THE LONG RANGE DESERT GROUP, THE BRITISH SPECIAL AIR SERVICE AND OTHER
BRITISH SPECIAL FORCES UNITS THAT SERVED DURING WORLD WAR II
BY: NICK JACOBELLIS
“Not by strength but by guile,” was their motto. Their mission was to gather
intelligence and strike deep behind enemy lines. The unit designation: The British Long
Range Desert Group.
The history of the unit that became known as the Long Range Patrol and evolved
into the Long Range Desert Group is a fascinating story about one of the most legendary
Allied Special Forces units that operated during World War II. LRP/LRDG soldiers were
the commandos of the sand seas who became famous for launching surprise attacks and
vanishing into the desert like a thief in the night.
When they weren’t conducting raids they spent their time surveying the desert and
gathering valuable intelligence information. Although they often worked alone, the Long
Range Patrol and the Long Range Desert Group also conducted joint operations with
other units and served as the primary Allied reconnaissance force in Egypt and Libya
from 1940 until 1943. After victory was achieved in North Africa, the LRDG served
with distinction in Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania and the Dalmatian Islands.
The LRP/LRDG was created by Major Ralph A. Bagnold, a British Army Officer
who spent the better part of a decade exploring the Libyan Desert before the outbreak of
hostilities in World War II. Based on his experiences as a peacetime explorer, Bagnold
envisioned the need for the British Army to deploy a motorized reconnaissance force, to
patrol the Libyan Desert in any future conflict that took place in the Middle East. In
many respects, Bagnold’s plan revitalized a concept that was effectively used in World
War I, when the British Light Car Patrols protected the Egyptian frontier from the
Turkish and German backed Senussi in the Western Desert.
In 1939 and again in 1940 Bagnold presented his plan to his superiors and
recommended the formation of a desert reconnaissance force, that could operate behind
enemy lines under the harshest conditions imaginable. On both occasions General
Headquarters Middle East (GHME) rejected his proposal. Thirteen days after Italy
declared war on England, Bagnold resubmitted his plan for the third time and received
authorization from General Sir Archibald Wavell to form his long range patrol force on
June 23, 1940. Five weeks later Major Bagnold had the first group of Long Range Patrol
volunteers equipped and training in the desert.
The fact that the British remained in the Middle East as a colonial power between
both world wars, had a significant impact on the formation of the LRP/LRDG. This was the case,
because during this period a number of Englishmen spent a great deal of time exploring the sand
seas and deserts of Egypt and Libya for pleasure and business purposes. Many of these men, including
Major Bagnold, brought their experience and love for the desert with them, when they joined the
British Army and volunteered to serve in the LRP and the LRDG.
The Long Range Patrol/Long Range Desert Group was created to conduct reconnaissance
missions, gather intelligence, conduct surveys, create accurate maps for military use, perform courier
duties and lay mines. Two of the more action oriented missions of the LRP/LRDG, was to escort
intelligence operatives and Allied Special Forces personnel to destinations behind enemy lines and
return them to base, while also participating in raids, ambushes and attacks on Axis installations,
personnel, and equipment.
Initially, the Long Range Patrol consisted of a headquarters unit and three patrols (T, R & W).
In the early days of operation, the average patrol consisted of two commissioned six officers, thirty
men and eleven heavily armed vehicles. The LRP also had a signals (communications) unit, a salvage
unit known as a Light Repair Squadron and a transportation unit known as a Heavy Lift Section, that
used 6 ton British Marmon–Harrington trucks to move supplies for the LRP and later the LRDG.
While most of the original members of the LRP were New Zealanders, Major Bagnold also recruited
Rhodesians, British Yeomanry troops and a few South Africans.
According to one LRDG historian; in mid 1940 the LRDG Table of Organization consisted of
87 officers and enlisted men and 43 vehicles. By the end of 1940 the LRDG consisted of 292 troops
and 90 vehicles. By March of 1942 the LRDG was expanded to include a total of 349 commissioned
officers and enlisted ranks, 110 vehicles and two rugged Waco biplanes. An Indian Long Range
Squadron was also organized and consisted of just over 100 British and Indian officers and enlisted
men and 35 vehicles.
The most important piece of equipment used by the LRP/LRDG were their rose colored
vehicles. (Rose was determined to be the best color to paint vehicles to avoid detection in the desert)
In order to perform their extremely dangerous and demanding missions the LRP/LRDG used a variety
of 6 and 8 cylinder Chevrolet and Ford trucks, as well as some British vehicles and captured enemy
vehicles. American Willy’s Jeeps were also used once they came into service in the British Army. A
variety of trucks were used by the Heavy Section or Supply and Transport Section to haul gasoline,
equipment and other supplies to remote supply dumps and forward bases.
Before the LRP/LRDG sent troops on a patrol their vehicles were highly modified to provide
the best possible platform to carry men, equipment and weapons into the desert under combat
conditions. In addition to removing passenger compartment roofs, doors and windshields, LRP/LRDG
patrol vehicles were filled to capacity with 2 tons of equipment including, weapons, ammunition,
food rations, water, extra petrol (gasoline), canvass tarpaulins, camouflage netting, tools, sand mats,
rope ladders and steel sand channels to free stuck vehicles, cooking stoves, mess kits and other
supplies, to maintain operations in the field for as long as three weeks without being refueled or re-
supplied. The LRP/LRDG also modified their vehicles with condensers that used steam from
overheating engines to “recycle” water back into the radiators. This simple yet ingenious modification
enabled heavily laden vehicles to function in the intense heat without breaking down, or requiring more
frequent stops to service the radiators.
Soldiers assigned to the LRP/LRDG diligently maintained their vehicles and did everything
humanly possible to salvage equipment that was damaged in combat or broke down on patrol.
LRP/LRDG mechanics known as “fitters” worked at base camps and went on patrol in specially
equipped vehicles that were laden with enough spare parts and tools to make major repairs in the field.
If necessary, a disabled vehicle was towed by other vehicles to safety, rather than leave a potentially
repairable “lorry” (truck) behind. During one particular operation, a LRP/LRDG patrol towed a
disabled truck several hundred miles across the desert to get it back to base so it could be salvaged.
In addition to carrying handguns, Enfield rifles and Thompson sub machine guns, the
LRP/LRDG also equipped their vehicles with the heaviest machine guns and cannons available, to give
their patrols a fighting chance when operating deep behind enemy lines. Eventually, American
Browning .50 caliber and British Vickers machine guns replaced Lewis Guns. Two inch mortars were
carried and used once in combat. It was also popular to mount twin machine guns on vehicles. Boys
anti tank rifles, 37 mm Bofors were eventually replaced by 20 mm Breda guns. British Bren guns were
also made available once they came into service in the British and Commonwealth forces in adequate
LRP/LRDG crewmen also had to learn how to drive heavily laden vehicles in the desert and
survive in the most inhospitable terrain imaginable. One of the biggest concerns of the LRP/LRDG
was having a vehicle get stuck in the harsh off road conditions. When this happened, crews went to
work with shovels and placed sand mats and long and narrow perforated sections of steel known as
sand channels under the wheels of a stranded vehicle to provide the necessary traction.
The LRP/LRDG also had to contend with dramatic changes in weather, including intense heat
and extreme cold. Crews also endured sandstorms and dust-storms that made travel difficult and
caused day to turn into night and dramatic changes in temperature. Dust storms were considered to be
much worse than sand storms. By all accounts, the weather in the desert was most hospitable during the
day in the early winter months. In contrast, incredibly hot winds filled with fine particles of sand called
qibli pelted men and machines with ferocity during the summer months.
The conditions in the desert were so severe it was not uncommon for the temperature to reach
120 degrees in the shade in the summer months. This made the intake of water critical to the survival
of those who operated in the desert during war and peace. LRP/LRDG troops also altered their work
schedule so they were less active when the sun was the strongest.
In addition to wearing conventional military uniforms, LRP/LRGD soldiers often wore practical
non-regulation clothing like sheepskin coats, Arab headdresses and civilian sandals while operating in
the harsh elements of the desert. The fact that Allied and Axis forces often wore beards and similar
desert tan/khaki colored uniforms also made it possible for British Special Forces troops like the
LRP/LRDG to blend in when operating at night, in close proximity to Axis military personnel. (LRDG
troops grew beards and remained unshaven in order to conserve water) Being unshaven and wearing
functional non regulation clothing also contributed to the covert nature of the LRP/LRDG mission and
made it possible for LRDG troops to pass for Arab nomads, when operating away from their vehicles
Despite the weather conditions and the difficult terrain LRP/LRDG crews became experts in
desert navigation. LRP/LRDG Land Navigators used a sun compass and a surveying instrument
known as a theodolite to plot their way across the largely un-chartered terrain. Even when maps did
exist the LRP/LRDG found them to be very inaccurate. To rectify the situation, the LRP/LRDG
routinely conducted surveys and used the information gathered on each patrol to create detailed maps
of the desert. During the war, the LRP/LRDG shared their knowledge by providing maps to other
It was also imperative that the LRP/LRDG was able to communicate with its headquarters,
regardless of how far it was operating from its base. To accomplish this, LRP/LRDG patrols used
wireless radios to send and receive signals. (One vehicle in each patrol carried the wireless radio and at
least one signalman was assigned to each mission) Initially, LRDG patrol were instructed to be make
contact by wireless three times a day or whenever necessary. A less regimented schedule was
eventually adopted. Radio frequencies were never used more than twice in the same month and all
communication to and from their base station was conducted in code. Despite the harsh operating
conditions, British and Italian made communications equipment was used by the LRDG with great
The LRDG also used aircraft to conduct search and rescue operations, transport parts and
personnel and evacuate the wounded and injured. Despite the fact that the Royal Air Force did not like
the idea of a ground forces unit having their own aircraft, the LRDG acquired two American made
Waco aircraft (the type ZGC-7 and the YKC with the smaller engine) that were flown by LRDG pilots.
LRDG pilots were so committed to maintaining an aviation component for their unit, they did their
own routine aircraft maintenance. The LRDG also relied on No 216 Squadron, RAF as their primary
air support unit while operating behind enemy lines.
The LRDG also established emergency runways known as Landing Grounds in remote areas. A
network of these remote emergency airstrips was created to give aviators and passengers an opportunity
to survive if forced down in the vast expanse of the desert. Each Landing Ground was adequately
equipped with stores of food, water, gasoline and engine oil and represented a man made “oasis” of
sorts in the desert where stranded individuals could survive an otherwise life threatening situation.
One of the greatest challenges facing the LRP/LRDG involved maintaining the supply lines
necessary to support long range patrol activity. By establishing remote supply dumps the LRP/LRDG
was able to mount a wide variety of intelligence gathering missions, surveillance operations, raids and
offensives that helped to win the war in the desert.
The biggest problem with refueling operations involved the fragility of the tin cans that were
used in the early years of the war by the British Army to store gasoline. Until the British had a chance
to capture and examine the well made gasoline cans that were used by the Germans known as “Gerry
Cans”, the British were forced to use a four gallon can made of much thinner metal that was very
susceptible to being punctured. According to one LRDG veteran turned historian; it was virtually
impossible to transport the early model British tin petrol cans without sustaining a 25% or higher loss
of fuel due to spillage.
In addition to relying on an adequate supply of fuel for their vehicles, the LRP/LRDG relied on
a daily water ration of 6 pints per man whenever they went into the field. As documented by LRDG
veteran Captain William Kennedy Shaw, this ration gave each LRP/LRDG trooper enough water to
brew up tea for breakfast and evening mess, with three pints left over for lunch and general
consumption throughout the day. Unfortunately, the basic water ration did not allow for
bathing/washing. The LRP/LRDG troops also enjoyed a mixture of equal parts of fresh lime juice and
rum, after a long day of operating in temperatures that exceeded 120 degrees in the summer months.
As far as food was concerned, Major Bagnold is credited with designing the menu and rations
that were used by LRP/LRDG personnel. Bagnold knew from his experiences as a desert explorer, that
a special food ration was required to insure that all LRP/LRDG crew members received the proper
nutrition. As a result of Bagnold’s efforts, the LRP/LRDG became the best fed unit in the desert. The
list of LRDG rations include tinned meats, tinned fish, tinned bacon, tinned fruit, tinned potatoes,
tinned milk, tinned vegetables, tinned fruit, sardines, dried fruit, bread, biscuits, cheese, chocolate,
margarine, oatmeal, flour, sausages, sugar, salt, tea, tobacco, rum, lime juice, jam etc. Fortunately, the
LRP/LRDG was able to light fires at night to cook meals and brew tea with little or no concern of
having their position compromised, because it was common for Arab nomads to camp in the desert.
(Axis forces were used to observing fires at night and assumed the remote camps in the middle of
nowhere were occupied by Arabs)
Although the LRP/LRDG faced many perils while operating behind the lines, the greatest
danger to patrols was being attacked by enemy aircraft. As long as a LRP/LRDG patrol was in a
stationary position and not kicking up a trail of dust, there was a good chance that they would not be
spotted from the air, even if the patrol was operating in the wide open spaces of the desert.
When an enemy plane became interested in an LRP/LRDG Patrol, one course of action was to
act friendly and wave to the enemy pilot and hold up a German insignia on a placard. Some British
vehicles also displayed German capture strips known as a booty mark, to signal opposing forces that
the British vehicle was captured and being used by German forces. This was the case because a fairly
large number of British vehicles were captured by the Germans.
When caught out in the open the LRP/LRDG crews would often continue on course as if
nothing was wrong while having the vehicles begin to disperse. In other situations, the patrol would
hold their fire and wait until they had no choice but to scatter the vehicles and fight it out as best as
possible. By all accounts, strafing by marauding Axis aircraft caused more damage to LRDG patrols
than bombing. One LRDG officer by the name of Lieutenant Robin Gurdron was killed in action while
heroically continuing to fire his machine gun, at an Axis fighter aircraft that made several strafing runs
on his patrol vehicle.
Another tactic was to wait for the enemy scout plane to leave the area and take cover near the
closest rock formation or patch of vegetation and use camouflage netting to conceal themselves from
enemy aircraft. When Axis aircraft returned and scoured the area looking for the British patrols, they
sometimes randomly strafed locations that were suitable for a unit to conceal themselves, even though
the LRDG Patrol was not visible from the air. In other instances, the LRDG survived air attacks
because they were spotted so late in the day, that Axis aircraft were unable to continue making strafing
and bombing runs after sunset.
As mentioned above, the use of a significant number of captured British vehicles by the
Germans made it difficult for Allied aircraft to identify a column of vehicles from the air, without
special recognition signals being deployed. Colored flairs, identification panels, flags and colored mats
were also used by the LRP/LRDG to signal RAF aircraft that became interested a convoy of vehicles.
Unfortunately, there were incidents of friendly fire and instances when patrols were badly damaged by
In order to increase their chances of survival, LRP/LRDG crewmen carried an easily accessible
shoulder bag, that they could grab in an emergency while bailing out of a vehicle under attack. These
emergency kits contained an extra canteen (water bottle) and other necessary items. In many instances
there were enough vehicles undamaged or in running condition after an air attack, to carry the survivors
on the rest of their mission or back to base. Unfortunately, there were other instances when stranded
LRDG crews had to survive in the desert. Considering the circumstances the survival rate was quite
high. Several LRDG crewmen were aided by friendly Arabs, who helped them survive in harsh terrain
so they could return to the Allied lines.
In order to avoid alerting enemy ground units of their presence the LRP/LRDG rarely ventured
closer than 40 or 50 miles to any signs of civilization during daylight hours. Operating at night was
another story. While conducting operations, the LRDG routinely traveled on roads that were used by
Axis forces. Again, as mentioned above, one reason this was made possible, was because the Germans
used a very large number of captured Allied vehicles including trucks (lorries). The similarity of desert
tan cotton uniforms also made it easy for British troops to mix in with Axis convoys at night and not
become suspicious. This was especially the case when LRDG personnel and their passengers waved
and smiled at the enemy forces that they passed, while boldly driving to their objectives in what must
have been assumed were “captured” British vehicles.
The LRDG and other British Special Operations units also used captured Italian and German
vehicles to enhance their “cover” while traveling behind enemy lines. In addition to using captured
Italian trucks, the LRDG and other British Special Forces Units like the SAS and the SIG (Special
Interrogation Group) used captured German vehicles to make their way behind enemy lines. It was
common during these operations for the LRDG to guide Allied special operations personnel who were
driving captured enemy vehicles through the desert to their destination. The LRDG would then wait in
a safe location and rendezvous with the raiding force when they were ready to return to base. British
Special Operations Forces like the SIG also acquired Axis passwords, so they could travel through
enemy checkpoints while wearing German uniforms and speaking German.
At different times in 1941 and 1942 the LRDG conducted Road Watch Operations, to monitor
enemy activity on roads used by Axis forces in the desert. Gathering intelligence behind enemy lines
was such an important mission, that the LRDG always had one patrol assigned to road watch duty.
When conducting these operations LRDG troopers would conceal their vehicles as best as
possible and send scouts to a lay up position (LUP) that was located very close to the area under
observation. A less detailed report on the observations of a patrol on road watch duty was sent back to
base by wireless radio on a daily basis. More detailed report about the type and number of enemy
wheeled and tracked vehicles, the number of artillery pieces and the troop strength observed was sent
during their return trip back to their base, or when the patrol arrived at their duty station. Regardless of
the risks involved, LRDG Road Watch Operations provided the British Army with “real time”
intelligence information about enemy troop movements, their direction of travel and the compliment of
the enemy forces under surveillance.
The LRP began conducting operations or sorties in September of 1940. The first mission
consisted of all three patrols and involved a reconnaissance of the area around the Italian garrisons at
Kufra and Uweinat. In addition to snatching some prisoners, Major Bagnold wanted to ascertain the
extent of the enemy activity near remote outposts, that were re-supplied along a route that extended
As mentioned before, in order to conduct operations in the Libyan Desert the LRP/LRDG had
to establish clandestine supply dumps at strategic locations. One such dump was located in the vicinity
of Ain Dalla along the perimeter of the Great Sand Sea. In addition to the presence of a natural spring,
Ain Dalla was an excellent location to establish a clandestine supply dump and staging area, along the
route that the LRP/LRDG would use to travel from Cairo to various destinations in Libya. A second
supply dump was established at a location called Easy Ascent. Easy Assent was a path that vehicles
used to access the western slope of the plateau where the Great Sand Sea is located. Easy Assent was
originally discovered by Captain Clayton in 1932, when he was a civilian conducting surveys for the
Egyptian Government. This particular staging area and remote supply dump proved to be invaluable
and was used by the LRP/LRDG for approximately seven months.
West of the dump at Ain Dalla and 150 miles from Easy Assent was another remote supply
dump called Big Cairn. Little by little, the LRP transported thousands of gallons of gasoline and other
supplies from Cairo to Big Cairn via Ain Dalla and Easy Assent. From these remote supply dumps
LRP/LRDG Patrols traveled hundreds of miles through some of the most difficult terrain and weather
While conducting their first mission, the LRP destroyed remote Axis Landing Grounds and fuel
dumps that were being used by the Italian Force. On September 20, 1940 the LRP captured two Italian
prisoners, two trucks and 1500 gallons of gasoline. Two LRP patrols under the command of Major
Bagnold and Captain Clayton also conducted a joint reconnaissance of Uweinat. After leaving the
main party, a small contingent of LRP troops including Captain William Kennedy Shaw and Captain
Ballantyne from T Patrol transported the prisoners and the captured documents back to Cairo.
As far as British GHME (General Headquarters Middle East) was concerned, the LRP’s first
few patrols in Central Libya ended in success and established the reputation of Major Bagnold’s unit,
as a highly capable special operations unit, that operated deep behind enemy lines in the harshest
terrain imaginable, with very little investment in men and equipment. Once the Italians became aware
that a British long range desert force was operating in the vicinity of remote garrisons in Libya, the
Italians began to escort their supply convoys across the desert. The presence of a marauding British
Army unit conducting operations deep behind the lines in Libya, created tremendous anxiety among
the Italians and forced the Italian Army and Air Force to commit additional group troops and aircraft to
perform force protection duties.
Without wasting any time, the LRP conducted follow-up operations to probe and attack Axis
garrisons, landing grounds and main supply routes, while harassing the Axis forces in the Libyan
Desert. The primary area of operation at this time continued to be the area around Kufra and Uweinat,
including the Libyan garrison at Ain Dua.
In November of 1940, Captain Steele and members of R Patrol made history when they were
credited with destroying the first Axis aircraft that was destroyed on the ground behind enemy lines in
the desert war. In addition to destroying the Italian Savoia S79 bomber, R Patrol also destroyed several
thousand gallons of fuel on an Axis emergency landing strip (Landing Ground) near the Italian garrison
at Ain Zwaya.
The first Allied troops to join forces with the LRP/LRDG were the Free French. In November
of 1940 Major Bagnold approached the Free French forces in Chad and proposed a joint operation
against Italian forces. The objective of the first joint operation was the Italian base and airport at
Murzak, a worthwhile target that was located over 1000 miles from Cairo and 350 miles from the
French post at Tibesti.
This joint operation was initiated at a time when the Long Range Patrol was expanded in size in
December of 1940, to include three more patrols designated G Patrol, S Patrol and Y Patrol. G Patrol
consisted of Brigade of Guards, S Patrol was made up of Rhodesian and South African troops and Y
Patrol was primarily made up of volunteers from the British Yeomanry Regiment. The new unit was
called the Long Range Desert Group.
Under the command of Major P.A. Clayton and Captain Crichton Stuart, 76 members of the
British LRDG departed Cairo on December 26, 1940 in 23 vehicles to commence offensive operations
against the Italians in Murzak. After traveling eighteen days and 1500 miles, the LRDG and their Free
French Allies attacked the fort and airport at Marzuk on January 11, 1941. During this raid, the Free
French Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Jean Colonna d’Ornano and two LRDG crewmen were killed
in action. Axis loses included several killed in action, including the Italian commanding officer. Other
Axis soldiers were wounded and taken prisoner. After withdrawing from the immediate area, the
LRDG buried their dead and signaled Cairo on the results of their mission, before they slipped back
into the desert.
After the Murzak raid, the Free French forces under the command of Colonel Jacques –
Philippe Leclerc, joined forces with the LRDG to attack the Italian garrison at Kufra. Unfortunately,
the raid on Kufra suffered an initial setback, when Major Clayton’s LRDG T Patrol of some 30 men
and 11 vehicles was attacked by Italian aircraft and an Italian Auto Saharan Company of five vehicles
and 40 men at Gebel Sherif. During this particular enemy air and ground attack, three LRDG vehicles
were destroyed and several LRDG troopers from T Patrol were killed, wounded or taken prisoner,
including Major Clayton.
Even with the losses sustained at Gebel Sherif, an Allied motorized force of 396 European and
Native troops under the command of Colonel Leclerc was able to capture the fort at Kufra on March 1,
1941 and evict the Italians from their ten year reign in the area. Because of the efforts of the Free
French and their native forces, the LRDG was able to use the captured fort at Kufra as a base of
operations for fourteen months.
In August of 1941, Major Bagnold was promoted to a staff position and Lt. Colonel Guy
Prendergast was placed in command of the LRDG. By September of 1941 the LRDG changed its
operational table of organization and reduced the size of the patrols. These new patrols were more
manageable in size and consisted of one officer and fifteen to eighteen men operating in five to six
No history of the Long Range Desert Group would be complete without including the role that
the British Special Air Service (SAS) played in special forces operations in the Middle East during
World War II. The founder of the SAS was Lt. David Stirling, a mild mannered British officer from the
Scots Guards, who volunteered to serve in Major Robert Laycock’s 2000 man No 8 Commando unit
known as Layforce. When Layforce was disbanded Stirling skillfully convinced Brigadier General
Claude Auchinleck to allow him to assemble a Special Forces unit of highly motivated troops, that
could be used to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. The unit that Stirling envisioned would operate in
small 5 to 12 man teams and would attack Axis rear areas, for the purpose of destroying supply depots,
airfields, harbors and targets of opportunity.
Even though the initial force would only consist of 60 enlisted men and six officers, Stirling’s
unit would be designated the Special Air Service L Detachment, to give German intelligence the
impression that the British had a large compliment of airborne troops in the Middle East. (The unit
designation SAS for Special Air Service was reportedly credited to Brigadier General Dudley Clarke.)
The SAS established their first base at Kabrit in the Suez Canal Zone area and used “liberated”
supplies and equipment from a nearby New Zealand Army post to establish their camp. It was at this
camp that SAS Lieutenant Jock Lewis made history, when he invented a very portable one pound bomb
the size of a baseball, that contained a mixture of plastic explosives, oil, thermite and a timed fuse.
Lewis Bombs were revolutionary because they were small in size, easy to carry and capable of causing
an explosion that also ignited gasoline.
Having a portable combination high explosive and incendiary bomb that ignited fuel was
critical to mounting successful raids on Axis airfields, because partially destroyed planes could be
repaired by using cannibalized parts. Destroying a plane by fire insured that the enemy would never be
able to use any parts to repair or rebuild other aircraft that could be used against Allied forces.
Lewis Bombs were the perfect weapon for the SAS to take on raids, because one bomb could be
used to destroy one enemy plane that was parked on the ground. Because Lewis Bombs were relatively
light and compact in size, each SAS trooper in a raiding party could carry twenty or more bombs and
use them with a time fuse to destroy the contents of an enemy airbase, including dozens of aircraft and
hangars full of spare parts within 20 minutes to a half hour.
When the first SAS mission to parachute behind Axis lines to attack five enemy air bases failed
in November of 1941, a LRDG Patrol under the command of J.R. Jake Easonsmith was waiting as
planned at the RV (rendezvous) and transported Captain David Stirling and twenty one other SAS
survivors to safety. Despite this setback, Stirling was able to relocate his depleted unit to Jalo on
November 25, 1941.
Jalo was an oasis located 150 miles from the coast that was under the command of Brigadier
Denys Reid, a British officer who welcomed Stirling and his men and agreed to provide the SAS with a
base to operate from. It was also at Jalo that the SAS would meet 30 members of the LRDG, who
arrived at the oasis under the command of Major Don Steele on November 27, 1941, to establish their
new base. (Initially, the SAS was a poorly equipped unit that received no formal logistical support to
speak of. In the early days, the SAS had to draw rations and supplies from other units. In contrast, the
LRP/LRDG was a very well equipped unit that received tremendous support from the British Army.)
Immediately after arriving at Jalo, the recently promoted Captain Stirling developed a plan to
pick up where he and his men left off and attack Axis airfields at Sirte, Tamit and Aghelia; only this
time the SAS would ride into battle in LRDG vehicles, instead of parachuting behind enemy lines with
the help of the Royal Air Force. Once Captain Stirling approached Major Steele with his plan, the
working relationship between the SAS and the LRDG was firmly established. It was also at this time
that Brigadier General Reid asked Stirling to help support the upcoming attack on Bengazi, by
attacking the Axis airfield at Agedabia on December 21, 1941.
The first joint LRDG/SAS mission took place in early December of 1941, when an LRDG unit
under the command of Lt. Gus Holliman transported Captain David Sterling and Paddy Maine, along
with ten SAS troopers, on a mission to attack the enemy airfields at Sirte and Tamet. Another
combined LRDG/SAS patrol left Jalo on December 10th with 14 LRDG crewmen and 12 SAS troopers
(also known as parashots) under the command of Jock Lewis (SAS) and Lt. Morris (LRDG). Their
mission was to strike the airfield at Agheila. The SAS unit and their LRDG escort departed 48 hours
after the first combined unit, so they could coordinate their attack on the airfield at Aghelia for the
night of December 14th and 15th.. In order to time their arrival for a night attack on Agedabia on
December 21st, SAS Lieutenant Bill Fraser and his LRDG escort had to delay their departure from Jalo
for another ten days.
After being spotted and attacked by Italian aircraft, Captain Stirling decided to split his force
into two teams and launch separate attacks. Even though Stirling and the SAS non commissioned
officer who was accompanying him failed to complete their mission at Sirte, Paddy Mayne and his nine
SAS troopers were amazingly successful at Tamit, a small town along the coast that was thirty miles
away from Stirling’s objective.
After delivering their SAS passengers within three miles of the enemy airfield at Wadi Tamet,
two LRDG vehicles waited to make the extraction, while the SAS troopers went to work with their
submachine guns and explosives. After eliminating enemy ground crew personnel, the SAS troopers
under Blair “Paddy” Mayne used timed “pencil” fuse bombs to destroy 24 aircraft and the fuel dump.
When no planes were found at Aghelia Jock Lewis (SAS) and Lt. Morris (LRDG) agreed to
attack the road house at Marsha Brega, to capture prisoners and do as much damage as possible in a
lighting fast impromptu raid. While living up to their motto of, “Not by strength but by guile,” the
LRDG left the desert with their captured Italian Lancia truck in the lead and blended in with the enemy
traffic on the causeway. After passing dozens of enemy vehicles, the combined LRDG/SAS Patrol
attacked the rest area at Marsha Brega. After withdrawing from the attack, the LRDG and SAS troops
mined the coast road before fleeing into the desert and escaping under the cover of darkness. During
the war in the desert these combined LRDG and British Special Air Service (SAS) attacks were
called “beat up” operations, or attacks on convoys and enemy way stations known as Casa Ristora’s
(rest houses). These strategically located rest areas and collection points were target rich environments,
that marauding LRDG Patrols and SAS units attacked with an array of machine guns, cannons and
During the raid on Agedabia the LRDG delivered Lt. Bill Fraser and four SAS troopers within
walking distance of their destination without alerting the enemy. After carefully making their way onto
the field, Lt. Fraser and his men took 45 minutes to place their explosives. Just as the British
explosives started going off, the five man SAS team made their escape and rendezvoused with their
LRDG escort. When the smoked cleared 37 enemy aircraft were destroyed.
The LRDG Patrol returned Lt. Fraser and his men back to Jalo on December 23, 1941. As a
result of combined LRDG/SAS operations in December of 1941, numerous enemy combatants were
killed and 61 enemy aircraft and over two dozen vehicles were destroyed.
Twenty four hours later David Stirling and Paddy Mayne left Jalo with the LRDG under the
command of Lt. Gus Holliman to launch follow-up raids on Sirte and Tamet, while the German Africa
Corps was falling back to Agedabia. In addition, Lt. Jock Lewis (SAS) and his men left with another
LRDG patrol under the command of Lt. Morris to attack the airfield at Nofilia.
When the presence of heavy enemy traffic in the area made it impossible for Stirling and his
team to raid the air base at Sirte, Captain Stirling proposed that the combined LRDG and SAS force
conduct a beat up operation along the coast road. Using what little darkness they had before daybreak
the combined LRDG/SAS team destroyed enemy vehicles and shot up enemy encampments along the
road, before they headed into the desert and escaped, so they could be in position to make the
rendezvous with the other teams.
In the follow-up attack on the airfield at Tamet, Paddy Mayne and five SAS troopers destroyed
another 27 enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, Jock Lewis was killed after destroying two planes on the
Nofilia raid, when the LRDG Patrol he was traveling with was attacked by enemy aircraft, while en
route to rendezvous with Lt. Fraser and his men. The air attack was so severe that five of the six
LRDG vehicles were destroyed. Even though Lt. Morris only had one vehicle left, he tried in vain to
link up with Lt. Fraser and his team. A second LRDG Patrol was also unable to find the SAS team that
launched the raid at Marble Arch (led by Lt. Fraser).
In one of the most amazing survival stories of the war, Lt. Fraser and four SAS troopers
survived in the desert for eight days, on what little they carried into battle and with what little they
could forage and steal along the way. Fraser and his men traveled approximately 200 miles on foot and
with a stolen enemy vehicle, before running into a British patrol. After being rescued Lt. Fraser and his
men arrived back in Kabrit by mid January. It was also in mid January of 1942 that David Stirling was
promoted to Major.
In early 1942, the SAS was expanded when Major Davis Stirling managed to recruit fifty Free
French Paratroopers into his unit. It was also at this time that the official insignia of the SAS, the
winged dagger with the logo, “Who Dares Wins” was adopted and approved by General Auchinleck.
On January 17, 1942 the two LRDG officers and twelve men in seven vehicles escorted SAS,
Special Boat Squadron and RAF Intelligence personnel on a mission to conduct a raid on the fuel
dumps and tankers in the port of Bouerat. (The harbor at Bouerat was used as a port to receive oil
tankers and as a fuel supply depot for Axis forces) The job of LRDG was to deliver Stirling and 16
raiders to a destination behind enemy lines that was located 60 miles west of Sirte. During the raid on
Bouerat, the combined British force was able to destroy warehouses filled with supplies, port
infrastructure and numerous fuel trucks, which were extremely valuable to the Axis war effort.
As huge fireballs filled the night sky, the raiding party was extracted by the LRDG. After
evading enemy search planes, the LRDG safely crossed the desert to Jalo. It was on the way back to
Jalo that the LRDG/SAS raiding party learned that a German counterattack was successful in retaking
Benghazi and most of Cyrenaica.
While the British Army lost the ground it recently captured, plus some additional territory, the
LRDG troops destroyed anything of military value at Jalo before falling back to the Siwa Oasis. Once
the British Army consolidated its forces, a new defensive line was established in the Gazala area.
While not every raid or foray behind enemy lines was successful many were. Whether a
particular mission was a complete success, partial success or a failure, the British LRDG, SAS and
other special operations personnel had the chance to hone their skills of covert warriors each and every
time they went operational. Even though the March 15th raid on Benghazi failed to result in the
destruction of shipping in the harbor, Lt. Fraser was able to achieve had minimal success in an attack
on Barce and Paddy Mayne and two SAS men were able to destroy 15 enemy aircraft at the airfield
Berka. Unfortunately, the follow-up raid on Benghazi also failed to produce results.
When conducting operations in Benghazi, the British were fortunate to have both the terrain and
the local Senussi on their side. Even though Benghazi was approximately 400 miles from Siwa, the
nature of the terrain in the surrounding mountains and foothills made it possible for the Allied raiders to
safely travel relatively close to the coastal city. The foothills closest to Benghazi and the surrounding
area was ideal terrain for the LRDG to make camp, conduct surveillances and evade the enemy. The
fact that these mountains were home to the Senussi Arabs was an added benefit to the raiders, because
the Senussi despised the Italians and had no love for their German allies. In addition to trading with the
British special forces operators, the Senussi welcomed them into their camps and allowed them to
travel through their territory without revealing their presence to the Axis forces.
On June 21, 1942 the LRDG evacuated the Siwa Oasis and re-established their headquarters at
Kufa at the same time that Tobruk fell. In the mid and late summer of 1942, the LRDG and the SAS
continued to harass and attack the enemy in a series of raids. This was also the time that the SAS
became less dependent on the LRDG, especially when they began using a fleet of fifteen American
Jeeps that were fitted with machine guns. One such raid was conducted in July against the enemy held
airfield at Bagush. During this raid eleven SAS troopers including Major David Stirling and Captain
Paddy Mayne used explosives to destroy 22 enemy aircraft. When a problem with their explosives
failed to destroy 18 enemy aircraft, Stirling decided to use their newly issued .303 caliber Vickers
machine guns to finish the job. The SAS team returned to the Bagush airfield in two vehicles and used
their Vickers machine guns to destroy 15 additional enemy aircraft.
In another July raid British and French SAS troopers used eighteen jeeps equipped with four
mounted Vickers machine guns to destroy an additional 40 Axis aircraft, including an impressive
number of German JU52 transport planes at Sidi Haneish. Likewise, the LRDG adopted an SAS
persona and conducted a strike on Bagush in early August and used machine guns mounted on Jeeps to
shoot up and destroy 15 German ME 109 fighter planes.
By this point in the war the SAS had grown in size and was a well equipped self contained and
highly regarded Special Forces unit, that ran its own operations and emulated aspects of the LRDG
mission. While the LRDG continued to operate in the western desert and handle the long range
missions, the SAS accepted responsibility to handle special operations in the eastern half of the desert
along the coast.
After the retreat to Alamein in the summer of 1942 the British hoped to turn the tables on the
Axis forces by attacking extended Axis supply lines. One particular British officer saw this situation as
something that could be exploited, providing that British forces could strike a decisive blow on the
right targets at the right time. Lt. Colonel John Haselden’s plan was to launch a multi mission raid in
September of 1942 to accomplish the following missions: destroy the German held harbor installations
and fuel bunkers at Tobruk, repatriate the captured British POWs at Tobruk, recapture the base at Jalo
and destroy the port facilities of Benghazi and the Axis airfields at Benina and Barce.
According to the LRDG historian who recorded Captain David Lloyd Owen’s after action
report for the Tobruk raid in his memoirs; Captain Owen’s LRDG contingent departed Faiyum on
August 24, 1942 in 13 vehicles carrying approximately 25 LRDG soldiers and Lt. Colonel John
Haselden’s combined assault force of just under 100 men from the SAS, SIG, British Commandos,
Engineers (Sappers) and Coastal Artillery. On September 13th the LRDG guided Haselden and his
strike force to a position 40 miles south of Tobruk.
After the LRDG successfully delivered Haselden’s force to the door step of Tobruk and the
British Special Interrogation Group (SIG) commandos in German uniforms were able to escort the
raiding party through the enemy check points without incident, the attack failed when the German
garrison launched a fierce counter-attack. To make matters worse, rough sea conditions along with
accurate and plentiful German gunfire made it impossible for 382 British Marines to be landed in force.
In addition to the loss of several naval vessels, 292 British Marines and a large number of Royal Navy
sailors were killed during the raid on Tobruk. Colonel Haselden was also killed in action during the
(Do these exploits sound familiar? They should, because in the post war years aspects of
Colonel Haselden’s operation became the basis of several WWII films. These war movies depicted
the LRDG in action, with some films depicting British and Commonwealth troops operating behind
enemy lines in and around Tobruk, with some wearing German uniforms, while operating German
marked vehicles, as they escorted “British” prisoners to a POW Camp. Even though these films were
not 100% historically accurate, these movies did portray certain aspects of LRDG style operations, as
well as acts of deception by British forces in the desert war.)
Elsewhere, while the SAS raid on Benghazi and the LRDG raid on Benina failed to materialize,
a combined LRDG and Sudanese Defense Force raiding party managed to seize and hold the western
edge of the Jalo Oasis for four days, before being ordered to withdraw to Kufra. Fortunately, the attack
on the Italian base at Barce was very successful.
On the evening of September 13, 1942 T1 and G1 patrols under the command of Major Jake
Easonsmith met little resistance as they made their way through Sidi Raui and Sidi Selim to reach
Barce. While LRDG T1 Patrol under Captain Nick Wilder attacked the Barce airfield using one jeep
and four trucks, Major Easonsmith and the remaining LRDG crews attacked targets of opportunity and
a nearby Italian Army barracks.
After destroying or seriously damaging 32 enemy aircraft, Captain Wilder and his men left the
enemy airfield as the Italians began to regroup and resist. Fortunately, the LRDG strike force was able
to survive contact with the Italian forces and after a few close calls were able to slip out of town.
Of the 12 vehicles that initially took part in the raid 3 jeeps and 7 trucks survived up to this
point. Rather than leave usable equipment behind, the LRDG recovered two additional vehicles that
were damaged in an accident when the attack began. This was another example of how nothing went to
waste in the LRDG and how everything humanly possible was done to salvage a potentially repairable
vehicle, even under combat conditions.
Even though the raid on Barce was a success, the mission was by no means over until T1 and
G1 Patrols traveled 700 miles back to Kufra. At dawn on the morning of the 14th the LRDG unit that
attacked Barce was ambushed by Italian forces operating between Sidi Selim and Sidi Raui. After
escaping the ambush site with three wounded men in tow, T1 and G1 Patrols were attacked again in the
late morning by eight enemy planes, that strafed and bombed the escaping LRDG units for several
hours, wounding two more men in the process, including Captain Wilder. In addition, several vehicles
were destroyed. This left two jeeps and one truck to carry 33 men back to Kufra. At sunset two more
enemy planes arrived overhead and destroyed one of the two surviving trucks that carried the extra
rations. Later on, both jeeps would break down, one due to battle damage and the other due to wear
and tear attributed to driving a vehicle in harsh off road conditions.
After receiving help from friendly Arabs, RAF Squadron 216 and other LRDG units, the
survivors of the raid on Barce, otherwise known as Operation Hyacinth, returned to Kufra on
September 25, 1942. In addition to the six men who were wounded, ten LRDG crewmen became
Prisoners of War and a total of fourteen vehicles were lost in the raid. As a result of their gallantry in
action several of the LRDG men who participated in the raid on Barce were decorated for bravery. It
was also at this time that David Stirling was promoted to Lt. Colonel and the SAS was expanded in size
and became a regiment.
In November of 1942 the surviving members of the Afrika Korps along with the their Italian
Allies who were still combat effective retreated to the Tunisian Frontier and took positions along the
French built defenses known as the Mareth Line. The British reaction was to plan a frontal attack on
the Mareth Line using XXX Corps, while a New Zealand Division executed a flanking maneuver
around the enemy defenses and attacked El Hamma and Gabes in early 1943.
Before the British could execute their offensive operation, they had to conduct a reconnaissance
mission, to locate a suitable direction of travel for a large conventional force to use, to transit the
Tunisian frontier and flank the Mareth Line. This assignment was given to the LRDG. (The Mareth
Line was a defensive position that was originally built by the French before World War II. The specific
mission of the LRDG was to find the best route for the New Zealand Division to take to execute a “left
hook” or flanking maneuver, between the extreme or western end of the Mareth Line in Matmata to the
Gebel Tabaqa (Tabaqa Mountains) and seize their ultimate objective of the port city of Gabes)
By the end of 1942 the LRDG was based in Zella. On January 10, 1943 the British occupied
Hon, after a Long Range Indian Patrol applied the right amount of pressure on the local Italian
defenders. In order to conduct their long range reconnaissance, the LRDG had to establish a series of
supply dumps leading up to the Nefusa Mountain range. Once this was accomplished, the LRDG could
travel the several hundred miles from Hon to the Tunisian Frontier, so they could scout the area and
find suitable ground for the New Zealand troops to perform their flanking maneuver.
On January 12, 1943 T Patrol became the first British Army unit to cross over into Tunisia.
Twice a day the LRDG Patrols would report the results of their scouting effort in code to headquarters.
In several instances LRDG Patrols had contact with Axis forces and suffered casualties and a loss of
equipment while conducting their scouting missions.
After conducting a thorough reconnaissance of the Nefusa mountain range, in an area north of
Dehibat and south of Medenine, Captain Wilder and his men discovered a way through the difficult
terrain, that could be used to execute the flanking maneuver known in history as a “left hook.” This
location became known as “Wilder’s Gap.” (The British used the time to support the planned offensive
by establishing a repair shop at Dehibat and a clandestine supply dump at Wilder’s Gap once this
location was discovered)
Even with this success, the LRDG remained active and continued probing and scouting the area
where the impending attack by conventional forces was about to take place. On January 18th T Patrol
(New Zealanders) under the command of Captain R. A. Tinker and Major Vladimir “Popski” Peniakoff
and members of the PPA (Popski’s Private Army) departed on a 300 mile journey to conduct a
reconnaissance of the area that extended from “Wilder’s Gap” to the Mareth Line, including the area in
the twenty mile gap between Matmata and Jebel Tebaqa and the territory that led to El Hamma and
Gabes. (Major Peniakoff was a former LRDG officer who was authorized by the British War Office to
form an independent reconnaissance and raiding force in October of 1942 that was officially designated
the PPA or Popski’s Private Army. The PPA was a multi national force of just under 200 men that
operated in Libya, Tunisia and Italy)
After leaving a portion of their force in a clandestine hideout at Qasr Rihane, nine men
including Tinker and Peniakoff used four jeeps to conduct their reconnaissance mission. Several days
later the scouting party found the route that would take the invading British units beyond Wildler’s
Gap, through passable terrain west of the Mareth Line, to complete their flanking maneuver and
advance on El Hamma and Gabes.
While Tinker and Peniakoff conducted their reconnaissance mission three German fighter
planes attacked the LRDG base camp at Qasr Rihane and destroyed 10 vehicles and the wireless radio.
Despite this setback, Captain Tinker took as many men as he could fit in five jeeps, including the two
wounded crewmen and traveled 190 miles to the French post at Tozeur to file his scouting report by
wireless. Meanwhile, Major Peniakoff led the rest of the contingent, including a group of French SAS
parashots, out of the desert on foot. After delivering his men safely to the French outpost and sending
his message to his headquarters, Tinker led a column of jeeps into the desert to rescue Peniakoff and
the others. Over 50 men including the two wounded New Zealanders survived this ordeal. It should
also be noted, that after approximately fifteen months of commanding the SAS, Colonel Stirling was
captured and became a prisoner of war.
On March 19th the LRDG led the way and escorted the 2nd New Zealand Division and
supporting units, including an armored brigade, through Wilder’s Gap, so they could conduct their
flanking maneuver and advance toward the Gebel Tabaqa, before launching their attack on El Hamma
and the port city of Gabes. As the Germans counterattacked with three divisions on March 26th, the
Royal Air Force, U.S. Army Air Corps and the British 1st Armored Division reinforced the New
Zealanders. Three days later the Axis hold on the Mareth Line crumbled and the British and
Commonwealth Forces captured Gabes on March 29, 1943.
Despite the best efforts of the Deutches Afrika Korps and the Italian forces in the region, the
war in the desert ended in May of 1943 with the capture of Tunis and Bizerta and the taking of 118,000
Italian and 130,000 German Prisoners of War. Clearly, a portion of this Allied victory must be credited
to the heroic efforts of the Long Range Desert Group and the other Allied Special Forces units that
operated with tremendous effectiveness in the desert during World War II.
After their service in North Africa the LRDG was assigned to serve in the Italian Campaign,
Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania and the Dalmatian Islands. LRDG personnel continued to distinguish
themselves while serving as a behind the lines ambush and raiding force under the command of men
like Lt. Colonel Guy Pendergrast, Lt. Colonel Jack Easonsmith and Lt. Colonel David Lloyd Owen. In
November of 1943, the LRDG suffered a tremendous loss when Lt. Colonel Easonsmith was killed
while fighting on the Island of Leros. On the day Lt. Colonel Easonsmith was killed 50 LRDG soldiers
were captured by the Germans.
Regardless of the danger and hardships involved in conducting their operations, the LRDG
maintained an active patrol schedule throughout the war. In fact, rarely did a day go by when the
LRDG was not operational somewhere in desert. As far as their level of activity is concerned, it is
estimated that the LRDG conducted approximately 200 documented missions, while serving as an
intelligence gathering and special operations force in the Middle East during World War II.
As historians have documented, the record of the LRP/LRDG is even more amazing when you
consider that many of their patrols or missions were multifaceted and often involved the completion of
more than one objective. Even when the LRDG failed or partially completed an assigned task,
they often carried out an unscheduled ambush, raid or an operation against a target of opportunity. In
other instances the LRDG placed land mines on heavily traveled Axis roads, maintained contact with
local friendly Arabs, conducted surveillances and surveys, improved maps and located new routes that
would be used to increase the chances of success in future missions.
While operating in the desert during WWII, British Special Forces troops conducted over 50
commando style raids on enemy airfields with a success rate in excess of 50%. In addition to
destroying approximately 367 Axis aircraft, British Special Forces units, including the Long Range
Desert Group, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Squadron were responsible for killing and
wounding numerous enemy combatants and destroying valuable military supplies and equipment
including vehicles, large supplies of gasoline, tons of ammunition and aircraft parts from 1940 to 1943.
During World War II the British and Commonwealth forces operated several Special Forces
units in the same theater of operation with great effectiveness. Units like the LRDG, SAS, PPA,
Special Boat Squadron worked together as members of the same team, even though there was plenty of
opportunity to engage in inter unit rivalry. While other units in other armies wasted time jockeying for
position and recognition the British and their Commonwealth Allies never seemed to allow their
differences to impede progress.
The British and their Commonwealth allies also proved that more could be done with less, if the
right people were allowed to unleash their imaginations and take calculated risks in a risky business. In
the end, victory was achieved because a few good men refused to allow the challenge of fighting a war
in the unforgiving terrain of the Libyan desert to get in their way. Instead, the LRDG and other special
operations units took advantage of a difficult situation and used the terrain to their advantage.
Even though the British Long Range Desert Group was disbanded on August 1, 1945, the
United States, United Kingdom and Australia have wisely incorporated LRDG style tactics within their
modern Special Forces units.
All of the specific details about the LRDG and the other WWII era British Special Forces units included in this article can be found in the following published material: Long Range Desert Group – World War II Action in North Africa By W. B. Kennedy Shaw, Long Range Desert Group 1940-1945 By Robin Jenner and David List, Raiders: Elite Forces Attacks By John Laffin, Snakes in the Eagles Nest By Alan Vick and Stirling’s Desert Raiders by Virginia Cowles, World War II –Land, Sea and Air Battles 1939-1945 by Christopher Chant, Brigadier Shelford Bidwell O.B.E., Anthony Prestin and Jenny Shaw, World War II By Ivor Matanle, True Stories From The SAS and Elite Forces By Jon E. Lewis and The Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society Web Site.
The author is a Retired U.S. Customs Agent and former police officer turned free lance writer who has published over 180 magazine articles and 9 books.