Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Raids in the Fezzan
Raids in the Fezzan
In co-operation with the Free French of Chad Province, the LRDG made a series of raids on the Italian garrisons of the Fezzan, in south-west Libya, a region of sandy and stony deserts, long wadis, and fertile oases. The chief objective was Murzuk, the capital of the Fezzan, a thousand miles from the LRDG base in Cairo and 350 from the nearest French post in the Tibesti Mountains.
Commanded by Major Clayton, a force comprising G and T patrols, seventy-six men in twenty-six vehicles, left Cairo on 26 December 1940 and crossed the Egyptian and Kalansho Sand Seas into unknown country to the north-west of Kufra. To reach the Fezzan without being seen, they avoided the routes that led to wells and oases. Leaving the patrols at a rendezvous about 150 miles to the north, Clayton took four trucks to Kayugi, in the foothills of the Tibesti Mountains, page 8 to collect Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. d’Ornano, commander of the French forces in Chad, together with two French officers, two French sergeants, five native soldiers, and some petrol that they had brought by camel over the mountains. While Clayton was away, Lieutenant Shaw took three trucks to explore a pass through the Eghei Mountains on the route to Kufra. The combined party then continued its journey into the Fezzan by a detour to the north-east of Murzuk. The only men they had seen since leaving Cairo were three wandering natives with their camels.
On the morning of 11 January the force reached the road running southwards from Sebha to Murzuk, which they mined and picketed. Major Clayton led the column of vehicles along the road towards the fort at Murzuk. A group of natives at a well, mistaking them for Italians, gave the Fascist salute. The Italian postman, overtaken while cycling towards the fort, was forced into the leading truck as a guide.
The garrison, some of whom were strolling outside the gates of the fort, were taken completely by surprise. Lieutenant Ballantyne led a troop of T patrol to the airfield and the remainder of the force deployed to engage the fort with the Guards’ Bofors gun, two two-inch mortars, machine guns, and rifles. Recovering from their surprise, the Italians offered stubborn resistance. One New Zealander, Sergeant C. D. Hewson,16 was killed when he stood up to repair his jammed machine gun. At a critical time, when the enemy fire was causing casualties, the T patrol navigator (Corporal L. H. Browne17) kept his machine gun in action and, although wounded in the foot, remained at his post. Trooper I. H. McInnes18 manoeuvred his mortar into a position where it could be used effectively: one bomb set the tower of the fort on fire and destroyed the flagstaff.
At the airfield, Ballantyne’s troop of six trucks with the Bofors gun from T patrol opened fire on men running to machine-gun posts. Major Clayton, who was accompanied by Colonel d’Ornano, drove off to encircle the hangar. Turning a corner, the truck ran into a machine-gun post firing at close range. Before Clayton could reverse, d’Ornano was killed by a bullet through the throat, and an Italian who had been forced to replace the postman as a guide was also killed. Ballantyne’s troop continued to fire on the hangar until its defenders surrendered. About twenty-five men, most of them in air force uniform, were taken prisoner. The troop removed many rifles and thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition and then set fire to the hangar, which contained three Italian aircraft, a two-way wireless set, some bombs and parachutes. Thick black smoke rose and the noise of exploding bombs was heard for a long time.
After two hours’ fighting, the fort, although damaged, had not been captured. The purpose of the raid had been achieved, however, in the destruction of the airfield. It was estimated that ten of the enemy had been killed and fifteen wounded, while the attackers had suffered two men killed and three wounded. Of the twenty-odd prisoners taken, all except two, the postman and a member of the air force, were released for lack of transport space and rations. Hewson and d’Ornano were buried by the roadside near the town. One of the French officers, shot in the leg, cauterised the wound with his cigarette and carried on as if nothing had happened. A guardsman with a serious leg wound had to be taken by truck about 700 miles across country to the French outpost at Zouar before he could be flown to Cairo.
The enemy made no attempt at pursuit. As the patrols drove away from the town, they were concealed in a dust storm which blew down from the north. Early next morning they captured two Italian policemen on camels; they were from the small town of Traghen, about thirty miles to the east of Murzuk. The patrols surrounded the town and sent the two Italians in to call on the police fort to surrender. About a quarter of an hour later an extraordinary procession emerged.page 9
COUNTRY OF SANDpage 11
COUNTRY OF ROCKpage 12
LIFE ON PATROL
A DESERT MEAL The patrols were probably the best-fed troops in the Middle East. So that the men could stand severe conditions for long periods, without fresh meat, vegetables, and bread, and with very little water, they were given tinned foods of a high calorific value and as much variety as possible
Plotting a position: In dead reckoning a line from the point of departure to the objective is ruled on the map. The patrol follows the general direction of this line but deviates from time to time as required by the terrain and other considerations. The navigator records the times, sun-compass bearings, and the distance travelled on each bearing by speedometer reading, and plots this data on the map at each halt. The final point on the map arrived at by this method is the ‘dead reckoning position’
BOGGED DOWN Even the most experienced driver could not always distinguish the patches of soft sand and trucks were often bogged
DIGGING OUT Perforated steel channels and canvas sand-mats were placed under the wheels and, with every man pushing, the truck was extricated two or three yards at a time
RAIDING WITH THE FREE FRENCH
The truck Te Paki destroyed in the ambush at Gebel Sherif.
New Zealanders of the LRDG gave their trucks Maori names
Other trucks destroyed by a patrol of the Auto-Saharan Company were Tirau, in front, in which Cpl F. R. Beech was killed, and Te Aroha behind, from which Tpr R. J. Moore began his walk of 210 miles
From Traghen the patrols went a short distance eastwards to Umm el Araneb, where there was another police fort. Warned by wireless from Murzuk, the garrison was prepared for the attack and met the patrols with machine-gun fire. With bullets flying past and spattering the ground all around them, the patrols withdrew to a rise about a mile/from the fort. Although several trucks had difficulty in getting through some soft sand, nobody was hit. Unarmoured cars with no weapon larger than a Bofors gun were inadequate for an assault on a stone fort. A few shells were fired into the fort and the patrols then turned southwards for Gatrun and Tejerri.
While the LRDG raided Murzuk, it was intended that the French Groupe Nomade (camel corps) should attack Tejerri, 120 miles to the south. Because of the treachery of native guides, this attack was a failure. The LRDG were no more successful at Gatrun, about thirty miles from Tejerri. They cautiously approached the oasis until within sight of a fort, then made a dash, only to discover that it was an empty ruin. They motored up a rise on to a landing ground, on the other side of which they saw some oblong enclosures. Four Arabs came out to tell them that an aircraft had reported the attack on Murzuk; they also said that there were thirty soldiers in Gatrun. Major Clayton told the Arabs to ask the garrison to surrender, but when the inhabitants began to leave the village it was realised that the enemy intended to resist. Moving as close as they could without exposing themselves, the patrols opened fire with the Bofors, machine guns, and rifles. The enemy replied with machine-gun fire. After some damage had been done and at least one of the machine guns silenced, the attack was broken off at nightfall. A bomber circled over the patrols until it was dark, but none of its bombs fell near the scattered trucks.
Clayton ended his operations in the Fezzan on 14 January and went south to Tummo, on the French border. The patrols cut across the north-eastern corner of Niger Province to the Free French outpost of Zouar. Although Chad was the first part of the French Empire to declare for de Gaulle, the French in the adjoining Niger Province were supporters of Vichy. The patrols crossed some unexplored desert and entered the western foothills of Tibesti, a region of castle-like rocks, red-brown gravel, acacia trees, and thin grass. They saw scores of gazelle, some of which they shot and ate. A smooth-surfaced road led them through a steep mountain defile to Zouar, where a native guard presented arms as they arrived.
Ambush at Gebel Sherif
After the death of d’Ornano, Colonel Leclerc19 succeeded to the command of the French forces in Chad. Eventually he led these forces through the Fezzan to link up with the Eighth Army in Tunisia. In January 1941 he planned a thousand-mile advance from his headquarters at Fort Lamy to Kufra. His chief difficulty was the provision of supplies and transport. The Free French could expect little assistance from the British, who were then attacking the Italians in Cyrenaica with forces much weaker in numbers. Leclerc combed the scrapheaps of Chad to equip his expedition. Colonel Bagnold flew from Cairo to Fort Lamy to discuss the Kufra operation, for which the LRDG was to be temporarily under the command of the French.page 26
Clayton’s force of G and T patrols travelled over some very difficult country from Zouar to Faya, the French base about half way between Fort Lamy and Kufra. From Faya they were to act as an advanced guard for the French force and were to reconnoitre to Uweinat. As it happened, the Italians had evacuated their posts at Uweinat. The LRDG left Faya on 27 January and reached Tekro two days later. The guard at the French post had been increased to twelve; they included the three men who had challenged T patrol when they first visited Tekro. Next day the LRDG left for Sarra, where G patrol stayed in reserve while Clayton took T patrol to Bishara. The Italians, who must have been expecting an attack on Kufra, had filled in the wells at Sarra and Bishara.
When T patrol was at Bishara on the morning of 31 January, an Italian aircraft came overhead. The trucks scattered and made for some hills, and the plane flew away without attacking them. The patrol took cover among some rocks in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif, camouflaged the trucks, and prepared to have lunch. The plane returned and circled over the wadi, to which it directed a patrol of the Auto-Saharan Company, the enemy’s equivalent to the LRDG. The Italian vehicles were seen approaching but disappeared behind a hill. Clayton told Trooper F. W. Jopling20 to back his truck towards the entrance of the wadi to see if the enemy was there. The enemy patrol then attacked with heavy and accurate fire at a range of about 200 yards. Three T patrol trucks were set on fire, and Corporal F. R. Beech21 and two of the Italian prisoners were killed. At least three of the attacking party were killed and two wounded.
T patrol comprised thirty men in eleven trucks. The enemy who were forty-four strong in two armoured fighting vehicles and five trucks had the advantage of close co-operation with aircraft and of being armed with Breda guns. They made the mistake, however, of covering only one entrance to the wadi. Clayton took the eight remaining trucks out the other end, circled round and prepared to counter-attack. At this stage the enemy aircraft, which were now increased to three, began low-flying attacks with bombs and machine guns. The trucks scattered and swerved away across the boulder-strewn ground.
Machine-gun fire punctured two tires, the radiator, and the petrol tank on Clayton’s truck. The crew changed the tires, refilled the radiator, but ran out of petrol. The aircraft continued to attack and the enemy ground troops arrived, so that Clayton, who was wounded in the arm, and his two New Zealand companions (Lance-Corporals L. Roderick22 and W. R. Adams23) were forced to surrender. The other seven trucks of T patrol returned to a rendezvous in the south and, under Lieutenant Ballantyne, rejoined G patrol and the French.
Of the four Italian prisoners, two had been killed and two were recaptured by the enemy. Four men from T patrol who were missing were presumed to have been killed or taken prisoner; they were a New Zealander (Trooper R. J. Moore24), two guardsmen (Easton and Winchester), and an RAOC fitter (Tighe). Unknown to the patrol, they were hiding in Gebel Sherif. When their truck caught fire and the ammunition began to explode, they ran for shelter among the rocks. Encouraged by Moore, they decided not to give themselves up to the Italians, but to follow the patrol southwards in the hope that they might be picked up by the British or the French. Easton was wounded in the throat and Moore in the foot. They had less than two gallons of water in a tin and no food. Everything else had been burnt in the trucks.page 27
On 1 February they began walking southwards along the tracks of the patrol. Tighe, who began to feel the effects of an old operation and who could not keep up with the others, was left behind on the fifth day with his share of the water. The other three reached Sarra, 135 miles from Gebel Sherif, on the sixth day; Tighe arrived a day later and sholtered in some huts, where he was found three days later by a party of French returning from a reconnaissance of Kufra. They had to wait until dawn before they could follow the footmarks of the other three men, who had continued walking southwards from Sarra. On the eighth day Easton had dropped behind. Moore and Winchester were seen by two French aircraft that must have realised their plight, but as the ground was too rough for a landing, the planes circled about and dropped a bag of food and a bottle of water. The food could not be found and the cork had come out of the bottle, leaving only a mouthful or two. Next day Winchester, who was a veteran of Dunkirk, became too weak to continue. Moore shared the last mouthful of water with him and pushed on alone.
The French party left Sarra at first light on the tenth day. Fifty-five miles to the south they found Easton lying on the ground but still alive. Despite the efforts of a French doctor to save his life, he died that evening. Ten miles farther on they found Winchester, delirious but still able to stand. Another ten miles farther south, they overtook Moore, still walking steadily. He was then 210 miles from Gebel Sherif and believed he could have reached Tekro, eighty miles away, in another three days.
Moore, Winchester, and Tighe remained a month in the care of the French. They spent a week recuperating at an ambulance post at Sarra and were then taken to Fort Lamy, in Equatorial Africa. Eventually they were flown to Khartoum and returned to Cairo by Nile river-boat and train.
As the situation had changed following the ambush of T patrol, and as the Italians at Kufra were obviously on the alert, Leclerc had to change his plans. He formed a temporary base at Tekro and released the LRDG from further service with the Free French forces. One T patrol truck, under Lance-Corporal F. Kendall,25 stayed with the French to help them navigate. The two patrols started north-eastwards on 4 February and, passing to the south of Uweinat, reached Cairo five days later. Since setting out in December the LRDG had covered about 4500 miles of desert, with the loss of four trucks by enemy action and two by mechanical breakdown. One vehicle with a broken rear axle had been towed about 900 miles from Tummo to Faya before it could be repaired. The casualties included three dead and three captured by the Italians. The leader of the expedition, Major Clayton, now a prisoner of war, was awarded the DSO. The services of three New Zealanders were also recognised: Corporal Browne, who showed coolness and gallantry in the action at Gebel Sherif as well as at Murzuk, was awarded the DCM, while Moore’s march earned him the DCM, and Trooper McInnes’s mortar-shooting the MM.
Later in February Leclerc attacked Kufra with a force of 101 Europeans and 295 natives. They defeated the Auto-Saharan Company, which withdrew to the north and left the besieged garrison without mobile protection. The French shelled the fort for ten days with their one 75-millimetre gun. Although strong enough to hold out for weeks, the garrison of sixty-four Italians and 352 Libyans, armed with fifty-three machine guns and four Bredas, surrendered Kufra to the French on 1 March.page 28
General Wavell’s advance into Cyrenaica cut off a garrison of approximately a thousand Italians at Giarabub, an oasis in a depression below sea level 160 miles to the south of Bardia and twenty-five from the frontier. Giarabub is a holy city of the Senussi; a white-domed mosque contains the tomb of the founder of the sect.
While T and G patrols were co-operating with the French in south-west Libya, the other New Zealand patrol (R), under Captain Steele, assisted a force which included the 6th Australian Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the siege of Giarabub. To prevent any supplies reaching the garrison and the enemy from escaping, the Australians watched the northern approaches to the oasis and the New Zealanders the tracks to the west.
R patrol was engaged on this very tedious task for two months before it was relieved by T patrol on 2 March. The Italian garrison, supplied by aircraft, continued to withstand the siege until attacked by the Australians. A fierce assault during a sandstorm resulted in the capture of Giarabub on 22 March.