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Clive Gower-Collins Articles
Long Range Desert Group North Africa

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Raids, Road Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
Raids, Road Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
by Clive Gower-Collins


Since it is good not to neglect any one of the factors which contribute to the common benefit of the army, it is necessary to have experienced and intelligent guides . . . men who, in addition to knowing roads are able to conduct the army through mountain passes, who can plan ahead, and who know the proper distances for the campsites, locations which are suitable and which have plenty of water, so the camp will not find itself in dire straits. They should know the topography of the enemy's country in detail, so they can lead the army into it to plunder and take captives. Byzantine General, Nikephorus Ouranos, AD 994 [1]

At the beginning of the desert war, British commanders were not only lacking information regarding their enemy, they were also desperately short of vital topographical knowledge. Despite the activities of pre-war explorers, all but a fraction of the Libyan Desert was unknown territory to Europeans, with serious implications for the commanders' understanding of what was possible in moving troops and support materiel in this difficult country. Collection of the necessary information was complicated by a widespread lack of ability to navigate and move over the desert terrain. The formation of the LRDG concentrated the handful of experienced desert travellers in a single unit that enabled the Army command to draw readily upon their combined expertise. The LRDG's ongoing operations added repeatedly to the commands' understanding of the terrain, and thereby the ability to recognise and seize opportunities, thus adding significantly to the successful outcome of the North African campaign.

LRDG Intelligence and Topographical Officer, Bill Kennedy Shaw, asserted "Nothing in the way of intelligence interests the modern commander more than 'going'. In the LRDG no question was asked us more often than 'what's the going like there?' "[2] This statement reflects the fact that in any theatre of operation the physical geography is of critical importance. Variations in the terrain are a major factor influencing the nature and conduct of war. For this reason, clever use of the ground is a distinguishing characteristic of good generalship. The predominantly mobile nature of land warfare in the Second World War, with its high volumes of increasingly heavy wheeled and tracked equipment, made greater demands on the topographical knowledge of commanders and their staff than any previous conflict. Achieving success necessitated a keen understanding of the land over a wide area. The size of theatres, depth and frontage of battle lines, and potential to be fighting hundreds of kilometers away within days also placed a premium on the capacity to collect and assimilate further information in a timely manner.[3]

Map reading is normally the principal source of such information, but as Shaw explained, "map-reading presupposes maps, and in Libya there was the rub."[4] Bagnold recalled that in 1939

In the General Staff offices in Cairo I could find only one small-scale map that extended westward beyond the frontier of Egypt. It was dated 1915, and contained little more up-to-date information than Rohlfs[5] brought back in 1874.[6]

It was true that the Italian Instituto Geografico Militare had produced some maps of significant oases and routes, but the errors these contained were of legendary proportions and LRDG personnel seriously questioned whether the Italian surveyors had in fact braved the desert conditions in preparing them. Shaw wrote of these maps

The mountains were all high, as became the dignity of Fascist Italy. Making our way anxiously towards an obviously impassable range of hills, we would find that we had driven over it without feeling the bump . . . It is just possible that the absurd inaccuracies were a deep plot to mislead our attacking forces, but it seems hardly likely that the Italians had thought of that as long ago as 1931.[7]

The possession of largely misleading information, or more frequently none at all, was extremely serious. This is clearer once the character and extent of the desert are appreciated. Approximately 1900 by 1600 kilometers, the Libyan Desert forms the most arid part of the Sahara. Its northern half is mostly limestone and consists largely of flat gravel plains, broken only by a couple of plateaux and bereft of vegetation except on its coastal fringe. Below latitude 26°, the terrain is mainly sandstone with patches of broken hilly country separating the huge 'Sand Seas'. Wind acts to form these areas into a vast series of parallel sand dunes, whose ridges can run unbroken for many kilometers and have as much as 150 meters separating the troughs from the crests. Apart from areas adjacent to the northern coast, rain might fall in the desert only once in every ten to twenty years. A handful of artesian-fed oases were the sole sources for water of somewhat varying quality. Some of these appeared to function solely as a breeding-ground for sickness. One New Zealander recalls his patrol being ordered to set out for Siwa Oasis, "It appeared Y Patrol [Yeomanry] had sixty percent casualties from Malaria and we were to relieve them."[8] The temperatures in this land could easily reach 50° Celsius in the shade in summer, and fall slightly below freezing during winter. A former patrol member wrote to the author

I doubt anyone who chances to read this will really understand the effect the [summer] heat has on people. A vehicle in motion creates its own wind, but travel was not possible between 10 a.m. and around 3.30 p.m. because the high temperature caused the radiator water to boil and if an attempt was made to continue, the petrol would vaporise in the fuel lines. Our practice was to scoop a shallow depression in the sand and drive the vehicle over it. We could then shelter [underneath it] from the sun until it was cool enough to move on.[9]

Such conditions were aggravated by desert winds that drove dust and fine particles of grit into eyes, ears, mechanical and electrical equipment. On occasion, these would build into ferocious sandstorms of such intensity that they could strip paint from vehicles, leaving the metal completely bare. During the summer of 1942, patrol members indoors at their Siwa Oasis Base during such a storm were unable to read without artificial light.[10]

The difficulties of desert travel did not end with the rigors of the climate. The nature of desert terrain, with its mixtures of soft sand dunes and rocky areas, forced tortuous routes onto the traveler, who could not be expected to keep to a pre-determined course for any distance. This was a problem because the army's navigational method was based upon the use of magnetic compass bearings in conjunction with mapped landmarks, which entailed plotting a course and then following it accurately.[11] There were further problems with the use of magnetic compasses. To navigate with precision, the continual course changes had to be recorded correctly by the navigator, but the mass of the vehicle, weapons, and other metal equipment around the compass caused inaccuracies in the readings. The use of compensated aero-type compasses was simply not realistic as the loads, and therefore the metallic mass, varied constantly. The presence of large ore deposits in the surrounding terrain could add to this problem significantly. In addition, the lack of geographical features to relate to meant that any dead reckoning performed in this way would be useless for all practical purposes.[12] The challenge of measuring a daytime position was overcome by the LRDG's use of a sun-compass of Bagnold's pre-war design.[13] To compensate for any errors that accumulated throughout the daytime, astronomical fixes were taken when the patrols camped for the night. In this way, patrol navigation had more in common with maritime than military practice. In fact, Dick Croucher, one of the earliest officers to join the patrols, had been a ship's officer prior to joining the Army and had much to do with the subsequent training of patrol navigators.[14]

As one might expect, specialized methods demanded specialized equipment, some of which was beyond the Army supply system's capacity to deliver. Navigational items such as theodolites[15] were borrowed from the Egyptian Survey Office, and according to Shaw, "school-mistresses gave us books of Log. Tables and racing men their field-glasses, and in half-forgotten shops in the back-streets of Cairo we searched for a hundred and one (to the Army) unorthodox needs."[16] Suitable vehicles were also scarce. The original patrols were kitted out with a mixture of trucks purchased from the Chevrolet dealer in Alexandria and some loaned by the Egyptian Army, all of which were extensively modified. Open-cab conversions entailed removing hoods, windscreens and doors, extra leaves were fitted to 'beef up' the suspension, and a condenser was fitted to save engine cooling water.[17] These and numerous other alterations were required before the vehicles could be considered desert-worthy.

Fortunately for the British, the precious desert-lore of Bagnold and his fellow interwar explorers provided solutions to all these and many other problems. For much of the desert campaign, these specialized vehicles and their uniquely trained crews were the sole operators in the so-called 'impassable' reaches of the desert. The effectiveness of the equipment and training can be measured by the fact that not one patrol ever became lost during the three years of LRDG desert operations.[18]

LRDG reconnaissance commenced before the first batch of recruited New Zealanders had even completed their initial patrol training. The "restless" Captain Pat Clayton had searched out all his pre-war Bedouin acquaintances in his attempts to acquire some advance information on the Italian garrison at Kufra Oasis.[19] However, they were of little use, not having visited Kufra since the Italian occupation began some ten years earlier. Nevertheless, the knowledge that the Kufra garrison was supplied from Jalo enabled the planning of an early reconnaissance of the Jalo-Kufra track.[20] At the time, the Long Range Patrol had yet to take delivery of their vehicles. However, two were ready for pickup, "new, untried, and not run-in."[21] A New Zealand 'Driver/Mechanic' on loan from the Ordnance Corps, Merv Curtis, recalls being sent into Cairo "to obtain 2 suitable vehicles and spares necessary for a journey which could be of some thousand miles."[22] Curtis was Clayton's driver in the lead vehicle throughout the trip.[23] Another five New Zealanders handpicked by Clayton and a Bedouin acquaintance of Clayton's made up the rest of the party.[24]

The party initially made its way to Siwa Oasis. Here Clayton persuaded his old friends in the Egyptian Frontier Districts Administration to loan six trucks with Sudanese crews under an Egyptian officer to act as petrol carriers for the first leg of the journey, ostensibly to check on "old frontier cairns."[25] According to Shaw, "the Sudanese crews were happy to get a trip into the desert", and were tireless in "unsticking" vehicles which became bogged in the sand.[26] One former patrol member said of these early days, "being inexperienced we had a lot of digging, tray and mat work to do." He explained, "When a vehicle sank into the sand, one had to dig out [the sand around the wheels] and put steel trays under the wheels, and lay long canvas mats which had bamboo pieces at intervals along their length."[27] This process was repeated until the vehicle was driven onto firmer ground.

Clayton's enlarged party proceeded through the Great Sand Sea to the frontier where the extra fuel was transferred to the Long Range Patrol vehicles. The Sudanese crews then retraced their tracks to Siwa. Having successfully maintained security with his ruse, Clayton's original party then turned westward. Although heading for a fairly precise location, the route chosen was new and in this way the party made discoveries of significance for subsequent patrol operations. Once through the northern end of the Great Sand Sea, they encountered a flat gravel plain that extended for one hundred miles from its western edge before entering the Kalansho Sand Sea. Shaw later claimed that

The discoveries of this reconnaissance were some of the most useful that LRDG ever made. For many months afterwards . . . we used this route across the gravel plain guarded by the horseshoe of sands to the north. Across it we used to pass between Siwa and Kufra in 1941; over it ran the Kufra-Siwa air route with its chain of landing grounds and emergency dumps of water; in 1942 Easonsmith's [LRDG] raid on Barce and Mayne's [SAS] attacks against the enemy's lines of communication before 'Alamein profited by this knowledge.[28]

The heavy use made of this route reflected the British commanders' early preoccupation with Kufra. This appeared to last until the enemy was clearly not in any position to exploit Kufra's potential as a staging-post for attacks on the Allied Khartoum-Cairo resupply route. The degree of importance attached to LRDG reconnaissance of the area is indicated by a letter written to Bernard Freyberg by General Arthur Smith.[29] Smith stated that the Long Range Patrol "is definitely carrying out a very important role in our war effort in that it watches the Western Desert towards the Kufra Oasis".[30]

The difficulties of deep reconnaissance were not confined to issues of negotiating the terrain and coping with the climate. An example of the considerable ingenuity that was applied to other problems is seen in an early investigation of the Italian garrisons and airfields in the vicinity of Uweinat. The poor going in this area had prohibited any approach except from the direction of an open plain with the attendant high risk of observation. Any ideas of approaching on foot were ruled out by the midsummer heat and the distance involved. The ideal alternative was to use the traditional mainstay of desert travel, the camel. However, this presented a problem because the distance to the objective entailed a return journey of approximately 1100 kilometers, too far for a camel to manage without water and rest along the route. Clayton got around this by purchasing a camel, then packing it into a truck and driving it most of the way to Uweinat. Once there, two Bedouin friends of Clayton's pre-war acquaintance spent a week wandering around the Italian outposts before the camel was packed into the truck once more, and the patrol returned to base with their cunningly-acquired intelligence.[31]

The 'camel' operation was an example of deep reconnaissance with the aim of direct observation of the enemy. Another example was the use of patrols during Allied offensives such as 'Crusader'.[32] Shaw recalled that at the time the LRDG's orders were "to report on enemy reaction to our advance and with this end in view the patrols were in position on various routes behind the front line and south of the Gebel [Akhdar] when the advance began."[33] On other occasions a less direct approach was used, such as when patrols examined newly-vacated Axis campsites in order to gain information on the enemy's forces.[34]

Reconnaissance with the aim of observing specific individuals or sub-units was rare. An exception to this rule was made in the case of Hungarian Count, Ladislaus Edouard de Almasy. Highly-educated and polyglot, Almasy had been well known in Egypt in the 1930s for his many desert explorations.[35] Shaw claimed that prior to the war, Almasy "never made any bones about his admiration for totalitarianism",[36] and his subsequent allegiance to the Axis came as no surprise. The LRDG were constantly alert to the possibility of Almasy's raising a similar formation on the German side, but initial indications were that Almasy had no such plans. This was not to last, as Shaw suggested

From a sign here and there, from a letter foolishly preserved by a German soldier, from a careless word in a prisoner of war cage, from those other sources of information which the Censor would strike out if I set them down, we realised that Almasy was on the move.[37]

The British Army's inability to account for sightings of small patrols of 'British' vehicles in remote areas raised suspicion to near certainty. Following such a sighting in June of 1942, the LRDG lent its Survey Officer to act as a guide for patrols of the Sudan Defence Force from Kufra who were to go out 'hunting' Almasy.[38] They were unsuccessful, and they discovered signs in the desert passes that he had returned eastward prior to their arrival. In the event, Almasy achieved little of real value, the few German spies he dropped off were quickly detected and while his accomplishments (which included reaching the Nile on one occasion) were impressive on a personal level, the Germans seemed unconvinced of the merits of their "ersatz Bagnold" and there seems to be no evidence of any continuing interest beyond a couple of early excursions.[39]

The nature of deep reconnaissance meant that patrols were often ideally placed to put various types of deception plans into action. Typical of these was 'Operation Bishop', a plan in November of 1941 to plant a fake map where it would fall into enemy hands.[40] The false information on the map indicated an attack on the Italian garrison at Jalo from a specific direction by a substantial British force. Under the command of New Zealander, Tony Browne, a patrol made its way to a spot due east of Jalo and made camp. They were not in position long before being approached by a single Arab on a camel, at which the patrol "left in a hurry leaving behind some odds and ends and a petrol box under which Browne had 'forgetten' [sic] his map board, scale and protractor."[41] The result was clear at the end of the month when the British over-ran the area. The LRDG Intelligence Officer visited Jalo and found that; "On to a large map in the Italian Commander's office the details of the planted map had been faithfully copied."[42] Other 'dropped' items included propaganda leaflets which assured the reader of the inevitability of defeat for the Axis powers and urged them to give themselves up. On at least one occasion, a patrol left "specially doctored boxes of Italian MG amn [machine-gun ammunition]" where they would be easily found.[43] Whilst deep in enemy-held territory, the LRDG was often called upon for a variety of duties like acting as a "wireless link" between forces whose radio equipment was unable to reach across the distances separating them.[44] This was used to particularly good effect between the Free French forces in the Fezzan and their allies further north.[45]

Some 'deep' patrols were conducted for matters of LRDG 'house-keeping', including the constant need to check on dumps of fuel, water and supplies in the desert interior. Inevitably, in the to-and-fro of Axis advances and retreats, a number of the dumps were discovered and removed; their importance to LRDG operations was such that it could not be left to chance to ensure that they were intact.[46] A further routine requirement was to maintain a watch on the condition of various wells and oases which had to be factored into 8th Army plans,[47] requiring an assessment of potability and flow which could be added as 'going' information to the force's maps.[48] Much of this was derived from the written report produced at the conclusion of every patrol by its commander. It was expected to comment at length on the going the patrol had encountered. It included general observations about the terrain, its suitability for the passage of various types and volumes of traffic, estimated travel times, and references to the availability of water, possible landing-grounds, and cover in the area. Where applicable, it would comment on the reliability (or otherwise) of existing information sources such as maps or testimony from those claiming some knowledge of the area.[49] The importance of this information was not confined to simple questions of accessibility, but was also crucial to estimating the speed, or tempo, which a force might maintain. If a formation could move consistently faster between tactical actions than its opponents, it could seize the initiative and dictate the terms of an engagement.[50] The detailed information provided by the LRDG was vital in exploiting opportunities for rapid maneuver. Hand in hand with this went a fundamental principle of warfare, which asserts that logistics dictates the boundaries of the possible.[51] Sound topographical commentary was vital in assessing feasible lines of communication for the feeding, arming, maintenance and movement of men and materiel through the desert. It took skilled personnel to advise effectively on topography and the LRDG reports were highly valued.[52]

On occasion, units specifically requested the LRDG to perform reconnaissance in advance of their operations.[53] More usually, GHQ would order a full reconnaissance along its projected axes of advance, often months ahead of time.[54] The importance of the topographical aspects of the LRDG's role were recognized from the outset. In response to Bagnold's request for a Royal Engineers Survey Officer, the army provided Ken Lazurus, an interwar surveyor with the Colonial Office who had worked for the army since hostilities began.[55] Lazurus headed the LRDG's Survey Section that managed to produce accurate map sheets of the region from the Fezzan to the northern coast, and from the Nile to Tunisia. His senior officer wrote in a 1942 report

In April and May the Survey Section (Lazurus) was working in the country between Bir Zelten, Tazerbo and Bir Haaruf, and completed a survey of some 25,000 square miles of country, all of it, as far as Longitude goes, well behind the enemy lines.[56]

As Shaw commented later, "there cannot be many instances of continued survey work behind the enemy lines in war-time."[57] The Survey Section were every bit as vulnerable to the hazards of enemy action as the 'fighting' patrols, and added to the 'normal' dangers of operating so far behind the enemy 'lines' was the likelihood of discovery by the Royal Air Force (RAF). RAF fighters strafed LRDG patrols frequently. There were a few deaths as a result of these attacks, and the cost in destroyed vehicles and equipment throughout the campaign was substantial.[58] The use of recognition signals did little to rectify the problem, as pilots believed these were simply enemy forces' attempts to deceive them.[59] Despite these and other risks, the LRDG's performance was such that it developed a solid reputation for accomplishing objectives.[60] As the unit's standing grew, so did the variety of tasks it was asked to undertake.

Requests for LRDG patrols to act as guides for larger fighting formations were common. This was actively encouraged by GHQ – Middle East who often appended comments to topographical guides that stated, "experienced LRDG navigators with knowledge of the country are available."[61] The guiding task might be as routine as when Browne's patrol led a Sudan Defence Force supply convoy from Wadi Halfa (Sudan) to Kufra Oasis to prevent them becoming lost,[62] to something as specialized as taking an RAF Squadron Leader into the desert to reconnoitre suitable sites for establishing forward "fighter dromes".[63] At one point, the number of such 'passengers' the LRDG was required to ferry about the desert prompted one patrol commander to begin calling his patrol "Libyan Taxis", a nickname which stuck.[64] Many of these 'fares' were intelligence operators, Arab and European, for whom the LRDG was not only a means of reaching their distant objectives, but often their only means of subsequent resupply.[65]

Of all the LRDG's reconnaissance services, that of 'operations reconnaissance' – the specific reconnaissance of an area as a preliminary to an advance – was probably the most valuable. On two occasions in particular, at El Agheila and Mareth, such LRDG work was of critical importance to Allied success. New Zealanders had a central role in these two outflanking manoeuvres which involved the LRDG in the reconnaissance phases, and both the LRDG and the New Zealand Division in their successful execution.

By early December 1942, the Axis forces were retreating toward Tripolitania with the 8th Army hard on their heels.[66] Approaching El Agheila, General Montgomery claimed he "sensed a feeling of anxiety in the ranks of Eighth Army" as "many of them had been there twice already; and twice Rommel had debouched there when he was ready and had driven them back."[67] In his ‘Despatches’, Field-Marshal Alexander suggested, "At Agheila Eighth Army was facing the strongest position in Libya."[68] Protected by salt marshes, soft sand dunes and an escarpment, the position’s natural defences alone prompted Montgomery to describe it, with masterful understatement, as a "difficult position to attack", and he resolved to force Rommel out of it by "bluff and manoeuvre", hoping in this way to "then attack him in the easier country to the west".[69]

LRDG road watchers provided evidence showing that the enemy was still retreating and did not seem at all intent on making a firm stand at Agheila, despite the fact that Rommel had received clear instructions that, "the Mersa el Brega Line [the Axis forces' name for Agheila] was to be held at all costs."[70] One signal from the road watch position read

November 8 to 14. Westbound. Motor cycles 528 and sidecar 18. Cars 1,264. 15-cwt 407. 30-cwt 607. 3-ton 2,316 and trailer 474. 5-ton 2,697 and trailer 899. 10-ton 125 and trailer 117. Tractors 3. Transporters 2. Troop carriers 13. Tankers 23 and trailer 3. Tanks light 8. Armoured cars 24. Guns 68, mostly light A/T [anti-tank]. Miscellaneous 400. Troops estimated 42,500 – repeat 42,500.[71]

Nonetheless, Montgomery wished to avoid a costly frontal attack, and in a manoeuvre typical of warfare in North Africa, decided to turn his enemy's southern flank.[72] The New Zealand Division and the 4th Light Armoured Brigade were chosen to carry out the sweep around Rommel's defences,[73] and Browne's patrol of New Zealanders were appointed as guides.[74]

The territory around El Agheila was familiar to the LRDG which had previously conducted both raids and road watches in the area.[75] In response to the Eighth Army request for guides, Browne's patrol was dispatched on 4 December: "To advise on going and navigate 2 NZ Div with 4 Lt Armd Bde attached from El Haseiat to Marble Arch, thence west to Nofilia."[76] In this way, Montgomery hoped to encircle the German forces, which, in recognition of the hopelessness of their position, would surrender or, at the very least, be dealt with on terms more favourable to the Allies.[77] The initial plans called for the 'left hook' to commence on 15 December, but on being advised that Italian reinforcements were being moved into a good defensive position to the rear of Agheila, Montgomery moved plans forward, and on 13 December, Browne's New Zealanders began leading their parent division in a 400 kilometre arc around the German defences.[78] Over the next four days, the LRDG patrol led forces around Agheila and on 17 December guided the New Zealand Division in another flanking manoeuvre around Nofilia to the north.[79] Montgomery's 'bluff and manoeuvre' tactics paid off. Despite the New Zealand Division being spread too thinly to prevent the escape of some enemy units,[80] these did not escape lightly, being later described by Montgomery as, "severely mauled by the New Zealanders".[81] In a communication with Wellington, Freyberg stressed that, "success of the operation depended upon negotiating a hitherto [by such a large formation] uncrossed desert."[82] This movement was made possible by the work of the LRDG, which also enabled the tempo of the manoeuvres to be maintained by guiding another (smaller) turning movement at Nofilia.

LRDG topographical reconnaissance of the country through which the 8th Army would advance continued unabated until 29 March 1943, at which point LRDG operations in North Africa ended.[83] Its final service was another combined reconnaissance and 'guiding' task, this time to lead a substantial force in outflanking the so-called 'Mareth Line'. Following the success at Agheila, Montgomery tasked the LRDG with reconnoitering all the country to the north and west, with emphasis upon the Matmata Hills.[84] New Zealander, Captain Ron Tinker understood that: "The recce was to be done with a view to passing a force of at least divisional strength over this territory."[85] This entailed another circling movement, and as before, the New Zealand Division under Freyberg would have a central role.

The New Zealand Division were advised that the French-built Mareth defences constituted a

MAGINOT Line in miniature, designed to oppose an enemy whose chief strength appeared to be in motorised divisions. Broadly speaking, it consists of several independent self-contained strong-points with all-round defence . . . running from Matmata to the sea . . . so sited that they command all rds [sic] and tracks leading to GABES NORTH of the escarpment and were designed to hold out for a considerable period.[86]

One of Field-Marshal Alexander's intelligence officers described this fortification between the sea and the mountains as, "a formidable proposition for a frontal attack," adding, "on the other side of the mountains the desert was believed by the French to be impassable."[87] Montgomery did not agree,[88] and interestingly, neither did his major opponent.[89] In his diary, Rommel described the Mareth defences as, "a line of antiquated French block-houses which in no way measured up to the standards required by modern warfare."[90] His principal objection to it as a line of defence was based on the possibility of "being outflanked – though it is true, with some difficulty."[91] Rommel wanted instead to occupy the Wadi Akarit Line some 70 Kilometres to the rear of Mareth because he believed it could not be outflanked. His superiors disagreed. In particular, Field-Marshal Kesselring argued for a defence in depth. Kesselring later recalled

The most favourable prospects for defence will be found in a defence zone which is sub-divided into several positions. The natural configuration of the terrain of Southern Tunisia offered such a defence zone, the foremost position of which was the Mareth and the hindmost the Akarit. It would have been operationally incorrect to have withdrawn immediately to the latter.[92]

It was against this background that the LRDG were instructed to find a way through the Matmata Hills for an outflanking force which would co-ordinate with a frontal attack designed to pin the Axis defenders down. In Freyberg's words, patrols went out and "criss-crossed the whole area",[93] in what was one of the single largest undertakings in the LRDG's history. An advanced HQ-LRDG was established at Azizia to make possible daily conferences between representatives of NZ Division staff, 8th Army, LRDG and SAS.[94] Each day's going was radioed back to this headquarters by the patrols. This was added to the results of photo-reconnaissance and passed to the NZ Division and 8th Army,[95] which built up a scale model that was used throughout the planning of Operation Pugilist, as the outflanking operation had been dubbed.[96] Of particular importance was the fact that the patrols were not simply seeking a way through the hills. After all, patrols had passed through them on dozens of covert missions prior to this. They were actually in search of a route capable of withstanding the passage of almost 30,000 troops and some 6000 wheeled and tracked vehicles and heavy guns.[97]

Such a passage was discovered in late January by a patrol under the command of New Zealander, Nick Wilder, and was subsequently known as 'Wilder's Gap'.[98] To the dismay of members of Wilder's T1 patrol, they were denied the opportunity of leading the New Zealand Corps through the Gap as he had been recalled for duty with the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry[99] when 8th Army released the LRDG from its command.[100] However, Captain R Tinker and Corporal D Bassett remained to act as guides for the outflanking operation. In early March, Montgomery issued a personal message to the men of the 8th Army:

In the battle that is now to start, the Eighth Army will destroy the enemy now facing us in the Mareth position; will burst through the Gabes gap [to the north]; will then drive northwards on Sfax, Soussem and finally, Tunis. We will not stop, or let up, till Tunis has been captured, and the enemy has given up the struggle or been pushed into the sea.[101]

The New Zealand 'Corps' began the 'left hook' on Mareth on 19 March, guided by Tinker and Bassett, who remained until Gabes was reached after fierce fighting on 29 March.[102] The following morning, in an address greeted with cheers in the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill stated, "General Montgomery's decision to throw his weight on to the turning movement [at Mareth] instead of persisting in a frontal attack has been crowned with success."[103] Montgomery afterward remarked, "It was obvious that the end of the war in Africa would now come quite soon. The Eighth Army had only to burst through the Gabes gap and join hands with the American forces."[104] In a letter to the Commanding Officer – LRDG, Montgomery wrote of the reconnaissance work performed prior to 'Pugilist'

Without your careful and reliable reports the launching of the "left hook" by the N.Z. Div would have been a leap in the dark; with the information they produced, the operation could be planned with some certainty and as you know, went off without a hitch . . . please give my thanks to all concerned and best wishes from EIGHTH ARMY for the new tasks you are undertaking [reference to the upcoming Dodecanese operations].[105]

With the close of the North African campaign, the LRDG's desert operations came to an end. By overcoming the difficulties associated with desert travel, the LRDG had provided substantial quantities of accurate and valuable topographical information, and reports on enemy activity and capabilities throughout the period June 1940 – March 1943. Aside from acting as a vital communication link between Allied forces, and arranging passage of essential personnel throughout the theatre, the LRDG also contributed significantly to several outflanking operations in the closing stages of the campaign that undoubtedly enabled the Allied command to save lives which might otherwise have been lost in mounting frontal attacks on Axis positions.

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Copyright © 2006 Clive Gower-Collins.

Written by Clive Gower-Collins. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Clive Gower-Collins at:

Clive Gower-Collins
PO Box 2526
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New Zealand

About the author:
Clive Gower-Collins lives in Wellington, New Zealand and has served in the New Zealand Army in both Infantry and Engineer roles. Currently a manager with Biosecurity New Zealand, He has worked for a number of years across the public service specialising in leadership and organisational performance. He has written articles, presented conference papers and given radio interviews on coalition warfare and the LRDG.  His research interests tend to focus on aspects of intelligence in warfare (the general focus of his MA in History) and German aircraft design and production in the inter-war years and throughout WWII (the focus of his Honours research).

Published online: 07/23/2006.

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