The Long Range Desert Group was formed by Ralph Bagnold in 1940 and played a major part in the Allies victory in North Africa in World War Two. The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) became the forward eyes and ears of the Allies and together with the Special Air Service played a secretive but vital role for the Allies.
A LRDG and SAS patrol
The LRDG had two particular roles in the war in North Africa. They were to get behind enemy lines and act as scouts and gather intelligence to feed back to British military headquarters. To begin with, Bagnold’s new unit was known as the Long Range Patrol Group.
After getting the agreement of General Wavell to create such a unit, Bagnold was given 150 New Zealand volunteers, most of whom had a farming background. Bagnold believed that they would be more adept at maintaining vehicles in a difficult environment should mechanical problems occur.
The LRDG had three main patrols of forty men each. Each patrol was equipped with ten Lewis machine guns, four Boyes anti-tank rifles, anti-aircraft guns, Bren guns and Thompson sub-machine guns. Communication with base was maintained with the use of wireless sets. Their vehicle of choice was a Chevrolet 30-cwt truck. The first batch of these vehicles was obtained from the Egyptian Army or bought in Cairo. Each vehicle commander was allowed to modify his vehicle as he saw fit. The normal range for the Chevrolet was 1,100 miles and it could carry three weeks supply of food and water. In many senses it was the perfect desert vehicle.
On September 13th, 1940, the LRDG set up its first base at the Siwa Oasis. To get to this base, the LRDG had to drive about 160 miles across the Egyptian Sand Seas. Just two days later, the LRDG had its first experience of combat when a patrol led by Captain Mitford attacked an Italian petrol dump and emergency landing fields along the Palificata. Another patrol led by Captain Clayton crossed into French held Chad and persuaded the French forces there to join the Free French Forces. The two patrols met at Gilf Kebir, where they could re-supply, and travelled back to Cairo. By the time they returned, both patrols had covered about 4000 miles and had achieved a great deal.
Buoyed by such success, the War Office agreed that the LRDG could double in size to 300 men. The unit was officially now called the Long Range Desert Group (from Long Range Patrol Group) and Bagnold was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Volunteers were heavily vetted for such difficult work, but Bagnold found the extra 150 men he wanted. They came from the British, Indian and Rhodesian armies. Their primary targets were enemy held oases. The attackers went in quickly and disappeared just as quickly. Evidence points to the fact that the Italian commanders in North Africa were bemused by what happened to them and even Bagnold recognised that “the Italian army was halted for months”.
The LRDG returned to Chad and, combining with the Free French there, fought the Italian in the region of the Murzuk Oasis. They also succeeded in capturing Kufra, which in 1941 became the headquarters for the LRDG. Bagnold later wrote that the temperature frequently exceeded 50oC, which, he claimed, his men found tolerable as it was dry heat. His main bone of contention was not being able to eat properly during sandstorms, which lasted for several days. Because of the hostility of the environment, few other Allied units got to the Kufra region. To all intents, the LRDG commanders there were de facto full commanders of an area the size of northern Europe.
In July 1941, the LRDG got a new commander – Guy Prendergast. Bagnold, promoted to Colonel, returned to Cairo.