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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Occupation of the Southern Oases

Occupation of the Southern Oases

After the expulsion of the Italians from Cyrenaica in February 1941, it was decided to transfer the LRDG base from Cairo to a place farther to the west. At first the neighbourhood of El Agheila was considered as a site, but as German patrols were active in that area, Kufra was recognised as a more suitable station.

By this time the LRDG had been expanded to include a Yeomanry (Y) patrol and a Southern Rhodesian (S) patrol. When G, Y, and S patrols were trained in desert work, the LRDG was divided into A and B Squadrons. A Squadron was composed originally of G and Y patrols, and B Squadron of R, S, and T patrols and the group headquarters, which included the signal, repair, and heavy transport sections.

The fort in the Kufra oasis was held by a French garrison of 250 natives, without any form of mobile defence. The outlying oases of Taiserbo and Zighen were unoccupied. Whoever held these oases, situated in the gap between the Kalansho and Ribiana Sand Seas, held Kufra against attack from the north. Consequently, R patrol was despatched from Cairo on 1 April to occupy Taiserbo.

Rommel began his offensive in northern Libya and by 7 April had occupied the whole of Cyrenaica except the fortress of Tobruk. The LRDG was ordered to reinforce Kufra as soon as possible. By the end of the month, as well as R patrol at Taiserbo, S patrol was at Zighen, and the LRDG headquarters, T patrol, and the French were at Kufra, with Colonel Bagnold in command of the Anglo-French force. The detached A Squadron (G and Y patrols, commanded by Major Mitford) was at Siwa, under the control of the Western Desert Force.

Centuries of wind erosion have lowered the surface of the desert at Kufra to a water-bearing strata. Many thousands of date palms surround the white salt marshes and two blue lakes, as salt as the Dead Sea. Fresh water for the irrigation of crops and gardens is obtained from wells. The entire region has a population of less than 6000, more than half of whom live/in the central oasis. The garrison obtained supplies of fresh vegetables and meat by encouraging the natives to cultivate gardens and to resume their trade in livestock with Chad and Tibesti.

T patrol relieved R at Taiserbo on 9 June. This oasis, 157 miles from Kufra, has only 700 inhabitants and consists of little more than a few palms scattered around brackish salt ponds. The page 29 temperature rises above 110 degrees and dust storms are frequent. In their attempts to avoid the flies, which were the worst they had ever experienced, the New Zealanders moved their camp from one site to another. At each place they obtained water by sinking a well to a depth of from five to twenty feet. The flies were not the only pest. Corporal L. H. Browne was bitten by a snake but recovered after suffering hours of agony, and Gunner C. O. Grimsey26 was stung three times by a scorpion; the man survived but the scorpion died.*

The Sudan Defence Force was responsible for supplying the Kufra garrison. Guided by a New Zealander (Corporal Browne), the first convoy, an odd assortment of vehicles driven by inexperienced natives, left Wadi Halfa on 28 April. Some undesertworthy lorries had to be left half way and their loads taken over the last 300 miles in two lifts. Consequently, the delivery of the supplies was not completed until 13 May. By that time there was not enough petrol at Kufra to evacuate the garrison, should it have been necessary. More suitable transport was obtained from Cairo and by the end of June a satisfactory convoy system was functioning.

The LRDG ‘air force’ was created during the occupation of Kufra. Major G. L. Prendergast,27 one of the pre-war explorers of the desert and an experienced airman, joined the unit in February 1941. Realising the value of aircraft to the LRDG, he had two Waco machines adapted for long-distance flying. Prendergast flew one himself and a New Zealander (Sergeant R. F. T. Barker28) the other. These aircraft were used for reconnaissance, liaison with the patrols, for bringing in wounded men, and for flights to Cairo. When Bagnold was appointed to the staff of General Headquarters at Cairo in August, Prendergast became the commanding officer of the LRDG.

Throughout the summer of 1941, while Rommel’s army stood at the Egyptian frontier, the LRDG remained in Italian Libya, without hope of assistance if attacked or surrounded. Enemy activity in the direction of Kufra, however, was confined to reconnaissance by Italian aircraft, and no attempt was made to recapture the oasis. The French troops were gradually withdrawn from Kufra and on 18 July the Sudan Defence Force relieved the LRDG of garrison duty. The patrols then returned to their former role of long-distance reconnaissance.

In anticipation of an eventual British advance into Tripolitania, the LRDG explored towards the coast to the north-west of Kufra. Information was gathered about the ‘going’ for wheeled and tracked vehicles, sites for landing grounds, and the local supplies of water. At the end of July, T patrol left Taiserbo for the desert to the south of the Gulf of Sirte. It was in this region that the New Zealand Division outflanked the enemy at El Agheila sixteen months later. One T patrol truck approached at night to within a short distance of the main coastal road, along which enemy traffic was passing. Two or three weeks later, S patrol made a similar reconnaissance farther to the east, between Gialo and Agedabia. These tasks were completed without discovery by the enemy.

R patrol relieved the detached G and Y patrols at Siwa in August 1941 and was joined by T patrol in October. Major Steele was appointed to command the independent New Zealand squadron and an Englishman (Captain J. R. Easonsmith29) assumed command of R patrol. Steele was awarded the OBE in recognition of his services while in command of A Squadron at Siwa and later at Gialo. He planned operations which included successful attacks on enemy communications and airfields, reconnaissance as far as Tripolitania, and the carrying of demolition parties, search parties, and Arab and British secret agents to various points behind the enemy lines.

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To discover all they could about the enemy and to enlist the support of friendly natives, British secret agents lived as Arabs among the tribesmen of Gebel Akhdar and sent back information by wireless. Gebel Akhdar—which means ‘the green mountain’—is a fertile tableland between the sea and the desert. The Italians had established a dozen colonial settlements there before the war.

The LRDG took the secret agents where they wanted to go, delivered wireless batteries, ammunition, and explosives to them, and distributed food among the natives. Constantly in demand for this and similar tasks, the patrols ran what they called a taxi service. Because it was uneconomical to operate at full strength on the short journeys from Siwa, they were reorganised as half patrols, each with an officer and from twelve to fifteen men in four or five vehicles. The patrols of A (New Zealand) Squadron became known as R 1, R 2, T 1, and T 2.

Captain Easonsmith, who led several of these expeditions from Siwa, earned a reputation for fearlessness. In October, when R 1 patrol was in the hills to the north-west of Mechili, he discovered an enemy camp in which there were four light tanks and thirty or forty vehicles. With the intention of seizing a prisoner or two for interrogation, he decided to stage an ambush on a track leading to the camp. Protected by two R patrol trucks stationed behind a rise, Easonsmith pretended that his own truck had broken down on the track a mile or two from the camp. The first convoy that came along was larger than he had expected—there were at least sixteen vehicles. The leading lorry stopped, but before Easonsmith could seize its two occupants they ran off and were killed or wounded. Italians with rifles began to appear from the other lorries. Corporal Spotswood had fired only a few rounds from the back of Easonsmith’s truck when his machine gun jammed. Shouting ‘I must get a prisoner’, Easonsmith ran down the column and bowled grenades among the Italians, who tried to take cover under their vehicles. He captured two men, but one was wounded and later died. The other revealed that the Trieste Motorised Division was on its way to Mechili. Having killed six or seven of the enemy and wounded a dozen, the patrol escaped without casualty.

* Using this dead scorpion as a model, Grimsey designed the badge (a scorpion within a wheel) which became the official insignia of the LRDG.