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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Raids Behind the Enemy Lines

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Raids Behind the Enemy Lines

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.

T2 patrol next took the parachutists to raid the airfields at Nofilia and Marble Arch, west of El Agheila. A Messerschmitt fighter, following the wheel tracks from Nofilia, strafed the patrol from a height of only forty feet, despite intense anti-aircraft fire, and killed the paratroop officer. Relays of Stuka dive bombers joined in the attack and bombed and strafed the patrol for six and a half hours. When all the trucks except one were destroyed, the aircraft continued to attack the men on the ground and machine-gunned every bush that might give them cover. The survival of this one truck was due largely to the courage of Private C. A. Dornbush,5 who kept his machine

* 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.

page 4 gun in action throughout the attacks, although the truck was hit several times and he himself was wounded. He was awarded the MM.

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.

The Road Watch

While based at Siwa the LRDG patrols ferried paratroops, commandos, and secret agents to and from many places in enemy territory, rescued escapees from prisoner-of-war camps and the crews of crashed aircraft, many of whom had been fed and sheltered by friendly Arabs, and watched traffic on the Tripoli-Benghazi road, along which the enemy brought nearly all his tanks and troop reinforcements.

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The LRDG kept this road under observation day and night from 2 March until 21 July 1942. The site of the watch was five miles to the east of Marble Arch, at a point where the road crosses a flat plain a short distance to the north of a low plateau. The patrols found sufficient cover to make camp and camouflage their vehicles in shallow wadis running down from the plateau. Before dawn each day, two men went out on the plain to select a hiding-place 300 or 400 yards from the road, where they concealed themselves as best they could on ground that was bare except for small, scattered bushes. Equipped with field-glasses, books of vehicle silhouettes, and notebooks, they lay full-length all day, watching the traffic on the road and recording the details of lorries, tanks, armoured cars, guns, and troops as they passed. When it was dark they approached to within twenty or thirty yards of the road and judged the types of vehicles by their sound and outline. Before daylight, they returned to camp, probably without seeing the two men who relieved them at the appointed time.

If tanks or large numbers of enemy troops were seen going towards the front, the patrol sent a wireless message to LRDG headquarters at Siwa, so that by the time the enemy tanks or troops were approaching Agedabia, the information would have reached General Headquarters in Cairo. When a patrol had been relieved and was clear of enemy territory, it sent a full report of all the traffic it had seen; this information was invaluable to General Staff Intelligence in assessing the enemy’s strength in Cyrenaica.

There was always the risk of discovery, and occasionally the watchers had to move farther back from the road, but they continued the task without serious interruption and without the loss of one man. Members of Italian repair gangs working on the road wandered about without noticing them, and Arabs who did see them did not betray them to the enemy. R1 patrol had a miraculous escape on 21 March, when an enemy convoy of about 200 troops in twenty-seven vehicles pulled off the road and camped for the night behind the watchers (Private F. R. Brown8 and Trooper G. C. Parkes9 Although the nearest vehicle was only 150 yards away, the two New Zealanders, prostrate under their sheepskin coats, were not detected.

It took three patrols to do this work; while one was watching the road for a week or ten days, another was going out from Siwa to relieve it, and a third was returning to the base. The 600-mile route from Siwa to the site of the watch crossed the El Agheila-Marada track. The enemy must have become suspicious of LRDG movement in this area, for when R2 patrol was returning to Siwa in May, they saw men erecting a wire fence along the track. After that the patrols had to go to the south of Marada, which added a hundred miles of very soft going to the journey. Even on this route the enemy placed mines on tracks, which wrecked one truck, fortunately without injuring the crew.

The LRDG was also required by Eighth Army to interrupt enemy supply columns on the Tripoli-Benghazi road, a task that was incompatible with road-watching. Avoiding the sections of the road where raids would have resulted in the discovery of the watchers, T2 patrol (commanded by Lieutenant N. P. Wilder10 operated between Agedabia and Benghazi, and G1 patrol between Nofilia and Sirte. At first they tried to place time bombs on passing vehicles, but the speed of the traffic made this impossible, so they then reverted to the simpler method of shooting up transport. T2 had little success, owing to mechanical breakdowns, but G1, after being attacked by enemy troops, made a successful raid on a transport park.

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With T1 and T2 patrols under his command, Wilder later returned to the Agedabia-Benghazi road and divided his force to ambush different localities. At midnight on 7 June, T1 patrol, with lights shining, drove along the road and through an enemy check post at Magrun. Discovering that they were being followed by two vehicles, they turned out their lights, pulled off the road, and opened fire with all their weapons as soon as their pursuers drew level. They destroyed a troop-carrier and a truck loaded with troops and ammunition, and killed or wounded at least twenty of the enemy. At the sound of the shooting, some Italians farther along the road abandoned three lorries and a trailer heavily laden with timber and supplies. The New Zealanders also left these vehicles blazing fiercely. T2 patrol did not operate that night because of a damaged truck, but a few nights later, when both patrols met an enemy truck collecting troops who had been on picket duty in the Antelat area, they set fire to the truck, killed two of the enemy, and captured six Italians.

The fall of Tobruk on 21 June 1942 and Eighth Army’s retreat to Alamein made it necessary for the LRDG to leave Siwa. The evacuation was completed on 28 June, a few days before the Italians occupied the oasis. Major Morris took A Squadron to Cairo for supplies and then to Kufra, a base from which patrols continued to operate in northern Libya, while the rest of the unit withdrew to the coast between Alamein and Alexandria and then to Faiyum, about fifty miles to the south-west of Cairo.

The Alamein Line extended from the coast southwards to the cliffs of the Qattara Depression, a huge basin 150 miles in length, 450 feet below sea level at its deepest point, and passable to vehicles only where narrow ribbons of firm sand wind across its salt marshes. To penetrate behind the Axis positions at Alamein, the patrols based at Faiyum had to go through the Depression. Renewing their partnership with Major Stirling’s Special Air Service, they continued to attack the enemy from the rear.

Stirling evolved an alternative to blowing up aircraft with time bombs. Equipped with jeeps, each of which carried a driver and two gunners with twin-mounted Vickers guns, the raiding party, firing outwards from a hollow square formation, drove slowly round the target and shot up everything within range. Accompanied by a New Zealand patrol (Captain Wilder’s T1), the parachutists employed this technique one night on two landing grounds at Sidi Haneish, where they claimed twenty-five aircraft but probably destroyed many more. They were pursued after daylight by air and ground forces, and in the confused fighting that ensued, Gunner Sanders knocked out four enemy vehicles. The German attack was directed by a Fiesler Storch, which circled overhead and landed from time to time to confer with the ground troops. When it touched down near the patrol, two New Zealanders (Troopers K. E. Tippett11 and T. B. Dobson12 captured the pilot and passenger (a German doctor) and set fire to the plane.

Plans were drawn up to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines by wrecking the ports of Benghazi and Tobruk, through which he received the bulk of his stores. Simultaneous attacks by land and sea were to be made at Tobruk, where commandos led by Lieutenant-Colonel J. Haselden were to seize the coastal defence guns, and troops landed from destroyers were to demolish the harbour installations. Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling was to take a force to Benghazi to sink ships in the harbour, and the Sudan Defence Force was to capture Gialo, to provide a base from which Stirling could make further raids in Cyrenaica, and to secure the line of withdrawal to Kufra. LRDG patrols were to guide the forces to their objectives at Benghazi, Tobruk, and Gialo, and were to attack subsidiary targets; at the same time an independent LRDG force was to raid Barce.

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Y1 patrol conducted Haselden’s commandos from Kufra to Tobruk, where they arrived on 13 September. In a night attack, they captured the coastal defence guns, but lost them to a garrison that was much stronger than had been expected, and Haselden was among those killed. The seaborne attack was repulsed with the loss of two destroyers and four motor torpedo boats.

The enemy was waiting for Stirling’s parachutists at Benghazi. A strong ambush near the suburb of Berka prevented them from reaching the port, and aircraft attacked them all next day. With many of their vehicles destroyed, they made their way as best they could back to Kufra. S1 and S2 patrols, under Stirling’s command for the operation, were to attack the airfields at Benina, but in the dark were led by an Arab guide into an impassable wadi, which delayed them so long that they had to abandon the attempt.

The action at Gialo was not planned to coincide with those at Tobruk and Benghazi, with the result that the enemy had time to prepare. The Sudan Defence Force, accompanied by Y2 patrol, reached the oasis in the evening of 15 September, but failed to take its objectives and was ordered to return to Kufra after several days of constant bombing and shelling. In support of this operation, R2 patrol (under Lieutenant J. R. Talbot13 watched the northern approaches to Gialo. When the patrol was moving towards the oasis on 19 September, six enemy aircraft attacked with bombs, cannon and machine-gun fire. Fighting back whenever possible, the six trucks dispersed in search of cover and lost contact with one another. Unable to find the rest of his patrol, Talbot returned to Kufra with two trucks that had joined Y2 patrol. The R2 wireless truck had overturned while swerving to avoid a bomb, but was replaced on its wheels and towed until it could be put in running order next day. All six trucks eventually reached Kufra, but with seven casualties.*

* Sergeant L. A. Willcox, Lance-Corporal A. D. Sadgrove, and Troopers L. A. Ellis, E. J. Dobson, and M. W. Stewart were wounded in air attacks, Willcox and Private J. E. Gill were injured when a truck crashed over a sand dune on the way back to Kufra, and an English signalman was injured when the wireless truck capsized.