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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Formation of Long Range Patrols

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Formation of Long Range Patrols

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.

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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.

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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.

Black and white photograph of Egypt

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.