By Alex Jones
REMARKABLE photos capture the UK’s first Special Forces unit who operated in North Africa in WW2– performing daring raids, gathering vital intelligence, and laying the foundations for the SAS to become the world’s most elite soldiers.
Located just off the B824, approximately halfway between Doune and Dunblane in Scotland, sits the David Stirling Memorial– a grand tribute to the founding father of the SAS and the soldiers who have served in the elite special forces service.
On the approach to the spectacular monument, there are two unprepossessing polished stones separated by a larger rock. On the first upright stone, the words ‘The Long Range Desert Group – They Showed The Way’ are engraved, whilst the second, which lays flat, has a list of 48 names immortalised on it.
But who were these luminaries for the UK’s top fighting force and why do they deserve a monument next to the UK’s most-renowned troops?
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), established in June 1940, was a highly successful and well-organised group of specialist soldiers who caused chaos for Britain’s enemies in North Africa between 1940 and 1943.
Striking photos show a deadly soldier manning a Vickers machine gun whilst hanging off the side of a heavily modified Ford truck, unkempt but intelligent-looking men seeking shade from the sizzling desert sun under the wing of an airplane, and a rugged Chevrolet truck making its way across the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the Libyan desert.
These incredible images are included in Karl-Gunnar Norén and Lars Gyllenhaal’s new book The Long Range Desert Group: History And Legacy – an enthralling and thorough account of the men who lived deep behind enemy lines with little or no support.
“The world’s most respected special forces unit, the Special Air Service (SAS), was inspired by another irregular unit, the LRDG or simply ‘Ghost Patrol’ as their enemies came to know them,” said the authors.
“In our opinion the LRDG was the Second World War’s most innovative unit and unusually successful.
“They were so successful that Rommel’s deputy Ritter von Thoma, when captured, made it clear that the British knew more about the logistics of the Germans than he himself did! Almost all of the Brit’s knowledge of enemy movements stemmed from LRDG patrols and recon missions.
“The unit personnel strength peaked at 350 men, but in spite of that, between 26 December 1940 and 10 April 1943, only 15 days passed without a patrol being behind or on the flanks of the enemy. Equally remarkable: during the entire desert war 18 men died in LRDG service (not all due to enemy action).
“Talking about ‘just 18’ is wrong, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that relatively seen this was a very low figure, testifying to how skilled the patrolmen were.”
In June 1940, an amateur scientist and pioneering explorer named Ralph Bagnold was authorised to create a British special forces unit which would operate in Italian-occupied Libya during the Second World War, gathering intelligence and carrying out raids behind enemy lines. Saboteurs and commandos were generally frowned upon by conservative military thinkers at the time but Bagnold was able to convince high command that this war would call for new, innovative and brave ideas.
“During the war, it was more common to call the LRDG and the fledgling SAS saboteurs, special services, private armies and raiders,” stated Norén and Gyllenhaal.
“Nevertheless, the desert war of 1940-43 was the starting point for today’s special forces units. Why did they suddenly appear? The main explanation is perhaps the embarrassing British defeats of 1940 in Norway, France and Greece. After these catastrophic events some asked themselves if there was no smart, unexpected and inexpensive way of weakening the enemy. How about something radically different to then orthodox British military thinking? Surely, there was nothing to lose in fielding small, bold units behind enemy lines?”
And bold they were. Bagnold immediately set about recruiting his men from the ranks of the recently arrived New Zealand division in Egypt. He decided Kiwis would ‘fit the bill best’ for his new unit as they were often farmers or had other professions that demanded independence and initiative. Many were experienced drivers and would really take good care of their vehicles. A high IQ and enterprising, problem-solving attitude was also a prerequisite.
Bagnold stipulated that each patrol under his command had to be self-sufficient with fuel, water, food rations, spare parts and ammunition. They would have their own radio and could navigate and operate completely on their own for at least two weeks. During that time they should be able to travel at least 1,500 miles, bearing in mind that in the desert, the terrain often makes it impossible to drive straight. Shifting sand dunes would often dictate the route and detours would have to be made to reach provision depots set out in advance. Men had to be capable of dealing with temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius in the day – even more if wind burn (the opposite of wind chill) was present – and life-threateningly freezing conditions in the night.
The stealth group continued to enjoy great success during its first 12 months, usually at little or no cost to themselves but causing tremendous panic amongst the Italian troops in the region.
In early 1941 Bagnold wrote a report, probably with some pride, that summed up the effect his unit had so far enjoyed:
“Throughout the whole length and breadth of Libya the Italians have for months past been kept on the alert; of how they have been made to expend petrol, aircraft and transport in protecting their desert garrisons; of how phantom British motor columns have appeared like the Will ́o the Wisp now here, now there, now at several places at once, sometimes close to the Egyptian frontier, sometimes a thousand miles away in the West; pirating transport on the roads, shelling and capturing isolated forts, blowing up dumps and burning aircraft on the ground. That well-armed parties of troops have made journeys of several thousand miles through enemy territory carrying with them their own supplies of petrol, food and even of water to last them for many weeks at a time; constitutes something quite new in military history”
In January of 1941 Guy Prendergast had arrived from England to join the unit as second-in-command. He had great experience of desert travel, with Bagnold in the early days, in Egypt and Palestine, in Iraq and Iran. In addition, he had his own plane which allowed the LRDG their own air force, much to chagrin of the RAF who felt all planes in the British military should be under their control. It’s a testament to the success of the unit that high-ranking officers allowed the group its own winged arm.
In February 1941, the demoralised Italian force in North Africa was bolstered by the arrival of General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Rommel – soon to be dubbed the ‘Desert Fox’ by his adversaries – had regained much of the territory lost by the Italians in the previous months. Disrupting the Germans became the LRDG’s main objective.
Later that year, in November 1941, a huge mission was planned with the aim of retaking eastern Libya and its airfields. A new paratrooping force were to take the lead, a small unit which 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.
The LRDG’s role in the operation was the observation and reporting of enemy troop movements and to collect 55 British paratroopers after they had attacked enemy airfields at Gazala and Tmimi.
Stirling and his men parachuted into Libya on the night of 17 November in an almost biblical thunderstorm. Many of the SAS raiders were injured on landing – dragged across the desert floor in the high winds – and others were caught by the Germans 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. Seeing Stirling’s disappointment, LRDG pilot Prendergast suggested that in future it might be more practical if the LRDG transported the SAS to their targets. Stirling was enthused by the idea.
On 8 December, an LRDG patrol transported two SAS raiding parties – one of which was 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. Although Stirling’s party didn’t meet with success, Mayne and his men wreaked havoc on Tamet, blowing up 24 aircraft and killing a number of aircrew as they relaxed in their billet.
“Paddy Mayne and his team had destroyed an amazing number of aircraft, possibly as many as 24,” The Long Range Desert Group authors elaborated.
“In addition, they had killed an unknown number of Axis airmen. Amazingly, everyone in Mayne’s team made it back alive and were able to return to Tamet airfield less than two weeks later, laying waste to 27 planes that had replaced the ones they had recently destroyed. Mayne was to blow up yet more aircraft, beating the score of most Allied ace pilots. In fact, at least once, after having runout of small bombs, he had used his considerable strength to disable an aircraft, he was able to rip out an instrument panel with his bare hands.
“More spectacular LRDG-based SAS ‘beat-ups’ followed. On 21 December a LRDG Patrol delivered a five-man SAS team led by Lieutenant Bill Fraser close to the Agedabia airfield. They were extremely lucky, as they twice tripped over tripwires that did not result in any alarm or explosion of any kind. Detours were necessary to avoid sentries and gun positions. They reached the first aircraft just after midnight 22 December and were able to unhindered lay charges in no less than 37 aircraft and one depot. While Fraser ́s team withdrew from Agedabia airfield they experienced the immense satisfaction of hearing at least 40 explosions and then they both heard and felt a massive roar that must have been a whole bomb depot going off. Again, not a single SAS trooper was killed, or even hurt.”
The SAS, which may well have been disbanded after its disastrous first mission, built up a strong reputation alongside their LRDG comrades. But although less direct, the LRDG drew praise for conscientiously and successfully undergoing its vital work.
“LRDG showed, in a short space of time, that by stealthily moving through remote and desolate areas and establishing observation posts far behind enemy lines, one could deliver a stream of valuable information about the enemy,” added Norén and Gyllenhaal.
“If necessary, the same unit could also perform direct action such as attacks against petrol dumps, airfields and outposts. Such actions could, however, counteract intelligence gathering, that often was more important. Thus patrolmen might not fire a single shot during several weeks of operations. When large formations were preparing for a major offensive, LRDG could instead take on the role of pathfinders. They were well suited for this due to their incredibly good terrain knowledge and navigation specialist.
“A more unexpected value of LRDG was that they were so talented and helpful teachers that they could assist other, fledgling, special forces units to get started and not least transport them to and from their area of operations. From a catastrophic start, with many killed and injured during practice accidents, the early SAS was fortunate enough to be intimately connected with the LRDG. Thanks to LRDG experience, “taxi services” and navigation expertise, the SAS was initially able to concentrate on blowing up particularly important targets, such as aircraft on the ground. The final score for the SAS during the desert war was about 350 destroyed enemy aircraft, which made it possible to compare the effectiveness of the SAS with an air force. Even though direct action was not the primary task of the LRDG, it on occasion (even before there was a SAS) demonstrated that it too could attack airfields with similar results. Much of what still is most associated with Stirling and the SAS had been developed by LRDG.”
Both the LRDG and SAS were disbanded in 1945 but it was only the SAS that was re-established in 1947. It was a short but glittering life for the LRDG who became “masters of the inner desert” and who are still revered by modern explorers and special forces members to this day.
The Long Range Desert Group: History And Legacy, published by Helion & Company earlier this year, is available here.