The Long Range Desert Group
1939 - 1945

Prominent Commanders     R.A. Bagnold
Major Battles

The whole of the desert campaign took place in a comparatively narrow strip, though more than wide enough for the Armored Divisions to make full use of its mobility. Farther to the south, beyond the oases of Siwa, Jarabub, and Jalo, lies the inner or Libyan desert of which the Western Desert is a mere fringe Except within the oasis depressions, the Libyan Desert is uninhabited and utterly without life. This was the scene of many of the exploits of the Long Range Desert Group. Through this inner desert ran the eastern frontier of Libya, and within their territory the Italians had established a system of military posts and landing grounds. They had organized special colonial forces for duty in the desert: of these the motorized 'Auto-Sahara' companies had the advantage of the permanent co-operation of a few reconnaissance aircraft, but were designed to operate over comparatively good surfaces - principally between and around the posts......

The few people who knew by experience that sand seas were not complete obstacles to all forms of motor transport were a handful of Englishmen whose professions had taken them to the Middle East between the wars, and who had made a hobby of desert travel and exploration. Among these were W.B.Kennedy Shaw, P.A. Clayton, and G.L. Prendergast, with Major R.A. Bagnold as prime mover and leader. Between 1932 and 1938 they had learned much about motor travel in the inner desert, and some had actually crossed the Egyptian Sand Sea. They had acquired the skill to discern a course amidst the huge sand dunes,and mastered the art of driving a vehicle up and across them without embedding or overturning it. They had invented 'unsticking' devices, such as the sand-channel; they had studied and adapted methods of navigation; and they gained experience of desert surface of all types, from loose sand to fields of basalt......

In 1939 Major Bagnold foresaw the possibility of turning his experience to good account if Italy should enter the war, by creating patrols which could reconnoitre and harry the enemy in unexpected places. He submitted proposals which appealed greatly to General Wavell's imagination and love of the unorthodox, but nothing came of them until Italy had entered the war and the French had dropped out. The formation of a Long Range Patrol Unit was then approved. Bagnold was present by chance and was soon joined by Shaw and Clayton..... Three patrols, each of two officers and about thirty men, were chosen from the New Zealanders in Egypt and after six arduous weeks of training the small unit was inspected by General Wavell and declared fit for operations. Captain Clayton had already taken a small party on one valuable reconnaissance: he had discovered a second sand sea (the 'Libyan') to the east of the Jalo-Kufra track: and had found a way across it.

During Sept (1940) the new unit went out on it’s first long patrol. The crossings of the sand sea were further explored; several Italian landing grounds between Jalo and Kufra were visited and damaged; the exits from Kufra and Uweinat were reconnoitered, and some prisoners and transports were taken. Contact was also made with the French past at Tekro. Meanwhile quantities of petrol. food and water were dumped at points beyond the Libyan frontier for future use, and with the help of the Air Force a number of sites for landing grounds were chosen.

By now it was apparent that the Italian policy was purely defensive; there were no signs of any intention to raid the Nile valley, and there had not even been any activity in conjunction with Graziani’s advance to Sidi Barrani. The initiative seemed to be left to the British, and in October the Patrol set out again, this time with more aggressive intentions. The road between Aujila and Agedabia was mined in half a dozen places; Aujila fort was attacked, and made no resistance; the Italian post at Ain Zuwaia was reconnoitered and a Savoia bomber found on the landing ground was destroyed; the track between Uweinat and Arkenu was mined; and a large dump of bombs and explosives was blown up. A landing ground was made at Big Cairn, …… Several other landing grounds were made ready for future use. The Patrol’s own tracts were studied from the air and many lessons in concealment learned; valuable because Italian aircraft were their worst enemies, and were already to be seen and heard from time to time.

These successes confirmed General Wavell’s opinion that the Patrol was making an important addition to the anxieties and difficulties of the enemy, and the War Office agreed with his proposal that the unit should be doubled and become the Long Range Desert Group. The right men were hard to find, however, because they were of the type which units could least well spare, and Major-General Freyberg was indeed asking for the return of his New Zealanders. A new patrol was formed from officers and men of the 3rd Coldstream Guards and 2nd Scots Guards, and in November this patrol and the New Zealanders were sent out in the southern and northern areas respectively. They explored the dunes between Jalo and Jarabub, and made new store and fuel dumps. In the Uweinat area they were bombed by aircraft, but attacked the Italian post at Ain Dua and inflicted several casualties.

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