Original Special Forces: The Long-Range Desert Group of World War Two


LRDG truck in the desert, 1941.

The Second World War spawned a host of special forces units. Germany had the Brandenburg Division, fighting with Rommel’s Afrika Korps. All were created to survive and fight in extreme environments (deserts, jungles or Arctic mountain conditions). One of the most successful of these formations was the Long-Range Desert Group, or LRDG created by Major Ralph Bagnold, Patrick Clayton and Captain William Shaw.

Ralph Bagnold was a pioneer of desert exploration in the 1930’s. A distinguished geographer and physicist, he completed the first east to west crossing of the Libyan Desert in 1932. His pioneering study of sand deserts (The Physics of Blown Sand Desert Dunes – 1941) is still used today by NASA in studies of the dunes of Mars. His colleague, Patrick Clayton, was a surveyor and map maker, and later became the template for the character of Peter Maddox in the film The English Patient. William Shore, the third pioneer of the LRDG, was a seasoned desert explorer, botanist and archaeologist. All three had learned how to operate and maintain motor vehicles in the desert and particularly how to navigate in desert terrain. All three survived the war.

The unit specialised in deep penetration behind enemy lines, covert reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, guiding other combatants and secret agents across the Libyan Desert. Their most notable raid was on Barce Airport on September 13th, 1942. They maintained continuous surveillance of enemy traffic using the main highway from Tripoli to Benghazi during the buildup to El Alamein.

Men selected to serve in the LRDG had to be highly motivated, self-reliant, physically and mentally tough, trained in radio communication, demolition and vehicle maintenance. Their equipment was specially adapted, consisting of 2-wheel drive vehicles stripped down without windows or doors and fitted with large radiators and wide, low pressure tyres. They also featured sun compasses to offset the effects of iron deposits in the desert, and wireless equipment.  Weaponry consisted of a Lewis machine-gun, anti-tank rifles, and carried in one car a Bofor 37mm anti-tank gun. Crew were also equipped with astronomic positioning tables in order to be able to plot star-sights.

The early recruits were largely New Zealanders and Rhodesians. Many found normal army life and discipline tedious and wanted to get into action, to use their own initiative.

In May 1943, having seen action in Greece, Italy and the Balkans, the LRDG volunteered for service in the Far East. They were turned down, however, seen as too specialised to suit jungle warfare. In August 1945 they were disbanded, and their role was eventually taken over by the specially trained troops of the SAS.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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