Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Across the Sand Sea
Across the Sand Sea
The continuous and apparently impassable rolling dunes of the Egyptian Sand Sea, 800 miles in length and with an average width of 150 miles, lie along the western frontier of Egypt. From its northern end to the Mediterranean there is a 169-mile gap along which the Italians had erected a barbed-wire fence and fortifications. Protected by the Sand Sea, the great distances, the intense heat and the absence of water, the Italian garrisons of southern Libya felt secure against attack.
Captain Clayton led the first expedition into Libya to reconnoitre the Gialo-Kufra track by which the Italians took supplies from Benghazi to their garrisons at Kufra and Uweinat. Clayton set out in two light cars with five New Zealanders (Lance-Corporals Croucher and W. J. Hamilton10 and Privates R. A. Tinker,11 J. Emslie,12 and R. O. Spotswood13) and one of his former Arab employees. They crossed the Egyptian Sand Sea southwards from Siwa along a route that Clayton had taken some years before on a survey expedition. From Big Cairn, a point near the frontier, they struck out westwards into unexplored territory. A level gravel plain stretches for a hundred miles to the west of the Egyptian Sand Sea. Beyond this, the patrol entered a second sea of dunes, the Kalansho Sand Sea, which the Italians had not shown on their maps. Near the western edge ran the Gialo-Kufra track, marked every kilometre by tall iron posts. Although Clayton’s men spent three days watching for traffic, they saw nothing. A month later another patrol discovered that the Italian convoys, to avoid the cut-up surface, used a route farther to the west. Protected in the north by the horseshoe formation of the Egyptian and Kalansho Sand Seas, the route Clayton had discovered was used by LRDG patrols for operations behind the enemy lines.
Soon after Clayton’s reconnaissance, the Long Range Patrols began their first major task. By this time the Italian Army on the coast had advanced from the Egyptian frontier to Sidi Barrani. As the enemy might also be on the move in the inner desert, it was decided to examine all the routes leading to Kufra. The patrols left Cairo on 5 September. Bagnold led the first military force, a group of fourteen vehicles including Mitford’s W patrol, across the Egyptian Sand Sea from Ain Dalla to Big Cairn.
Sometimes 500 feet from trough to crest, the dune ranges ran for hundreds of miles to the north-north-west and the south-south-east. The best routes were through gaps in the dunes and on the firmer going in the valleys, along which the patrol could drive in safety and at speed.
W patrol unloaded extra petrol and water at the western edge of the Sand Sea and returned to Ain Dalla for further supplies. The patrol marked the route permanently with stones and petrol cans. Stones dropped on the sand are kept clear by the wind and will remain visible until they are worn away. While W patrol was ferrying supplies from Ain Dalla, R and T patrols brought petrol southwards from Siwa to Big Cairn. The three patrols then separated, W to reconnoitre to the north of Kufra and T to the south, while Steele took R patrol back to Siwa for another load.
W patrol then crossed the level gravel plain, on which it was possible to travel at fifty or sixty miles an hour, and struggled through the Kalansho Sand Sea to the Gialo-Kufra track. During a sandstorm they visited two enemy landing grounds and wrecked fuel tanks and pumps. From wheel marks on the Gialo-Kufra track, the amount of traffic was estimated, after which the patrol went farther west to investigate the Taiserbo-Marada track and then turned southwards towards Kufra.page 6
At a landing ground about half way between Taiserbo and Kufra, they met two six-ton lorries belonging to the civilian firm which ran a fortnightly supply convoy to Kufra. A burst of machine-gun fire resulted in the capture of two Italians and five Arabs, a goat, 2500 gallons of petrol, other stores, and the official mail from Kufra and Uweinat, which gave details of Italian dispositions in the inner desert. The two lorries were hidden in the Gilf Kebir, where they may still remain, and the eight prisoners were taken back to Cairo.
Meanwhile, T patrol crossed into south-west Libya to examine the southern approaches to Kufra, the Kufra-Uweinat track and the Kufra-Tekro caravan route. Captain Clayton led the patrol along the latter route across the frontier into Chad Province. The three Senegalese soldiers guarding the French outpost at Tekro at first mistook the approaching trucks for Italians, against whom they were prepared to defend the fort. Clayton explained in Arabic and French that they were friends.
The three patrols then met at a rendezvous near Uweinat, the 6000-foot mountain on the border of Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan. Among the huge granite boulders at the base of the mountain were springs of good water; two of these, Ain Dua and Ain Zwaya, were in Italian territory. At each of them the enemy had an outpost and a landing ground. With no natural barriers between it and the Nile, 400 miles distant, Uweinat could be a useful base for an enemy attack on Wadi Halfa. A reconnaissance of the surrounding desert revealed, however, that Italian patrols had not ventured into the Sudan.
Other expeditions followed. Towards the end of October, R and T patrols made simultaneous sorties in southern and northern Libya. Captain Steele then returned to Uweinat with R patrol. They were selecting places to lay mines on a track used by the Italians when they found an enemy bomb dump buried in the sand. Over 700 small bombs were dug up and destroyed. On the landing ground near Ain Zwaya, the patrol burned an unguarded enemy bomber and 160 drums of petrol. Part of the patrol was attacked for an hour by enemy aircraft, which dropped some light bombs without inflicting any casualties.
Five hundred miles to the north, Captain Clayton and T patrol attacked the tiny Italian fort at Augila. A Libyan soldier, thinking they were Italians, came to greet them and was taken prisoner. He said there were five men, two of them Italians, in the fort. The patrol opened fire with the Bofors gun, anti-tank rifles, and machine guns. While the astonished garrison ran to a nearby native village, Clayton removed two machine guns, three rifles, and a revolver from the fort.
Captain Mitford’s W patrol visited Uweinat again at the end of November. Near the mountain they were attacked for over an hour by three enemy aircraft which dropped more than 300 small bombs without doing the slightest damage. There seemed to be no sign of life at the Italian post at Ain Dua, but a round fired from a Bofors gun brought an immediate reply of rifle and machine-gun fire. page 7 The garrison, estimated to be thirty men with three machine guns, was entrenched in positions among 50-foot boulders, with the additional protection of trenches and stone walls. A frontal attack across open ground was out of the question. Covering fire was given while a troop of eight men under Lieutenant J. H. Sutherland,14 clambering among the boulders, worked their way around the enemy’s left flank. With bombs and close-range machine-gun and rifle fire, they drove the garrison up the mountainside into fresh positions.
The patrol withdrew to avoid being seen by enemy aircraft and then launched a second attack on Ain Dua. Sutherland’s troop returned to the left flank, another party made its way around to the right, and covering fire was continued from in front. Sutherland reached the edge of the fortifications and inflicted casualties with grenades fired from a rifle cup. He was then pinned down by machine-gun fire. Trooper L. A. Willcox15 crawled with his Lewis gun to within twenty yards of an enemy gun and, standing up, killed the crew of four. Sutherland moved in closer, but was again cut off by machine-gun fire. Willcox came to his rescue a second time by silencing an enemy gun.
The post was too strong to capture without risking heavy casualties. When the New Zealanders withdrew at dusk, six of the enemy had been killed and at least six wounded, without loss to the attackers. Sutherland received the first MC and Wilcox the first MM awarded to the 2nd NZEF.
These attacks on lonely Italian outposts had the desired effect: from then on enemy convoys moving from one oasis to another were escorted by guns and aircraft, the garrisons were reinforced in men and weapons, and a system of daily patrols over a wide area was inaugurated. The enemy was forced to divert troops, arms, and aircraft from the main battlefield in the north. The Long Range Patrols had also obtained conclusive evidence that the Italians had no offensive intentions in the south against the Nile Valley.
Before embarking on the next phase of its activities, the force that now became known as the Long Range Desert Group ceased to be composed only of New Zealanders. The New Zealand Division could spare no reinforcements for the LRDG and some of the men had to return to their parent units. In December 1940 G patrol was formed with men from the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards. This new patrol took over the vehicles and equipment of W patrol, which was absorbed into T and R patrols to bring them up to strength. Subsequently the LRDG had no difficulty in getting men from the 2nd NZEF.