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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

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.[1] 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[1] LRDG activities offered extensive high-quality support to numerous service organisations, ranging from the Royal Air Force to clandestine operations.[2] In the provision of secure and reliable tactical intelligence, the LRDG was without peer,[3] and in matters of direct reconnaissance, the LRDG frequently provided the requisite degree of corroboration for material gained by other intelligence avenues.[4]

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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
Wellington 6011
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: 07/24/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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