Watches, and Reconnaissance: New Zealand's involvement in the Long Range Desert
Group in North Africa, 1940-1943
by Clive Gower-Collins
Brain-child of a Royal Signals officer, Major Ralph Bagnold, the Long Range
Desert Group (LRDG) was formed in Egypt in June 1940 to meet the British Middle
East Command's urgent need for reliable tactical intelligence. Bagnold's
Commander-in-Chief, General Archibald Wavell, recognised the dangerously
impoverished state of Britain's intelligence resources early in the Desert War
and authorised the formation of the unit, charging it with the responsibility
for conducting reconnaissance deep in the Libyan Desert. An acute shortage of
British manpower at the time and the fortuitous presence of the 2nd New Zealand
Expeditionary Force led to New Zealand making a strong commitment to the LRDG
which lasted throughout the three years of the desert campaign.
Enter, the New Zealanders
The shortage of manpower in the Middle East was chronic at the time the first
patrols were raised. For a long while trained men were scarce. Part of the
problem stemmed from the need to utilise every vessel possible to ferry
desperately needed supplies to the United Kingdom, which meant few were
available for use in troop convoys. As an illustration of this, when Freyberg
first attempted to secure a place for the Second Echelon from Britain to the
Middle East, his men were among units totalling 100,000 men seeking a place in
a convoy which could only handle 30,000 at a time. Later, when British
forces in the region were on the increase, many of the men had their war cut
short when German advances saw them pass into prisoner-of-war camps, causing a
shortage once more.
Raids: 'Like a Thief in the Night'
Described by Shaw as "a sort of mechanised highway robbery," raiding featured
strongly as a priority on the Long Range Patrol's (LRP) first sorties. Over
time, this changed and raiding was relegated to second place relative to the
LRDG's intelligence-gathering activities. Nevertheless, behind-the-lines
raiding was conducted with considerable success and contributed significantly
to Allied achievements in North Africa.
Road Watches: Non vi sed arte
General Wavell recognized the dangerously impoverished state of Britain's
intelligence resources early in the Desert War and made certain that the chief
role of the LRDG was deep reconnaissance. A former British Intelligence
Officer claims that:
The development of effective wartime intelligence takes time, but gets a
particular impetus from defeat in the early years of the war; military men need
a sharp shock to overcome their lack of intelligence interest and competence.
The Allies' disasters in the early stages of the Second World War were more
potent intelligence teachers than success was to the Axis.
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.
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
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: 07/24/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.