Episodes & Studies Volume 1
In co-operation with the Free French of Chad Province, the LRDG made a series of raids on the Italian garrisons of the Fezzan, in south-west Libya, a region of sandy and stony deserts, long wadis, and fertile oases. The chief objective was Murzuk, the capital of the Fezzan, a thousand miles from the LRDG base in Cairo and 350 from the nearest French post in the Tibesti Mountains.
Commanded by Major Clayton, a force comprising G and T patrols, seventy-six men in twenty-six vehicles, left Cairo on 26 December 1940 and crossed the Egyptian and Kalansho Sand Seas into unknown country to the north-west of Kufra. To reach the Fezzan without being seen, they avoided the routes that led to wells and oases. Leaving the patrols at a rendezvous about 150 miles to the north, Clayton took four trucks to Kayugi, in the foothills of the Tibesti Mountains, page 8 to collect Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. d’Ornano, commander of the French forces in Chad, together with two French officers, two French sergeants, five native soldiers, and some petrol that they had brought by camel over the mountains. While Clayton was away, Lieutenant Shaw took three trucks to explore a pass through the Eghei Mountains on the route to Kufra. The combined party then continued its journey into the Fezzan by a detour to the north-east of Murzuk. The only men they had seen since leaving Cairo were three wandering natives with their camels.
On the morning of 11 January the force reached the road running southwards from Sebha to Murzuk, which they mined and picketed. Major Clayton led the column of vehicles along the road towards the fort at Murzuk. A group of natives at a well, mistaking them for Italians, gave the Fascist salute. The Italian postman, overtaken while cycling towards the fort, was forced into the leading truck as a guide.
The garrison, some of whom were strolling outside the gates of the fort, were taken completely by surprise. Lieutenant Ballantyne led a troop of T patrol to the airfield and the remainder of the force deployed to engage the fort with the Guards’ Bofors gun, two two-inch mortars, machine guns, and rifles. Recovering from their surprise, the Italians offered stubborn resistance. One New Zealander, Sergeant C. D. Hewson,16 was killed when he stood up to repair his jammed machine gun. At a critical time, when the enemy fire was causing casualties, the T patrol navigator (Corporal L. H. Browne17) kept his machine gun in action and, although wounded in the foot, remained at his post. Trooper I. H. McInnes18 manoeuvred his mortar into a position where it could be used effectively: one bomb set the tower of the fort on fire and destroyed the flagstaff.
At the airfield, Ballantyne’s troop of six trucks with the Bofors gun from T patrol opened fire on men running to machine-gun posts. Major Clayton, who was accompanied by Colonel d’Ornano, drove off to encircle the hangar. Turning a corner, the truck ran into a machine-gun post firing at close range. Before Clayton could reverse, d’Ornano was killed by a bullet through the throat, and an Italian who had been forced to replace the postman as a guide was also killed. Ballantyne’s troop continued to fire on the hangar until its defenders surrendered. About twenty-five men, most of them in air force uniform, were taken prisoner. The troop removed many rifles and thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition and then set fire to the hangar, which contained three Italian aircraft, a two-way wireless set, some bombs and parachutes. Thick black smoke rose and the noise of exploding bombs was heard for a long time.
After two hours’ fighting, the fort, although damaged, had not been captured. The purpose of the raid had been achieved, however, in the destruction of the airfield. It was estimated that ten of the enemy had been killed and fifteen wounded, while the attackers had suffered two men killed and three wounded. Of the twenty-odd prisoners taken, all except two, the postman and a member of the air force, were released for lack of transport space and rations. Hewson and d’Ornano were buried by the roadside near the town. One of the French officers, shot in the leg, cauterised the wound with his cigarette and carried on as if nothing had happened. A guardsman with a serious leg wound had to be taken by truck about 700 miles across country to the French outpost at Zouar before he could be flown to Cairo.
The enemy made no attempt at pursuit. As the patrols drove away from the town, they were concealed in a dust storm which blew down from the north. Early next morning they captured two Italian policemen on camels; they were from the small town of Traghen, about thirty miles to the east of Murzuk. The patrols surrounded the town and sent the two Italians in to call on the police fort to surrender. About a quarter of an hour later an extraordinary procession emerged.page 9
COUNTRY OF SANDpage 11
COUNTRY OF ROCKpage 12
LIFE ON PATROL
A DESERT MEAL The patrols were probably the best-fed troops in the Middle East. So that the men could stand severe conditions for long periods, without fresh meat, vegetables, and bread, and with very little water, they were given tinned foods of a high calorific value and as much variety as possible
Plotting a position: In dead reckoning a line from the point of departure to the objective is ruled on the map. The patrol follows the general direction of this line but deviates from time to time as required by the terrain and other considerations. The navigator records the times, sun-compass bearings, and the distance travelled on each bearing by speedometer reading, and plots this data on the map at each halt. The final point on the map arrived at by this method is the ‘dead reckoning position’
BOGGED DOWN Even the most experienced driver could not always distinguish the patches of soft sand and trucks were often bogged
DIGGING OUT Perforated steel channels and canvas sand-mats were placed under the wheels and, with every man pushing, the truck was extricated two or three yards at a time
RAIDING WITH THE FREE FRENCH
The truck Te Paki destroyed in the ambush at Gebel Sherif.
New Zealanders of the LRDG gave their trucks Maori names
Other trucks destroyed by a patrol of the Auto-Saharan Company were Tirau, in front, in which Cpl F. R. Beech was killed, and Te Aroha behind, from which Tpr R. J. Moore began his walk of 210 miles
From Traghen the patrols went a short distance eastwards to Umm el Araneb, where there was another police fort. Warned by wireless from Murzuk, the garrison was prepared for the attack and met the patrols with machine-gun fire. With bullets flying past and spattering the ground all around them, the patrols withdrew to a rise about a mile/from the fort. Although several trucks had difficulty in getting through some soft sand, nobody was hit. Unarmoured cars with no weapon larger than a Bofors gun were inadequate for an assault on a stone fort. A few shells were fired into the fort and the patrols then turned southwards for Gatrun and Tejerri.
While the LRDG raided Murzuk, it was intended that the French Groupe Nomade (camel corps) should attack Tejerri, 120 miles to the south. Because of the treachery of native guides, this attack was a failure. The LRDG were no more successful at Gatrun, about thirty miles from Tejerri. They cautiously approached the oasis until within sight of a fort, then made a dash, only to discover that it was an empty ruin. They motored up a rise on to a landing ground, on the other side of which they saw some oblong enclosures. Four Arabs came out to tell them that an aircraft had reported the attack on Murzuk; they also said that there were thirty soldiers in Gatrun. Major Clayton told the Arabs to ask the garrison to surrender, but when the inhabitants began to leave the village it was realised that the enemy intended to resist. Moving as close as they could without exposing themselves, the patrols opened fire with the Bofors, machine guns, and rifles. The enemy replied with machine-gun fire. After some damage had been done and at least one of the machine guns silenced, the attack was broken off at nightfall. A bomber circled over the patrols until it was dark, but none of its bombs fell near the scattered trucks.
Clayton ended his operations in the Fezzan on 14 January and went south to Tummo, on the French border. The patrols cut across the north-eastern corner of Niger Province to the Free French outpost of Zouar. Although Chad was the first part of the French Empire to declare for de Gaulle, the French in the adjoining Niger Province were supporters of Vichy. The patrols crossed some unexplored desert and entered the western foothills of Tibesti, a region of castle-like rocks, red-brown gravel, acacia trees, and thin grass. They saw scores of gazelle, some of which they shot and ate. A smooth-surfaced road led them through a steep mountain defile to Zouar, where a native guard presented arms as they arrived.