22 September 2020
Edward Hallett charts the founding of the LRDG and looks at its role in Operation Caravan.
Even today the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) has an air of romance about it – battle hardened men bursting out of the desert to raid enemy airfields in jeeps and trucks, shemaghs flapping in the wind as they destroyed Axis aeroplanes before slipping away again into the night. Tough men, fiercely independent and feared by the enemy.
As with so many romantic images there is a degree of truth in this portrait. Equally, however, much of the work of the LRDG was far more mundane, with long days lying motionless by desert roads watching and recording enemy troop movements to be passed back to headquarters in Alexandria. Although remembered today for their raids, the LRDG was primarily a reconnaissance unit rather than a conventional raiding force. However, as it is through their raiding activities that the LRDG cemented their place in history, these attacks are worthy of closer consideration, even though readers should remember that they were the exceptions to the group’s activities rather than the norm.
History of the LRDG
The Long Range Desert Group was the first British special force unit to be raised in the deserts of North Africa. It was the brainchild of the inter-war desert explorer Brigadier Ralph Bagnold. Although the British had created desert patrols in World War I with modified Model T Fords to fight against Senussi tribesmen, by the 1920s the doctrine had been lost to the Army which had failed to record in writing the practicalities of operating desert vehicles. During the 1920s and 30s a number of private expeditions in the Sinai, Palestine and the Transjordan had relearned the lessons of the Great War, especially with regard to survival in the desert, navigation and travelling across the terrain. The then Captain Bagnold was one of these pioneers and at the outbreak of World War II it was fortunate that he was posted to Egypt.
Bagnold put forward two papers to those in command proposing the creation of a long-range reconnaissance group that would drive deep into the desert for weeks at a time, equipped with radios to observe Axis troop movements and then transmit the information back almost instantaneously to give the Allies real-time intelligence. On 23 June 1940 Brigadier Bagnold was given permission to form this group by Wavell with a virtually free hand to get the new unit operational by the end of the summer.
The LRDG was constituted around small patrols of two officers, 28 other ranks and four replacements equipped with one patrol car and ten modified 30cwt Chevrolet trucks. Each patrol was heavily armed and carried enough ammunition, water and rations for three weeks, with sufficient fuel for up to 1,500 miles of travel. Fuel and supply dumps were soon established in the desert to allow the patrols’ endurance to be extended. The patrols were not primarily fighting units; their main role was long-range reconnaissance behind enemy lines in areas such as Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. They watched troop movements and enemy responses to British operations, seized documents and prisoners and gathered topographical intelligence. They also had an important role as pathfinders, guiding conventional troops across the desert to targets.
The men recruited to the LRDG came from a wide range of backgrounds and Bagnold had the freedom to recruit men who were already proficient in the skills the LRDG needed, such as mechanics, wireless operators and navigators. Bagnold deliberately targeted troops from the Dominions, believing that the outside life of many of those from Australia and New Zealand would give them a natural toughness and resilience. Australia flatly refused to release any men, but New Zealand was happy to provide men and a large proportion of the LRDG were therefore Kiwis.
These men had the required combination of practical skills, such as how to drive and maintain their vehicles, physical robustness, an independent spirit and a willingness to learn new skills that would be necessary in the desert. They were supposed to be attached to the LRDG for just six months, but many stayed for several years.
Alongside this contingent were British officers and men, with a steady trickle of replacements from other units. Attrition was low in the LRDG and the stigma of being returned to unit ensured high standards and a resultant high level of morale. One member of the group recorded, ‘In the LRDG we had one immense advantage – all our men were volunteers drawn, at times, from as many as 50 units of the Army. There was never any lack of them and always a long waiting list; in the early days it was said a vacancy was worth a fiver. It was common enough for men to go down in rank when they joined. Captains became lieutenants, sergeants as privates, driver-mechanics gave up their trade pay. The best stayed for years, the worst left very quickly.’
The LRDG valued individuality and initiative highly, and unsurprisingly this was reflected in their appearance; they were rarely in uniform and hardly ever followed regulations. Beards were common, both to reduce the risk of sunburn to the face and due to the lack of water on patrols for shaving. Due to the polyglot nature of the unit most men brought the uniform of their parent unit with them when they joined and it quickly deteriorated in the harsh desert conditions. One officer explained, “A stranger meeting an LRDG patrol returning from a month’s trip in Libya would have been hard put to decide to what race or army, let alone to what unit they belonged. In winter the use of battle dress made for some uniformity, but in summer, with a month old beard thick with sand, with a month’s dirt ... skin burnt to the colour of coffee, and clad in nothing but a pair of torn shorts and chapplies a man looked like a creature from another world.”
Operation Caravan – The raid on Barce
Whilst most of the LRDG spent the majority of their time on long-range reconnaissance, raids did take place from time to time and the ability of the unit to travel across great distances of desert, inflict damage out of all proportion to its size and then slip away again was much appreciated by commanders back in Egypt. Perhaps the most famous raid undertaken by the unit was that on the Italian airfield at Barce in September 1942.
Barce was an Italian-held town and airfield in Gebel Akhdar in northern Cyrenaica and the raid was planned as a diversion from much larger raids being carried out by the SAS at Tobruk and the commandos at Benghazi at the same time. The LRDG provided two patrols: the New Zealanders of T1 patrol and the British guardsmen of G1 patrol. Both patrols set off on 1 September 1942 from Faiyum in Egypt, with a total of 47 men in twelve lorries and five jeeps, under the command of Major Jake Easonsmith.
The column made steady progress and by 13 September it had crossed 1,150 miles of desert and was within 15 miles of the Barce Township. The attack began at 11.30pm with the lorries approaching the town with headlights on to mimic an Italian convoy. The two patrols continued together until midnight when they split into two units; T1 patrol was to attack the airfield whilst G1 Patrol was to go to the barracks at nearby Campo Maddalena to neutralise it as a threat, disrupt communications and do what damage it could to the railway station.
T1 patrol soon reached the airfield and the small force of four 30cwt Chevrolet trucks and a single Willys jeep forced the gate and drove onto the base. The patrol quickly set light to a petrol tanker and trailer and a fuel dump and threw hand grenades into some of the airfield buildings. Then, driving in column, the patrol drove around the airfield firing a mixture of ball and tracer ammunition from their machine guns at the aircraft dispersed around the airfield. Any machines not destroyed in this initial attack had incendiary time bombs planted on them. The attack lasted just an hour and as T1 patrol withdrew they could feel satisfied that they had destroyed or damaged 35 enemy aircraft without any casualties.
The second of the two patrols, G1 was also having a good night, despite the noise from the airfield alerting the barracks. Some of the garrison had taken up position on a low veranda outside the barracks but a shower of grenades, followed up with bursts of heavy machine gun fire, made short work of them. After the initial success, a shortage of grenades encouraged the patrol to withdraw; however, a pair of Italian L3 light tanks blocked the only exit from the camp, forcing the patrol to exit via a gap in the outside wall, and a jeep was lost in the process. A truck was soon badly damaged and separated as well and one of its four-man crew was captured. The patrol then began the difficult process of extraction and made for the rendezvous at Sidi Selim.
T1 patrol was also encountering stiffening Italian opposition, with four more L3 tanks engaging the men of the LRDG in the streets of Barce. With the way blocked, Captain Wilder drove his 30cwt Chevrolet at full speed into one of the tanks, forcing it off the road but wrecking the truck in the process. This cleared the way for the rest of the patrol, and the crew of Wilder’s truck escaped in a jeep. Sadly this soon overturned, pinning the men under the wreckage, either unconscious or wounded. A following truck rescued the men and the patrol made for the rendezvous with G1 patrol. Not all escaped unscathed: during the withdrawal one of the lorries was cut off by an Italian armoured car, crashed into a concrete shelter and all its crew was captured.
The patrols now faced a pursuit by Italian forces who sent up aircraft to follow the escaping raiders and at 10.30am six CR.42 fighter bombers found the patrol. For the rest of the day repeated attacks picked off vehicles and men and by the end just 33 men in two jeeps and one Chevrolet remained. That evening it was agreed that the patrol stood the best chance by splitting into separate groups and making for British lines. Some went in vehicles and some, like Roy Duncalfe, went on foot as he recalls: “The day following the Barce raid we were shot up by enemy aircraft; having no vehicle, it was a case of these boots were made for walking. Darkness came, with Paddy McNabola and me together and the prospect of a long walk to where a getaway vehicle had been left at Bir Gerrari. Having no compass, we decided to walk mainly by night when it would be cooler and we would also have the aid of the stars to guide us. Our only water was a partly filled bottle and on the third day this had almost gone, so we decided to turn back towards the foothills of Cyrenaica. We were fortunate in reaching a Bedouin encampment, but, because of the state we were in, we vowed not to attempt the walk again without an adequate water supply. The sheikh of the tribe informed us that a British officer had been there in the previous day and had stated he would be back again in five days. The sheikh’s son took us to a cavern about three miles away in the desert, leaving us with a supply of water, flour and salt. The reason for our exile was increased activity by Axis forces in the area.”
Roy waited for six days and, with no sign of the British officer, he and Paddy resumed their trek across the desert. When they reached the rendezvous there was no sign of the truck, but they did find three welcome tins of runner beans! After wandering in the desert for several days and after various scrapes the men found themselves back with the Bedouin sheikh and remained there until the end of October when the British lines were approaching Alamein and they were able to hitch a lift back to British lines with a 25-pounder crew.
Roy’s story is perhaps extreme, but illustrates the perils faced by many escaping the Barce raid and the resilience of human spirit found amongst the LRDG patrolmen. Under circumstances that would have broken lesser men, the patrolmen slowly returned out of the desert and back to the British lines, satisfied with a job well done. In the grand scheme of the desert war the raid on Barce was a pin-prick, but it helped tie down Axis troops guarding airfields and bases far behind the front lines in case of a repeat raid by British raiders emerging from the desert, and offered a much-needed propaganda coup for the British.
Collecting the LRDG
As might be expected from a small elite group, opportunities for genuine collectables are limited. Some specialist insignia was adopted, the most famous of which was the scorpion cap badge used by the unit. The badge was designed by Gunner CO Grimsey; he had been stung three times by a scorpion; although he survived, the scorpion did not and he used this as inspiration for the badge. The badge depicts a scorpion inside a wheel and was produced in bronze, silver and gold (allegedly made from the rings of captured Germans!). Collectors should note that these badges have been widely copied for both the re-enactor market and to dupe the unwary, so it is wise to buy from a reputable dealer.
Other insignia includes embroidered shoulder titles with the letters 'LRDG' embroidered in red on a black background. These can also be found in pink and white lettering but this is due to the power of the Libyan sun bleaching the original thread rather than anything of greater significance.
Sadly Britain did not issue named campaign medals for WWII so it is hard to find a set attributable to an LRDG patrolman. Happily for the collector New Zealand was not so parsimonious and named its medals; due to the high number of New Zealanders who served as part of the unit collectors can find attributable medal sets to members of the LRDG through this source, but naturally these achieve higher prices than those of less desirable regiments.
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