Ralph Bagnold was not your typical special forces commander. Slight of build, studious by nature and in his early forties in 1939, he was earning a living as a science writer when the Second World War began. Yet within a year he had raised Britain’s special forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group, and earned a reputation as an intrepid innovator of warfare.
Bagnold had explored large swathes of the North African desert in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he was stationed in Cairo with the British army. Travelling into the brutal terrain in Model T Fords, he and a small group of like-minded adventurers had been the first Europeans to penetrate into the heart of the Libyan Desert.
When he was recalled to the army on the outbreak of war, Bagnold was posted once more to Egypt and he quickly saw the possibility of forming a small reconnaissance force to enter Italian-occupied Libya and spy on the enemy.
Authorised by Middle East Command in June 1940 to raise such a unit – which Bagnold called the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) – he recruited his men from the ranks of the New Zealand division and stipulated that: “Every vehicle, with a crew of three and a machine gun, was to carry its own supplies of food and water for 3 weeks, and its own petrol for 2,500 miles of travel across average soft desert surface, and each patrol was to carry a wireless set, navigating and other equipment, medical stores, spare parts and further tools.”
The LRDG embarked on its first patrol in August 1940, reconnoitring Italian positions in the Libyan desert (roughly the same size in land mass as India) and so successful were the missions that followed that in November that year, Bagnold was promoted to acting Lt-Colonel, given permission to form two new patrols and instructed to launch a series of hit-and-run raids against Italian targets in Libya.
For his new recruits, Bagnold turned to the British army, forming two new patrols from the Guards (G Patrol) and from the Yeomanry Divisions (Y Patrol). For its inaugural operation, G Patrol was placed under the command of 44-year-old captain Pat Clayton, and given a target of Murzuk, a well-defended Italian fort in south-western Libya with an airfield close by. The fort was approximately 1,000 miles west of Cairo, a gruelling two-week journey for 76 raiders, who travelled in 23 vehicles.
On 11 January, the raiding party stopped for lunch just a few miles from Murzuk and finalised their plan for the attack; Clayton would lead the attack on the airfield while G Patrol targeted the fort.
Michael Crichton-Stuart, commander of G Patrol, 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 pill boxes scattered about, including an anti-aircraft pit”. By the time his patrol withdrew, they had destroyed 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 murderous mortar barrage, and after a brief firefight, 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.
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.
LDRG and the SAS
Bagnold, meanwhile, worn down by the heat and the stress of raising the LRDG, handed over command of the unit in August 1941 to Lt-Col Guy Prendergast. Prendergast’s first challenge was to organise five LRDG patrols for a new large-scale Allied offensive in November 1941, the aim of which was to retake eastern Libya and its airfields.
The LRDG’s role was the observation and reporting of enemy troop movements, alerting General Claude Auchinleck, commander of the 8th Army, 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 had attacked enemy airfields at Gazala and Tmimi, 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.
Stirling had convinced Middle East HQ 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 and 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 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, Prendergast suggested that in future it might be more practical if the LRDG transported the SAS to their targets
On 8 December, an LRDG patrol, comprising 19 Rhodesian soldiers and commanded by Captain Charles ‘Gus’ Holliman, left Jalo Oasis to take 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.
More successful cooperation 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 aircraft he’d accounted for a couple of weeks earlier.
Bernard Montgomery and the LDRG
Stirling and the SAS continued to rely on the LRDG as their ‘Libyan Taxi Service’ for the first six months of 1942, as they launched hit-and-run raids against German targets. But in June 1942 Rommel launched a major offensive that pushed the Allies out of Libya and into Egypt. One consequence of the German advance was the removal of General Auchinleck as 8th Army commander, replaced by Bernard Montgomery.
‘Monty’, as the new commander was known, instructed the LRDG and the SAS “to do everything possible to upset the enemy’s communications behind the Alamein line and to destroy aircraft on his forward landing grounds”, preparatory to an offensive of his own which would come to be known as the battle of El Alamein.
By July the SAS had acquired their own transport, allowing the LRDG – now comprising 25 officers and 278 other ranks – to focus on their crucial role as Montgomery’s eyes and ears. For weeks, the LRDG carried out reconnaissance patrols in the heart of the Libyan desert, penetrating enemy territory through the ‘Qattara Depression’, an astonishing natural feature 150 miles long, half as broad, and 450 feet below the Mediterranean at its deepest point. It was a pin-prick on the earth’s surface but a crueller, more desolate spot would be hard to imagine, particularly in July under the midday sun. The Axis forces believed the Depression was inaccessible to vehicles so it was left unguarded, enabling the LRDG to drive through and observe enemy troop dispositions. Noting everything they saw, from the weight of traffic on the road to what the trucks were carrying, their intelligence provided Montgomery with important information about the strength of the enemy. “Not only is the standard of accuracy and observation exceptionally high but the Patrols are familiar with the most recent illustration of enemy vehicles and weapons,” concluded the director of military intelligence in Cairo in December, adding: “Without their reports we should frequently have been in doubt as to the enemy’s intentions, when knowledge of them was all important.”
By December 1942 the battle of El Alamein had swung the desert war decisively the way of the Allies, and as the 8th Army pursued the Germans west across Libya towards Tunisia, so the LRDG was in the vanguard of the advance. Rommel was compelled to pull back all the way to the Mareth Line, approximately 170 miles west of Tripoli, so in January 1943, Montgomery ordered the LRDG to reconnoitre the country to the south of the Line where he intended to outflank the Germans with what he called his ‘left hook’. This the LRDG carried out with their customary diligence and determination, blazing a trail for the 8th Army that eased their advance into Tunisia, and contributed to the defeat of the Afrika Korps. In a letter to Colonel Guy Prendergast on 2 April, Montgomery thanked him for the work of his men in winning the war in North Africa.
“My dear Prendergast
… I would like you to know how much I appreciate the excellent work done by your patrols and by the SAS. Without your careful and reliable reports the launching of the ‘left hook’ by the NZ Division would have been a leap in the dark; with the information they produced, the operation could be planned with some certainty and as you know, went off without a hitch.
Please give my thanks to all concerned and best wishes from Eighth Army for the new tasks you are undertaking.
Gavin Mortimer is a best-selling writer, historian and television consultant and the author of The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, (Osprey Publishing 2017)