LRDG Headquarters Section (note markings on “Louise”) of Chevrolet 30 cwt. The first two vehicles are armed with Vickers guns, and have canvas sand mats rolled up and stored on the front wheel arches.
Later the SAS had their own transport. Before a desert raid. Stirling standing at right.
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 LRDG. But the most extraordinary aspect of this idea is that it seems, in retrospect, so blindingly obvious: if 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 airplanes 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 was The 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 three thousand miles and winning a medal from the Royal Geographical Society. Then he drove through the Mourdi Depression of northeastern Chad and back to Libya. He worked out that reduced tire pressure and wider tires 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: the Long Range Patrol (later the Long Range Desert Group) was born in Egypt in June 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 a thousand miles south from the Mediterranean and twelve hundred 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 135° F, and then plummet below freezing at night. The only water is to be found in a handful of small oases. It was not an easy place to live, and 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 recross, navigate, watch, hide in, and survive 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 forward 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 camouflage 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 the masters of their terrain: “There seemed to be nothing they did not know about the desert.”
Siwa Oasis in Egypt, about thirty 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 traveled 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 that this would be perfectly possible, so long as the task did not interfere with the 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 cabdrivers unlike any others.
Stirling had feared that the abject failure of Operation Squatter might prove the death of the SAS. But, in truth, the brass at Middle East Headquarters had greater concerns than the loss of a few dozen men in a sideshow to the main battle. Operation Crusader was not going smoothly: Rommel’s panzers had inflicted a major defeat on the British 7th Armoured Division, and the Afrika Korps had pushed into Egypt in a dramatic counterthrust. General Neil Ritchie, Stirling’s initial backer and family friend, had taken over command of the Eighth Army on November 26; with so much on his plate, Ritchie had little attention to spare for the grim details of a single failed operation. Auchinleck believed that Rommel’s eastward countermove had left German supply lines along the coast fully extended and vulnerable to attack—exactly the sort of task for which L Detachment had been formed. But if the SAS was to attack by land, rather than by air, it would need a forward base from which to launch operations. The ideal spot had become available: an oasis refuge deep in the Libyan desert, but within striking distance of the coast.
Jalo Oasis lies about 150 miles southeast of the Gulf of Sirte and west of the Great Sand Sea, the undulating ocean of dunes that makes up about a quarter of the greater Libyan desert. With its white wooden fort, mud houses, fringe of palm trees, and glittering azure waters, Jalo is exactly what a mirage of an oasis might look like in a fairy story. In fact, it is anything but a paradise: roastingly hot and whipped by an unceasing wind that can drive a man mad, it was home to a handful of Berbers, a few ill-tempered camels, and a colossal population of flies. The oasis water is almost undrinkably salty and thick with minerals, but as the only water source for hundreds of miles, Jalo was of vital strategic importance. It would change hands several times in the course of the war.
On November 18, 1941, in support of Operation Crusader, Brigadier Denys Reid had set out from Jaghbub Oasis, on the Egyptian border, with E Force, a mixed unit of Indian, South African, and British troops, intent on capturing Jalo, three hundred miles to the west, from the Italians. It was a sign of his determination that Reid took armored cars, but only enough petrol to travel one way. Six days later, Reid’s force reached Jalo and, after a daylong battle with its surprised Italian defenders, seized it. Reid’s orders were to continue north with a flying column and attack the extended Axis supply lines along the coast, while the Eighth Army launched another counteroffensive against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The LRDG were ordered to mount a series of raids on the airfields at Sirte, Agheila, and Agedabia on the Gulf of Sirte, in order to put out of action enemy planes that could otherwise inflict carnage on Reid’s troops approaching from the south. It was Guy Prendergast, probably as a result of his conversation with Stirling, who suggested that L Detachment might be better equipped for this task: “As LRDG not trained for demolitions, suggest pct [parachutists] used for blowing dromes.”
Here was an opportunity for the SAS, or what remained of it, to prove its worth. Stirling quietly gave orders to Jock Lewes to head to Jalo in the deep desert with the remaining men and as much weaponry, ammunition, and explosives as he could lay his hands on. Lieutenant Bill Fraser, his wrist now healed, was back on active duty, along with his dog, Withers. Jim Almonds was also back in the ranks, although still anxiously awaiting word on the health of his baby son.
The SAS took up residence in its new forward base on December 5. Johnny Cooper thought Jalo looked like a “Foreign Legion outpost, straight out of Beau Geste.” Brigadier Reid warmly welcomed the new arrivals, as well he might: he was under orders to advance north to the area of Agedabia, near the coast, by December 22; if the SAS could inflict serious damage on the enemy air forces in the fortnight before that date, it would make Reid’s task considerably easier.
Stirling established his headquarters in a disused storehouse, gathered his officers, and began to make plans for the next SAS operation—in the knowledge that, if it failed again, this would also be the last.