“Libyan Taxi Service.”

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Libyan Taxi Service

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

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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