Clayton in his subsequent report. “The Chevrolet clutches began to smell a bit by the time we got across, but the evening saw us near the Kufra track.”
They laid up here for three days, taking great care to conceal their presence from the Italians, as they observed the track for signs of activity. They returned to Cairo on 19 August, having covered 1,600 miles of the barren desert in 13 days.
Clayton and Bagnold reported their findings to General Wavell, who, having heard an account of the unit’s first patrol, “made up his mind then and there to give us his strongest backing.” A week later, Wavell inspected the LRP and told them he had informed the War Office they “were ready to take the field.”
Bagnold split the LRP into three patrols, assigning to each a letter of no particular significance. Captain Teddy Mitford commanded W Patrol, Captains Pat Clayton and Bruce Ballantyne (a New Zealander) were the officers in charge of T Patrol and Captain Don Steele, a New Zealand farmer from Takapu, led R Patrol. Each patrol consisted of 25 other ranks, transported in ten 30-cwt Chevrolet trucks and a light 15-cwt pilot car. They carried rations and equipment to sustain them over 1,500 miles and for armament each patrol possessed a 3.7mm Bofors gun, four Boys AT (anti-tank) rifles and 15 Lewis guns.
For the next two months the LRP reconnoitred large swathes of central Libya, often enduring daytime temperatures in excess of 49 degrees Celsius as they probed for signs of Italian troop movements.
On 19 September, Mitford’s patrol encountered two Italian six-ton lorries and opened fire, giving the aristocratic Englishman the honour of blooding the LRP in battle. In truth, it wasn’t much of a battle; the Italians, stunned to meet the enemy so far west, quickly waved a white flag. The prisoners were brought back to Cairo, along with 2,500 gallons of petrol and a bag of official mail.
General Wavell was delighted, not just with the official mail that contained much important intelligence but with the LRP’s work throughout the autumn of 1940. Bagnold capitalised on the praise with a request to expand the unit, suggesting to Wavell that with more men he could strike fear into the Italians by launching a series of hit-and-run attacks across a wide region of Libya. On 22 November, Bagnold was promoted to acting lieutenant-colonel and given permission to form two new patrols and reconstitute the Long Range Patrol as the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
For his new recruits, Bagnold turned to the British army and what he considered the cream: the Guards and the Yeomanry Divisions. By the end of December, he had formed G (Guards) Patrol, consisting of 36 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Battalion The Scots Guards, commanded by Captain Michael Crichton-Stuart. Y Patrol was raised a couple of months later, composed of men from, among others, the Yorkshire Hussars, the North Somerset Yeomanry and the Staffordshire Yeomanry. For their inaugural operation, however, G Patrol was placed under the command of Pat Clayton, whose T Patrol would offer support.
A successful first mission
Their target was Murzuk, a well-defended Italian fort in south-western Libya, nestled among palm trees with an airfield close by. The fort was approximately 1,000 miles to the west of Cairo as the crow flies, and reaching it entailed a gruelling journey that lasted for a fortnight. There were 76 raiders in all, travelling in 23 vehicles, including nine members of the Free French who had been seconded to the operation in return for flying up additional supplies from their base in Chad.
The raiding party stopped for lunch on 11 January, just a few miles from Murzuk, and finalised their plan for the attack: Clayton’s T Patrol would attack the airfield that lay in close proximity to the fort while G Patrol targeted the actual garrison. Crichton-Stuart recalled that as they neared the fort, they passed a lone cyclist:
“This gentleman, who proved to be the postmaster, was added to the party with his bicycle. As the convoy approached the fort, above the main central tower of which the Italian flag flew proudly, the guard turned out. We were rather sorry for them, but they probably never knew what hit them.”
Opening fire 150 yards from the fort’s main gates, the LRDG force split, with the six trucks of Clayton’s patrol heading towards the airstrip. The terrain was up and down, and the LRDG made use of its undulations to destroy a number of pillboxes scattered about, including an anti-aircraft pit.
Clayton, in the vanguard of the assault, circled a hangar and as he turned the corner, ran straight into a concealed machine gun nest. The Free French officer was shot dead but Clayton soon silenced the enemy position, and by the time his patrol withdrew, they had been responsible for the destruction of three light bombers, a sizeable fuel dump and killed or captured all of the 20 guards.
Meanwhile, G Patrol had subjected the fort to a withering mortar barrage, and after a brief fire fight, the garrison surrendered. Clayton selected two prisoners to bring back to Cairo for interrogation and the rest were left in the shattered remnants of the fort to await the arrival of reinforcements once it was realised the fort’s communications were down.
The Nazis push back
Following the Allied advance across Libya in the winter of 1940-41, Adolf Hitler had despatched General Erwin Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps to reinforce their Italian allies. The Nazi leader had initially been reluctant to get involved in North Africa, but Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German navy, warned that if the British maintained their iron grip on the Mediterranean, it would seriously jeopardise his plans for conquest in Eastern Europe.
Rommel wasted little time in attacking the British, launching an offensive on 2 April that ultimately pushed his enemy out of Libya and back into Egypt, right where they had been in 1940. The British managed to hold on to only a couple of footholds in Libya, in the port of Tobruk and 500 miles south in the Oasis of Kufra. On 9 April, Bagnold and most of the LRDG were sent to garrison Kufra, to pass a summer of tedious inactivity that frayed Bagnold’s usually equitable temper. He was also beginning to feel the strain of command, oppressed by the heat and the constant scuttling forth between Cairo and Kufra, and so on 1 August he handed over command of the LRDG to Lt-Colonel Guy Prendergast.
Prendergast had explored the Libyan Desert with Bagnold in the 1920s but had remained in the Royal Tank Regiment. Dour, laconic and precise, Prendergast kept his emotions hidden behind a cool exterior as he did his eyes behind a pair of circular sunglasses. Not to be underestimated, he was innovative, open-minded and a brilliant administrator.
His first challenge as the LRDG’s new commander was to organise five reconnaissance patrols for a new large-scale Allied offensive (codenamed Operation Crusader) on 18 November. The aim of the offensive, planned by General Claude Auchinleck, the successor to the sacked General Wavell, was to retake eastern Libya and its airfields, thereby enabling the RAF to increase its supplies to Malta.
The SAS arrive
The LRDG’s role was the observation and reporting of enemy troop movements, alerting Auchinleck as to what Rommel might be planning in response to the offensive. But they had an additional responsibility: to collect 55 British paratroopers after they’d attacked enemy airfields at Gazala and Tmimi. This small unit had been raised four months earlier by a charismatic young officer called David Stirling and had been designated L Detachment Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade.
Stirling had convinced MEHQ that the enemy was vulnerable to attack along the line of its coastal communications and various aerodromes and supply dumps, by small units of airborne troops attacking not just one target but a series of objectives. Stirling and his men parachuted into Libya on the night of 17 November into what one war correspondent described as “the most spectacular thunderstorm within local memory.” Many of the SAS raiders were injured on landing; others were captured in the hours that followed. The 21 storm-ravaged survivors were eventually rescued by the LRDG and driven to safety, among them a bitterly disappointed Stirling.
It was Lt-Colonel Prendergast who resuscitated the SAS. Receiving an order in late November from MEHQ instructing the LRDG to launch a series of raids against Axis airfields to coincide with a secondary Eighth Army offensive, he signalled: “As LRDG not trained for demolitions, suggest pct [parachutists] used for blowing ‘dromes’.” Additionally, Prendergast suggested that it would be more practical for the LRDG to transport the SAS in their trucks.
On 8 December, an LRDG patrol of 19 Rhodesian soldiers and commanded by Captain Charles ‘Gus’ Holliman left Jalo Oasis to take two SAS raiding parties (one led by Stirling, the other by his second-in-command Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne) to the airfields at Tamet and Sirte, 350 miles to the north west. Holliman’s navigator was an Englishman, Mike Sadler, who had emigrated to Rhodesia in 1937.
The raiding party made good progress in the first two days but then hit a wide expanse of rocky broken ground, covering just 20 miles in three painstaking hours on the morning of 11 December. Soon, however, the going underfoot became the least of their problems. “Suddenly we heard the drone of a Ghibli (the Caproni Ca.309, a reconnaissance aircraft),” recalled Cecil ‘Jacko’ Jackson, one of the Rhodesian LRDG soldiers. “Not having room to manoeuvre in the rough terrain, Holliman ordered us all to fire on his command. The plane was low, and when all five Lewis guns opened up, he veered off and his bombs missed.”
The Ghibli broke off the fight but the British knew the pilot would have already been on the radio. It was only a matter of minutes before fighter aircraft appeared overhead. “We doubled back to a patch of scrub we had passed earlier,” said Jackson, who, along with his comrades, made frantic efforts to camouflage their vehicles with netting. “We had just hidden ourselves when three aircraft came over us and strafed the scrub.”
It was obvious to the Italians where the enemy were hiding, but they were firing blind all the same, tattooing the ground with machine gun fire without being able to see their targets. It was a terrifying experience for the LRDG and SAS men cowering among the patchy cover, feeling utterly helpless. All they could do was remain motionless, fighting the natural impulse to run from the fire. “I was lying face down near some scrub and heard and felt something thudding into the ground around me,” remembered Jackson. He didn’t flinch. Only when the drone of the aircraft grew so faint as to be barely audible did he and his comrades get to their feet. Jackson looked down, blanching at “bullet holes [that] had made a neat curve round the imprint of my head and shoulders in the sand.”
Remarkably, the strafing caused no damage and the patrol moved off, reaching the outskirts of the targets without further incident. The plan was for Stirling and Sergeant Jimmy Brough to attack Sirte airfield while Paddy Mayne and the rest of the SAS hit Tamet. They left the following night, leaving the LRDG at the rendezvous in Wadi Tamet. At about 11.15pm, the silence was shattered by a thunderous roar three miles distant. “We saw the explosions and got quite excited, the adrenaline pumping through us,” recalled Sadler. “The SAS were similarly excited when they arrived back at the RV. We buzzed them home and on the way they talked us through the raid, discussing what could be improved next time.”
Though Stirling had drawn a blank at Sirte, Mayne had blown up 24 aircraft at Tamet. More successful co-operation between the LRDG and the SAS ensued with a five-man raiding party led by Lt Bill Fraser destroying 37 aircraft on Agedabia airfield. Mayne returned to Tamet at the end of December, laying waste to 27 planes that had recently arrived to replace the ones he’d accounted for a couple of weeks earlier.
Stirling and the SAS continued to rely on the LRDG as their ‘Libyan Taxi Service’ for the first six months of 1942, and he also looked to them for guidance in nurturing his embryonic SAS. “We passed on our knowledge to the SAS and they were very grateful to receive it,” recalled Jim Patch, who joined the LRDG in 1941. “David Stirling was a frequent visitor and he would chat and absorb things. He took advice, man to man, he didn’t just stick with the officers, he went round to the men, too.”
In the first six months of 1942, the SAS, thanks in no small measure to the LRDG, had destroyed 143 enemy aircraft. As Stirling noted:
“By the end of June, L Detachment had raided all the more important German and Italian aerodromes within 300 miles of the forward area at least once or twice. Methods of defence were beginning to improve and although the advantage still lay with L Detachment, the time had come to alter our own methods.”
For the rest of the war in North Africa, the SAS operated largely independently of the LRDG, using their own jeeps obtained in Cairo and their own navigators, now trained by the LRDG in the art of desert navigation. While the SAS conducted numerous hit-and-run raids against airfields and – following the El Alamein offensive – retreating Axis transport columns, the LRDG reverted to its original role of reconnaissance.
It was one that it accomplished with extraordinary diligence and endurance, often keeping enemy roads and positions under observation for days at a time, radioing back the vital intelligence to Cairo. With the desert war all but won, General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Eighth Army, conveyed his thanks for the LRDG’s magnificent work in a letter to Prendergast dated 2 April 1943, praising “the excellent work done by your patrols” in reconnoitring the country into which his soldiers had advanced.
In 1984, David Stirling expressed his thanks to the LRDG in an address to an audience gathered for the opening of the refurbished SAS base in Hereford, named Stirling Lines, in honour of the regiment’s founder. “In those early days we came to owe the Long Range Desert Group a deep debt of gratitude,” said Stirling. “The LRDG were the supreme professionals of the desert and they were unstinting in their help.”
Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group and The SBS in World War II. He writes regularly for History of War and you can subscribe for as little as £26 to catch his next article.