Long Range Desert Group
Motto: Non vi sed arte – Not by strength, but by guile (unofficial)
Formed in June 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold and General Archibald Wavell as the Number 1 Long Range Patrol Unit, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) operated as part of Britain’s Eighth Army and was an intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and raiding unit ranging across the Western Desert and the Mediterranean area during the Second World War. Never numbering more than 350 personnel, the LRDG included men from Britain, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and New Zealand, all of whom were volunteers; the LRDG was best known for the considerable damage that it was able to inflict on the operations of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
In May 1943 the LRDG changed its role and was moved to the eastern Mediterranean, where it was tasked with missions in the Greek islands, Italy and the Balkans. Despite a request to move to the Far East in mid-1945, the LRDG was disbanded in August of that year.
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which might be considered to be the first modern Special Forces unit, chose to operate modified Chevrolet civilian trucks, but it was the stripped-down Jeeps of the SAS that established the norm for this type of operation. When these Jeeps wore out they were replaced by Series I Land Rovers, which in turn were superseded by the iconic Series IIA Land Rover ‘Pink Panthers’. These were the first vehicles to be constructed by an outside contractor – in this case Marshalls of Cambridge – to the requirements of the SAS Regiment and they remained the pattern for Special Forces’ vehicles until the appearance of dune buggy-based fast-strike vehicles in the early 1980s; in Afghanistan, these have subsequently been replaced by larger, armoured vehicles such as the Jackal.
During the Second World War the SAS was equipped with a fleet of much-modified Jeeps. Typically the machines were stripped of all unnecessary items before being stowed with fuel, water, ammunition and personal kit in every available space to allow the vehicles to act as a self-contained base for operations. These Jeeps were replaced by similarly modified Series I Land Rovers in the 1950s and then by the iconic `Pink Panthers’, the Series IIA-based Land Rovers that have effectively established the basic design for the modern Special Forces vehicle.
When the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) started operating inside enemy-held territory in Egypt in 1940 it did so using a fleet of modified Chevrolet WA, WB and VA 30cwt 4×2 civilian trucks procured in Alexandria; there were also a number of cut-down Ford C11ADF station wagons. None of these trucks was entirely successful, and from March 1942 the LRDG standardised on the Canadian Chevrolet 1533×2 as a patrol vehicle, eventually acquiring a total of 200 of these vehicles which were heavily modified to the Group’s requirements. Each truck was operated by a crew of three or four men.
As deployed by the LRDG, the 1533×2 was a 30cwt civilian truck powered by a six-cylinder overhead-valve petrol engine producing 85bhp from 3,540cc, and driving the rear wheels through a four-speed gearbox and two-speed axle; there were live axles, mounted on semi-elliptical multi-leaf springs, with large-section (10.50–16) sand tyres fitted front and rear. All non-essential items were removed to save weight, including the cab, and the front grille was cut away to improve the flow of air through the radiator; the cooling system was also modified to reduce water loss by including a condenser in a closed circuit. Folding aero-screens were often fitted to the scuttle, and a heavy bumper was fitted at the front, generally incorporating a pusher bar. At the rear the height of the body sides was raised using timber in order to increase the carrying capacity, and radio trucks were fitted with a cabinet to house a British Number 11 radio set.
Each vehicle was fitted with multiple gun mounts, and a machine gun was invariably mounted on a pedestal in the rear. Typical weapons carried included Vickers K light machine guns (actually designed to be mounted on an aircraft), water-cooled Vickers .303in machine guns, Lewis machine guns, Boys anti-tank rifles, Vickers heavy machine guns and American Browning M2 0.50in machine guns. External stowage facilities were provided for fuel and water, personal weapons, ammunition, spare parts for the vehicle, rations, sand channels, personal kit, etc.
The trucks were extremely reliable and were apparently able to withstand considerable abuse without sustaining damage.
By early 1942 the regimental strength of the SAS was up to 130 men; now equipped with twenty Bedford 3-ton trucks and sixteen Jeeps, the unit was sufficiently large to no longer need to rely on the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) for transport. At the time one of the standard operational tactics of the SAS was to infiltrate a small, lightly armed reconnaissance group into place carrying radio equipment, to be subsequently reinforced by additional, more heavily armed, troops usually travelling in specially equipped Jeeps. Stripped of all non-essential equipment, and bristling with heavy automatic weapons, these Jeeps were modified to provide a well-equipped and well-armed patrol vehicle, capable of carrying two or three men, together with sufficient fuel, rations, ammunition and supplies for extended missions deep into enemy-held territory. Curiously, there does not seem to have been a standard set of modifications and examination of period photographs shows that, although there were features common to all the SAS Jeeps, essentially each appears to have been modified according to the needs of the mission, and with the overriding intention of reducing superfluous weight.
The vehicles were almost invariably heavily armed: the standard equipment seems to have been a pair of twin-mounted Vickers K .303 observer’s machine guns on a pintle ahead of the front passenger’s seat – this was originally an aircraft-mounted gun and, with a rate of fire of more than 3,000 rounds per minute from a drum magazine, it was a formidable weapon, offering twice the hitting power of the Bren. There was often a third Vickers, or a .303 Bren gun, on a pedestal mount to the left of the driving position, and a standard infantry-issue water-cooled Lewis machine gun was sometimes carried for use in static firing. Other variations included the use of an M2 0.50in heavy machine gun ahead of the passenger seat, with the twin Vickers units relegated to the rear area ahead of the back seat; other examples show a 0.50in machine gun at the rear. Other weapons were carried to suit the particular mission. The normal 2-inch and 3-inch mortars usually proved useful for destroying enemy targets, as did the PIAT (projectile, infantry, anti-tank) gun. Most SAS raiding parties would also have carried a plentiful supply of number 36 Mills bomb grenades, plus other grenades such as the number 69 Bakelite grenade and the Gammon anti-tank bomb.
The most distinctive of the modifications to the vehicle itself included ad-hoc ‘improvements’ to the cooling system where, for desert operations, most of the bars of the front grille were cut away to provide optimum airflow through the radiator and thus ensure maximum cooling efficiency. Whether or not it was necessary, this seems to have become something of an SAS trademark, and even Jeeps operating in northwest Europe were normally seen with the distinctive cut-away grille. The open, pressurised cooling system of the standard Jeep was modified to a sealed system using a version of the desert cooling modification kit. A small cylindrical expansion tank was fitted at the front and connected to the radiator overflow via a small pipe, and the system was sealed in such a way that water was allowed to expand into this tank as the engine heated up, but could be drawn back into the main system via the same pipe when the water cooled down and contracted – a process that has subsequently become standard on all motor vehicles.
In the interests of maintaining a low profile, the standard windscreen, hood and hood frame were generally removed and discarded altogether. Even in colder latitudes, the standard windscreen was not fitted, but on some examples heavy bullet-proof glass shields were provided for the front-seat gunner and occasionally the driver, as part of the gun mount. Occasionally the front bumper was also discarded or cut back in the style of the airborne Jeeps in an effort to save more weight. Some vehicles were protected underneath using armour plate, so as to reduce the effects of mine blasts.
A large amount of the available storage space was used to carry fuel, water or ammunition – even the bonnet was pressed into service, often with four jerrycans strapped across the flat surface. Some vehicles also carried additional fuel tanks over the wheel arches in the rear, ‘borrowed’ from a standard 3-ton truck. During some operations certain Jeeps were assigned to the support role, and armaments were omitted in favour of additional jerrycans – since the Jeeps were relatively fast compared to other trucks of the period, the use of Jeeps in the supply role meant that the operation was not held back by the presence of slower vehicles.
All things considered, the SAS Jeep made a formidable battle wagon and it is hardly surprising that the vehicle effectively became the role model for Land Rover ‘Pink Panthers’ and today’s long-range Special Forces Defenders.
Popski’s Private Army Jeeps
Modified Jeeps were also deployed by Popski’s Private Army, operating in patrols consisting of six vehicles and sixteen men. The vehicles were stripped of non-essential items, including the windscreen and top, and, as with the LRDG Chevrolets and the SAS Jeeps, most of the radiator grille bars were removed to increase the flow of cooling air through the radiator. Water condensers were also fitted to the radiator so that any water that boiled off was not lost. At the front the standard military bar-grip tyres were generally replaced by road tyres, since these were less likely to break through the crust that forms on desert sand. Armaments included Vickers K or Browning 0.30in and 0.50in machine guns, sometimes on a twin mount, together with a smoke generator. Racks were fitted to carry twelve 4-gallon petrol cans, giving the vehicles a range of between 600 and 700 miles.
At least one of Popski’s Jeeps was experimentally fitted with flame-thrower equipment taken from a Canadian Wasp carrier; during trials the equipment apparently singed the eyebrows of the operator and it is believed that it was never used in action.