Episodes & Studies Volume 1
The battles of the North African campaigns of 1940–43 were fought along the shores of the Mediterranean. Large forces were prevented, by their dependence on supplies received by sea and along coastal roads and railways, from moving any great distance inland. The only troops to penetrate beyond the outer fringes of the Libyan Desert were small motor patrols and the garrisons of remote outposts. It was the function of the Long Range Patrols, which later became known as the Long Range Desert Group, to operate in the vast inner desert, one of the driest and most barren regions in the world. These patrols, small, well-armed parties travelling in unarmoured vehicles, were completely self-contained for independent action deep in enemy territory.
To appreciate the difficulties and the achievements of these patrols, it is necessary to understand the country in which they operated. The Libyan Desert, which covers western Egypt, north-western Sudan, and practically the whole of Libya, stretches a thousand miles southwards from the Mediterranean Sea and more than a thousand miles westwards from the Nile Valley to the hills of Tunisia. Plains and depressions, dotted in places by the remains of crumbling hills, extend from horizon to horizon. In the south-east the flat surface is broken by the abrupt escarpment of the Gilf Kebir plateau and the isolated mountains of Uweinat, Kissu, and Archenu; in the south-west the rocky ranges of Tibesti, reaching 10,000 feet, separate it from the French Sahara and Equatorial Africa. Huge areas are covered by seas of sand dunes.
Along the Mediterranean coast, where winter rains fall occasionally, there are small scattered strips of fertile land, widest in the hilly regions of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania; elsewhere, the scanty tufts of vegetation extend only twenty or thirty miles inland. In the inner desert no rains occur for ten or twenty years at a time. The arid wastes are relieved only where oases, hundreds of miles apart, are fed by artesian water. The inhabitants of Libya, who average one to the square mile, are gathered along the coast and at these oases.
In 1915, as in 1940, Egypt was threatened by invasion from the west. Senussi tribesmen, equipped and led by Germans and Turks, were twice defeated near Mersa Matruh (on Christmas Day 1915 and on 23 January 1916) by a British force which included the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. The Light Car Patrols guarding the frontier and the inland oases during this campaign were the pioneers of the Long Range Desert Group, who, quarter of a century later, discovered the wheel tracks of their cars and rusted food tins left at their old camps.
Although official interest in the inner desert lapsed in 1918, exploration was continued in peacetime by a few enthusiasts, of whom Major R. A. Bagnold1 was the acknowledged leader. In the nineteen-thirties these private expeditions, encouraged by the Royal Geographical Society, traversed most of the desert between the Mediterranean and the northern Sudan.
When Italy declared war on 10 June 1940, the British in Egypt faced possible attack, not only from Libya but also from armies in Eritrea and Abyssinia. Communications between Egypt and the Sudan lay through the Red Sea, which might be made unusable by the Italian Navy, and along the Nile Valley, which was open to attack from the west. The Italian garrison based at the oasis of Kufra, 650 miles from the Nile, was known to possess aircraft and motorised units capable of desert operations. It was possible that this force might attack Wadi Halfa in an attempt to sever the Egypt-Sudan lifeline and that the Italians might push down into the Chad Province of French Equatorial Africa, through which ran the chain of airfields of the West Africa-Middle East route. page 4 It was essential to know whether the Italians in southern Libya were planning an offensive.
At Bagnold’s suggestion, the Long Range Patrols were formed to collect information about the interior of Libya, harry the enemy’s communications with Kufra, and keep in touch with the French outposts on the south-western border of Libya. New Zealanders, who had soon adapted themselves to their new environment in Egypt, were selected for the three patrols. They were volunteers from the Divisional Cavalry, the 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion, and the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment, men who were used to an outdoor life and to handling vehicles.
Advantage was taken of the presence in the Middle East of several of the men who had explored the Libyan Desert. Major Bagnold was appointed commanding officer. Captain P. A. Clayton,2 who had spent eighteen years in the Egyptian Survey Department, came from Tanganyika to command T patrol, and Captain E. C. Mitford3 from a British tank regiment to command W patrol. A New Zealander (Second-Lieutenant D. G. Steele4) commanded the third (R) patrol, which was intended to carry supplies. Until they had gained more experience in the desert, the New Zealanders were not expected to lead fighting patrols. The adjutant and quartermaster (Lieutenant L. B. Ballantyne5) and the medical officer (Lieutenant F. B. Edmundson6) were both New Zealanders; the intelligence officer was Lieutenant W. B. K. Shaw,7 who was borrowed from the Colonial Service in Palestine.
Vehicles were needed which could carry weapons and ammunition, petrol for 1100 miles, and rations and water to last each man three weeks. Major Bagnold decided to use 30-cwt. trucks, which were obtained from the Egyptian Army and from a motor firm in Alexandria. To make them desert-worthy, doors, windscreens, and hoods were removed, springs were strengthened, and gun-mountings, wireless, water containers and condensers for radiators were added.
Each patrol consisted of two officers and about thirty men, who travelled in a 15-cwt. pilot car and ten 30-cwt. trucks and were armed with ten Lewis machine guns, four Boys anti-tank rifles, one 37-millimetre Bofors anti-tank gun, pistols, and rifles. The Bofors gun was stripped from its carriage and mounted with traversing gear so that it could fire aft or broadside from a 30-cwt. truck with a strengthened chassis. Later the patrols were reduced in strength to one officer and fifteen to eighteen men in five or six trucks. The Lewis guns were replaced by Brownings and Vickers Ks, and the Boys and Bofors by .5-inch Vickers and 20-millimetre Bredas.
Dependable wireless communication was essential; without it a patrol several hundred miles from its base could not despatch vital information or receive orders. Long-distance communication, sometimes more than 1000 miles, was achieved with low-powered No. 11 army sets. The absence of recognisable landmarks in the desert, much of which was entirely unmapped, made it necessary for the patrols to navigate as if at sea. Each party, equipped with the Bagnold sun compass and a theodolite, had to be able to keep a dead reckoning plot of its course and to fix its position by astronomical observation. The navigators were trained by Lieutenant Shaw and Lance-Corporal C. H. B. Croucher,8 who had a Mate’s ticket in the Merchant Marine.
To enable the patrols to operate beyond the range of assistance, the fitters carried with them the tools and spare parts necessary for all running repairs. Very seldom did a vehicle have to be abandoned because of irreparable mechanical defect; the loss of a truck was almost invariably the result of enemy action. The fitters often had to improvise parts for damaged vehicles. One New Zealander (Staff-Sergeant A. F. McLeod9), who served first as a fitter and then in charge of the workshops of A (New Zealand) Squadron, was awarded the BEM.