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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

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.

A brief preparatory phase preceded the first operational sorties. While most of the New Zealand LRP recruits were completing their training, Captain Pat Clayton led two crews in 15 cwt Chevrolet trucks into the Libyan Desert, establishing forward supply dumps of fuel, water and rations, and conducting valuable reconnaissance.[2] Once these preparations and the unit's training were complete, the LRP was 'ready for action'. By the beginning of September 1940, it was clear to the staff at GHQ – Middle East that Marshal Graziani's forces in Libya were preparing an advance along the Mediterranean coast into Egypt.[3] Concerned that Graziani's plans might include operations further south, GHQ ordered the LRP to investigate. On 5 September three patrols left Cairo at ten-minute intervals and headed into the desert[4] with instructions to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of all routes to the Italian garrison at Kufra, destroy any enemy supply dumps they might discover and, if possible, return with enemy prisoners for interrogation.[5]

For the following ten days each patrol shifted supplies between Clayton's forward dumps and the operation's final jumping-off point, a rendezvous known as 'Big Cairn'.[6] On 15 September the patrols parted company. Mitford's party set out from Big Cairn to reconnoitre westward and intersect two of the routes into the Kufra oasis, and then continue along the Kufra-Marada track with the intention of attacking any columns they met. Clayton's patrol was to proceed south-west, checking the Kufra-Uweinat track. In this way, the two patrols would be able to examine all routes into the critical oasis.[7] Clayton would then head south on an old caravan route to Chad to establish contact with the northernmost French outpost at Tekro.[8] Steele's patrol was to continue ferrying fuel from Siwa Oasis to Big Cairn under the supervision of Bagnold.[9]

In just six days, Bagnold's patrols delivered results that exceeded all expectations and justified Wavell's confidence in him. Clayton and Mitford scrutinized every route radiating from Kufra without their patrols being detected. There was no sign whatsoever that the tracks were employed other than for routine supply columns to the garrisons of Kufra and Uweinat.[10] This information in itself made the operation worthwhile, but Mitford's party delivered an unexpected bonus in what Shaw described as "the bloodless battle of Landing Ground No. 7".[11] Mitford's patrol (accompanied by Shaw) had intersected the Jalo-Kufra track the day after leaving Big Cairn. A full day's study revealed nothing to suggest that it was subject to anything but routine traffic. On the 17th the patrol paused at two untended airfields along the route and destroyed petrol tanks, pumps, and wind indicators.[12] The following two days were spent examining tracks to the south and west with the same result as the previous track surveillance. On 20 September the patrol took to the Tazerbo-Kufra route in search of their enemy. Near Landing Ground 7, they encountered a fortnightly supply convoy destined for Kufra. Shaw offers the following recollection:

One burst of Lewis gunfire over their heads ended that great battle and we had our first prisoners – two Italians, five Arabs and a goat, and our first booty – 2,550 gallons of petrol, a nice line in cheap haberdashery, and, best of all, the bag of official mail.[13]

Despite Shaw's humorous description, this capture was of the utmost importance. As Bagnold later stated: "In these [mail bags] alone there was enough evidence to satisfy the C-in-C that no offensive enterprise was brewing from the Kufra direction."[14] For the beleaguered Wavell, the news radioed from the patrols brought enormous relief and prevented his scant resources being stretched to cope with a non-existent threat. The wider realization of the LRP's potential at GHQ was accompanied by swift action. Before the patrols had even returned to Cairo, GHQ had successfully petitioned the War Office to double the size of the unit. The result was that the patrol became designated the Long Range Desert Group, commanded, with Bagnold's promotion, by a Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of six patrols organized into two equal squadrons.[15] In the days that followed Mitford's success, a small group detached itself from the main party near the oasis and returned to Cairo under the command of Shaw with the prisoners and mail bags.[16] The patrols regrouped to carry out a reconnaissance of Uweinat and once again study of the tracks revealed no cause for alarm. On the 29th the rest of the patrol reached their base.

While plans were made for the reorganization and expansion of the unit, "a body blow was dealt to the LRDG when General Freyberg demanded the return of all New Zealanders to the division he was commanding."[17] Wavell then applied every persuasive means at his disposal to get Freyberg to postpone the demand long enough for men from British and Rhodesian units to be selected and trained as replacements. As Bagnold found, any initial skepticism at GHQ over the potential value of the patrols had been well and truly dispelled:

Our information changed things a good deal. The [GHQ] staff in Cairo decided that the role of the LRDG should now become a more offensive one . . . Wavell gave us a free hand to stir up trouble in any part of Libya we liked, with the object of drawing off as much enemy transport and troops as possible from the coastal front to defend their remote . . . inland garrisons.[19]

From October 1940 onwards, Bagnold honored his promise to Wavell to carry out "piracy on the high desert". Tracks were mined, aircraft, airfield equipment and supply dumps were blown up, and remote Italian garrisons were terrorized. Such an outpost was the fort at Aujila where, Shaw explains, "a few rounds of the Bofors gun sent a cloud of pigeons out of the tower, and the Italian garrison over the wall."[20] It was not long before the effects on the Italians of LRDG operations became apparent

By simultaneous appearances at places 600 miles apart we managed to exaggerate our strength, till nervous Italian post commanders began to report imaginary noises in the night. Graziani had to provide armed escorts for all his supply columns in the interior of eastern Libya, and to patrol the long Kufra routes by air. Moreover the strength and armament of every garrison was greatly increased, which caused a still bigger demand for transport to keep them supplied.[21]

Evidently effective, these 'piratical' activities peaked with the January 1941 LRDG raid on Merzuk, nearly 2400 kilometres from Cairo. Despite appearing to be an ambitious continuation of normal raiding, the Merzuk operation had at its heart a pair of important motives. Firstly, as Lloyd Owen suggested: "If news of a victory against the Italians deep in the Fezzan could be spread among the local people in Western Libya this might persuade them not to co-operate too willingly with the Italians."[22] Secondly, and altogether more importantly, the operation was aimed at the French colonies in North Africa. Following Marshal Henri Pétain's signature to the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, the French territories had sat on the fence, apparently undecided in their loyalty. Shaw suggests: "Generally speaking, the older men with more to lose were for Vichy, and the younger for de Gaulle [Free French]."[23] On Libya's southern border, the Governor of Chad Province, M. Eboué had chosen to back de Gaulle, and it was hoped that a successful operation against the Italians by a combined LRDG-French force might bring French colonial territories into the war on the side of the British.[24] In November 1940, Bagnold flew to Fort Lamy in Chad, and in the presence of the Governor and his military commander, Colonel d'Ornano, presented the French with a proposal for a joint operation against the Italians at Merzuk.[25] Bagnold's plan received enthusiastic support, with the French pledging to bring supplies by camel through the Tibesti Mountains for the patrol, to a rendezvous 2000 kilometres from the LRDG base. The French had one stipulation, that d'Ornano and a handful of his men must accompany the patrol on the attack.[26] Bagnold agreed and the plan's details were hammered out on the spot.

Two patrols under the command of Clayton radioed Cairo to inform Bagnold that they had successfully rendezvoused with d'Ornano and his men on 7 January 1941, eleven days after leaving their base.[27] Four days later, the patrols intersected the north road leading to Murzuk at a point ten miles away from it. Pausing long enough to lay mines on the track, the patrols advanced into the town. They achieved total surprise, initially driving through the streets of Murzuk exchanging fascist salutes with its inhabitants and then snatching the unlucky Italian post-master from his bicycle and forcing the terrified man to act as a local guide.[28] At this juncture, half of T (New Zealand) Patrol under Clayton and Shaw then attacked the aerodrome, while the remainder under Chrichton-Stuart attacked the fort. Two hours later the patrols had attained their objectives and turned south for Chad, aiming to do what damage they could en route.[29] Patrol losses were two killed (including d'Ornano), and three wounded.[30] Bagnold was advised of the operation's results soon after:

My telephone rang at 2 a.m. It was the Director of Military Intelligence. News had come through his quick mysterious channels: Murzuk was on fire, its landing ground and aircraft destroyed; two other sleepy little Fezzan oases had been attacked, and the rest were wirelessing to one another in alarm.[31]

Maule made the somewhat melodramatic claim: " The news that soldiers of France were fighting once more, and had struck a shrewd blow for the honour of their country, was soon electrifying the free world and infuriating the Axis powers and Vichy."[32] However, he was certainly not exaggerating when he suggested: "The French were given the maximum kudos for this raid deep into enemy territory."[33] On 29 January 1941 The London Times ran an article on the operation entitled, "No Respite For Italians: Daring Free French Raid in Libya."[34] This was followed by a tribute to d'Ornano, announcing his posthumous award of the ‘Croix de l'Ordre de la Liberation’, in which de Gaulle stated:

During January elements of our troops in Chad, acting under the command of General de Larminat carried out a deep raid into Italian Libya in the region of Fezzan. Our troops reached and destroyed the base at Murzuk and carried the post at Gatrun, inflicting on the enemy serious losses in men and material. Several Italian aeroplanes were destroyed on the ground, Lieutenant-Colonel Colonna d'Ornano was killed in the course of the operations of the Chad troops at Murzuk.[35]

Wavell and his staff decided to capitalise on the propaganda value of the Murzuk success by authorizing a further combined operation, against Kufra this time. Unlike Murzuk, Kufra possessed strategic as well as symbolic value. The town's airfield made possible a direct air-link between Mussolini's forces in Libya and those in Eritrea and Ethiopia. If necessary, it could be used as an Axis base from which to mount attacks on British forces in East Africa.

The Guards and New Zealand patrols were overhauling their battered vehicles in Faya (Chad) when Bagnold and Shaw agreed to place them and Clayton under the command of Chad's new military commander, Colonel Philippe Leclerc.[36] The patrols were to act as the vanguard and scout the route for the Free French force of "mainly native soldiers . . . with French officers and NCOs, in all 100 Europeans and 300 natives".[37] They would advance on Kufra via the old caravan route reconnoitered by Clayton the previous September. While T Patrol pressed forward to the vicinity of Kufra, the Guards under Chrichton-Stuart would remain at Sarra Well, 160 kilometers south-west, to cover the main force until it caught up with the New Zealanders just south of the target.[38]

The patrols left Faya on 26 January and proceeded to Sarra together. G Patrol waited at Sarra for the French to come forward while Clayton's party continued north.[39] Late on 31 January, in a region of hills 100 kilometers south of Kufra, T Patrol ran into serious danger. Aware that they had been observed by patrolling Italian aircraft, Clayton ordered the patrol to take cover among rocks in a small valley.[40] Unknown to Clayton, the aircraft were directing an Auto-Saharan Company (motorized infantry) under the command of Saharan veteran, Captain Moreschini, onto his position. Moreschini attacked with skill and soon three of the patrol's trucks were ablaze and one of the drivers was killed. Clayton decided to withdraw, re-group and counter-attack. In the process, he was wounded and, with two others, captured by the Italians.[41] With the exception of another four men initially believed captured or killed, the patrol withdrew to Sarra. Chrichton-Stuart and Leclerc wisely decided that the operation would have to be aborted, allowing the patrol to begin their long return journey to Cairo.[42] The four missing men were in fact alive and overlooked by the Italians who had promptly vacated the scene with their three prisoners. Faced with the choice of walking 100 kilometers north into guaranteed captivity, or attempting to retrace their route to the south with no food and little water, the patrol members chose the latter. Ten days, and over 300 kilometers later, they were discovered quite by chance by one of Leclerc's reconnaissance patrols.[43]

One vehicle of T Patrol had remained at Tekro to act as navigators for Leclerc, who was more determined than ever to take Kufra. Approximately a fortnight later his force invested the fort at Kufra.[44] Lloyd Owen explains that the Auto-Saharan Company responsible for the attack on Clayton's patrol apparently "felt that their mobility was designed so that they could escape, while leaving their compatriots in the fort to withstand the French siege".[45] On 1 March the Italians hoisted a white flag and capitulated just days before Leclerc's supplies would have run out.[46] A search of the signals room in the fort produced the Italian commander's last message before he surrendered: "We are in extremis. Long live Italy. Long live the King Emperor. Long live the Duce. Rome, I embrace you!" As Shaw dryly observed, "[military] positions are not held on such stuff as this."[47]

The French accomplishment was not only a propaganda boon for de Gaulle, but it denied the Axis powers a vital forward link to their East African forces. Maule later suggested the victories were instrumental in bringing about the affiliation of the French colonial territories to the Allies. He claimed that without the LRDG part in the Fezzan operations, "the Free French cause must have foundered at its very inception."[48] A further tangible advantage was that Kufra, rather than Cairo, became the forward supply point and base for LRDG operations for the next two years, cutting many kilometers from their most frequent journeys.[49]

Following this, the LRDG returned to its primary role as a deep reconnaissance unit. As Lloyd Owen observes: "That we were often ordered, or took the opportunity, to harass the enemy was only because we were equipped, had the knowledge and ability to do so."[50] Indeed, structured raiding, as such, ceased for much of 1941. Any on-going deeds of 'piracy' occurred only when patrols encountered 'targets of opportunity'. Jake Easonsmith's patrol exploited a typical 'opportunity' in June that year. Having complied with his instructions to drop off two Arab agents near the Gambut airfield, Easonsmith proceeded on his own initiative to check the traffic on the Tobruk-Bardia road. At dusk he stumbled upon an assemblage of heavy vehicles encamped for the night. The patrol struck without warning. Such was the degree of surprise there was almost no opposition, and by the time the patrol vanished into the desert it had ruined twelve of the sixteen vehicles and snatched two Italian prisoners.[51]

Despite their random character, the outcome of these attacks was significant. Lloyd Owen asserts: "The total damage inflicted by these patrols was very small but the demoralising effect that it had on the enemy at the time was out of all proportion to the effort that we were putting into it."[52] This claim finds other support. Signals intelligence revealed that, at a command level, the Axis forces in North Africa were alarmed by the LRDG operations.[53] That many troops 'on the ground' shared their commanders' disquiet is without doubt. If anything, proximity appears to have exaggerated the menace. An example of this is seen in the captured diary of an Italian medical officer attached to a patrol of the Pavia Division. Commenting firstly on the apparent ability of the LRDG to move with ease through such grueling country as the Qattara Depression, he goes on to state that the patrols "recently appeared in a very speedy vehicle with two sets of two MGs [machine-guns]. I think they are of American make. It can do 60 miles [per hour] in such a bad area. One of these machines, by itself, could annihilate our patrol."[54] A fortnight later, after his unit was decimated, the dauntless doctor wrote: "What is the situation? I don't know, no-one knows. Hemmed in from every side, pursued, everywhere English lorries which hunt us down."[55] Reading the diary entries in full, one is struck by the doctor's assumption that all raiding activity was the work of the LRDG alone. Whilst this was unlikely to be the case, in terms of damage to enemy morale, perception - not truth, is everything.

Putting psychological effects aside, Lloyd Owen is correct to point out that the material damage the patrols inflicted was often very small. However, regardless of the extent of the damage associated with any specific attack, the continual aim was to compel the enemy to violate the warfare principle of 'economy of force'. The intention was that the adversary should, in his efforts to act against the patrols, "waste his resources (e.g. time, ammunition, weapons, manpower, fuel) in unimportant directions". [56]

At the theatre level, British efforts in North Africa in the summer of 1941 produced a series of disappointments. The arrival of the Afrika Korps had added the very elements of substance and resolve that Wavell had dreaded. Responsibility for the resulting British failures was laid squarely upon Wavell, despite his vigorous objections to Whitehall's constant pressure to launch operations he considered premature.[57] Matters came to a head in late June when Winston Churchill wrote to him, stating: "I have come to the conclusion that the public interest will be best served by the appointment of General Auchinleck to relieve you in the command of the armies of the Middle East."[58] With a stroke of Churchill's pen, the blame was shifted once and for all, and the first in a string of Middle East commanders was relieved of his role.

Like his predecessor, Auchinleck came under intense pressure to launch an attack on the enemy.[59] Four days before Auchinleck assumed command in the Middle East, Churchill cabled him to stress the threats to the Middle Eastern forces and Whitehall's belief in the immediate need to renew the offensive, adding: "The urgency of these issues will naturally impress itself upon you."[60] Auchinleck was not persuaded that Whitehall's appreciation of the situation was correct and insisted on delaying the launching of the newest operation, 'Crusader'. Churchill was "unconvinced"[61] by Auchinleck's reasoning, and the month of November was ultimately settled on as a compromise that left neither party truly satisfied.

Jackson offers the following description of the November offensive:

'Crusader' was a very complex battle . . . there was no clearly defined front line. British and Axis formations criss-crossed each other in bewildering patterns, each bent upon some purpose which might or might not have been based on valid intelligence of what was happening. The fog of war was so dense at times that the senior commanders on either side could do little to affect the issue, as formations, large and small, sought their destiny in their own way.[62]

Beginning on 17 November, the operation quickly got into difficulty. Shaw recalls "a hectic afternoon when every driver, batman and cook at Advanced Army HQ was being mobilised" to drive off a thrust by one of Rommel's columns.[63] On 24 November, 8th Army Headquarters sent the LRDG CO a signal altering their role from covert reconnaissance to offensive operations. Pirates once more, they were now ordered to "act with the utmost vigour offensively against any enemy targets or communications within your reach."[64] The somewhat desperately worded signal further suggested concentration upon areas of the coast road, the enemy's main re-supply route. With the relief of besieged Tobruk at stake, Auchinleck and his staff were throwing everything they had into the melee in a desperate bid to produce a victory with Crusader. Being granted carte blanche for such action might sound well and good, but it was apt to cause high losses in men and machines. Former LRDG CO,[65] Guy Prendergast, explains: "The objection to a pure and simple "shoot up" of enemy traffic is that it naturally defines the spot at which the attack has been made, and so narrows down the area which the enemy have to search for the attackers."[66] Nonetheless, orders were orders, and the patrols took the offensive once more.

Numerous attacks took place over the following weeks. The 'best hunting' in November 1941 was had by patrols led by John Olivey (Rhodesians) and Tony Browne (New Zealanders) operating in concert on the Barce-Benghazi Highway. On the night of the 29th, they set an ambush that quickly netted a brace of supply trucks.[67] Following a period of inactivity, they decided the pickings might improve if they drove westwards along the coast road and attacked convoys going in the opposite direction.[68] The report of the action lists nine truck and trailer units destroyed (including fuel trailers), a number of enemy casualties inflicted and the telephone wires along the highway wrecked.[69] On their way back to base, a further two trucks with trailers were destroyed along with a large-capacity oil tanker.[70] December's raiding got off to a fine start with a night attack on a motor-transport park on the main coast road. By the time the Yeomanry Patrol withdrew, approximately fifteen enemy trucks were ruined.[71]

In early December, the forging of an alliance between the now well-established LRDG, and David Stirling's fledgling Special Air Service (SAS), was to have significance for the future of LRDG raiding, and the on-going accomplishments of both units. In July 1941 Auchinleck had given Stirling permission to organize a parachute detachment whose primary role would be behind-the-lines raiding and sabotage.[72] The unit's first endeavor was a debacle. The plan had been to destroy German fighter aircraft stationed on five advanced airfields in the Gazala-Tmimi area in the opening hours of Crusader. Once this was accomplished, the parachutists were to make their way on foot to a rendezvous eighty kilometres away with the LRDG, who would return them to base.[73] The acceptable wind-speed limit for parachute operations was twenty-five kilometers per hour. On the night of 15 November wind-speed at the targets was gusting over twice that. Despite Stirling being advised to abandon the attack,[74] awareness of the importance of Crusader and its subsidiary operations, and anxiety to prove his concept, led him to commit his unit to the attack. Those men not seriously injured in the jump, or dragged away into the desert by the high winds, were hopelessly separated from their equipment. By the time the men straggled in their twos and threes into the rendezvous, it was apparent that Stirling had lost thirty-two of fifty-five men to no good effect.[75]

Lloyd Owen recalls proposing on the journey back to base that in future the LRDG could be used to convey the SAS into the target area, on time, accurately, returning afterward to collect them.[76] With occasion to examine the methods and men of the patrols up close, Stirling became convinced. "David's [Stirling's] conviction that he could operate effectively only with the full support of the LRDG resulted in a brilliant partnership between the two organisations. Providing the separate aims of each were not allowed to clash, there was no reason why they should not co-exist happily."[77] In a speech to the SAS Association members in the late 1980s, Stirling acknowledged: "In those early days we came to owe the Long Range Desert Group a deep debt of gratitude. The LRDG were the supreme professionals of the desert and they were unstinting in their help."[78] Elsewhere he affirmed: "We had learned so much from them [the LRDG]; it is debatable whether we could have got off the ground so swiftly without them."[79] The benefits of the arrangement were not as one-sided as Stirling's generous remarks might suggest. For the LRDG, the creation of a parallel, co-operative unit with a primary responsibility for behind-the-lines offensive action was a blessing, with pressure mounting at GHQ for the LRDG to return to the covert reconnaissance work which was their forte. Additionally, Prendergast's misgivings about the vulnerability of the patrols following a 'beat up' were being supported by experience. Repeated post-attack strafing was producing a rising toll in men and machinery.

From early December onward, the LRDG "Taxi Service"[80] carried the SAS to their destinations, and back again. Little by little, patrol members passed on the techniques of desert-craft that eventually enabled the SAS to operate independently. Raiding by both groups continued unabated, with a joint SAS-LRDG undertaking bringing the high-point in December. On 10 December, New Zealander 'Bing' Morris led out T2 (Kiwi) Patrol accompanied by a dozen SAS members. Their twin objectives were the Agheila landing-ground, and an anchorage at nearby Mersa Brega being used to unload Axis supplies.[81] On the evening of the attack, the SAS found that the landing-ground was unoccupied and Morris established that any cross-country approach to the anchorage was impossible due to salt marshes. He decided the only way to get there was by using the main road.[82] A quick conference with the returned SAS team produced agreement. Morris's patrol vehicles formed a 'convoy' and proceeded to Mersa Brega on the highway, exchanging fascist salutes and greetings with some fifty on-coming trucks before arriving at a cross-roads near the anchorage.[83] Shaw described the attack:

Round the buildings at the cross-roads were twenty cars or more, with their crews, German and Italian, waiting beside them or getting a meal at the roadhouse . . . then the lagging [LRDG-SAS] cars came up and all hell broke loose . . . at twenty-five yards range, with every gun they had, the patrol opened fire on the men and vehicles. On the outskirts the parashots [SAS] hurried from truck to truck, dropping into them their sticky bombs [incendiaries] and dragging the bewildered drivers out of their cabs to give them a coup de grâce.[84]

Some fifteen minutes later, as reinforcements began to arrive, the patrol broke contact and withdrew up the highway, past the salt marshes and into the desert. Mining the route in their wake apparently produced several satisfying sets of explosions. All of this the patrol accomplished without loss.[85] Subsequently the commander of 8th Army made it clear that such raiding had been of "great value", suggesting the attacks "were naturally grossly exaggerated by the victims, and the enemy command, uncertain of the seriousness of the threat to their communications wasted much time, fuel and personnel in fruitless searches for the attackers."[86]

As Crusader and Rommel's counter-thrusts lost momentum in the early months of 1942, LRDG raiding activity wound down. After the serious depletion of the group's resources in the preceding months, there was a general relief at having the emphasis on covert reconnaissance return.[87] It was not destined to last. On 26 May, Rommel counter-attacked,[88] and inside three weeks the LRDG received orders to "operate offensively against enemy transport".[89] Rommel, as desert commanders are wont to do, was becoming a victim of his own success. For as one advances in the desert, so one's supply lines lengthen, with occasional disastrous results.[90] Any extra pressure that could be brought to bear on Axis lines of communication would be invaluable. A captured enemy Intelligence Summary dated April 1942, testified:

The L.R.D.G. plays an extremely important part in the enemy sabotage organisation. The selection and training of the men, the strength, speed and camouflage of the vehicles for the country in which they have to operate have enabled the Group to carry out very effective work.[91]

Raiding by LRDG patrols, alone and increasingly in co-operation with the SAS, continued until late July when the British made their stand at Alamein and, exhausted by the efforts of the previous months, both sides paused.[92]

In early August, convinced that fresh blood was needed in the fight against the Afrika Korps, the Chief of Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Alanbrooke, and Winston Churchill, replaced Auchinleck with Bernard Montgomery.[93] On taking over 8th Army, Montgomery predicted an early attack by Rommel.[94] It came on the night of 31 August and lasted for six days. Under Montgomery's leadership, the Allied line at Alam Halfa held and Rommel was forced to withdraw. Irving suggests: "The victory that Montgomery had scored over Rommel was more of a psychological nature than material."[95] In making this claim, Irving seems to place most of the emphasis on the relative material damage each side sustained. This tends to overlook the fact that Montgomery was all but sitting on top of his supply sources, whereas Rommel's supply lines were, once more, stretched to breaking. A further point to consider is that Rommel's losses in trucks were especially high (almost 400), nor could they be readily replaced because of incessant air attacks on his supply ships by aircraft operating from Malta.[96]

In late 1942, the LRDG's 'piracy' days began drawing to a close. Their reconnaissance value was such that GHQ was becoming increasingly reluctant to sacrifice patrols on other tasks, particularly when the SAS was carving itself quite a niche in offensive behind-the-lines roles. However, in September the LRDG were given a part in a group of synchronized raids designed to capitalise upon Rommel's deteriorating supply system. To achieve this, simultaneous raids would be mounted upon the harbours at Benghazi and Tobruk. A further raid on the airfield at Barce would, it was hoped, deprive the Axis of valuable fighter and transport aircraft.[97]

The scale of the operation was impressive and involved the LRDG, SAS, Commandos, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, as well as elements of the Sudan Defence Force. Tobruk was to be struck from the sea and ashore, aiming to capture the harbour gun batteries, demolish harbor equipment and, in particular, to destroy the large underground fuel tanks, thus preventing tankers discharging there in future. The attackers would then withdraw, courtesy of the Royal Navy.[98] Benghazi was to be attacked from inland with the aim of damaging shipping in the harbor and, once again, large oil-storage tanks.[99] The Sudan Defence Force was to advance from Kufra to attack and seize Jalo oasis to secure the line of withdrawal for the land parties.[100] The principal role of the LRDG was to guide the attacking parties to their respective targets. Additionally, two patrols would aid in the attack on Benghazi, and a separate LRDG force led by Easonsmith would assault the airfield at Barce.[101]

Overall, the operation was a costly disaster. Feasibility concerns expressed by officers of the SAS and LRDG during its planning were fully borne out by the event. A general underestimation of both caliber and quantity of expected opposition[102] was compounded by a criminal lack of security in the preparation stages.[103] Lloyd Owen recalls: "It was very clear to me when I arrived there [Cairo] . . . that far too many of those who were to take part in these raids were talking about the chances . . . I had heard these [rumors] through gossip at parties and in the bars of Cairo."[104] Lloyd Owen reported the rumors to GHQ staff, but to no avail.

Jenner and List insist that the Germans did not know of the raids beforehand. Their claim is based upon the movement out of the target area of some German formations that would not be sensible with foreknowledge of the attacks. Although admitting that British prisoners-of-war in Tobruk were aware of the impending attack, they do not discuss the possibility that one or more of them may have deliberately or inadvertently tipped the Germans off. The matter, they claim, "remains a mystery to this day", and cap their argument by pointing out that the British Official History "flatly denies a compromise [of security]".[105] Some time after the raids an intelligence report confirmed that a British prisoner captured and taken to Tobruk "had said 'something big' would happen in five days."[106] Five days later another prisoner witnessed the raid. This prisoner said, "the Germans appeared fully prepared. Afterwards he was told by a German that their preparations had included arming German military patients in a hospital on a bay where one of the landings took place. 88mm [flak] guns from inland were used in coastal defence."[107] The cost of the operation was colossal. The shore parties were annihilated[108] and the Royal Navy lost four motor-torpedo boats, two destroyers, an anti-aircraft carrier and many lives.[109] The Benghazi attackers were strafed from the air prior to reaching their target, losing eighteen SAS attack Jeeps and twenty-five other vehicles, and the Sudan Defence Force ran into prepared opposition and failed to take Jalo.[110] Referring to the raids, the British official history suggests,

At Barce the LRDG scored the only success when Major J. R. Easonsmith's two patrols, in five Jeeps and twelve 30 cwt trucks, having covered 700 miles from the Faiyum, reached their objective up to time and roamed over the airfield shooting up aircraft and hurling grenades into military buildings. The Italians reported sixteen of their aircraft destroyed and seven damaged.[111]

This somewhat spare description neglects to mention the additional heavy damage to buildings and motor transport, and casualties inflicted upon the enemy throughout the town. It certainly does less than justice to a raid that resulted in the awarding of two Distinguished Service Orders, one Military Cross, and three Military Medals.[112] In the midst of disaster the LRDG lived up to its reputation for professionalism by being the sole unit to achieve a significant proportion of its objectives.[113] The official account also fails to note the LRDG losses in the action and the retaliatory air strikes that followed, totaling six wounded, ten prisoners-of-war, and the destruction of fourteen vehicles.[114] The effects of the vehicle losses in particular were felt for some time after as the patrols had to be re-equipped with vehicles previously handed in to the Ordnance Corps Depot as unsuitable for further use. Their poor performance hampered operations from that point on.[115]

Despite short-term sporadic rises to prominence, raiding was of low priority in LRDG tasking relative to reconnaissance, surveying, and path-finding activity. That the group was called upon to carry out raiding at all reflects the fact that sometimes the LRDG was the sole unit available that had the capability of reaching targets deep within enemy-held territory. Also, the overall situation was, on occasions, so desperate that every unit had to be thrown into the fray, LRDG included, regardless of the possible costs. The dissipation of the enemy's resources as a response to LRDG offensive operations is well attested. In addition, the group's raiding exploits made substantial contributions to the rise of the Fighting Free French and the Special Air Service. However, as the capabilities of specialized raiding formations such as the SAS grew, the 'piratical' mantle was passed on by the LRDG, which was now able to concentrate on its principal raison d'être.

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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: 07/23/2006.

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