From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre
It may have been during the two-hundred-mile journey back to Jaghbub Oasis, the Eighth Army’s forward base, that inspiration struck David Stirling. Riley claimed that the idea came to Stirling while they were lying under a tarpaulin with Jock Lewes on the night they reached the desert rendezvous. Seekings insisted that Stirling’s eureka moment came while they were scouring the horizon for stragglers. The most likely source of inspiration was David Lloyd Owen, a highly intelligent officer who would go on to command the Long Range Desert Group. But the most extraordinary aspect of this idea is that it seems, in retrospect, so blindingly obvious: if the Long Range Desert Group (‘the LRDG’) could get the SAS out of the desert without difficulty, then the reconnaissance unit could surely drive them in as well, thus cutting out all the danger and uncertainty involved in jumping out of aeroplanes in the dark. Quite why this glaringly good idea had not occurred to anyone before is one of the enduring mysteries of the SAS story.
The Long Range Desert Group was the brainchild of Ralph Alger Bagnold, soldier, explorer, scientist, archaeologist, sedimentologist, geomorphologist, and the world’s greatest living expert on sand. Bagnold was the brother of Enid Bagnold, author of the novel National Velvet; his own, less popular but no less durable contribution to world literature wasThe Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes, first published in 1941, and today still influencing NASA’s ongoing research into sand dunes on Mars. A veteran of the Somme and Ypres, a pioneer in desert exploration, inquisitive and indestructible, Bagnold spent much of 1930 driving a Model A Ford around the vast desert between Cairo and Ain Dalla in search of the mythical city of Zerzura. He made the first east-west crossing of the Libyan desert in 1932, driving more than 3,000 miles and winning a medal from the Royal Geography Society. He then drove through the Mourdi Depression of north-eastern Chad and back to Libya. He worked out that reduced tyre pressure and wider tyres increased speed across desert terrain. He invented a condenser that could be attached to a car radiator to prevent it from boiling over, and steel channels for unsticking vehicles bogged down in soft sand. He developed ‘Bagnold’s sun compass’ which, unlike the traditional magnetic compass, was unaffected by desert iron-ore deposits and was also impervious, in Bagnold’s words, to ‘changes in the positions of magnetically uncertain spare parts carried in the vehicles’.
He spent so long being battered by the desert wind that his nose achieved a permanent roseate hue. ‘Never 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’, Bagnold wrote. ‘Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use.’ But that, of course, is what happened. Nine months after the outbreak of war, Major Bagnold was given permission to form and command a mobile desert scouting force to operate behind the Italian lines. Thus the Long Range Patrol, later the Long Range Desert Group, was born in Egypt in July 1940, to commit ‘piracy on the high desert’.
The Libyan desert covers well over a million square miles of the earth’s surface, an area roughly the size of India. Stretching 1,000 miles south from the Mediterranean and 1,200 miles from the Nile Valley to the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and, in terms of humanity, one of the emptiest. Most of the North African war, so far, had been fought on a narrow coastal strip, along which a single paved road hugged the edge of the Mediterranean. Only a few ancient trading tracks traversed the interior. In daytime, the temperature could soar to 60 °C, and then plummet below freezing at night. The only water was to be found in a handful of small oases. It was not an easy place to live, and it was a very easy place to die, but it offered an opportunity for warfare of a most unconventional and uncomfortable sort. In theory, this mighty desert was enemy-held territory. In reality, Bagnold calculated, the Italians and Germans had ‘only enough motor transport for a radius of action of a paltry 100 miles’. The rest was his. So far from being an impassable, hostile wilderness, the desert was a place that men, with the right training and equipment, could cross and re-cross, navigate, watch, hide in and survive in, indefinitely. To the uninitiated, the landscape appears bleak and monotonous; but the apparently flat expanse hid myriad dips and depressions, rocky patches, shelves and escarpments, as well as treacherous seas of soft sand. There were points to navigate by, if one knew how to see them.
The broad purpose of the LRDG was to carry out reconnaissance and raiding, to find out what the enemy was doing where, and from time to time, to attack him. Initially, Bagnold recruited New Zealand farmers, leathery outdoorsmen used to surviving for long periods in harsh terrain; gradually, as the unit expanded, volunteers came in from Rhodesian and British regiments. After long weeks in the desert, the sand buccaneers had developed a distinctly piratical look, sporting Arab headdresses, sandals in place of boots, and bushy beards. Equipped with adapted, lightweight, heavily armed vehicles, the LRDG carried out deep penetration and covert missions behind the lines, moving undetected across huge swathes of territory and perfecting the art of desert camoflage and evasion. LRDG units became adept at slipping unseen up to the coastal road itself, and observing the movements of enemy troops. These ‘road-watching’ operations provided some of the most important military intelligence of the war. Axis forces never adapted to the challenges of the desert in the same way. At the time when Stirling first encountered them, the LRDG were masters of their terrain: ‘There seemed to be nothing they did not know about the desert’.
Siwa oasis in Egypt, about 30 miles from the Libyan border, was the operational headquarters and forward base of the LRDG, under the command of Colonel Guy Prendergast, another desert explorer who had travelled with Bagnold before the war. Waiting in Siwa for a plane to take him back to Cairo, Stirling asked Prendergast if the LRDG might be prepared to act as a transport service for the SAS to and from coastal targets. Prendergast said this would be perfectly possible, so long as the task did not interfere with that unit’s primary reconnaissance role. Thus began one of the most fruitful partnerships in wartime history, bringing together the fighters of the SAS with the expert desert navigators of the LRDG.
The SAS would come to refer to the LRDG, with deep admiration, as the ‘Libyan Taxi Service’. The hairy, hardened, experienced men of the LRDG were cab drivers unlike any others.