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WWII time warp: Long Range Desert Group vehicle abandoned in the desert

Jack Beckett

The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army during the Second World War.

The LRDG was formed specifically to carry out deep penetration, covert reconnaissance patrols and intelligence missions from behind Italian lines, although they sometimes engaged in combat operations.

Because the LRDG were experts in desert navigation they were sometimes assigned to guide other units, including the Special Air Service and secret agents across the desert.

During the Desert Campaign between December 1940 and April 1943, the vehicles of the LRDG operated constantly behind the Axis lines, missing a total of only 15 days during the entire period.

Possibly their most notable offensive action was during Operation Caravan, an attack on the town of Barce and its associated airfield, on the night of 13 September 1942.

However, their most vital role was the ‘Road Watch’, during which they clandestinely monitored traffic on the main road fromTripoli to Benghazi, transmitting the intelligence to British Army Headquarters.

With the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943, the LRDG changed roles and moved operations to the easternMediterranean, carrying out missions in the Greek islands, Italy and the Balkans.

After the end of the war in Europe, the leaders of the LRDG made a request to the War Office for the unit to be transferred to the Far East to conduct operations against the Japanese Empire. The request was declined and the LRDG was disbanded in August 1945.

All photographs were taken in 2010 by Kuno Gross. In 2008 historians Brendan O’Carroll (New Zealand), Kuno Goss (Switzerland) and Roberto Chiavetto (Italy) travelled to Libya to track down three LRDG trucks that had been abandoned in 1941 at Gebel Sherif, in Southern Libya, after the LRDG’s first encounter with their Italian equivalent, the Autosahariana.  Kuno goes on to explain:

After the long distance raids of the early phase of the the LRDG, the Chevrolet WA trucks were soon worn out and had to be replaced. Since no more Chevrolet WA were available, in March 1941, a number of seventy CMP Ford F30 4×4 30cwt were taken into service by the LRDG

The Ford truck had the same loading capacity as the Chevrolets, but were 4×4 drive and much heavier in weight – what was the reason for fuel consumption which was about the double than it was for the Chevrolets. By March 1942, the Fords were replaced by 200 purpose built Canadian Chevrolet 1533×2 trucks – those we consider the typical LRDG trucks today.

When the LRDG moved its Headquarters from Siwa to Kufra across the Egyptian Sandsea in April 1941, they lost one truck on the foot of a dune range with a broken steering. The said truck belonged to the S Patrol. 

So let’s take a closer look, at this unique vehicle Kuno stumbled across in the desert;

They were stripped of all non-essentials, including doors, windscreens and roofs. source

They were stripped of all non-essentials, including doors, windscreens and roofs. source

 

They were fitted with a bigger radiator, a condenser system, built up leaf springs for the harsh terrain, wide, low pressure desert tyres, sand mats and channels,[nb 3] plus map containers and a sun compass devised by Bagnold. source

They were fitted with a bigger radiator, a condenser system, built up leaf springs for the harsh terrain, wide, low pressure desert tyres, sand mats and channels, plus map containers and a sun compass devised by Bagnold. source

The LRDG vehicles were mainly two wheel drive, chosen because they were lighter and used less fuel than four wheel drive. source

The LRDG vehicles were mainly two wheel drive, chosen because they were lighter and used less fuel than four wheel drive. source

Initially the LRDG patrols were equipped with one Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) Ford 15 cwt F15 truck for the commander, while the rest of the patrol used up to 10 Chevrolet 30 cwt WB trucks. source

Initially, the LRDG patrols were equipped with one Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) Ford 15 cwt F15 truck for the commander, while the rest of the patrol used up to 10 Chevrolet 30 cwt WB trucks. source

 

From March 1941 the 30 cwt Chevrolets were replaced by the CMP Ford 30 cwt F30, although in some ways this was a retrograde step; because they were four wheel drive and heavier than the Chevrolets, they used twice as much fuel, which in turn reduced the range of a patrol. source

From March 1941 the 30 cwt Chevrolets were replaced by the CMP Ford 30 cwt F30, although in some ways this was a retrograde step; because they were four wheel drive and heavier than the Chevrolets, they used twice as much fuel, which in turn reduced the range of a patrol. source

 

From March 1942 the Fords were progressively replaced by 200 Canadian Chevrolet 1533 X2 30 cwts which had been specially ordered for the LRDG. source

From March 1942 the Fords were progressively replaced by 200 Canadian Chevrolet 1533 X2 30 cwts which had been specially ordered for the LRDG. source

From July 1942 Willys Jeeps began to be issued for the patrol commander and patrol sergeant. source

From July 1942 Willys Jeeps began to be issued for the patrol commander and patrol sergeant. source

 

The patrol vehicles were initially armed with 11 Lewis machine guns, four Boys anti-tank rifles and a Bofors 37 mm anti-tank gun distributed amongst their vehicles. source

The patrol vehicles were initially armed with 11 Lewis machine guns, four Boys anti-tank rifles and a Bofors 37 mm anti-tank gun distributed amongst their vehicles. source

 

By December 1940, the vehicle armaments had been improved and 'T' Patrol, for example, had five .303 Vickers Medium Mk. I machine guns, five Lewis guns, four Boys anti-tank guns and the Bofors 37 mm. source

By December 1940, the vehicle armaments had been improved and ‘T’ Patrol, for example, had five .303 Vickers Medium Mk. I machine guns, five Lewis guns, four Boys anti-tank guns and the Bofors 37 mm. source

 

Another Vickers gun used was the heavy Vickers .50 machine gun, which would be mounted at the rear of the vehicle. source

Another Vickers gun used was the heavy Vickers .50 machine gun, which would be mounted at the rear of the vehicle. source

 

All of the unit's vehicles were armed with at least one gun; each vehicle was fitted with six to eight gun mountings, but normally only two or three of them would be in use. source

All of the unit’s vehicles were armed with at least one gun; each vehicle was fitted with six to eight gun mountings, but normally only two or three of them would be in use. source

 

Supplementing their army-supplied weapons, the LRDG was equipped with surplus Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft guns which were acquired for their high rate of fire. source

Supplementing their army-supplied weapons, the LRDG was equipped with surplus Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft guns which were acquired for their high rate of fire. source

When the LRDG was based at Siwa, they took part in what has since became known as the ‘Road Watch’ along the Via Balbia (the Tripoli to Benghazi road).

Three patrols were engaged on road watch duties at any one time, with one watching the road for a week to 10 days, another would be en route to relieve them and the third was returning to Siwa after having been relieved.  The site of the road watch was about 5 miles (8.0 km) from the Marble Arch monument.

The road watch patrol would park about 2 miles away from the road and the trucks would be camouflaged using camouflage nets, any local foliage and sand.

Before dawn each day two men would move into a well-camouflaged position about 350 yards (320 m) from the road.

By day they would record the details of all vehicles and troop movements, and at night they would move to about 30 yards (27 m) from the road and guess what type of vehicles were passing by their sound and outline.

At daylight they were relieved by another pair of men who took over that day’s road watch.

If tanks or a large number of troops were seen passing they would radio the LRDG headquarters at Siwa immediately so that by the time the enemy reached the front line, GHQ at Cairo would know they were coming.

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On 31 January they were intercepted by the Compagnia Autosahariana di Cufra, an Italian unit similar to the LRDG, in the Gebel Sherif valley. The LRDG had one man killed and three men captured, including Major Clayton, and three trucks destroyed during the battle. The Italians losses were five killed and three wounded, and one truck was abandoned. source

 

Wireless trucks had special compartments built into the bodywork to house wireless equipment. source

Wireless trucks had special compartments built into the bodywork to house wireless equipment. source

 

The LRDG area of operations between 1940–1943 was the Libyan desert, which stretches about 930 miles (1,500 km) south from the Mediterranean to the Tibesti and the Jebel Uweinat mountains, and about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the Nile valley in the east to the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria in the west. source

The LRDG area of operations between 1940–1943 was the Libyan desert, which stretches about 930 miles (1,500 km) south from the Mediterranean to the Tibesti and the Jebel Uweinat mountains, and about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the Nile valley in the east to the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria in the west. source

Once a patrol was relieved they would transmit details of all they had seen back to Siwa.

The LRDG did not lose any men or vehicles when on the road watch, but they did have some close encounters.

Paved roads were non-existent and only small tracks and pathways crossed the area. The daytime temperatures could reach 60 °C (140 °F) and at night drop below freezing. The only water in the area is found in a number of small oases, which is also where the only vegetation grows. source

Paved roads were non-existent and only small tracks and pathways crossed the area. The daytime temperatures could reach 60 °C (140 °F) and at night drop below freezing. The only water in the area is found in a number of small oases, which is also where the only vegetation grows. source

 

The first LRP patrol began during the Italian invasion of Egypt. 'W' Patrol commanded by Captain Mitford set out on 15 September 1940 to carry out a reconnaissance of Kufra and Uweinat. Finding no trace of the Italians, they turned south and attacked fuel dumps, aircraft and an Italian convoy carrying supplies to Kufra. source

The first LRP patrol began during the Italian invasion of Egypt. ‘W’ Patrol commanded by Captain Mitford set out on 15 September 1940 to carry out a reconnaissance of Kufra and Uweinat. Finding no trace of the Italians, they turned south and attacked fuel dumps, aircraft and an Italian convoy carrying supplies to Kufra. source

 

All trucks of the LRDG were equipped with the Bagnold sun compass and some trucks were also equipped with a P8 Tank Compass. source

All trucks of the LRDG were equipped with the Bagnold sun compass and some trucks were also equipped with a P8 Tank Compass. source

 

Each patrol had a navigator who always rode in the second truck in the formation. He was equipped with a theodolite and astronomical position tables with which to plot star sightings, and maps.[49] Watches were used and adjusted each evening using the GMT time check. source

Each patrol had a navigator who always rode in the second truck in the formation. He was equipped with a theodolite and astronomical position tables with which to plot star sightings, and maps.[49] Watches were used and adjusted each evening using the GMT time check. source

One major problem faced early on by the LRDG was a lack of accurate maps for Libya in particular. source

One major problem faced early on by the LRDG was a lack of accurate maps for Libya in particular. source

 

Patrols had to do their own surveys and make their own maps of each route they took. In July 1941 the Survey Section was formed to carry out this task. source

Patrols had to do their own surveys and make their own maps of each route they took. In July 1941 the Survey Section was formed to carry out this task. source

 

In 2008 historians Brendan O'Carroll (New Zealand), Kuno Goss (Switzerland) and Roberto Chiavetto (Italy) travelled to Libya to track down three LRDG trucks that had been abandoned in 1941 at Gebel Sherif, in Southern Libya, after the LRDG's first encounter with their Italian equivalent, the Autosahariana. source

In 2008 historians Brendan O’Carroll (New Zealand), Kuno Goss (Switzerland) and Roberto Chiavetto (Italy) travelled to Libya to track down three LRDG trucks that had been abandoned in 1941 at Gebel Sherif, in Southern Libya, after the LRDG’s first encounter with their Italian equivalent, the Autosahariana. source

On 21 March ‘R1’ Patrol was surrounded by a convoy of 27 vehicles and about 200 men who stopped for the night between the watchers and their vehicles.

While the road watch was ongoing, other patrols would be attacking targets along other stretches of the Tripoli to Benghazi road, by planting mines or attacking vehicles with machine gun fire. The road was kept under constant observation around the clock from 2 March to 21 July 1942