Episodes & Studies Volume 1
In Support of the Eighth Army
In Support of the Eighth Army
To take part in the British offensive in Cyrenaica in November 1941, the LRDG was placed under the command of the newly-formed Eighth Army and the whole group was moved from Kufra to Siwa. The patrols were to watch the desert tracks to the south of Gebel Akhdar and to report on the movements of enemy reinforcements and withdrawals. In addition, T 2 patrol was to take four British officers and two Arabs to a rendezvous in the Gebel and was to collect them three weeks later. R 1 patrol was to pick up Captain A. D. Stirling30 and a party of British paratroops after they had raided enemy airfields to the west of Tobruk.
It had been planned that Stirling’s paratroops should destroy aircraft on the landing grounds near Gazala and Tmimi. Everything went wrong. Because of bad weather, the RAF dropped the parachutists wide of the target, and some of them were lost or drowned in a wadi running bank-high with water after sudden, torrential rain. R 1 patrol collected Stirling and twenty men at the prearranged rendezvous and took them back to the British lines. The next time the parachutists raided enemy airfields they were carried there and back by the LRDG.
T 2 patrol, commanded by Captain A. D. N. Hunter,31 took the four officers and two Arabs to Wadi Heleighima, in the southern hills of Gebel Akhdar, to the west of Mechili. One of the officers (Captain J. Haselden) made his way northwards to the coast, where he signalled to a British submarine which landed a party of commandos under Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. T. Keyes.32 page 31 Haselden led this party to Beda Littoria, an Italian colonial village where Rommel was known to have his headquarters. The commandos planned to kill the German General on the eve of the Eighth Army’s advance. Keyes and two men, Campbell and Terry, entered the house at midnight, but unfortunately Rommel was not at home. In the fight that ensued, Keyes and four Germans were killed and Campbell was wounded and captured; only Terry escaped. Keyes won a posthumous award of the VC.
After taking the four British officers and two Arabs to Wadi Heleighima, T 2 patrol was divided into three parties to watch the roads leading to Mechili. Lance-Corporal R. T. Porter33 was captured by an Italian reconnaissance patrol while on picket duty with the party watching the Mechili-Derna road. Captain Hunter, taking two trucks to the area where Porter disappeared, was attacked at close range in a wadi by about twenty Italians in two vehicles, armed with a Breda gun. One truck returned to warn the rest of the patrol, but Hunter, Corporal Kendall, and Trooper L. A. McIver34 were presumed to have been captured or killed. The patrol reported by wireless to headquarters and was ordered to withdraw to Siwa. Second-Lieutenant Croucher, with three trucks, was sent to Wadi Heleighima to complete the task. At the rendezvous he found the four British officers and two Arabs, and also Hunter, who had evaded capture. The three New Zealanders, Porter, Kendall, and McIver, were prisoners.
On 24 November, when the battle in the Tobruk-Bardia area had reached a critical stage, the role of the LRDG was suddenly changed. Eighth Army issued orders for the patrols to ‘act with utmost vigour offensively against any enemy targets or communications within your reach’. For this purpose, Y 1 and Y 2 patrols were allotted roads in the Mechili-Derna-Gazala area, S 2 and R 2 the Benghazi-Barce-Maraua road, and G 1 and G 2 the main road near Agedabia. The combined Rhodesian and New Zealand patrols (S 2 and R 2) ambushed nine vehicles and killed and wounded a number of the enemy, Y 2 captured a small fort and about twenty Italians, and Y 1 damaged fifteen vehicles in a transport park. Mechanical breakdowns prevented G 1 and G 2 from joining forces, so G 1 made two independent attacks on road traffic and shot up a few vehicles.
S 2 (under Second-Lieutenant J. R. Olivey35) and R 2 (under Second-Lieutenant L. H. Browne) drove on to the road in the evening of 29 November, cut the telephone wires, and turned eastwards towards Maraua. They laid the first ambush at a point where the road dropped through a 20-foot cutting. A vehicle approached from the east and, as it drew level, was engaged by machine-gun fire. Olivey noticed that it was marked with a red cross. Before he could stop his men from firing, however, enemy troops armed with rifles and sub-machine guns clambered over the tailboard. After about a minute of sustained shooting on both sides, several of the enemy were killed and wounded and the remainder dispersed. The patrols moved towards a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction and engaged it with machine-gun fire. The lorry stopped and a liquid, presumed to be wine, gushed from its load.
Continuing along the road, the New Zealanders and Rhodesians attacked four lorries and trailers. They put each vehicle out of action, probably killed the crew, and riddled the load with machine-gun bullets. Taking up positions at a 30-foot cutting, where they over-looked the road in both directions, they attacked two more lorries and trailers and an oil tanker. They wrecked the vehicles and killed all of the enemy except one badly wounded man. The patrols then cut the telephone wires and retired to the south, having completed the operation without casualty. Second-Lieutenant Olivey was awarded the MC, and a New Zealander (Lance-Corporal C. Waetford36) and a Rhodesian the MM.page 32
Rommel disengaged his forces from the battle in Cyrenaica in mid-December and began to withdraw towards Agedabia. In an attempt to prevent the enemy’s escape from Benghazi, Eighth Army despatched columns, including the 22nd Guards Brigade, across the desert to the south of Gebel Akhdar to the Benghazi-Agedabia road. During this move T 1 patrol navigated and R 1 and R 2 patrols provided flanking scouts for the Guards Brigade. Major Ballantyne’s T 1 patrol waited two weeks at the rendezvous near Bir Hacheim for the Guards to disengage from the battle west of Tobruk. During this wait the patrol survived repeated bombing and strafing attacks by German dive bombers and fighters. The only casualty was Second-Lieutenant P. R. Freyberg,37 who was slightly wounded.
The advance began on 20 December. R 1 and R 2 patrolled the country to the north, while T 1 guided the main column of the Guards Brigade westwards towards Antelat. Corporal Tinker, with two trucks, was responsible for the navigation of the Scots Guards through Msus towards Sceleidima, thirty miles to the north of Antelat. A member of Tinker’s party, Corporal Moore, was wounded in an air attack. The operation ended in failure. An enemy covering force including thirty tanks held up the outflanking columns in the Sceleidima-Antelat area on 22 December and this enabled the Axis troops to complete their withdrawal from Benghazi.
Rommel’s forces retired from Cyrenaica to strong defensive positions among the salt marshes between Agedabia and El Agheila. From a base at Gialo, an oasis about 140 miles to the south-south-east of Agedabia, the LRDG continued to harass the enemy’s communications farther to the west.