Friday, March 13, 2015

‘A’ Force: North Africa Part I

‘The Western Desert is a place fit only for war,’ begins the script by the Sunday Times journalist James Lansdale Hodson for the 1943 propaganda documentary film Desert Victory:

Thousands of square miles are nothing but sand and stone. A compass is as necessary, once off the road, as it is to a sailor at sea. Water doesn’t exist until you bore deep into the earth. You bath in your shaving-mug. Flies have the tenacity of bulldogs. Bruises turn rapidly to desert sores. Days that are very hot are followed by nights of bitter cold. When the hot khamsin wind brings its sandstorms, life can be intolerable. The Arabs say that after five days of it, murder can be excused.

In this testing environment, Major General Archibald Wavell, the soldier who lost an eye near Ypres and walked through the Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem with Lawrence in 1917, had been reviving Lawrence’s guerrilla tactics, using cunning, deception, mobility and tiny ‘mosquito columns’ against elephantine Italian forces. Wavell had been appointed British commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command a month before WW2 broke out. He was now in the same post once held by General Allenby, whose biography he was writing. Just like Allenby confronting the Ottoman Turks in WW1, he was facing a numerically superior enemy.

Wavell had a gift for picking good people. One was Major Ralph Bagnold, an officer in the Royal Signals, one of a select band who knew and respected the great desert that lay behind the cultivated coasts of North Africa. Bagnold had been exploring the Sahara since 1926. He had improved the sun compass for desert navigation, discovered the best way of driving up dunes (full-speed, head-on), invented rope ladders and steel channels for getting unstuck in soft going, and even written a treatise on ‘The Physics of Blown Sand’ which got him elected to the Royal Society. Bagnold foresaw that the Italians might send reconnaissance and raiding parties out of the enormous Libyan desert to sever British military communications between Cairo and Khartoum and, when Fascist Italy finally declared war on the Allies in June 1940, got carte blanche from Wavell to set up, equip, supply and prepare a new Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

Bagnold located old companions from pre-war desert explorations, plucking Pat Clayton from Tanganyika and Bill Kennedy Shaw from Palestine, and put them in charge of young men from the backcountry of New Zealand who had lost all their guns and kit in a torpedo attack at sea. Their commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg, VC (the man who swam ashore before the Gallipoli landings), was reluctant to let them go, but the New Zealanders – as always the best troops in the Dominions – took to the desert as though born to it. They became mainstays of the LRDG, doing what Wavell called ‘inconspicuous but invaluable service’.

From the beginning, Wavell had been creating the illusion for the Italians that he was stronger and better equipped than he actually was. In June 1940, the Daily Mail correspondent Alexander Clifford was able to deduce the ‘routine of bluff’ by British forces on the Libyan–Egyptian frontier, 300 miles west of Cairo, and made one of the earliest references to the use of dummy tanks:

I saw, gradually, what was happening. Subtly and systematically Wavell was doing his sums and faking his figures. These tiny British patrols were staging big demonstrations. Continually they were making nuisances of themselves, moving rapidly from place to place, shooting up convoys, flinging ambushes across roads, attacking forts and positions, always pretending they were much bigger than they were. Dummy tanks were toted about to give the idea that we had strong armoured units . . . In every way that tiny army set itself to gain time by frightening the enemy.

The dummy tanks were the responsibility of the fake 10th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (10 RTR) under a Major Johnston. The unit, actually formed from men of the 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry, deployed and operated primitive dummy tanks and lorries made out of wood and canvas which they carried folded in the unit transport.

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