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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

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.

With the overseas transport, concentration and training of the 2NZEF plagued by difficulties and delays, General Freyberg, and his subordinate commander in Egypt, Brigadier Puttick, consented in 1940 to a series of short-term 'detachments' of New Zealand personnel in the Middle East for service with British formations. The approvals were given on the understanding that the troops would be returned immediately once the 2NZEF was ready to concentrate and train. Between late 1940 and early 1941, Freyberg's efforts to 'repatriate' his men damaged his relationship with the British Commander in the Middle East and threw future New Zealand's contributions to the LRDG into doubt. Yet without this contribution, there might well have been insufficient alternative sources from which to raise the LRDG.

Prior to departing for England in early 1940, Freyberg had agreed to requests from the Headquarters – British Troops in Egypt (HQ – BTE) for the loan of specialised detachments of New Zealanders on a short-term basis.[2] Further detachments were authorised by Puttick[3] throughout July and August of that year in the belief that, "we should pull our weight in the peculiar circumstances obtaining at the time."[4] One of these detachments was of 87 personnel for service in, "special patrols of strategic importance [later called LRDG] in the Western Desert", which was subsequently approved by Freyberg.[5] All of these detachments were permitted on the basis that the personnel would be released back to their parent units once the Division was ready to concentrate. While Freyberg was in England, Puttick learned of a proposal drawn up by GHQ-ME for a 'reorganisation' of the New Zealand troops in Egypt. Despite their awareness of the wishes of the New Zealand Government to maintain the Division as a coherent whole, the suggestion effectively entailed the dispersal of the First Echelon to plug gaps in British rear-echelon forces. It drew a predictably strong reaction from Freyberg:

MOST SECRET: Following for General Wavell . . . Have just received from PUTTICK your proposals the above organisation with its repercussions upon the New Zealand Division in Egypt. Hope these proposals will not be proceeded with as no change can be made without approval of NEW ZEALAND Government. I do not care to have to disclose the proposals outlined by you to break up the NEW ZEALAND Division to my Government as this would make a most unfavourable impression in NEW ZEALAND official circles with repercussions you possibly have not foreseen. The answer to any such proposals would be I am sure an uncompromising refusal.[6]

On 21 September Freyberg's worst fear was realised when, in a brief but crucial telegram, the New Zealand Government agreed without reservation to the retention of the Second Echelon in the United Kingdom, adding that they were, "satisfied to leave to the United Kingdom authorities the date of the departure of these troops to the Middle East".[7] Freyberg returned to Egypt, arriving on 24 September. The following day a report was produced entitled "Statement Showing Detachments From NZ Division."[8] It showed clearly that Freyberg's objections to Wavell's plan for the dispersal of New Zealand troops had been discounted. Aside from the Headquarters element in Maadi, his troops were scattered throughout the theatre, in some cases as much as 200 miles away.[9] With the concentration of his Division imminent, Freyberg wrote to HQ – BTE on 29 September, recalling the loaned personnel:

In the past, with the object of helping, we have met practically every request for the loan of New Zealand Units and detachments. The time has come when we can no longer comply with requests for detachments, and in fact . . . it is now necessary for us to recall those already made.

Freyberg then listed the detached units which he required most urgently, adding: "The seventy other ranks in the Long Range Desert Patrol should return to regimental duty in due course, and I would appreciate information regarding when they are likely to be released from their present duties."[10]

Freyberg's justification in making the request was undeniable and entirely in accordance with the terms of the agreement struck when the loans were made. Almost a fortnight later Freyberg had a reply. Beginning, "My Dear Freyberg", the Deputy Chief of General Staff, General Arthur Smith, explained that the C-in-C (Wavell) was anxious lest Freyberg push the issue, in view of the "very important role in our war effort" being played by the patrols. Ignoring the fact that it was Freyberg's right to demand the return of his men without question, Smith continued: "If you still feel that the New Zealand personnel should be returned to their units, the Commander-in-Chief will be glad of an opportunity of discussing the matter with you."[11]

Eventually Freyberg moderated his demand, agreeing to a gradual return of detachments, including the men with the LRDG, who were to be allowed to complete a further patrol. Freyberg was not simply vacillating. His awareness of British preparations for an upcoming offensive told him that to press for the immediate return of his men might jeopardise the operation.[12] In a letter to Arthur Smith, Freyberg declared:

The history of this patrol is a bad one . . . they immobilised our Divisional Cavalry Regiment by taking all or nearly all of its best officers, NCOs, and men from it against the CO's wishes. This was under the distinct understanding that they were to be returned to him at the end of one journey. They then came back and I was informed that they had been lent for a year, which is quite incorrect [Freyberg apparently accepting a claim made by his subordinate, Brigadier Puttick that the British were misrepresenting the agreement]. As a matter of fact, I have written to [GHQ] Middle East saying I will not raise any more difficulties . . . when they [the New Zealanders serving with the LRP] come back you must either take men from depot units or give the Long Range Patrol to somebody else.[13]

On 26 January 1941, Arthur Smith wrote to Freyberg:

I understood you to say yesterday during your conversation with General Wavell that you were now prepared to leave your men with the Long Range Desert Group indefinitely. I would be grateful if you would confirm this and, if correct, whether you would maintain that number or whether you would allow them to waste away. At the moment they form two complete patrols and Bagnold is very keen to keep them as such not only because there is plenty of work for them in the near future but because your men are particularly suited to the job. They have been doing splendid work recently.[14]

Freyberg had indeed decided to relent on the issue of his men continuing to serve with the patrols. It is possible that he simply conceded defeat, acknowledging that he could do little to induce HQ – BTE to release his men before they were good and ready. Whilst possible, this seems unlikely, Freyberg was nothing if not tenacious. Though the deteriorating command relationships troubled him enough to subsequently make the acerbic remark to Field Marshal Montgomery that: "What you have to be out here is 'a nice chap'", Freyberg was not the type of commander to change his mind simply for a 'quiet life'.[15]

LRDG Patrol Commander in 1941, and the unit's last Commanding Officer, Major General David Lloyd Owen offers a more probable explanation:

Freyberg, or rather his deputy I believe, agreed to provide men on loan and by about Dec. 1940 demanded their return. However, after the great success of the raids in the Fezzan in Jan/Feb 1941 he changed his mind . . . on 16 October 1980 Ralph Bagnold wrote and told me that Freyberg was so impressed by the work of the LRDG that he asked R.A.B. [Bagnold] to take his own son in to the unit.[16]

In February 1941 the New Zealand Division's headquarters forwarded to GHQ – ME a letter detailing, "Conditions under which men of the 2nd NZEF are lent for service with the Middle East Long Range Desert Patrol." The relationship between 2NZEF and the LRDG was formalised with this letter, with the Division guaranteeing to "maintain two patrols [four officers, fifty-four other ranks, and nine 'spares'] until Tripoli has been captured".[17] Notwithstanding any difficulties in maintaining the arrangements, the New Zealand forces continued to supply personnel for the LRDG until recalled by their Government in late November 1943. On 19 December 1943, LRDG Commanding Officer, David Lloyd Owen, wrote to Freyberg expressing his disappointment that the arrangement had run its course:

It is with the deepest regret that the LRDG have learnt of the decision to withdraw 'A' (NZ) Squadron from the unit. From the early days when the LRDG was formed the men from 2NZEF have always been of the highest order and any successes that the unit has achieved have been largely due to the magnificent courage and ability of the New Zealand Patrol.[18]

Clearly the New Zealand manpower contribution to the LRDG from July 1940 until December 1943 was a substantial one. Equally clear is the fact that without the stubborn refusal of the British to give up the New Zealand troops they had acquired, that contribution might have ceased as little as three months after it had begun.

Given the importance attached by Wavell to raising the patrols, it seems logical to ask if Bagnold could not have simply approached other units in the Middle East for volunteers. However, at the time of the patrol's formation there were just not the alternative units to draw upon. It is true that later a patrol was provided by the Brigade of Guards and another from the Yeomanry regiments. Yet even this was not without its problems. The Guard's strict insistence on rotating personnel on a tour basis stood to place an intolerable training burden on the LRDG had they been its only source of recruits. When the call for volunteers was first put out to the Yeomanry units, it "produced a large number of men whom their COs were anxious to dump before re-roling to armour".[19] It took the LRDG two months just to sort the genuine volunteers from the 'unwanted' troops. Later plans to create patrols from "Highland, Greenjacket and Home County regimental groupings were frustrated due to manpower shortages, and unit reluctance to part with so many keen volunteers".[20] This particular sentiment was quite widespread. The former 'G' (Guards) Patrol Commander, Michael Chrichton Stuart, recalls his Commanding Officer telling him in "homely language what he had already conveyed to the Colonel on the subject of regular officers leaving the battalion to fight in other necessarily lesser units [Emphasis added].[21] It appears that from a manpower perspective the New Zealand contribution was critical.

Quantitatively vital, the men of the 2NZEF made a significant contribution to the LRDG in the Western Desert from July 1940 until 1943. It remains to examine the nature and value of the work these men undertook.

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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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