Long Range Desert Group - Behind Enemy Lines on North Africa, W.B. Kennedy Shaw

Long Range Desert Group - Behind Enemy Lines on North Africa, W.B. Kennedy Shaw

One of the more unusual features of the campaign in North Africa during the Second World War was the number of 'private armies' (what we would now call Special Forces) that appeared. The Long Range Desert Group was one of the earliest to be established, and its achievements underpinned many of the activities of the later groups (most famously the SAS). As as result the LRDG frequently appears in histories of the war, but often in the background, either providing valuable information for the main army, or transporting the main subjects of a book to and from their objectives.

This book, written by the Group's Intelligence Officer, brings the LRDG into the foreground. The Group appeared early in the war, and was based around a core group of experienced desert explorers, who believed that the British needed to know was the Italians were doing in the 'Inner Desert' – the vast areas south of the fertile coastal strip of Libya. The group developed an impressive ability to travel vast distances across the desert, appearing hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, where it was able to support Special Forces raid, produce more detailed maps of largely unexplored areas, carry out small scale raids in their own right, and perhaps most valuably conduct a long term 'road watch' on the main Axis coastal road, providing valuable intelligence on Axis reinforcements or retreats. 

The text was written in 1943, after the end of the campaign in North Africa, but while the war was still under way. As a result a number of names were changed (Popski became Penman and the identities of some of the Group's Arab allies were changed to protect them), and some operations were given different names (Operation Agreement, a failed raid on Tobruk became Operation Daffodil). Other than that the text feels remarkably honest – the account of Operation Agreement is very similar to that in a recent history of the raid, with the only difference being that Shaw believed that the ambitious raid was conceived almost in its final form, with an overland raid to capture a landing beach for a larger amphibious attack, whereas the modern book reveals that the original plan was for an overland raid to destroy fuel storage tanks, and the amphibious attack was added later.

We get a mix of war story and exploration story – all of the Group's achievements relied on their ability to penetrate deep into the desert and operate hundreds of miles from the main Allied bases in the Nile Valley. There are also impressive survival stories, tracing the exploits of various LRDG members as they made their way home on foot after missions didn't go as well as hoped (the sort of thing later turned into countless war films). The book gains a great deal of atmosphere from being written during the war, and is one of the most impressive wartime accounts I've read. 

1 - Origins
2 - Preparation
3 - First Sorties
4 - Murzuk
5 - The Taking of Kufra
6 - Summer at Kufra
7 - 'A' Squadron at Siwa
8 - The Autumn Offensive, 1941
9 - Raids from Jalo
10 - Siwa Again
11 - Siwa, 'Alamein, Faiyum
12 - 'Tulip', 'Daffodil', 'Snowdrop', 'Hyacinth'
13 - The Road Watch
14 - 'Alamein to Gabes

Author: W.B. Kennedy Shaw
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2015 edition of 1945 original

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