|Long Range Desert Group|
LRDG badge depicting a scorpion
|Active||3 July 1940 – 1945|
|Role||Mechanised reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and desert navigation|
|Part of||UK Special Forces|
|Nickname||The Mosquito Army|
|Equipment||Desert-adapted trucks and jeeps|
|Engagements||North Africa 1940–43
Battle of Leros 1943
|Disbanded||1 August 1945|
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was a unit of the British Army during World War II. The unit was founded in Egypt, following the Italian declaration of war in June 1940, by Major Ralph A. Bagnold with the assistance of Captains Patrick Clayton and William Shaw, acting under the direction of then General Archibald Wavell. The group specialised in mechanised reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and desert navigation. The group was disbanded at the end of the war. The LRDG was nicknamed the "Mosquito Army" by Wavell. Special Air Service soldiers would refer to it as the "Libyan Desert Taxi Service".
During the Desert Campaign of 1940 to 1943 the LRDG invariably operated hundreds of miles behind enemy lines; although its chief function was reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, units of the LRDG (called "Patrols") did carry out some hard-hitting strike operations, the most famous one of which was Operation Caravan, an attack on the town of Barce and its associated airfield, which took place on the night of 13 September 1942.
During World War I reconnaissance and light-strike forces known as Light Car Patrols (LCP) operated against Senussi and later Turkish forces across Egypt and Palestine. These units, manned by New Zealand, Australian and British personnel, used converted Ford Model T cars armed with Lewis machine guns.
Between the wars Major Ralph Bagnold, an officer in the Royal Signals Corps pioneered long range travel and navigation techniques. Travelling extensively throughout Egypt and Libya in Ford Model A trucks, he succeeded in negotiating areas hitherto thought impassable. Among other things, Bagnold had made major improvements on the Sun Compass, the new version of which was patented by him and later used by the LRDG. Bagnold's experiences with Italian military forces persuaded him that they posed a major threat to Egypt and the Suez canal in the event of war being declared. With this in mind, in 1939, Major Bagnold proposed setting up a unit similar to the Light Car Patrols which could be used to spy on the Italians. His ideas were roundly dismissed until, through a set of fortunate circumstances, he was able to get his ideas to then General Archibald Wavell who, by the entry of Italy into the war in June 1940, was in command of the British and Commonwealth armies in the Middle East. Wavell immediately saw the merits of Bagnold's scheme and Bagnold was given a free hand to look for volunteers amongst the forces which were available.
The unit, initially known as the Long Range Patrol, was founded on 3 July 1940. From the start it was thought that Australians and New Zealanders, with their mostly rural backgrounds, would be more self-reliant than their more urbanised British counterparts. However, General Blamey was restricted by a directive issued by the Australian government that Australian personnel were to fight together as the AIF and were not to be parcelled out to non-Australian formations. The New Zealanders were approached next and 150 New Zealand volunteers were then selected with the permission of General Freyberg, the New Zealand commanding general in the Middle East theatre. Bagnold had reasoned that the New Zealanders, being mostly farmers, would be more adept at using and maintaining machinery. Later additions to the group included British and Rhodesian units. An Indian Long Range Squadron was also set up, which operated as a semi-autonomous formation within the LRDG. Several South Africans also served in the LRDG.
During the Desert Campaign, from 1940 to 1943, the LRDG went through several phases of organisation, although in the first year or so it was broadly organised into Patrols of two officers, 28 "other ranks" and four reinforcements manning 11 vehicles. Later it was found that it would be more flexible to split each Patrol into two Half Patrols each of which comprised one officer and 15 to 20 other ranks in five or six vehicles. Each vehicle was manned by a vehicle commander, a driver, who also specialised in maintenance and loading of the vehicle, and a gunner, who was responsible for maintaining all weapons and associated equipment. W/T trucks had a navigator/wireless operator added to the crew in place of one of the gunners.[4 ]
The LRDG gained a well earned reputation as the experts in navigation in the Middle East. The LRDG was also frequently called upon to transport personnel of the SAS, the Free French, Popski's Private Army and other commando units, as well as British and Arab undercover agents. Allied prisoners of war were sometimes rescued as well as downed aircrew, and enemy personnel were often captured by LRDG patrols.
Initially the LRDG used a combination of ex-civilian 30 cwt Chevrolet WBs and 15 cwt Ford 01 V8 "pilot cars"; the latter were used by Patrol commanders to scout the terrain ahead of the main unit. From about mid-1941 the 30 cwt Chevrolets were supplemented and gradually replaced by Ford F30 30 cwt 4x4 trucks. Although these vehicles, with their four wheel drive, were good at crossing rough terrain their heavy fuel consumption was a big disadvantage; another problem was that the engine was mounted partly within the cab - this meant that conditions for the driver and passenger became very hot and uncomfortable. To aid cooling the radiator grilles and bonnets of the F30s were usually removed. The Ford 01s were also replaced by 15 cwt Chevrolet 1131X3 4x2, "Indian Pattern".
Converting LRDG trucks for desert use entailed removing the cab roof and doors, replacing the windscreen with "aero" screens and fitting radiator condensers, Bagnold sun compasses, steel sand channels and heavy canvas sand mats, plus weapons mountings. A number of trucks were also equipped with "aero" compasses of the type used by RAF aircraft and others had magnetic compasses in addition to the standard Bagnold sun-compass. Special wide-tread, low-pressure desert tires, which could be identified by their "diamond" or square tread pattern, were fitted. Spare wheels were often carried on quick release mountings on the sides of the vehicles, with additional spare wheels being loaded in the cargo tray. Because the trucks carried up to two and a half tons of equipment and supplies at the start of each mission the suspension springs were reinforced with extra leaves.
In March 1942 the LRDG began to receive the first of 200 Canadian-built Chevrolet 1533X2 4x2 30 cwt trucks, with a steel Gotfredson 4BI "ammunition body". Each of the Gotfredson bodies had lockers incorporated into the front face and forward of the rear wheels. The body sides were made higher by fitting wooden "greedy boards"; the posts onto which the "greedy boards" were mounted also doubled as weapons mountings capable of carrying a light machine gun. A reinforced post mounting for the rear machine gun was fitted to the rear half of the tray. Another weapons post was fitted to the front left door pillar. Brackets for carrying Lee-Enfield rifles were usually fitted to the rear door posts on both sides of the open cab. The Bagnold sun compass was fitted to the centre of the front bulkhead, above the instrument panel. Most of these vehicles also carried racks of three two-gallon oil cans on the rear of each running board. A good illustration of where equipment was fitted is shown in the photo of "T10" of "T 1 Patrol".
In the case of W/T trucks a special compartment was built into the forward right side of the Gotfredson body in which was fitted an Army No. 11 wireless transmitter and a Philips model 635 receiver; wooden masts for the "Windom" aerial array were fitted on brackets to the "greedy board" above the radio installation and an insulated aerial mount was fitted to the front of the body. The compartment was covered by a bottom-hinged flap which doubled as a table when lowered; in addition the No 11 wireless was covered by a door which slid backwards along the side of the body.
Although these vehicles were two wheel drive an extra low ratio gearbox and powerful straight-six engine meant they could deal with the terrain types traversed by the LRDG. On flat, firm surfaces they could easily reach and cruise at 100 km/h. More importantly, they consumed petrol at half the rate of the F30s which was a vital factor in allowing the unit to carry out successful long-range missions.
From early 1942 the Chevrolet 1131 "pilot cars" were progressively replaced by Willys Jeeps as supplies became available. For several months the Special Air Service took priority over the LRDG when Jeeps were being allocated, the irony being that in several of its early missions the SAS relied on the LRDG for transport. The LRDG took particular delight in salvaging abandoned SAS Jeeps and restoring them back to running order before handing them over to their own patrol leaders. LRDG Jeeps were typically armed with either the Vickers K or .303 Browning machine gun in either a single or twinned mountings. From early 1943 Jeeps progressively became the main patrol vehicle as the Chevrolets and remaining Ford trucks wore out. By May, when the Desert Campaign was wound up, the standard establishment had become six Jeeps per half Patrol.
It should be noted that the LRDG maintained its vehicles to a very high standard and boasted well equipped workshop facilities at its base (called "The Citadel") in Cairo and at its forward bases at Kufra and later Jalo. Each patrol went out with a "fitters" truck which was a standard patrol vehicle equipped with tools and spare parts (extra springs, fanbelts, carburettors, clutches, spark plugs etc) sufficient to allow running repairs in the field. This truck always travelled at the rear of the column. The fitter who was part of the crew, was a fully qualified motor mechanic. The drivers of each vehicle were also able to carry out mechanical repairs. Many vehicles were salvaged through some ingenious improvisation; on one mission a truck cracked its differential housing and crushed the cover plate on a rock, completely losing the oil. Towing the vehicle the 1,600 km back to base was impossible. The solution reached was to seal the cracked housing with chewing-gum and to pack the differential with whole bananas. Once the cover plate was hammered back to shape and bolted in place, and a trial run carried out, the 1,600 km journey was completed without any problems.
At the end of each mission the trucks were routinely overhauled and every four to six months they were taken to the base workshops and, in effect, rebuilt.
The primary role of the Heavy Section was to establish and provision forward supply dumps for the Patrol units. Initially this unit used four six-ton Marmon-Herringtons, supplied by the Southern Mediterranean Oil Company. These vehicles, with their six wheel drive, worked well in the desert; each could carry 144 cases of petrol as well as their own fuel and supplies. On occasion they could also be used to transport broken down patrol vehicles back to base. These were later replaced with four 10-ton Whites. In Spring 1942 the Whites were replaced by four Mack NR 9s and soon 20 Ford F60 CMP (Canadian Military Pattern) trucks were added. Captured Italian vehicles were sometimes used, especially the Fiat Spa AS37 light four wheel drive truck.
[4 ] From the inception of the Long Range Patrol the weapons used and the numbers issued varied, depending on availability. The early "normal" equipment for each patrol was ten Lewis machine guns, four Boys Anti-tank Rifles, augmented by water-cooled .50 Cal Vickers machine guns and a Bofors 37 mm anti-tank gun carried in the back of some adapted Chevrolet WBs and Ford F30s. Personal weapons carried were:
From March 1942, with the issue of the new Chevrolets, to May 1943 and the end of the desert campaign, new weapons were introduced:
The LRDG trained on many types of weapons, some of which were rarely used. Others were rejected for operational use or were issued in very small numbers:
Examples of captured weapons: The LRDG made use of many weapons captured from Italians or Germans.
Replacing the slow-firing 37 mm Bofors, they were hard-hitting and reliable, and could deal with the occasional German or Italian armoured cars which were encountered. These were fed by ten round clips. The main disadvantage was that the vehicles were left with little load space for their own supplies, which had to be distributed among the rest of the patrol. One Breda truck per half-patrol was the standard establishment in 1942. Single or twin machine guns were also mounted in the cab passenger position.
Land mines were frequently carried and used by the LRDG, the most common being the Anti-Tank Mine GS Mk.II. These were often laid in "strings" across roads or tracks. For sabotage LRDG used Lewes bombs, as well as manufacturing its own design of explosive device, made up with "Nobel's Gelignite" also called "808". These were planted in or against parked aircraft and other likely targets.
LRDG patrols invariably included a W/T vehicle equipped with an Army No. 11 wireless transmitter and a Philips model 635 receiver. Although the No. 11 was designed for short-range communications, the LRDG were able to transmit over hundreds of km using one and two metre-tall rod aerials and the "Windom" aerial system, which was made up of a wire stretched between two 17 ft high poles. Extra batteries to power the radios were carried by the W/T vehicles (on the Chevrolet 1533x2s these were mounted on the right, front running board).[18 ]
The W/T trucks carried a fully trained signaller and another qualified operator was carried in another vehicle. In the LRP most of the radio operators were New Zealanders, but the LRDG personnel were all from the Royal Corps of Signals. These men had to be highly skilled in communications and also had exceptional technical abilities in maintaining and repairing the equipment over periods of weeks, without outside help. There were only four occasions in three years of operations when a broken-down radio set had left a patrol unable to communicate with H/Q.[18 ]
The rod aerials were generally used at ranges up to 300 km from base; the Windom aerials were used for longer-range transmissions. Although the No 11 set was low-powered the LRDG succeeded in communicating over great distances; the longest communications recorded were made by the Indian Long Range Squadron who transmitted between the Damascus area and Benghazi, a range of over 2,500 km. All transmissions from a patrol were made using Morse code. The Philips receiver was used to pick up time-pips from the BBC, but was also used to play music when the patrol was encamped at nights, if not within listening range of the enemy.
On occasion the wireless truck was also the patrol navigator’s vehicle, being equipped with a theodolite and maps. Because the wireless/navigator’s truck was so vital, if it was destroyed or disabled the patrol was usually abandoned.
When new all LRDG Chevrolets carried black W.D. numbers L4618+++ stencilled in three standard locations: both sides of the upper clamshell bonnets and on the upper third of the right-hand side panels of the tailgate. There was a fourth W.D. number which was supposed to be stencilled across the mid-section of the front bumper, but the location of this could vary.
The only other standard W.D. markings were a black "INSPECTED" stencil and a "PASS"; again the locations of these markings could vary, being either on the front bumper or mudguards.
Vehicles of the different Patrol units were identified by a letter painted over a vehicle number (eg R 4 of R1 Half-Patrol). Up until about mid-1942 these were usually painted in white over a black, red or dark green circle or rectangle in three or four locations on the vehicle; there was no hard and fast rule about where they were painted. After mid-1942 these were simplified to black letters and numerals on a desert tan background.
During 1942 the LRDG was reorganised several times, so the markings on vehicles could change; as an example the Chevrolet L4618825 Te Aroha III of T1 patrol had, in March 1942, the markings ‘T9’ in white on a black (possibly dark green) square on the rear inset panels of the bodywork, and on the tailgate. The name was in white on a black background on the forward left, upper ‘clamshell’ bonnet. By the time of the Barce raid (Operation Hyacinth) in September 1942 the markings had become ‘T2’, denoting the lead navigator’s vehicle, roughly painted in black on a desert tan background. This was positioned on the square vehicle loading plate on the left-hand front bumper. ‘Te Aroha III’ was also repainted in black on a desert tan background in the original location.
R (New Zealand) Patrol; R1 and R2 ‘half patrols’ used a green Hei-tiki with a red tongue, painted on the front right-side bonnet. On the left was an R letter Māori place name, usually stencilled in white on a black, red, or dark green background rectangle.
T (New Zealand) Patrol; T1 and T2 carried a black Kiwi over green ‘grass’ and a Māori name starting ‘Te...’ in the same locations as R patrol vehicles.
W (New Zealand) Patrol; Carried a Māori name or word, usually in black on a yellow strip in the same locations as R and Y Patrols. W Patrol was disbanded in December 1940; its equipment was given to G Patrol and the personnel reallocated to R and Y Patrols. (Photos of an ex-W Patrol truck can be seen near the end of this article.)
S (Rhodesian) Patrol; S1 and S2 had names with a Rhodesian connection (e.g. ‘Salisbury’) painted on the left-hand clamshell bonnet. The trucks were identified with an S over a numeral.
G (Guards) Patrol; vehicles carried no distinctive markings, although some vehicles had the Guards insignia which was a rectangle divided into three vertical stripes: dark blue, red, dark blue. This could have the vehicle designation, G over a numeral, in white on the red section.
Y (Yeomanry) Patrol; Y1 and Y2: Personnel from the Yeomanry regiments of the Cavalry Division; Y1 had names of famous drinking establishments (e.g. ‘Cock O’ The North’) on the left side of the bonnet. Y2 had names from the famous ‘Three Musketeers’ series of books (e.g. ‘Aramis’) painted, again, on the left side of the bonnet. The usual Y over a numeral was the vehicle designator.
During the initial training, Shaw was responsible for teaching navigation, while Bagnold taught communications.
The first training patrol commenced in August with Bagnold taking two Ford trucks, five New Zealanders and an Arab guide to monitor the supply traffic on the Jalo–Kufra track. At the same time Shaw used the other patrols to build up supply dumps along the Libyan border, required due to the huge distances that would be travelled in future.
On 13 September 1940 the unit formed its first base at the Siwa Oasis.
They arrived there by driving approximately 240 km across the Egyptian Sand Sea. On 15 September two patrols of the LRDG were engaged in the unit's first combat operations. In this action Captain Mitford's unit traveled via the Kalansho Sand Sea and attacked Italian petrol dumps and emergency landing fields along the Palificata. Meanwhile, Clayton's group passed through Italian territory to contact the French forces in Chad. It is believed that the LRDG helped persuade the forces there to join the Free French Forces.
Following the September expedition the War Office approved a doubling of the unit's size, its renaming and the promotion of Bagnold to lieutenant-colonel. The enlarged unit gathered volunteers from British, Indian and Rhodesian units.
Bagnold wrote, "During the next few months, raids were made on a number of enemy-held oases...isolated garrisons were shot up...the raiders seemed to appear from a fourth dimension...Graziani was beginning to doubt his intelligence reports [and] the Italian army halted for...months."
In September 1940 Bagnold travelled to Fort Lamy, Chad, where he helped persuade the French colony to join the Allies. The LRDG and Free French forces worked together to raid Italian positions in the area of the Murzuk Oasis and the combined forces, using French artillery, captured Kufra on 1 March 1941. In April the LRDG's headquarters was moved to Kufra. Bagnold wrote, "Temperatures exceeding 50 °C were found to be tolerable, even on a restricted water ration, owing to the dryness. The worst discomfort came from...sandstorms, which lasted several days. They made eating very difficult."
During the summer of 1941 Bagnold recruited another pre-war exploration companion, Guy Lennox Prendergast, to serve as his second-in-command. On 1 July Bagnold left the unit to serve in Cairo as a full colonel and Prendergast became the LRDG's commander. Prendergast would be succeeded by John Richard Easonsmith (always known as 'Jake' Easonsmith) who was followed by David Lloyd Owen.
The LRDG maintained a secret airstrip between Kufra and Siwa used by their WACO aircraft to bring up personnel and special supplies, such as vehicle spares, and take out the sick and wounded. These aircraft were purchased privately by Guy Prendergast after the RAF refused to supply any. They were piloted by Prendergast and New Zealander Trevor Barker, always accompanied by a navigator, often Shaw, as the WACOs did not have radios.
They operated two Wacos, a 1934 YKC Standard Cabin biplane, RAF serial AX697 powered with a 225 hp Jacobs L-4MB, 7 cylinder radial, and a 1937 ZGC-7 Custom Cabin sesquiplane, RAF serial AX695 powered by a 285 hp Jacobs L-5MB 7 cylinder radial engine. Both had been owned by an Egyptian national who had operated these before the war started.
Operation Caravan was a subsidiary of Operation Agreement under which four simultaneous raids were carried out against important Axis Lines of Communication positions. These operations against Tobruk (Operation Agreement), Benghazi (Operation Bigamy), Jalo oasis (Operation Nicety) and Barce (Operation Caravan) were launched on the night of 13 September 1942 by British, Rhodesian and New Zealand forces (the SAS, LRDG and SIG). As it transpired, because of poor security and other factors Caravan was the only operation of the four which was relatively successful.
In late 1941 an Indian Squadron of the LRDG was raised from the British and Indian Armies, and operated behind enemy lines independently of the rest of the LRDG, throughout 1942. It was disbanded in 1943.
One of the Officers was Sujan Singh Uban who was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry. He later rose to become a major-general in the Indian Army and formed the elite Tibetan force, the Special Frontier Force as its Inspector General.
In August 1941 an artillery unit was formed to be able to attack Italian forts more effectively. Initially it consisted of a 4.5 inch howitzer carried on a 10 ton truck, with an accompanying light tank as an armoured Observation Post, however these were handed over to the Free French at Kufra. The unit was then issued a 25 pounder portee (truck mounted and fired). After successfully attacking and capturing fort El Gtafia, the truck had to be abandoned and the experiment ended.
One of the LRDG's most valuable contributions was the constant watch on traffic along the Tripolitanian coast road, deep behind Axis lines. A two-man team would hide up in a wadi and before dawn settle down under whatever cover they could find within a few hundred yards of the road. All day every movement was noted and categorized, using powerful binoculars and up-to-date photographs of enemy vehicles, then regularly radioed to HQ. Mussolini's "Aero Philanorum", which was known to the allied forces as Marble Arch, straddled the main Tripoli to Benghazi road and was the most conspicuous landmark in the area. The LRDG's roadwatch was established about 8 km from the monument.
After the end of the African campaign, the LRDG was trained in mountain warfare at the Cedars of Lebanon Hotel, in Lebanon. They were also trained in parachute operations. The unit went on to serve in Greece and the Greek islands (see Battle of Leros), Albania, Yugoslavia and Italy. With the war in Europe over, there was some thought given to sending the LRDG to continue its role in the Far East; this did not occur and the LRDG was officially disbanded on 1 August 1945.
Various fictionalizations based more or less on LRDG's desert period:
Pictures of the only original LRDG truck known to be in existence, at the Imperial War Museum, London:
W8 Waikaha, a 30 cwt WB Chevrolet.
Close-up of the name Waikaha, still visible on side of bonnet.
Close-up of Patrol designation "W", still visible on side of bonnet just in front of the driver's seat (left-hand drive).
Close-up of unusual tailgate insignia, a stylised Union flag.
Topography of Libya.
Dunes of Erg Awbari (Idehan Ubari) in the Sahara desert region of Fezzan in Libya. "Razor-back" dunes such as these were dangerous and had to be crossed with great care; it was all to easy to capsize a heavily laden vehicle over the top or, if taken too fast, a vehicle could jump over the edge; in 1941 an LRDG 15 cwt Ford made a crash landing after 'flying' for 18 metres. Photo by Luca Galuzzi, 2007.
Desert pavement, Ahaggar Mountains of central Sahara, southern Algeria. This type of terrain was hard on tyres, steering and suspension. Photo by Bertrand and Florence Devouard, 2005
See also Geography of Libya