The members of the Long Range Desert Group made a request to the War Office for a transfer to the far east, where they could fight against the Japanese. This was declined, and the group was officially disbanded in August 1945.
The lessons learned and the way they operated continue to provide value to the way modern special operatives fight. The men who fought with the LRDG took what they learned back to their own countries, influencing the creation of the Australian Special Air Service and the New Zealand Air Service. In Britain, the desert combat and survival skills were passed onto future generations of special operatives.
The LRDG is often credited with being the first Western special operations team, the one from which the rest learned. The skill demonstrated by its members during the war was certainly impressive, with the founder of the SAS saying, “In my view, the LRDG was the finest of all units serving in the desert.”
Throughout the Second World War, intelligence was key. Commanding officers tasked their sailors, soldiers and pilots with gathering important information, which could be used to formulate plans to emerge victorious against their enemies. Throughout the North African Campaign, part of this work fell upon the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a unit specializing in espionage, raiding and covert reconnaissance behind enemy lines.
Ralph Bagnold and the founding of the Long Range Desert Group
The Long Range Desert Group – originally the Long Range Patrol – was founded in June 1940 by Maj. Ralph Bagnold. He may appear an untraditional choice, as he worked as a geologist before World War II broke out, yet this is precisely why Bagnold was an excellent fit. Much of his research involved him traveling the Libyan Desert, meaning he had an intimate knowledge of the landscape.
Bagnold was in Cairo when Italy declared war on the United Kingdom, and it soon became apparent North Africa would become one of the theaters of battle. He met with the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East Gen. Archibald Wavell, telling him to take advantage of his knowledge of the area and allow him to create a scouting force to commit acts of piracy against the Italian forces in Libya. His request was granted.
Forming the Long Range Desert Group
Ralph Bagnold first approached the 2nd New Zealand Division for volunteers to join the Long Range Desert Group, as he believed New Zealanders possessed the attributes he wanted: energetic, innovative, self-reliant, physically and mentally tough, and able to live and fight in the desert. Over half of the men volunteered, and they were soon joined by troops from across the Commonwealth.
As soon as they agreed, training began, to ensure they were equipped for the difficult task at hand. They learned how to properly use radios and conduct demolitions. Most importantly, they were taught how to survive in the desert, as well as drive across and navigate the terrain. Each also had a specialty, such as medic, signalman or navigator.
Optimizing vehicles for the desert terrain
The unit would rely heavily on various trucks – Jeeps, Chevrolets and Fords – to travel through the desert. These vehicles were optimized for the environment. To ensure they didn’t run excessive fuel, most featured two-wheel drive and were stripped of any unnecessary hardware. They were also fitted with tires for traveling on sand and other additions that allowed them to operate in the harsh desert conditions.
Most importantly, a sun compass, designed by Bagnold, was added. Magnetic compasses didn’t work accurately when in close proximity to a car, and the Long Range Desert Group couldn’t afford to lose their way.
Each was manned by three men and equipped with firearms: Boys anti-tank rifles, Lewis guns, a variety of Vickers machine guns and Bofors 37 mm anti-tank guns, to name a few. The soldiers were required to carry enough food and water for three weeks, petrol for 2,500 miles, a wireless set, navigation equipment, medical supplies, spare parts and tools. The food alone was no simple task, as each member was forced to eat 5,000 calories a day to keep up with the requirements of the job.
‘Road watch’ was their most important duty
After completing their training, the Long Range Desert Group engaged in a number of different missions: hit-and-run raids against Italian forces, mapping terrain, ambushing convoys and working with other special operatives. Their most important role was that of “road watch,” which took place along the route from Tripoli to Benghazi.
At this point in the war, the group was based out of Siwa and would alternate patrols along the road; one would be watching the road, another would travel to relieve them, and the third would return to base with information for headquarters. From March 2 to July 21, 1942, the road was under constant watch, and the LRDG was able to give the British advanced warning of any and all enemy movements.
The Long Range Desert Group’s missions weren’t limited to sporadic attacks – they were also involved in larger offensives. During Operation Caravan, part of Operation Agreement, its members were tasked with attacking the Italian forces guarding an airfield at Barce. A troop of only 47 men, under the command of Maj. John “Jake” Easonsmith, traveled an astounding 1,155 miles through the desert to reach their target.
They were broken into two separate patrols, one to attack the airfield and the other to create a diversionary attack on the main barracks and the railway in town. The attack on the airfield destroyed 35 enemy aircraft, making the mission the only successful one during Operation Agreement. This was despite them having 10 men captured and another eight wounded.
The Long Range Desert Group’s work with the Special Air Service
Ultimately, what the Long Range Desert Group specialized in was desert navigation. Best explained by historian Brig. Julian Thompson, “They were utterly reliable. If they said they would arrive at an exact spot in the desert 1,000 miles away at a certain time, they almost invariably did.” This is exactly why they were involved with transporting Special Air Service (SAS) members in North Africa.
They were set to retrieve 55 British paratroopers after an attack on enemy airfields. The LRDG played their part flawlessly, picking up the remaining 21 survivors with ease. For their next mission, it was decided they would simply take the SAS to their targets. On December 8, 1941, 20 members of the LRDG took two SAS raiding parties to attack the airfields at Tamet and Sirte. The group successfully blew up 24 aircraft.
Later collaborations between the two saw more success, with 37 aircraft destroyed at the Agedabia airfield and 27 on a secondary mission to Tamet. Jack Mann, the last surviving member of the LRDG as of 2022, recalled they were viewed as “the taxi service because they can take you anywhere. They knew the desert.”
Move to the Mediterranean
After the Axis forces surrendered in Tunisia in May 1943, the Long Range Desert Group moved to the Mediterranean. They began operating in a different capacity as a commando unit, while maintaining their primary purpose: surveillance. Much of their time was spent watching the coast, so they could provide valuable information about the movement of German ships. This allowed the Royal Air Force (RAF) to launch attacks against the vessels.
The LRDG also launched road attacks on the Germans. Although they spent much of the war in North Africa, it was in this new phase that they suffered their heaviest losses. Up until their transfer, they’d had just 16 men killed and 24 missing in action. However, within a month of combat in Greece, 41 had been killed, while another 50 were captured.