Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE THREE LONG-RANGE PATROLS formed in July 1940 to reconnoitre in southern Libya and raid remote Italian outposts had developed by the end of 1941 into two squadrons of the Long Range Desert Group, operating in support of the Eighth Army offensive in Cyrenaica. A Squadron, LRDG, and the Special Air Service, working together in bold and skilful raids in the rear of the Axis forces, destroyed scores of enemy aircraft on the ground. The LRDG patrols transported the parachutists to within easy walking distance of enemy airfields, and took them back to their base when their work was completed.
A Squadron, commanded by Major D. G. Steele1 and comprising T2, S1, and S2 patrols,* was joined by Captain A. D. Stirling’s2 SAS troops at Gialo in December 1941, shortly after a British flying column, advancing nearly 300 miles from Giarabub, had captured the oasis from the Italians. The first attack from this base was made by a handful of parachutists taken by S1 patrol to Tamet, in the Sirte area, where they crept on to the landing ground at night, wrecked twenty-four aircraft with time bombs, and blew up a bomb dump. The same men returned about a week later and destroyed another twenty-seven aircraft, while a party travelling with S2 patrol accounted for no fewer than thirty-seven aircraft on a landing ground near Agedabia.
The parachutists taken by the New Zealand patrol (T2, led by Captain C. S. Morris3) to the vicinity of El Agheila discovered that the airfield there was deserted. With a captured Italian lorry leading their five patrol trucks, they then motored nine miles eastwards along the main road at night, passing forty-seven enemy vehicles on the way, until they reached the turn-off at Marsa Brega, a small anchorage used by enemy shipping. There they encountered twenty enemy lorries parked alongside the road, with about sixty men standing around them. Attacking for a quarter of an hour at very close range, the raiders killed at least fifteen of the enemy and wounded many others, without casualty to themselves. While the fighting was in progress, the parachutists placed time bombs on all the enemy vehicles.
The patrol then continued another ten miles along the road, which was flanked by salt marshes. To prevent pursuit, Corporal G. C. Garven,4 who was in the last truck, laid mines in the potholes, which caused seven explosions and probably accounted for that number of vehicles. Before turning off to the south, the patrol cut the telephone wires and blew down many poles to disorganise traffic. Enemy aircraft searched all next day and twice passed overhead without seeing them. Their exploits on this raid earned Morris the MC and Garven the MM.
* The LRDG included four New Zealand patrols (R1, R2, T1, and T2), two Guards patrols (G1 and G2), two Yeomanry patrols (Y1 and Y2), and two Southern Rhodesian patrols (S1 and S2). Each patrol consisted of an officer and fifteen to eighteen men in five or six 30-cwt trucks. Later they were equipped with jeeps as well as trucks.
The attacks ceased as it grew dark. Unable to locate the scattered crews of the destroyed vehicles, Morris returned to Gialo with several men in the one remaining truck. Two Englishmen and eight New Zealanders* were left without transport. Their entire resources were three gallons of water in a tin, a packet of nine biscuits, an emergency ration of chocolate, and a prismatic compass, which Trooper D. M. Bassett6 had collected from his burning vehicle while it was still under heavy fire. They decided to walk to Augila, an oasis twenty miles from Gialo and 200 from where they were stranded; their only alternative was to go to the road and give themselves up.
The cold of mid-winter forced the ten men to march at night and to rest during the warmer hours of the day. Most of them were wearing sandals that soon went to pieces on the rough, stony ground, so they bound their feet with cloth from their jackets and greatcoats. A parachutist, who already had walked many miles in the raid on Nofilia and whose feet were almost raw, left the party at the Marada-El Agheila track on the third day of the trek, and was not seen again. Next day the others met four Arabs who gave them some dates and water and directed them to a spring. Seeing what they thought were two enemy vehicles approaching, they concealed themselves, but discovered afterwards that the vehicles were those of a British reconnaissance party.
They sat around a fire that night and set off in the morning with their water-can refilled. In their weakened condition, they found it necessary for teams of four men to carry the water in short relays. They lit another fire at the end of the fifth day, boiled some water and made a chocolate drink, which gave them fresh strength for they marched an estimated distance of forty miles the following night. They were very tired on the sixth day, but the cold weather kept them moving. Believing they were only twenty-five miles from Augila, they drank as much of the water as they could and abandoned the rest. In the final stages of exhaustion, they staggered through a dust storm on the seventh day and reached Augila on the eighth. Arabs reported their arrival to the LRDG at Gialo. Bassett, who navigated for the party, was awarded the DCM, and Gunner E. Sanders,7 who also had shown bravery on previous occasions, received the MM.
By the end of December 1941, the Axis forces had retreated from Cyrenaica to defensive positions among the salt marshes near El Agheila. The remainder of the LRDG moved forward from Siwa, which was now too far from the front line, to join A Squadron at Gialo. Rommel’s counter-offensive, begun on 21 January, and Eighth Army’s subsequent withdrawal, however, soon necessitated the return of the whole unit to Siwa, where it remained until the fall of Tobruk in June 1942.
* Corporal G. C. Garven, Gunners E. C. Stutterd, E. Sanders, and T. E. Walsh, and Troopers D. M. Bassett, A. C. Martin, F. S. Brown, and R. A. Ramsay.