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Episodes & Studies Volume 1


FOLLOWING THE DEFEAT early in September 1942 of Rommel’s final attempt to break through the Alamein Line, Eighth Army proceeded with its preparations for an offensive. As Faiyum would cease to be a suitable base for the LRDG when the advance started, the whole unit was concentrated at Kufra. The battle began on 23 October and in ten days the shattered remnants of the Axis army were in full retreat to the west. At the request of General Staff Intelligence, the LRDG re-established a watch on the Tripoli-Benghazi road, again near Marble Arch. During the first spell of watching, carried out by Y1 patrol from 30 October to 8 November, less than a hundred vehicles passed both ways daily. By 10 November, when R1 had relieved Y1, the results of Eighth Army’s victory were apparent: enemy traffic streamed westwards at the rate of 3500 vehicles a day, and the evacuation of Italian civilians with their furniture, as well as many thousands of troops, confirmed that Rommel did not intend to return.

When it became evident that the enemy intended to withdraw from El Agheila, the watch was transferred farther westwards to the Gheddahia-Tauorga section of the road. S1 patrol began the first spell in this area on 13 December, and T2 took over a week later. Second-Lieutenant R. A. Tinker,28 leaving a rear camp about thirty miles to the south-west of Gheddahia, took nine men in two vehicles to the vicinity of Sedada. The watchers, who had great difficulty in passing on foot through enemy camps near the road, did not long escape discovery. Three German armoured cars attacked and occupied their forward camp on 22 December. The men who were able to evade capture began to walk back to the rear camp, which Tinker and three others succeeded in reaching. Tinker withdrew his patrol next day, when eight German vehicles were seen approaching from the north. Five New Zealanders** and an Englishman were missing, but Trooper E. Ellis29

** Troopers Ellis, L. R. B. Johnstone, and J. L. Reid, and Privates C. A. Dornbush and J. M. Simonsen. Reid walked for a week before he was captured, and later escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.

page 11 and the Englishman (Private E. C. Sturrock), walking for days with no food and little water, made their way independently back to the British lines. They were both awarded the MM.

Long before Eighth Army began the advance from Alamein, the Intelligence branch of General Headquarters, Middle East, had secret agents operating in Tripolitania. LRDG patrols were required to carry these men, with their stores and their wireless sets, to a place from which they could complete their journey by camel or on foot. In August, R1 patrol, under Captain A. I. Guild,30 took the first party of three men from Kufra to Bir Tala, about 120 miles to the south-east of Tripoli. Three months later the same patrol, led by Captain L. H. Browne,31 repeated the 2000-mile trip to deliver fresh stores and to relieve the wireless operator, who was ill.

On the way northwards on 17 November, R1 exchanged fire with an enemy patrol between Marada and Zella, and put two enemy vehicles out of action without loss to themselves. Next day, when attacked at Wadi Tamet by at least fourteen enemy aircraft, they took cover in the wadi banks and fought back with all their weapons. An officer of the Arab Legion attached to the patrol and the New Zealand navigator (Lance-Corporal N. O’Malley32 were killed, another New Zealander (Private M. F. Fogden33 was wounded, and two trucks were damaged beyond repair. Browne sent a party back to Kufra with the wounded man and, although wounded himself, carried on to Bir Tala with two trucks to complete his task.

When Rommel withdrew in December from his defensive positions at El Agheila, his retreat was hastened by a ‘left hook’ by the New Zealand Division around his southern flank. This outflanking move involved crossing the Marada-El Agheila track, through country that had become well known to the LRDG during the road watch. Guided by Browne’s R1 patrol, the column reached the Bir el Merduma area, to the west of Marble Arch, in the evening of 15 December, but was unable to prevent Rommel’s Afrika Korps from breaking out to the west. R1 then led the Division in another outflanking movement at Nofilia on 17 December, but again the enemy escaped.

R1 patrol’s next assignment was to reconnoitre the country beyond Wadi Tamet. Browne was injured and a South African survey officer was killed on 22 December when their jeep struck a mine on a landing ground near the wadi. Browne, who had served the LRDG with distinction since the formation of the unit, was awarded the MC. With Second-Lieutenant K. F. McLauchlan34 in command, the patrol continued the reconnaissance until ambushed by two German armoured cars near the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track on 27 December. The wireless truck, containing three New Zealanders* and an Englishman, and a jeep carrying a South African officer and his driver, were captured, but the rest of the patrol skilfully evaded the enemy.

While Eighth Army was driving into Tripolitania from the east, General Leclerc’s Fighting French Forces of Chad Province moved into the Fezzan from the south. This form of Anglo-French co-operation had been planned a year earlier, when R2 patrol, led by Second-Lieutenant C. H. B. Croucher,35 had been despatched to a French outpost in the Tibesti Mountains to act as a wireless link between the Allies. Rommel’s counter-offensive in Cyrenaica, however, had necessitated the postponement of the French advance and the recall of R2 patrol.

As Leclerc lacked the support of fighter aircraft for his operations, LRDG patrols, including R2, were sent to the Fezzan to destroy enemy aircraft on the landing grounds at Hon and Sebha,

* Lance-Bombardier C. O. Grimsey, Private K. C. J. Ineson, and Trooper R. D. Hayes.

page 12 but unfortunately, because of heavy rain and very difficult going, their attempts failed. Although the French were exposed to air attack, they succeeded in capturing one Italian outpost after another, while the LRDG blocked the enemy’s line of retreat to the north. T1 (under Captain Wilder), Y2, and an Indian patrol* mined the roads, destroyed transport, killed a few Italians, and took a number of prisoners.

Eighth Army entered Tripoli on 23 January 1943. This advance of 1400 miles in three months had made it necessary for the LRDG to move its base from Kufra 600 miles north-westwards to Zella, and later another 150 miles to Hon. The unit’s Heavy Section, equipped with 6-ton and 3-ton lorries, moved the base from one place to the next in a single journey. The heavy transport was usually employed in ferrying supplies to forward dumps, or from the nearest depot to the LRDG base—from Wadi Halfa to Kufra, from Mersa Matruh to Siwa, from Msus to Gialo, from Nofilia to Zella, and from Misurata or Tripoli to Hon. Transporting rations, petrol, ammunition, and equipment over such great distances, created special problems for the quartermaster, Captain D. Barrett,36 who received the MBE in recognition of his efficiency and capacity for hard work.

* An Indian Long Range Squadron of four patrols came under the command of the LRDG in October 1942.