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The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, Gavin Mortimer
The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, Gavin Mortimer
The Long Range Desert Group was the first of the many units of Special Forces raised by the British during the Second World War, and like so many of the later groups came into existence because of the unusual nature of the war in North Africa. On this front the majority of the fighting took place in the narrow coastal strip, with a wide open southern front created by the vast North African deserts. The Long Range Desert Group was formed around a core of men with a great deal of experience of travelling in the desert, and its role was to use the desert to get past the front lines and into the enemies rear areas, where they carried out a mix of reconnaissance and raids.
The LRDG appears in just about every history of the fighting in North Africa, but rarely in much detail. A brief mention of their reconnaissance role is common, but they are perhaps most famous for providing transport for the SAS early in that group’s existence. This is unfair to the LRDG, which developed a series of techniques for crossing the deep desert that allowed them to travel hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, from where they were able to provide an invaluable service, watching the limited roads that carried most of Rommel’s supplies and reinforcements, and on occasion carrying out impressively destructive raids of their own. This book tells their full story, from their formation, through the too-and-fro battles in North Africa and on to eventual victory. The SAS make an appearance, but that part of the story isn’t allowed to dominate,
The LRDG is probably the most famous of the Second World War Special Force groups not to have survived into the post-war world. The SAS and SBS both still survive, but the future of the LRDG came into doubt earlier than most, when the war in North Africa ended. The last few chapters of the book are thus dominated by the search for a new role for the group, away from the desert that gave it its purpose and its very title. The eventual answer was to turn the group into another raiding force, operating in the Balkans, Italy and at sea in the Aegean. Not all of these efforts were successful - the group was drawn into the disastrous attempt to liberate the Dodecanese Islands, the last British defeat in the Mediterranean. Some of their early land based operations in Europe also ended in failure, as the group had to adapt to an entirely new type of warfare. Even in the Balkans, where the group had its last major successes, one can sense the frustration caused by having to work with unreliable allies, in the shape of the various Partisan groups, and the relationship eventually broke down totally towards the end of the war, with many of the LRDG operatives being ‘arrested’ by the former Allies in an early sign of the post-war Cold War.
This is a fascinating story, and Mortimer tells it well. The LRDG carried out some truly impressive journeys and we follow them as they deal with the threat of air attack, being caught by superior forces on the ground and most significantly of all, the unforgiving desert.
1 - From Scientist to Soldier
2 - Only the Tough Need Apply
3 - Into Action
4 - Expansion and Excitement
5 - Fight at the Fort
6 - The Afrika Korps Arrive
7 - Misuse and Malaria
8 - Heavy Losses and a New Leader
9 - The Saviours of the SAS
10 - On the Back Foot
11 - Courage in the Face of Calamity
12 - The Eyes of the Alamein Offensive
13 - Adventures in the Aegean
14 - The Battle for Leroes
15 - A Different Type of Warfare
16 - Valour and Versatility
17 - Until the Bitter End
Author: Gavin Mortimer
Vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group 1940–45 (New Vanguard)
The Long Range Desert Group was one of the most famous special units of World War II, operating heavily modified vehicles deep behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and support the raids of David Stirling&aposs new Special Air Service.
When war broke out, a pre-war explorer and army officer, Ralph Bagnold, convinced Middle East Command of the need for a reconnaissance force The Long Range Desert Group was one of the most famous special units of World War II, operating heavily modified vehicles deep behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and support the raids of David Stirling's new Special Air Service.
When war broke out, a pre-war explorer and army officer, Ralph Bagnold, convinced Middle East Command of the need for a reconnaissance force to penetrate into Italian-held desert. Bagnold tested four types of vehicles over rocks and through soft sand to find the best one for his new unit. Bagnold selected the Chevrolet WB (30 CWT) as the signature vehicle of the Long Range Desert Group because it is "fast, simple and easy to handle". With left-hand steering, horizontal grill and round fenders on the rear wheels, these trucks proved themselves popular and effective. The durability of the Chevrolets was demonstrated in January 1941 with an audacious raid on the Italian fort/air strip at Murzuk, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.
This book explains the detail of all the vehicles of the LRDG, as well as their modifications, driving techniques, and special kit for surviving behind enemy lines in one of the most hostile environments on earth. . more
The Men Who Saved the SAS: Major Ralph Bagnold and the Long Range Desert Group
Ralph Bagnold was as unlikely a special forces commander as anyone could imagine. His war had been the Great War, when as a junior signals officer he had survived the carnage of the Western Front. When World War II began in September 1939, Bagnold was 43 and earning a comfortable living as a scientist and writer.
Recalled to the colours four years after he had retired from the army, Major Bagnold was posted to Officer Commanding, East Africa Signals, and dispatched on a troopship to Kenya. But he never arrived. In early October, Bagnold’s vessel, RMS Franconia, collided with a merchant cruiser in the Mediterranean. He and the rest of his troop transferred to another vessel and sailed to Port Said in Egypt to await the first available ship to Kenya.
Bagnold was delighted. Egypt was a country he knew well, better in fact than nearly any other Briton. He had spent most of the 1920s in Egypt with his regiment, entranced by the culture and the vast desert that stretched west into Libya. In 1927, he made his first foray into the Libyan desert, leading a small band of explorers in a fleet of Model T Fords. More expeditions followed, penetrating farther into the desert’s brutal interior than any other European had. Bagnold’s fascination was as much motivated by science as by exploration, and he began studying the terrain, leading him to publish the critically acclaimed The Physics of Blown Sand And Desert Dunes in 1939.
Back in Egypt, Bagnold took the train from Port Said to Cairo to look up old friends. He dined with one such acquaintance in the restaurant of the exclusive Shepheard’s Hotel, where he was spotted by the gossip columnist of The Egyptian Gazette newspaper. A few days later, the word was out that Bagnold was back in town, and within a matter of days he was summoned to the office of General Archibald Wavell, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Middle East Command.
Wavell pumped Bagnold for information on the accessibility of the Libyan Desert – the general was increasingly concerned by intelligence reports that the Italians had as many as 250,000 men in 15 divisions under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. So impressed was he by what Bagnold told him that Wavell arranged for his permanent transfer to North Africa.
General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, at his desk, 15 August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193528
Bagnold’s vision brought to life
Bagnold was sent to Mersa Matruh – 135 miles west of Cairo – where he discovered that the most up-to-date map the British forces possessed of Libya dated from 1915. He was similarly appalled by the indifference of senior officers to the threat posed by the Italians – they believed the enemy would make a full-frontal attack on Mersa Matruh, which they would easily repel, but Bagnold suspected the Italians, some of whom he had encountered during his expeditions of the 1920s, would launch surprise attacks on British positions in Egypt from further south.
Bagnold’s idea was to form a small reconnaissance force to patrol the 700-mile frontier with Libya. This was rejected, as it was when he submitted it again in January 1940, and the following month Bagnold was posted as a military advisor to Turkey, presumably to give Middle East Headquarters (MEHQ) in Cairo some peace and quiet.
But Bagnold wouldn’t give up, and after Italy declared war on Britain on 10 June 1940, he tried for a third time to convince the top brass of his idea, explaining in an additional paragraph that there would be three patrols:
“Every vehicle of which, with a crew of three and a machine gun, was to carry its own supplies of food and water for three weeks, and its own petrol for 2,500 miles of travel across average soft desert surface… [each] patrol to carry a wireless set, navigating and other equipment, medical stores, spare parts and further tools.”
This time Bagnold entrusted his friend, Brigadier Dick Baker, to ensure the proposal was put directly into the hands of Wavell. Baker obliged and within four days of receiving Bagnold’s proposition, Wavell had authorised him to form the new unit, provisionally entitled the Long Range Patrol (LRP).
Wavell was a hard taskmaster, however, giving Bagnold just six weeks to make his vision a reality. Men, equipment, rations, weapons, vehicles… it was a formidable challenge but one that Bagnold rose to. First, he searched for the soldiers he tracked down most of his old companions from his exploration days, and while one or two were unable to secure a release from their military duty, Bagnold was soon joined in Cairo by Bill Kennedy-Shaw and Pat Clayton, who by 1940 had accumulated nearly 20 years of experience with the Egyptian Survey Department. Also recruited to the new unit was captain Teddy Mitford, a relative of the infamous sisters and a desert explorer in his own right during the late 1930s.
While Clayton, Mitford and Kennedy-Shaw started to hunt down the necessary equipment, Bagnold flew to Palestine on 29 June to see Lt-General Thomas Blamey, commander of the Australian Corps. Bagnold requested permission to recruit 80 Australian soldiers, explaining that in his view Australians would be the Allied soldiers most likely to adapt quickest to desert reconnaissance. Blamey, on the orders of his government, refused, so Bagnold turned to the New Zealand forces in Egypt.
This time he met with success, and 80 officers, non-commissioned officers and men from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and Machine-Gun Battalion volunteered to be part of the LRP. Bagnold took an instant shine to the Kiwis, saying:
“They made an impressive party by English standards. Tougher and more weather-beaten in looks, a sturdy basis of sheep-farmers, leavened by technicians, property-owners and professional men, and including a few Maoris. Shrewd, dry-humoured, curious of every new thing, and quietly thrilled when I told them what we were to do.”
July was spent assembling the vehicles and equipment and training the New Zealanders in the rudiments of desert motoring and navigation. Kennedy-Shaw, appointed the unit’s intelligence officer, told the Kiwis that the Libyan Desert measured 1,200 miles by 1,000 – or put another way, was roughly the size of India. It was bordered by the Nile in the east and the Mediterranean in the north. In the south, which was limestone compared to the sandstone in the north, the desert extended as far as the Tibesti Mountains, while the political frontier with Tunisia and Algeria marked its western limits.
A well-loaded Chevrolet truck about to set off on patrol from Siwa. This vehicle was crewed by New Zealanders, many of whom joined the Long Range Desert Group in 1940 from a consignment of troops who found themselves at Alexandria without their arms and equipment, which had been lost at sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125571
The unit proves its worth
By the first week of August 1940, the unit was ready for its first patrol and the honour fell to 44-year-old Captain Pat Clayton. He and his small hand-picked party of seven left Cairo in two Chevrolet trucks. Crossing the border into Libya, they continued on to Siwa Oasis, where Alexander the Great had led his army in 332 BCE. “The little patrol of two cars then struck due west, exploring, and made the unwelcome discovery of a large strip of sand sea between the frontier and the Jalo-Kufra road,” wrote Clayton in his subsequent report. “The Chevrolet clutches began to smell a bit by the time we got across, but the evening saw us near the Kufra track.”
They laid up here for three days, taking great care to conceal their presence from the Italians, as they observed the track for signs of activity. They returned to Cairo on 19 August, having covered 1,600 miles of the barren desert in 13 days.
Clayton and Bagnold reported their findings to General Wavell, who, having heard an account of the unit’s first patrol, “made up his mind then and there to give us his strongest backing.” A week later, Wavell inspected the LRP and told them he had informed the War Office they “were ready to take the field.”
Bagnold split the LRP into three patrols, assigning to each a letter of no particular significance. Captain Teddy Mitford commanded W Patrol, Captains Pat Clayton and Bruce Ballantyne (a New Zealander) were the officers in charge of T Patrol and Captain Don Steele, a New Zealand farmer from Takapu, led R Patrol. Each patrol consisted of 25 other ranks, transported in ten 30-cwt Chevrolet trucks and a light 15-cwt pilot car. They carried rations and equipment to sustain them over 1,500 miles and for armament each patrol possessed a 3.7mm Bofors gun, four Boys AT (anti-tank) rifles and 15 Lewis guns.
For the next two months the LRP reconnoitred large swathes of central Libya, often enduring daytime temperatures in excess of 49 degrees Celsius as they probed for signs of Italian troop movements.
On 19 September, Mitford’s patrol encountered two Italian six-ton lorries and opened fire, giving the aristocratic Englishman the honour of blooding the LRP in battle. In truth, it wasn’t much of a battle the Italians, stunned to meet the enemy so far west, quickly waved a white flag. The prisoners were brought back to Cairo, along with 2,500 gallons of petrol and a bag of official mail.
General Wavell was delighted, not just with the official mail that contained much important intelligence but with the LRP’s work throughout the autumn of 1940. Bagnold capitalised on the praise with a request to expand the unit, suggesting to Wavell that with more men he could strike fear into the Italians by launching a series of hit-and-run attacks across a wide region of Libya. On 22 November, Bagnold was promoted to acting lieutenant-colonel and given permission to form two new patrols and reconstitute the Long Range Patrol as the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
For his new recruits, Bagnold turned to the British army and what he considered the cream: the Guards and the Yeomanry Divisions. By the end of December, he had formed G (Guards) Patrol, consisting of 36 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Battalion The Scots Guards, commanded by Captain Michael Crichton-Stuart. Y Patrol was raised a couple of months later, composed of men from, among others, the Yorkshire Hussars, the North Somerset Yeomanry and the Staffordshire Yeomanry. For their inaugural operation, however, G Patrol was placed under the command of Pat Clayton, whose T Patrol would offer support.
Two Long Range Desert Group patrols meet in the desert. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194946
A successful first mission
Their target was Murzuk, a well-defended Italian fort in south-western Libya, nestled among palm trees with an airfield close by. The fort was approximately 1,000 miles to the west of Cairo as the crow flies, and reaching it entailed a gruelling journey that lasted for a fortnight. There were 76 raiders in all, travelling in 23 vehicles, including nine members of the Free French who had been seconded to the operation in return for flying up additional supplies from their base in Chad.
The raiding party stopped for lunch on 11 January, just a few miles from Murzuk, and finalised their plan for the attack: Clayton’s T Patrol would attack the airfield that lay in close proximity to the fort while G Patrol targeted the actual garrison. Crichton-Stuart recalled that as they neared the fort, they passed a lone cyclist:
“This gentleman, who proved to be the postmaster, was added to the party with his bicycle. As the convoy approached the fort, above the main central tower of which the Italian flag flew proudly, the guard turned out. We were rather sorry for them, but they probably never knew what hit them.”
Opening fire 150 yards from the fort’s main gates, the LRDG force split, with the six trucks of Clayton’s patrol heading towards the airstrip. The terrain was up and down, and the LRDG made use of its undulations to destroy a number of pillboxes scattered about, including an anti-aircraft pit.
Clayton, in the vanguard of the assault, circled a hangar and as he turned the corner, ran straight into a concealed machine gun nest. The Free French officer was shot dead but Clayton soon silenced the enemy position, and by the time his patrol withdrew, they had been responsible for the destruction of three light bombers, a sizeable fuel dump and killed or captured all of the 20 guards.
Meanwhile, G Patrol had subjected the fort to a withering mortar barrage, and after a brief fire fight, the garrison surrendered. Clayton selected two prisoners to bring back to Cairo for interrogation and the rest were left in the shattered remnants of the fort to await the arrival of reinforcements once it was realised the fort’s communications were down.
Headdress worn by a member of the LRDG Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30103120
The Nazis push back
Following the Allied advance across Libya in the winter of 1940-41, Adolf Hitler had despatched General Erwin Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps to reinforce their Italian allies. The Nazi leader had initially been reluctant to get involved in North Africa, but Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German navy, warned that if the British maintained their iron grip on the Mediterranean, it would seriously jeopardise his plans for conquest in Eastern Europe.
Rommel wasted little time in attacking the British, launching an offensive on 2 April that ultimately pushed his enemy out of Libya and back into Egypt, right where they had been in 1940. The British managed to hold on to only a couple of footholds in Libya, in the port of Tobruk and 500 miles south in the Oasis of Kufra. On 9 April, Bagnold and most of the LRDG were sent to garrison Kufra, to pass a summer of tedious inactivity that frayed Bagnold’s usually equitable temper. He was also beginning to feel the strain of command, oppressed by the heat and the constant scuttling forth between Cairo and Kufra, and so on 1 August he handed over command of the LRDG to Lt-Colonel Guy Prendergast.
Prendergast had explored the Libyan Desert with Bagnold in the 1920s but had remained in the Royal Tank Regiment. Dour, laconic and precise, Prendergast kept his emotions hidden behind a cool exterior as he did his eyes behind a pair of circular sunglasses. Not to be underestimated, he was innovative, open-minded and a brilliant administrator.
His first challenge as the LRDG’s new commander was to organise five reconnaissance patrols for a new large-scale Allied offensive (codenamed Operation Crusader) on 18 November. The aim of the offensive, planned by General Claude Auchinleck, the successor to the sacked General Wavell, was to retake eastern Libya and its airfields, thereby enabling the RAF to increase its supplies to Malta.
Three Long Range Desert Group 30-cwt Chevrolet trucks, surrounded by desert. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196758
The SAS arrive
The LRDG’s role was the observation and reporting of enemy troop movements, alerting Auchinleck as to what Rommel might be planning in response to the offensive. But they had an additional responsibility: to collect 55 British paratroopers after they’d attacked enemy airfields at Gazala and Tmimi. This small unit had been raised four months earlier by a charismatic young officer called David Stirling and had been designated L Detachment Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade.
Stirling had convinced MEHQ that the enemy was vulnerable to attack along the line of its coastal communications and various aerodromes and supply dumps, by small units of airborne troops attacking not just one target but a series of objectives. Stirling and his men parachuted into Libya on the night of 17 November into what one war correspondent described as “the most spectacular thunderstorm within local memory.” Many of the SAS raiders were injured on landing others were captured in the hours that followed. The 21 storm-ravaged survivors were eventually rescued by the LRDG and driven to safety, among them a bitterly disappointed Stirling.
It was Lt-Colonel Prendergast who resuscitated the SAS. Receiving an order in late November from MEHQ instructing the LRDG to launch a series of raids against Axis airfields to coincide with a secondary Eighth Army offensive, he signalled: “As LRDG not trained for demolitions, suggest pct [parachutists] used for blowing ‘dromes’.” Additionally, Prendergast suggested that it would be more practical for the LRDG to transport the SAS in their trucks.
On 8 December, an LRDG patrol of 19 Rhodesian soldiers and commanded by Captain Charles ‘Gus’ Holliman left Jalo Oasis to take two SAS raiding parties (one led by Stirling, the other by his second-in-command Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne) to the airfields at Tamet and Sirte, 350 miles to the north west. Holliman’s navigator was an Englishman, Mike Sadler, who had emigrated to Rhodesia in 1937.
The raiding party made good progress in the first two days but then hit a wide expanse of rocky broken ground, covering just 20 miles in three painstaking hours on the morning of 11 December. Soon, however, the going underfoot became the least of their problems. “Suddenly we heard the drone of a Ghibli (the Caproni Ca.309, a reconnaissance aircraft),” recalled Cecil ‘Jacko’ Jackson, one of the Rhodesian LRDG soldiers. “Not having room to manoeuvre in the rough terrain, Holliman ordered us all to fire on his command. The plane was low, and when all five Lewis guns opened up, he veered off and his bombs missed.”
The Ghibli broke off the fight but the British knew the pilot would have already been on the radio. It was only a matter of minutes before fighter aircraft appeared overhead. “We doubled back to a patch of scrub we had passed earlier,” said Jackson, who, along with his comrades, made frantic efforts to camouflage their vehicles with netting. “We had just hidden ourselves when three aircraft came over us and strafed the scrub.”
It was obvious to the Italians where the enemy were hiding, but they were firing blind all the same, tattooing the ground with machine gun fire without being able to see their targets. It was a terrifying experience for the LRDG and SAS men cowering among the patchy cover, feeling utterly helpless. All they could do was remain motionless, fighting the natural impulse to run from the fire. “I was lying face down near some scrub and heard and felt something thudding into the ground around me,” remembered Jackson. He didn’t flinch. Only when the drone of the aircraft grew so faint as to be barely audible did he and his comrades get to their feet. Jackson looked down, blanching at “bullet holes [that] had made a neat curve round the imprint of my head and shoulders in the sand.”
A member of a Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) patrol poses with a Vickers ‘K’ Gas-operated machine gun on a Chevrolet 30cwt truck, May 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196170
Remarkably, the strafing caused no damage and the patrol moved off, reaching the outskirts of the targets without further incident. The plan was for Stirling and Sergeant Jimmy Brough to attack Sirte airfield while Paddy Mayne and the rest of the SAS hit Tamet. They left the following night, leaving the LRDG at the rendezvous in Wadi Tamet. At about 11.15pm, the silence was shattered by a thunderous roar three miles distant. “We saw the explosions and got quite excited, the adrenaline pumping through us,” recalled Sadler. “The SAS were similarly excited when they arrived back at the RV. We buzzed them home and on the way they talked us through the raid, discussing what could be improved next time.”
Though Stirling had drawn a blank at Sirte, Mayne had blown up 24 aircraft at Tamet. More successful co-operation between the LRDG and the SAS ensued with a five-man raiding party led by Lt Bill Fraser destroying 37 aircraft on Agedabia airfield. Mayne returned to Tamet at the end of December, laying waste to 27 planes that had recently arrived to replace the ones he’d accounted for a couple of weeks earlier.
Stirling and the SAS continued to rely on the LRDG as their ‘Libyan Taxi Service’ for the first six months of 1942, and he also looked to them for guidance in nurturing his embryonic SAS. “We passed on our knowledge to the SAS and they were very grateful to receive it,” recalled Jim Patch, who joined the LRDG in 1941. “David Stirling was a frequent visitor and he would chat and absorb things. He took advice, man to man, he didn’t just stick with the officers, he went round to the men, too.”
In the first six months of 1942, the SAS, thanks in no small measure to the LRDG, had destroyed 143 enemy aircraft. As Stirling noted:
“By the end of June, L Detachment had raided all the more important German and Italian aerodromes within 300 miles of the forward area at least once or twice. Methods of defence were beginning to improve and although the advantage still lay with L Detachment, the time had come to alter our own methods.”
For the rest of the war in North Africa, the SAS operated largely independently of the LRDG, using their own jeeps obtained in Cairo and their own navigators, now trained by the LRDG in the art of desert navigation. While the SAS conducted numerous hit-and-run raids against airfields and – following the El Alamein offensive – retreating Axis transport columns, the LRDG reverted to its original role of reconnaissance.
It was one that it accomplished with extraordinary diligence and endurance, often keeping enemy roads and positions under observation for days at a time, radioing back the vital intelligence to Cairo. With the desert war all but won, General Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Eighth Army, conveyed his thanks for the LRDG’s magnificent work in a letter to Prendergast dated 2 April 1943, praising “the excellent work done by your patrols” in reconnoitring the country into which his soldiers had advanced.
In 1984, David Stirling expressed his thanks to the LRDG in an address to an audience gathered for the opening of the refurbished SAS base in Hereford, named Stirling Lines, in honour of the regiment’s founder. “In those early days we came to owe the Long Range Desert Group a deep debt of gratitude,” said Stirling. “The LRDG were the supreme professionals of the desert and they were unstinting in their help.”
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The little-known story of a crack Kiwi World War II unit, the Long Range Desert Group
The long-forgotten story of an elite group of Kiwis who operated deep behind enemy lines in North Africa during World War II has been celebrated in a new book by a British historian.
The men of the Long Range Desert Group carried out clandestine operations deep behind enemy lines in WWII and were the 'brains' behind the SAS.
They also launched hit-and-run raids and gathered intelligence on German and Italian targets.
They carried out numerous missions in tandem with the SAS, using their unparalleled knowledge of the treacherous Sahara desert to guide the elite unit to enemy airfields where attacks would be launched.
The reason New Zealanders were specifically hand-picked for the dangerous missions was their toughness and ability to repair trucks on their farms.
Photographs of the men have been released in a new book by British historian Gavin Mortimer, entitled The Long Range Desert Group in World War II./>LRDG soldiers discuss the best method to extricate their vehicle. Photo / Supplied
From 1925 to 1935, Major Ralph Bagnold had explored the Great Libyan Desert, 1770km east to west, 1600km north to south, as part of an international group that included the future central character of the novel and film The English Patient, Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy.
"Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use," Bagnold wrote.
The unit was founded by Englishman Bagnold in 1940 and was initially known as the Long Range Patrol Unit.
Bagnold wanted men who were self-reliant, physically and mentally tough, and able to live and fight in seclusion in the Libyan desert.
He felt New Zealand farmers would possess these attributes and approached the 2nd New Zealand Division for volunteers. More than half the division volunteered.
Bagnold was ready in just five weeks. For vehicles he chose Chevrolet trucks for their proven durability in the desert. One of the reasons he chose Kiwi farmers was their ability to repair trucks on their farms.
For equipment, he used a sun compass he had designed and army radios with a range of 1930km.
In its first operation, in August-September 1940, the Long Range Desert Group proved its worth as two units, one led by Bagnold, crossed 6430km undetected, scouted and attacked Italian outposts, survived the paralysing heat of the day and freezing cold of the night, then successfully rendezvoused.
The group traversed huge areas of the Sahara that had never been explored by Europeans before, and their information gathering was so important to success in North Africa that General Bernard Montgomery said without them operations would have been "a leap in the dark"./>Historian Mortimer interviewed surviving veterans and gained special access to the SAS archives to tell the story of the origins and dramatic operations of the unit. Photo / Supplied
A special bond
What the images reveal in the book is the close bond that existed between the members of the unit whose diligence dovetailed perfectly with the superior firepower of the SAS to defeat the enemy.
Cameras were banned so the soldier who took the fascinating photos did so without the authority of his senior officers.
With the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943, the Long Range Desert Group moved operations to the eastern Mediterranean, carrying out missions in the Greek islands, Italy and the Balkans where they operated in boats, on foot and by parachute.
The short-lived unit - which never numbered more than 350 men - was disbanded in August 1945 after the War Office decided against transferring them to the Far East to conduct operations against the Japanese Empire.
In time, the unit would incorporate soldiers from Britain and Southern Rhodesia./>An LRDG observation post in the Libyan Desert, with a soldier perched precariously on top of a palm tree. Photo / Supplied
'Deep behind enemy lines'
Historian Mortimer interviewed surviving veterans and gained special access to the SAS archives to tell the story of the origins and dramatic operations of the unit.
The LRDG was established almost a year and a half before the SAS were formed in November 1941, making them the first ever British-based special forces unit.
The extraordinary men of the unit would stay hidden concealed in bushes or ditches for days at a time just yards from German and Italian forces observing the enemy's every move and relaying that valuable information via radio to the SAS.
Mortimer, 46, who lives in Paris, said: "The Long Range Desert Group was actually established before the SAS and for the war-time generation they were more famous than them.
"It was only the Iranian siege of 1980 which propelled the SAS into public consciousness.
"The Long Range Desert Group disbanded at the end of the war and they have been lost to history so this book is really to make people aware of the importance and contribution of that unit to the Second World War.
"They were the brains of the operation in the desert while the SAS were the brawn. It was their role to navigate them to their targets.
"I believe the Long Range Desert Group were more important and valuable to the winning of the war in North Africa than the SAS.
"They would drop deep behind enemy lines and their surveillance was crucial as they reported back to General Montgomery the strength of the Germans and where to attack them.
"They were the eyes and ears of the offensive. What they did was painstaking - they would spend days hidden just yards from the main coastal road which the Germans would use.
"They would take notes of how many vehicles passed, how many soldiers there were and even the mood of the soldiers - if they were singing or depressed - and this information would be radioed back.
"Personnel would work in pairs sometimes hidden in a bush or concealed in a drop in the ground. They would camouflage themselves and observe using binoculars.
"When night came, they would hurry back to their patrol a mile or two further into the desert and would radio in all the information.
"There were very narrow escapes. Once a German convoy camped just yards from where a couple of men were hiding and one of the soldiers wandered over and relieved himself in the bush they were concealed in.
"I began my research three years ago and there were still 15 veterans from the Long Range Desert Group. Now that number is six or seven.
"I was able to speak to some veterans who have never spoken publicly about their experiences before now. They are such a modest generation but what they did took extraordinary discipline and courage."
- The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, by Gavin Mortimer, is published on April 20 by Osprey Publishing
BAGNOLD BLAZES A TRAIL
Pirates of the high sea
THE LRDG AND THE NORTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGN
Chevrolet WB (30-cwt)
Ford 01 V8 (15-cwt) command
Ford F8 pick-up and Chevrolet 1311
Ford F30 CMP (30-cwt)
Chevrolet 1533X2 30-cwt
Willys MB Jeep
THE HEAVY SECTION AND THE MACK NR4
The Heavy Section
ANCILLARY AND SUPPORT VEHICLES
Bofors and Breda truck
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Asking for Trouble: The Long Range Desert Group
In the high Libyan desert, a convoy of five Ford one-and-a- half-ton trucks and eight Canadian Military Pattern ton trucks, their beds shrouded by canvas tarpaulins, climbs atop an escarpment. Tobruk lies 20 miles north. In the valley below, the main road—a layer of pierced- three metal planking that leads to the German-held port—catches the fading light. It is 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 13, 1942.
The Fords are painted salmon pink to blend with the haze of the sun at dawn and dusk. Their drivers and riders belong to the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), mainly Englishmen commanded by Captain David Lloyd Owen, who dismounts from the lead truck and walks to the eight larger trucks. He chats with Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden, who commands the big trucks’ passengers and drivers. These 15 officers and their 77 men wear the uniforms of commandos, artillerymen, and signalers. None is armed. The only soldiers carrying weapons are 14 men clothed in the faded olive cotton tunics and shorts of the Afrika Korps. They sit in the trucks’ cabs, one fellow at the wheel, the other training a Schmeisser MP40 submachine gun on his unarmed captives.
Some LRDG men join Owen on the escarpment others wander down the line of trucks, wishing the vehicles’ occupants good luck. They’ve spent the past week together, the LRDG transporting the other men 700 miles north from a hideout in Libya’s Kufra Oasis. Now, standing by their Fords, the LRDG men watch the curious convoy descend the escarpment. Each of the three-ton trucks is emblazoned with the characteristic Afrika Korps palm-and-swastika motif.
Night has fallen by the time the vehicles reach the east gate of the perimeter fence that encircles Tobruk. A German sentry halts the lead truck. The transport’s Allied origins do not faze the guard. These days most of the Afrika Korps seems to travel in British- or North American-made vehicles, spoils of war taken the June before when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his men seized Tobruk and swept the British 350 miles east to El Alamein. The German notes the motif on the truck’s cab. He asks for the password. The driver provides it, and flashes his papers. The guard orders the barrier raised. Two more miles and they’ll be in Tobruk.
The eight trucks have rumbled a few hundred yards into the darkness when the lead vehicle veers off the road, the others following. The drivers steer into one of the many wadis, or dry riverbeds, that fissure the Libyan desert. The vehicles jolt through the wadi and then turn northeast near the main Luftwaffe landing field at Bir-el Gubi. The commandos begin retrieving weapons hidden aboard the trucks. The men in German uniform pile out of their trucks’ cabs and, lest they be shot as spies, peel off Afrika Korps tunics to reveal British battledress and the insignia of the Special Interrogation Group (SIG). Soon the raiding party is moving stealthily north on foot, toward Tobruk. Overhead, scores of British and American warplanes are making a racket. Colonel Haselden checks his watch. Right on schedule. One of the most audacious raids of the war in North Africa is underway.
Only a culture as irreverent as Britain’s could have produced the SIG, with its blend of bold- ness, eccentricity, and ferocity. The unit was the brainchild of Captain Herbert Cecil Buck, 25, the quintessential British officer of his era: impeccably bred—his father was a retired colonel—intellectually formidable—an Oxford scholar, he spoke nine languages— and singularly brave—he already had received a Military Cross. In early December 1941 the Germans had captured Buck near Gazala, but in the confusion he escaped. Stumbling across a dead Afrika Korps officer, Buck stripped the corpse and in German drag slipped through enemy lines to British-occupied territory.
That feat’s ease solidified an idea Buck had nurtured since a chance 1941 encounter in Palestine. Driving from Tel Aviv to Haifa, Buck stopped for two Jewish hitchhikers. En route, one mentioned a German-speaking unit of the Palmach, a Jewish paramilitary brigade. Back in Cairo after his escape, Buck proposed that the British War Office raise a cadre of German-speaking Jews to infiltrate enemy territory and gather intelligence. In March 1942 Military Intelligence approved creation of a “Special German Group as a sub-unit of Middle East Commando…with the cover name ‘Special Interrogation Group,’ to be used for infiltration behind the German lines in the Western Desert, under 8th Army.”
Buck was appointed commanding officer and given carte blanche to recruit approximately 30 soldiers from the recently disbanded No. 51 Middle East Commando. That unit’s 150- odd men had been pursuing Italian targets in Abyssinia and Eritrea until spring 1941, when the Afrika Korps’ arrival in Libya changed the nature of the war.
The men of 51 Commando—60 percent Jews, 40 percent Arabs—were bored and ripe for recruitment when on March 17, 1942, their war diary noted Buck’s arrival at the unit’s base in Burg el Arab “to select German speaking personnel with a view to certain work.” Leo Hillman, 19, an Austrian Jew who before the war had been imprisoned for demonstrating against the Nazis, signed up. So did Maurice Tiefenbrunner, 26, an athletic, belligerent fellow who had grown up a Jew in Germany. In 1938, he had fled to British-run Palestine, where he joined the British Army. Once Buck recruited him, Tiefenbrunner changed his name to “Tiffin,” perhaps at the urging of Buck, who would have known from his days with the Punjab Regiment that “tiffin” was slang among Englishmen of the Raj for the hour when all hands stopped for afternoon tea.
Buck also combed the French Foreign Legion and Free French and Free Czech forces, as well as Jewish paramilitaries in Palestine. He offered soldiers who had the background he sought little more than a guarantee of dangerous undercover work until he had 30 men. Recruits like Ariyeh Shai, a veteran of 51 Commando, traveled to a training base at Geneifa in the Suez Canal zone. “We received no promises. Captain Buck had warned that lives would depend on our ability to wear our disguises faultlessly, to learn to perfection the slang prevalent among the soldiers of the Afrika Korps, and to drill in accordance with all the German methods,” Shai said. “He told us, ‘If your true identity is found out, there is no hope for you.’”
To keep enemy agents from unmasking his men, Buck barred interaction with other British regiments. SIG men were to live, breathe, and train as if they were in the Afrika Korps. To reinforce the ruse, Buck issued German pay books, cigarettes, and chocolates. Into their tunics the men tucked letters and snapshots of them with sweethearts in the Fatherland—in reality, British girls driving and clerking at army headquarters in Cairo who posed with the men in their Afrika Korps uniforms against suitably Teutonic backdrops.
The final touch was recruiting German POWs Walter Essner and Herbert Brueckner. When captured in late 1941—Essner was a sergeant, Brueckner a corporal—both men claimed to be fervent anti-Nazis, leading their captors to recruit them as agents and assign them to SIG to train the Jewish volunteers in German procedures and jargon. “Brueckner was in his twenties. He was big, brash and fair. Essner was quiet, good-natured, and in his thirties,” Tiffin said. “They joined us at our camp and the real German training began, including German songs. We learned German commands, how to handle their weapons and how, and to whom, to salute.”
By May 1942 SIG operatives were behind enemy lines on missions that were small and unspectacular but useful. Driving German trucks and disguised as military policemen, the men set up roadblocks, stopping and questioning drivers, military and civilian. Along Libya’s main coastal road, they haunted cafés, mingling with diners and subtly extracting information. Tiffin even persuaded a field cashier to advance him pay, so caught up in his performance as an Afrika Korps Landser that he hardly had time to dwell on the danger.
SIG operations might have stayed at intelligence-gathering but for Major David Stirling. Like Buck, Stirling was an upper-class maverick with ingenious ideas about making war. In 1941 he had created the Special Air Service, a commando regiment whose motto was Qui audet vincit (“Who Dares Wins”). Stirling, who saw in Buck a kindred spirit, invited him and his lot to collaborate with SAS troops on a pair of raids. The targets: German airfields 100 miles west of Tobruk at Derna, on the Libyan coast, and Martuba, 16 miles to the southeast and a few miles inland. Planes from the fields were harassing Allied shipping in the Mediterranean. The attack would include 15 French SAS soldiers led by Lieutenant Augustin Jordan.
The raiders, plus Essner and Brueckner, set out on June 8 from an SAS base at Siwa Oasis, near Egypt’s border with Libya, in three LRDG vehicles. The two Germans’ presence disturbed the SIG men. Having the POWs as instructors was one thing, but including them in an operation was unwise, Tiffin told his superior. “Captain Buck said to me, ‘Maurice, everything is all right,’” Tiffin recalled. “‘They have been interviewed, interrogated, observed, they are 100 percent all right. They are really idealists, fighting the Nazis like you.’”
The French SAS men, wearing khaki overalls and blue forage caps, were in two trucks bearing Afrika Korps markings and driven by SIG men armed with Schmeissers and German “potato masher” grenades. Another SIG man drove a German staff car. The convoy reached Derna’s outskirts without hindrance. Late on the afternoon of June 12, Buck and Jordan reconnoitered the airfields. One held Messerschmitt 110 fighter-bombers the other, Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. They returned to the rendezvous, five miles from each target, to wait for sunset. At dark, leaving Tiffin at the meeting point with the staff car, Buck and Essner drove Corporal Jean Tourneret and four men toward Martuba. A second truck, with Brueckner at the wheel and machine-gun-wielding SIG man Peter Hass—another Zionist from Palestine—as passenger, headed for Derna. In the truck bed the other French SAS men, led by Jordan, hid under a tarp with their weapons and explosives.
“The lorry kept spluttering to a halt,” Jordan recalled. Each time, Brueckner ducked under the hood, coaxing the engine to life. At the airfield, the vehicle stopped yet again. Jordan, beneath the tarpaulin, heard the cab door open and close, and then footsteps. Hass whispered that Brueckner had gone to a hangar to ask a German for a wrench.
Seconds passed. Minutes. Jordan heard running. Lifting the tarp at the tailgate, he poked his head out. Hands jerked him to the ground. German soldiers ringed the vehicle. “Heraus!” they cried. “Aber Schnell!”—“Get out here! And quickly!” One by one the French soldiers jumped down, hands raised.
“The only one who stayed in the lorry was Hass,” recalled Jordan. “He knew what would happen to him.”
Hass fired his Schmeisser at the SAS weapons cache, blowing himself and the truck to pieces and sending the Germans and their prisoners diving every which way—all but Jordan, who sprinted into the dark, evading capture.
A German fighter pilot later captured by the British, Luftwaffe Lieutenant Friederich Korner, provided details of the double-cross. “Brueckner got out, saluted the CO and stated that he was a German soldier acting as driver of a German lorry containing a party of heavily armed English troops in German uniform with explosive charges to destroy aircraft,” Korner said. “The CO was rather suspicious at first but the driver pressed him to organize as many men as possible with all speed and as heavily armed as possible to disarm the raiding party. The truck was immediately surrounded and the occupants forced to get out. A few seconds after the last one had got out, there was an explosion inside the lorry and it was completely destroyed.” Besides exposing the Derna raid, Brueckner warned the Germans that Martuba was about to be hit, and showed them where the enemy rendezvous was.
From the rendezvous site, Tiffin could hear fighting at both strike locations. After dropping the Martuba raiders, Buck and Essner joined him, unaware of events at Derna. An exhausted Jordan arrived on foot. When he told of Brueckner’s betrayal, Buck ordered an immediate evacuation Tiffin trained his gun on Essner. “For me now he was a German, an enemy,” Tiffin said. “I said, ‘When you move, you are a dead man.’” Later, Essner did try to escape, and died in a volley of British bullets.
Violence awaited the Frenchmen at Martuba. When they found the base on high alert, they did not attack but settled in to monitor enemy activity. As they left for the rendezvous Germans spotted them, and all were captured or killed. Buck later blamed his misplaced trust in Brueckner for the debacle.
Tempted to disband the SIG, the army instead gave Buck a final chance—the raid on Tobruk. The aim was to cripple key supply ports ahead of an Allied offensive at El Alamein. The SAS would attack Benghazi. The LRDG would hit Barce, 160 miles east of Tobruk—itself the target of a commando force, artillerymen, Royal Marines, British infantry, and the SIG. Lieutenant Colonel Haselden would command the attack. The commandos and the SIG were to bluff their way into Tobruk to silence the port’s coastal batteries, allowing Royal Navy destroyers HMS Zulu and HMS Sikh to land a battalion of marines. An infantry force in 20 Motor Torpedo Boats would swoop in as well.
On Sunday night, September 13, the commandos penetrated Tobruk, heading for the coastal guns on the eastern outskirts. Haselden and Buck, with five SIG men including Leo Hillman, the young Austrian, seized a small house and established a command post. But the operation began to unravel. The man assigned to lead the infantry ashore got lost. As the landing boats circled, enemy gunners spotted the British vessels, eventually sinking both destroyers. The Germans surrounded Haselden, Buck, and their little force. “It was too dark to see the enemy but they were about 10 yards away,” recalled Hillman. “We continued to hold back the enemy for another 10 minutes until we ran out of ammunition.”
At this, Haselden charged singlehandedly. Before the others could use the distraction to get away, the Germans killed him. They captured all but Hillman, who stumbled through the night until he encountered seven British soldiers led by a commando, Lieutenant Tommy Langton. Hillman had lost a boot and badly cut his foot, but surrender was not an option he limped on. By the time the group reached their rendezvous east of the city their LRDG transport, as arranged, had left. Hillman and accomplices set off on foot for the British lines 400 miles east. Friendly Arabs guided the soldiers to Bardia. For four weeks they hid in a wadi, with Arabs providing food and water. When they reached British lines on November 13, Hillman found Tiffin, who had good news and bad news.
The British Army had succeeded with its attack on El Alamein, but was dissolving the SIG. With Buck a POW, the group had no commander—and the Germans had withdrawn hundreds of miles west, leading the army to conclude that there was no role in the Desert War for Tiffin, Hillman, and cohort. Headquarters folded the SIG into the SAS, ending brief months of activity during which, despite doing little physical damage, the Special Interrogation Group rattled the Germans. In a June 1942 message to Rommel that British code breakers intercepted, Hitler, calling the SIG “German political refugees,” demanded they “be mercilessly wiped out.”
The British Special Operations Executive recruited Hillman to organize anti-Nazi partisans in Austria. He emerged from the war with a Military Cross. In December 1942, Italian troops captured Tiffin and other SAS men bound west for American lines. “We broke down,” said Tiffin. “We were spotted from an Italian outpost in the Benghazi area, and they sent an armored car to find out who we were.” Convincing his captors he was Canadian, he spent 10 months as a POW in Bari, Italy. When Italy surrendered in September 1943, he was transferred to a German camp near Hanover. After the war, Tiffin reclaimed his surname. Tiefenbrunner learned that his parents had perished at Auschwitz. After participating in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel, he and his wife raised four children in London. He spent his final three decades in Israel, working as a bookbinder until he retired in 2011.
In 2013, Tiefenbrunner gave an interview about one of the war’s most secretive, shortest-lived units. The SIG “did the job they were asked to do and a bit more,” he said. “We fulfilled a duty that could not have been done by a whole regular army because we could spring a surprise and carry out an action which was a complete surprise of our enemy.” Soon after, Maurice Tiefenbrunner, the last SIG man, died at 97.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.
Vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group 1940–45 by Gavin Mortimer
The Long Range Desert Group was one of the most famous special units of World War II, operating heavily modified vehicles deep behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and support the raids of David Stirling’s new Special Air Service.
When war broke out, a pre-war explorer and army officer, Ralph Bagnold, convinced Middle East Command of the need for a reconnaissance force to penetrate into Italian-held desert. Bagnold tested four types of vehicles over rocks and through soft sand to find the best one for his new unit. Bagnold selected the Chevrolet WB (30 CWT) as the signature vehicle of the Long Range Desert Group because it is “fast, simple and easy to handle”. With left-hand steering, horizontal grill and round fenders on the rear wheels, these trucks proved themselves popular and effective. The durability of the Chevrolets was demonstrated in January 1941 with an audacious raid on the Italian fort/air strip at Murzuk, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.
This book explains the detail of all the vehicles of the LRDG, as well as their modifications, driving techniques, and special kit for surviving behind enemy lines in one of the most hostile environments on earth.
The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group
Established in June 1940, the Long Range Desert Group was the inspiration of scientist and soldier Major Ralph Bagnold, a contemporary of T.E Lawrence who, in the inter-war years, explored the North African desert in a Model T Ford automobile.
Mortimer takes us from the founding of the LRDG, through their treacherous journey across the Egyptian Sand Sea and beyond, offering a hitherto unseen glimpse into the heart of this most courageous organisation, whose unique and valiant contributions to the war effort can now finally be recognized and appreciated.
Praise for Gavin Mortimer:
"With unparalleled access to SBS's archive, Mortimer draws on private papers to produce the definitive account of the SBS's extraordinary exploits in WWII." - Sunday Telegraph
"The SBS is finally being recognised thanks to a remarkable new book. Author Gavin Mortimer spent more than a decade interviewing veterans, scrutinising SBS archives and poring over recently declassified documents to write The SBS in World War 2." - Daily Mirror
"This gripping first-hand account of the raid is one of many previously unpublished resources that Mortimer's book draws on." - The Times
"Mortimer deserves full credit for assembling a mountain of material and presenting it with lucidity and balance" - Philip Ziegler, Daily Mail
The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group
This is without a doubt the best book I have read about the LRDG. The amount of information is stunning and the writer made good use of his knowledge and access to archival information.
The reader gets an in depth look on how the LRDG was founded and how it grew into a very successful tool used to win the war in North Africa.
What the book also shows is that the LRDG made many of the raids performed by the SAS possible. In a way they became a &apostaxi service&apos for the SAS. And the more they did so, t This is without a doubt the best book I have read about the LRDG. The amount of information is stunning and the writer made good use of his knowledge and access to archival information.
The reader gets an in depth look on how the LRDG was founded and how it grew into a very successful tool used to win the war in North Africa.
What the book also shows is that the LRDG made many of the raids performed by the SAS possible. In a way they became a 'taxi service' for the SAS. And the more they did so, the less they liked it. In the end the LRDG and SAS went their own way. The role of each unit was quite different indeed. The SAS never forgot the role the LRDG performed for them.
It also becomes clear that the role the LRDG played in the African campaign was what suited them best. Unfortunately Churchill's obsession with the Adriatic area saw the LRDG, and many other special forces units, end up being used in a role that was not the best way to use them.
Great book and a must read if you like to read about special forces units, but also if you want to learn more about a part of the African campaign that does get the attention it deserves.
In some places the proofing could have been sharper, but it does not distract from the amazing story.
1. The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group (Paperback)
Book Description Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English. Brand new Book. Established in June 1940, the Long Range Desert Group was the inspiration of scientist and soldier Major Ralph Bagnold, a contemporary of T.E Lawrence who, in the inter-war years, explored the North African desert in a Model T Ford automobile.Mortimer takes us from the founding of the LRDG, through their treacherous journey across the Egyptian Sand Sea and beyond, offering a hitherto unseen glimpse into the heart of this most courageous organisation, whose unique and valiant contributions to the war effort can now finally be recognized and appreciated. Praise for Gavin Mortimer:"With unparalleled access to SBS's archive, Mortimer draws on private papers to produce the definitive account of the SBS's extraordinary exploits in WWII." Sunday Telegraph"The SBS is finally being recognised thanks to a remarkable new book. Author Gavin Mortimer spent more than a decade interviewing veterans, scrutinising SBS archives and poring over recently declassified documents to write The SBS in World War 2." Daily Mirror"This gripping first-hand account of the raid is one of many previously unpublished resources that Mortimer's book draws on." The Times"Mortimer deserves full credit for assembling a mountain of material and presenting it with lucidity and balance" Philip Ziegler, Daily Mail. Seller Inventory # HUK9781472122094