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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

Road Watches: Non vi sed arte [Not by strength, by guile] [1]

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]

Efforts to expand British intelligence assets did not end with the formation of the LRDG and a series of Commanders-in-Chief did much to make sure that intelligence derived from LRDG activity was rapidly complemented by material from such other sources as prisoners-of-war and signals intelligence (SIGINT). Until at least the end of 1941, the LRDG was uncontested in its position as the Middle Eastern Command's foremost provider of reliable tactical intelligence.[4] Even in the period 1942 onward, LRDG surveillance reports provided vital corroboration of intelligence acquired from other sources.

In the main, the LRDG contributed two types of information to the intelligence 'pool'; surveillance reports and topographical information. All LRDG reports commented on the 'going', the state of the terrain the patrol had encountered and its suitability for various types and volumes of traffic. This topographical information was summarized by the unit's Intelligence Officer and passed to GHQ – Middle East, often forming the principal basis of commanders' plans for lines of advance, retreat, or re-supply.[5] LRDG surveillance reports were carried out by concealed observation posts known as 'road watches'. This duty was both the most tedious and among the most valuable of the LRDG's many services.[6] It owed its existence to the fact that any enemy units or materiel traveling to and from the front were bound for geographical or logistical reasons to use the Coast Road, a single tar-seal ribbon extending from Tripoli to Cyrenaica.[7] Patrols would maintain the road watch for up to a fortnight before another patrol arrived to take over. By keeping three patrols assigned to a site, a watch on the ebb and flow of Axis forces on the Coast Road was sustained for months at a time.[8] The value of road watch information was confirmed by Intelligence Branch at GHQ – Middle East, which stressed that the information "was especially useful because the watch was continuous, and so enabled periods of activity and inactivity to be appreciated".[9]

The practice required the patrols to infiltrate hundreds of kilometers behind enemy lines unobserved, and then, under the cover of darkness, to take up the closest position to the road that would afford them sufficient concealment in daylight. Before dawn, two patrol members would conceal themselves within 300-400 meters of the roadway. These two would remain in position until evening, when they would be relieved by two of their comrades, who would be relieved in turn shortly before dawn.[10] Each pair carried enemy tank and vehicle recognition guides, notebooks and powerful binoculars. They were expected to record accurately details of every tank, vehicle and gun that passed. The men also had to determine the nationality of these things, and additional details such as whether they carried troops or stores, even the fine points of uniform embellishments so that the Intelligence staff in Cairo could identify the exact units on the move. This information was then coded and sent by radio to the Group HQ every twenty-four hours.[11]

The usual desert discomforts of blown sand and extremes of temperature aggravated the task.[12] In order to remain undetected on the daylight shift, the men could neither move around nor stand until night fell. The necessity to be within a few meters of the road at night at least gave the night crew an excuse to move around, and they needed to in order to keep warm. The monotony for both the watchers and their comrades waiting at the vehicles was astonishing. In the words of one patrol member: "You look at your watch at 11, and look again four hours later and it's 11:15."[13] The perpetual threat of aerial detection meant that even around the camouflaged vehicles movement had to be kept to a minimum, with men restricted to listening to the radio, reading, and swatting the interminable flies.[14] Lloyd Owen later recalled: "We hated it so much because we disliked being pinned down on a sedentary job when we knew other patrols were doing something far more exciting."[15] The boredom weighed more heavily on some men than others. Lloyd Owen remembers Bagnold suggesting that "the New Zealanders were more dashing in aggressive operations and a little restive in those that required more patient qualities".[16]

Despite precautions, the risk of discovery was constant, and not always occasioned by ground or air patrols. Enemy vehicle convoys turned off the highway from time to time, looking for an overnight campsite or place to break for a meal. On occasions they halted a short distance from the watchers, who were unable to withdraw until nightfall. Wandering local people, apparently more attuned to the presence of strangers, at times attempted to engage watchers in conversation before moving on, leaving the patrol members to wonder whether they would be reported to their enemy. In one instance, a school bus pulled up near the watchers and discharged its passengers, who started playing a game similar to baseball.[17]

The 8th Army's staff caused a problem for the LRDG by issuing concurrent orders for road watches on the Tripoli-Benghazi stretch of the Coast Road, and 'beat-ups' of the Coast Road traffic by Stirling's SAS. These orders increased the likelihood of concealed patrols being flushed out in the enemy's efforts to track down fleeing raiders.[18] Like the LRDG, the SAS had been rewarded for their successes by increased size and support. It did not take long before the enlarged scale of SAS operations began to impinge on the LRDG's more subtle tasks. In an effort to manage the situation, GHQ – Middle East issued an Operation Instruction that: "LRDG should carry out the Long Range reconnaissance tasks, and the SAS the shorter range attacks on enemy communications and aerodromes . . . it was left open for the LRDG to make similar attacks on long range targets."[19] The boundary was set at Long. 20? E, which effectively entailed the LRDG working all desert tasks west of the line, and the SAS undertaking all work to its east.[20] The arrangement did not entirely solve the problem. Despite strenuous efforts on the part of LRDG commanders to get the message through at GHQ meetings, the patrols were still unable on occasion to establish road watches due to aggressive enemy patrolling resulting from an earlier SAS 'beat-up' of the area.[21] Lloyd Owen recalls that

We had some difficulty some times in keeping Stirling's marauders away from our much more sophisticated operations of gaining information. It would be fair to say that much as we admired the tremendous success of Stirling and Paddy Mayne [2IC SAS] and assisted them very successfully, we sometimes wished they were not always in such a hurry and, through lack of organisation, so dependent on our goodwill and expertise.[22]

Nevertheless, the patrols were generally highly successful in remaining undetected in enemy-held country. Partly for this reason, they became the delivery method of choice for most personnel going into the desert with a clandestine purpose, Arabs and Allied servicemen alike. The range of passengers 'taxied' in both directions by the LRDG was surprising, extending from officers of various intelligence organisations and Arab irregulars conducting reconnaissance, to escaped prisoners-of-war (POW). On more than one occasion, aircrew able to report their position before baling-out or making a forced landing were picked up by patrols.[23] Following Axis advances, troops cut off would often find shelter among the local Arab population, regularly finding their way into the hands of organisations that could assist them to escape,[24] and signal to Cairo to arrange for their collection. On one such occasion, a Guards patrol under Alastair Timpson was ordered to make a pick up and a few days later his four trucks staggered into Siwa Oasis under the weight of forty-seven passengers. They included six British soldiers, eleven members of the Libyan Arab Force, the Mudir of Slonta, his two wives and child, their chickens, and the ubiquitous goat.[25] The patrols commitment to ferrying the SAS declined when the latter acquired improved desert skills and its own desert-worthy vehicles.

Ample evidence attests to the value of the road watch reports for the staff at GHQ - Middle East.[26] However, any deeper analysis of the significance of LRDG surveillance activity for theatre operations requires a measurement of the degree of success, and in speaking of intelligence activities, 'success' is primarily a relational term. Judgments which perceive intelligence assets in terms of those which 'delivered', against those which 'failed to deliver', miss the point that intelligence producing sufficient certainty to dispel the "fog of war",[27] often does so because of a congruence of time and location favoring a particular collection method, rather than some permanent advantage that inheres in its use. It is in the light of this idea that the LRDG enjoyed substantial success relative to the other assets available to the Allied commanders. It is hardly surprising that the results of LRDG surveillance were so well thought of early in the Desert War, given the high degree of reliability in its reports, and the general lack of effective intelligence-collection competition. That it continued to play an important role throughout the campaign despite the rise in availability and effectiveness of other collection methods requires explanation.

The other major providers of information in the theatre were POWs, aerial photo-reconnaissance, and sigint. Following early British successes, the number of POWs available for interrogation increased significantly. POWs and, in some cases, local civilians in areas newly captured from the enemy can prove a sizeable source of information, but have a number of drawbacks.[28] Firstly, military personnel rarely possess valuable information other than that directly relating to their position. Secondly, the information may be simply erroneous, or in some rarer cases, deliberately false. The outcome, Herman suggests, is that at best they "contribute pieces of the intelligence jigsaw, rather than highlights".[29] In contrast to the civilian informants, the LRDG patrol members were skilled observers and unlike the servicemen, they were not subject to the pressures acting upon a POW.[30]

Throughout the war aerial photo-reconnaissance played a consistent role as an intelligence collection method. From somewhat humble beginnings in World War I, significant advances in aerial photography and subsequent interpretation of the results gave it the means to deliver generally satisfactory results and the occasional bounty by the time of the Second World War.[31] However, a number of serious limitations attended its use. The first was meteorological; the weather simply had to be clear enough to produce usable results. The analysis of the images then depended heavily upon the capabilities of human operators, who, despite intensive technical training,[32] found that "what one could see in a photograph was often a matter of subjective interpretation".[33] Coupled to this was the limitation imposed by the simple fact that something must be physically present in order to register in the photograph, the information could seldom indicate enemy intentions. Furthermore, the cunning use of camouflage and deception techniques could impose serious restrictions upon photo-reconnaissance's usefulness.[34] These constraints give the lie to Bennett's description of photo-reconnaissance evidence as "factually incontestable".[35] Lastly, in order to observe changes in a given location the site must be revisited,[36] which entails the risk of the aircraft being brought down and of alerting the enemy to the precise intelligence objectives of the mission, thus enabling them to introduce counter-measures or deceptions.

SIGINT has become the twentieth century's richest intelligence collection source.[37] The term sigint includes the interception of messages on hard-line based communication, such as telephone and telegram, and, radio direction-finding, signal interception and the cryptanalysis of enciphered or coded messages. The speed of radio-based SIGINT's development was remarkable between the World Wars. Extensive resources were placed in the hands of Allied specialists working on the interception, decryption and interpretation of enemy material. The programme which delivered intelligence derived in this way was named ULTRA.[38] At the heart of ULTRA was a copy of a German enciphering machine called Enigma. The refinement of a Dutch prototype, Enigma was offered to the commercial market in the 1920s without success by German engineer, Arthur Scherbius.[39] However, in 1926 the Kriegsmarine began using the machine, followed by the German Army three years later.[40] This was consistent with a movement toward automated enciphering machines by many countries including Britain, France, Italy and the United States, all of which immediately complicated the mechanisms and procedures to heighten security, and began working on methods of decrypting other nations' machine-based ciphers. At the forefront of attempts to break enciphered traffic were the Poles, who, in collaboration with the French, managed to read German signals produced on Enigma machines by the early 1930s.[41] With the advent of war, the Poles passed all their information and equipment over to the British and the French. Although German changes to the machines and ciphers set the Allied projects back for some time, the work of the Polish mathematicians was central to later Allied decryption successes.[42]

Given the remarkable strategic advantage attributed to ULTRA,[43] the reluctance of some British commanders to accept and act upon uncorroborated intelligence derived in this requires explanation. The commanders' reluctance may be viewed partly as a response to incessant pressure from Winston Churchill for action that they often considered rash and ill-advised.[44] The seriousness of the problem is indicated by Mckee's suggestion that: "ULTRA together with Churchill's impulsive reading of it, played a large part in the continual British defeats in the desert".[45] This problem arose from Churchill's insistence on seeing decrypted messages 'in the raw'. Although the Joint Intelligence Committee held the responsibility for providing considered advice on matters of intelligence,[46] Churchill remembered, "I had not been content with this form of collective wisdom, and preferred to see the originals myself".[47] On 5 August 1940, Churchill wrote to General 'Pug' Ismay:

I do not wish such reports as are received to be sifted and digested by the various Intelligence authorities. For the present Major Morton [a member of Churchill's personal staff] will inspect them for me and submit what he considers of major importance. He is to be shown everything, and submit authentic documents to me in their original form.[48]

Betts draws attention to this phenomenon and offers the explanation that

Principals tend to believe that they have a wider point of view than middle-level analysts and are better able to draw conclusions from raw data. That point of view underlies their fascination with current intelligence and their impatience with the reflective interpretations in 'finished' intelligence.[49]

Added to this in Churchill's case was a personal impatience Churchill himself admitted, "I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded . . . In fact, if anything, I am a prod . . . my difficulties lie rather in finding the patience and self-restraint to wait through many anxious weeks for the results [of military operations] to be achieved."[50] Whilst it was certainly particularly characteristic of warfare in the Second World War (and since) that analysis could be outpaced by events, Churchill's demands, tinged as they were with impetuosity, would not have endeared him to his commanders.[51] Commanders were logically bound to question the basis of Churchill's insistence (ULTRA) if they were to argue for alternative courses of action.

There were, however, additional reasons for their apparent unwillingness to place their faith in ULTRA decrypts. Hinsley's description of sigint as "always incontestable" echoes Churchill's over-confidence in 'special' sources.[52] Yet, like any source, ULTRA demanded corroboration.[53] There was never any certainty that the Axis had not discovered the Allied penetration of their encryption system and were using the breach to pass misleading information.[54] Moreover, on occasion the information was simply wrong. The commander of the United States Ninth Tactical Air Command, General Elwood Quesada, later recalled, "we went on many wild goose chases as a result of ULTRA . . . [it] was a very fine tool that also had its drawbacks."[55] In the earlier part of the war, ULTRA's shortcomings were accounted for in a variety of ways. Calvocoressi recalled that the decrypts tended to be "scrappy and puzzling", and that not much of the material coming into Allied hands was clearly understood.[56] Its very 'newness' contributed to this as intelligence databases against which the material might be compared were non-existent. The intercepted material frequently merely alluded to previous signals on the subject matter and often constituted "a random sample of the complete exchanges".[57] As the ability of the Allies to decrypt German Army messages improved, an altogether different problem came to light, based on the Allied assumption that the Germans were telling the truth.[58] It is a truism of the military everywhere that in making requests for manpower or materiel, one will only ever receive a fraction of what is asked for. Rommel knew this as well as any soldier did. For this reason he tended to exaggerate his material deficiencies to strengthen his demands for further equipment and troops.[59]

The differences in intelligence appreciation this could cause are typified by an occasion on which Whitehall inaccurately insisted that Rommel's armored formations were in such a parlous condition that he was in no position to repel an offensive (even a hastily prepared one), and Cairo's counter-claim that the reverse was the case. Cairo's conclusion was partially based upon reports from LRDG patrols which had actually counted tanks, rather than estimated them. A further difficulty was that commanders seemed rapidly to reach a point where they tended to exaggerate the precariousness of their own situation in order to deny Whitehall's demands for immediate half-baked offensives.[60] Evidence that sigint was not "incontestable" was provided by Rommel's resounding defeat of Allied forces at Kasserine Pass. In this engagement Allied losses included 10 000 men (6 500 American), 183 tanks, 208 artillery pieces, 500 assorted vehicles and tons of ammunition and supplies.[61] This came about because after issuing his original battle directives, which were duly intercepted and interpreted by the Allies, Rommel changed his mind and issued new orders of which the Allies were unaware.[62]

There were also difficulties caused by over-supply of information. It is certainly the role of intelligence collection methods to help move towards sufficient certainty to support decision-making, and as Betts suggests, "uncertainty reflects inadequacy of data, which is usually assumed to mean a lack of information", however, "ambiguity can also be aggravated by an excess of data."[63] Hinsley describes the situation in the Middle East in 1941 where the cipher office "was so completely swamped by the amount of intercepts being transmitted . . . that a million groups of undeciphered backlog had to be destroyed in January 1942."[64] This is hard to reconcile with SIGINT supporters' belief in its "immediacy, the ability to read messages almost as quickly as the legitimate recipients".[65] German Naval historian Jürgen Rohwer cautions historians against believing that messages were decrypted and analyzed this promptly. He points out that there were often delays, "sometimes of days, between interception and the solution, which meant that often those solutions were practically useless to the commands."[66]

Finally, there was a problem with the 'fragility' of ULTRA.[67] The need to exercise extreme care with the intelligence gained this way often led to situations where to respond to the information appropriately would have given the Germans cause to question the security of their system.[68] The high volume of Axis shipping losses in the Mediterranean did in fact cause an investigation that, fortunately for the Allies, concluded that security had been maintained.[69] Field Marshal Montgomery's tendency to boast was a constant cause for concern. More than once alarm ran through Whitehall following his inclusion in speeches to his troops of information gained through ULTRA, instigating changes to the handling of decrypts and admonishments over security.[70]

ULTRA was of significance, and made an increasingly valuable contribution after 1943.[71] For the period under study, however, the above problems contributed to commanders' reservations about proceeding on single-source information. The surveillance information supplied by the LRDG was therefore invaluable, not merely in itself, but also because it allowed the best possible use to be made of other sources by providing the necessary degree of corroboration.[72] Non-fragile and embodying security and continuity, the intelligence derived from LRDG activities was indispensable until the close of the African campaign.

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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.

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