Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) Vehicles

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Long Range Desert Group LRDG Vehicles

Artist Christophe Camilotte

Long Range Desert Group

Motto: Non vi sed arte – Not by strength, but by guile

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were replaced by Series I Land Rovers, which in turn were superseded by the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vehicles in the early 1980s; in Afghanistan, these have subsequently been
replaced by larger, armoured vehicles such as the Jackal.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.

SAS Jeeps

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

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.

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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