Bagnold was born in 1896 and died in 1990. His father had been in the Royal Engineers and he had always encouraged his son to seek out information. In 1915, Bagnold himself maintained a family tradition and joined the army. He spent three years fighting in World War One. After the war, he went to Cambridge University to study engineering. He graduated in 1921 and re-joined the army shortly afterwards.
He got a posting to Cairo. This posting allowed him to fulfill an ambition and he became a pioneer of successful desert exploration during the 1930’s. He retired from the army in 1935 and spent his time combining his love of physics, maths and curiosity to develop an intimate knowledge of the desert.
He made the first recorded east to west crossing of the Libyan Desert. Bagnold and his team of like-minded explorers developed a sun compass that was unaffected by metal and therefore not affected by magnetism. He also developed the practice of reducing tyre pressure when vehicles drove over loose sand. He also found out that driving at speed was by far the best way to drive over sand dunes – though the driver had to be wary of the fact that dunes fell away steeply at the top. Such knowledge was to prove vital once the desert was in Africa too off.
When war broke out, Bagnold was recalled to active duty despite his retirement. Bagnold knew that he had the necessary knowledge and expertise to seriously undermine the Axis forces in North Africa.
As a major in the British Army, he asked General Wavell, Commander-in -Chief Middle East land Forces, if he could form a small group of men who would act as scouts in the desert and send intelligence back to the British. Unlike many other senior officers in the British Army who were sceptical of “private armies”, Wavell was prepared to support Bagnold’s request – but on one condition. Wavell wanted to know what a scouting group would do if they were attacked by the enemy, what expertise would they have to get themselves out of a situation where rescue would be impossible? Bagnold claimed that the group would rely on their driving expertise in a desert environment to keep them out of trouble – something neither the Germans or Italians possessed.
Wavell gave Bagnold just six weeks in 1940 to put together a scouting unit. This was to become the Long Range Desert Group. It became the forward ears and eyes of the British Army stationed in North Africa and it initially drove SAS soldiers to their required drop-off point before they started their walk to a target. The LRDG would then pick up the survivors from an agreed rendezvous point. The SAS nicknamed the unit the “Libyan Desert Taxi Service”.
Bagnold’s knowledge of the desert in North Africa was invaluable. He even found the time to write “The Physics of Blown Sand” in 1941. In July 1941, he was promoted to full Colonel and worked in Cairo. However, he had proved the value of specialist units with specialist knowledge within the British Army – despite the sceptics.
in our peacetime travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the
enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled off by sheer
distance, lack of water, and impassable seas of sand dunes. Little did
we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we evolved for
long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious
After the war, Bagnold returned to his interest in the movement of sand. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and received numerous awards for his contribution to science including the Founders’ Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.