Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert
Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
by Clive Gower-Collins
This analysis has presented a range of evidence to demonstrate that the New
Zealand involvement with the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa,
1940-1943, was substantial in terms of both quantity and quality. Taken as a
whole, LRDG helped dissipate the enemy's forces, and assisted the rise of
Allied fighting formations such as the Free French and the Special Air Service
– both of which went on to make considerable contributions of their own.
LRDG activities offered extensive high-quality support to numerous service
organisations, ranging from the Royal Air Force to clandestine operations.
In the provision of secure and reliable tactical intelligence, the LRDG was
without peer, and in matters of direct reconnaissance, the LRDG frequently
provided the requisite degree of corroboration for material gained by other
intelligence avenues. The topographical information supplied by the Group
was indispensable to the plans and operations of the Eighth Army. In fact,
one of Field-Marshal Alexander's intelligence staff offered this observation on
This magnificent organisation had all the virtues and none of the faults of the
[so-called] private armies. It had a useful job to do, it knew how to do it
perfectly, and did it quietly.
With ample evidence attesting to the significant contribution the LRDG made to
operations in the North African theatre, it remains to identify the part played
by New Zealanders in achieving this.
In quantitative terms the New Zealand commitment was vital. At the time the
first patrols were formed, the shortage of trained manpower in the Middle East
was chronic. Later, when British forces in the region had increased
considerably, German successes saw British troops pass into prisoner-of-war
cages in their thousands, causing a shortage once again. When the Long Range
Patrols were raised, of the original strength of approximately ninety – only
three personnel (all officers) were not Kiwis. By early 1942, the
(reorganised) Long Range Desert Group had grown to a full strength of
twenty-five officers, and 324 other ranks – over half of which were Kiwis, a
commitment maintained until the close of the campaign. Had the original
request for a detachment of New Zealanders to form a nucleus of this unit been
declined in 1940, it seems almost certain that the patrol would not have been
raised and trained in time to provide desperately needed intelligence for
Britain's summer offensive against the Italians. Given that the LRDG owed its
existence to General "Wavell's personal patronage," and Wavell was relieved
of his command by Churchill twelve months later, and considering the
'turbulence' provoked by General Freyberg's strenuous efforts to reconstitute
his dismembered New Zealand Division, it seems that there was a distinct
'window of opportunity' for the formation of the LRDG. If it had not been
raised in June 1940, it might very well not have been raised at all.
To determine the significance of the New Zealand contribution to the LRDG from
a qualitative point of view, requires assessing the suitability of New
Zealanders for this type of operation. All nations seem to wish to believe that
some special quality resides in its soldiers, a quality which makes its own
fighting men a touch superior to any other, friend and foe alike. However,
testimony to the belief in the existence of just such a special quality in the
New Zealanders involved has two important characteristics. Firstly, those who
offer comment are inevitably 'outsiders', predominantly British in origin.
Secondly, commentators are unanimous in their opinion. For example, former LRDG
Intelligence Officer, Bill Kennedy Shaw, suggests:
There can be no doubt whatever that much of the early and continued success of
the L.R.D.G. was due to the speed and thoroughness with which the New
Zealanders learned desert work and life . . . most of the first New Zealanders
were from the Divisional Cavalry –the "Div. Cav."- farmers or the like in civil
life, and with a maturity and independence not found in Britishers of a similar
age . . . I had never met New Zealanders before; all the knowledge I had of
them were my father's words of the last war – that they were the finest of the
troops from the Dominions. Closer acquaintance showed that one should always
believe one's father.
. H. Maule, Out of the Sand: The Epic Story of General Leclerc and the
Fighting Free French, London: Odhams Books Ltd., 1966, p.82. A. Hoe, David
Stirling; The Authorised Biography of the Creator of the S.A.S, London: Little,
Brown and Company, 1992, p.472.
. V. Peniakoff, Popski’s Private Army, London: The Reprint Society,
1953, pp.56-57. G. L. Prendergast, Phase Reports, (5), 19 April – 26 May 1942,
p.2. L.H. Browne, (Captain - LRDG), Notes From Diary, September 1939 – March
1943 , p.6, NZ National Archives: WAII, DA 304.1/15/12.
. R. A. Bagnold, "Early Days of the Long Range Desert Group" The
Geographical Journal , [Evening Meeting of the Society, 15 January
1945], Vol.: CV, No 1 & 2, Jan-Feb 1945. p.30-46.
. T.W. Corbett, Subject: Expressing appreciation for LRDG activity from
Auchinleck - 'MOST SECRET and PERSONAL' Letter to G. Prendergast - CO LRDG
dated 7 April 42 .
. G. L. Prendergast, Phase Reports, (9), 24 October – 23 January
1943 . B. L. Montgomery, Subject: LRDG Contribution to 'Left-Hook' and
turning of the Mareth Line,– Letter to Lt-Col G.L. Prendergast, CO LRDG, dated
2 April 1943. B. L. Montgomery, Subject: Talk to Officers of Divisional HQ
Services (NZ Div), dated 4 January 1943. NZ National Archives: WAII 8/45.
. D. Hunt, A Don at War , London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1990,
. R. A. Bagnold, 1 L.R.P. [Long Range Patrol] Routine Order #23 ,
Abbassia (Egypt), August 12, 1940.
. B. Jenner, and D. List, The Long Range Desert Group , London:
Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1983, p.8.
. D. Hunt, A Don at War , London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1990,
. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. III: The Grand Alliance
, London: The Reprint Society, 1950, p.281.
. William Boyd Kennedy Shaw, Long Range Desert Group: The Story of its Work
in Libya, 1940-1943, London: Collins, 1945, pp.18-19.
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:
PO Box 2526
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.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.