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Meet the small group of elite British commandos who went deep behind enemy lines early in World War II

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

Meet the small group of elite British commandos who went deep behind enemy lines early in World War II
  • In the early days of World War II, the Axis and the Allies fought each other across the vast and inhospitable North African desert.
  • The terrain and conditions were challenges to any kind of military operation, but one desert explorer embraced them, building a special unit to track and attack the Germans in the desert expanse.

"Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply."

For many Commonwealth soldiers serving in North Africa during the early years of World War II, this recruitment notice was their introduction to the elite Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

A unit that preceded and operated alongside the famous Special Air Service (SAS), the LRDG specialized in long-range reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, direct action, and infiltration and exfiltration of other special-operations units.

A desert explorer

The LRDG was established in June 1940 and tasked with reconnoitering the North African desert and gathering intelligence on the Axis forces. The unit wouldn't have existed if it weren't for Maj. Ralph Bagnold, an officer with Royal Engineers who was also a geologist and desert explorer.

During the interwar period, Bagnold often took time off to explore the North African deserts, during which he developed the Bagnold Sun Compass, a navigational innovation that would be crucial to the LRDG once the war started.

Initially, Gen. Archibald Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, questioned the usefulness of such a unit. He asked Bagnold what they would do if they didn't find any enemy activity in the vast desert.

With his characteristic swashbuckling spirit, the soldier-explorer answered, "We'll carry out some piracy on the high seas against enemy convoys."

Own their own in unforgiving conditions

When it came to selecting soldiers for his new outfit, Bagnold sought men with endurance, initiative, self-discipline, resourcefulness, determination, and physical and mental stamina. He had determined that those traits were necessary to be successful in the harsh and unforgiving desert environment.

Moreover, and going against tradition, he recruited from all Commonwealth forces — Australians, British, Indians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians, and South Africans.

The unit consisted of 14 patrols. Each patrol had between 15 and 20 men and was commanded by an officer. A few non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in each patrol provided the technical expertise and experience that was crucial to their success. Privates made up the rest of the patrol.

Each trooper had a specialty, such as navigator, signalman, or combat medic.

The harsh desert conditions and the job's physical demands meant LRDG troopers had to consume about 5,000 calories a day. An intelligence officer assigned to the unit even developed a special ration scale for patrols. It proved to be so effective that the SAS commandos soon adopted it.

Each patrol operated five or six Chevrolet 30 cwt wide-body unarmored trucks and a US-made Willy Jeep for the patrol commander.

The trucks, which were the lifelines of the patrols, had been specially outfitted for desert warfare: They sported special 10-inch sand tires that were partially inflated so the vehicles wouldn't get bogged down in treacherous sand dunes. Any unnecessary part, such as windshields, doors, and hoods, were removed to save weight. They could carry up to 4,000 pounds of gear, ammunition, fuel, and men, and had an approximate effective range of 1,100 miles. A fully kitted patrol could operate independently and without resupply for about three weeks.

When it came to weapons, an LRDG patrol was stacked. A patrol would carry anything from Browning .30-caliber light machine guns and Boys anti-tank rifles to .50-caliber heavy machine guns and 20 mm Bofors cannons. It was the combination of stealth, endurance, and firepower that made LRDG patrols so effective.

'The finest of all units serving in the desert'

As far as missions, LRDG patrols scouted the Axis coastal highways and provided critical intelligence to Allied commanders. Additionally, they conducted topographical reconnaissance to discover new paths that Allied armored divisions could use to flank Axis forces.

In 1943, after the Battle of El Alamein and the retreat of Axis forces to Tunisia, an LRDG patrol found a path that allowed the Allies to circumvent the heavily defended Mareth Line, saving countless of lives and precious time.

Yet the LRDG is perhaps better known for its cooperation with the SAS. LRDG patrols provided means of infiltration and exfiltration to the newly established SAS as it wreaked havoc on the Axis' rear echelons.

After the new commando unit started using its own vehicles, the LRDG provided in desert navigation and navigators, contributing to the success and survival of the SAS.

Lt. Col. David Sterling, the founder of the SAS, wrote after the war that "in my view the LRDG was the finest of all units serving in the desert ... [the unit] had given us tremendous assistance in training a cadre of navigators and in many other ways"

By the end of the war, the LRDG had distinguished itself in three theaters: in North Africa from 1940 to 1943, in Italy from 1943 to 1945, and in the Balkans from 1943 to 1945. Most importantly, the LRDG showcased a strategic utility disproportionate to its size — especially during the fight against the Africa Corps in North Africa.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion & Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.