Long Range Desert Group camp?
A chance find in the Sahara.
One of the distractions of pottering around the Sahara is that anything casually discarded in the more remote areas, is likely to still be there many years later, and in a featureless landscape one is drawn to it like a moth to a flame. A group of us were camped for a few days this January in Waw en Kebir, a 50 mile wide featureless wadi in southeast Libya. The Geographical fieldwork meant walking through the low eroded hills that fringe the northern edge of the wadi looking for Geological samples. My pal Kevin White, a Senior Geographer at Reading University and fellow Land Rover enthusiast, was working in the rocks quite near our camp when he spotted an old gallon petrol can. He called me by Satellite ‘phone and I drove over to meet him, parking my Carawagon next to his Camel Trophy 110. A thorough look revealed three cans and an assortment of old nuts, bolts and miscellaneous truck bits - fragments of a headlight lens, a temperature sender and some scraps of cloth.
The petrol cans revealed the most information. The first was stamped with the name ‘Shell Benzine’ , the second, ‘Sphinx Motor Spirit’ suggesting it originated in Egypt and finally ‘Atlantic West Africa Company Ltd.’, probably also from Egypt. How evocative these names sound compared with the multi national corporate fuel suppliers of today. What was significant, however, was that we were standing in a spot close to where the legendary Long Range Desert Group would have passed on their daring raid on the enemy airfield at Murzuq, some 200 miles west of us.
The LRDG hold a hallowed place in the hearts of all desert motorists. Formed by Major Ralph Bagnold in the summer of 1940 to wreak havoc on the Italian forces in Libya, they consisted of small groups of men, some of whom had enjoyed recreational desert trips with Bagnold before the war. They were an elite bunch equipped with converted civilian trucks - Chevrolets and Fords, which driven with great skill they used to attack from the desert, deep behind enemy lines. The raid on Murzuq in January 1941 involved 23 trucks and 76 men driving from their base in Cairo southwest across the Great Sand Sea to Kufra 1000m miles away, then on past Waw en Kebir to Murzuk. A total distance of 1500 miles. These were pre jerry can days and all petrol was carried in these one gallon cans, usually in a wooden case. It took them ten days to complete the trip. For comparison it took us the same time to drive our Land Rovers from U.K. to the same spot.
The raid was a huge success destroying three bombers, blowing up all the Italian fuel and other supplies with a minimum of casualties. From Murzuq the jubilant patrol headed south towards Chad to meet up with the Free French and refresh their supplies before the long haul back to Cairo. A round trip of 3500 off-road miles. As if this whole escapade was not remarkable enough they also had to be constantly vigilant for attacks by the enemy.
As we packed our Land Rovers to move on, Kev and I took time to discuss how those men must have felt. Whether we had discovered an abandoned LRDG camp or not, we were certainly driving on the same pistes. Waw en Kebir would have offered no cover from patrolling enemy aircraft as it’s surface is flat and featureless for as far as the eye can see. They would have been constantly on the look out for the enemy, as the dust kicked up by their trucks would have been visible from a great distance as they drove as fast as possible weighed down by an enormous fuel load. For us, even carrying six full jerry cans each and an assortment of scientific equipment, we were able to cruise at 50 mph and it was a doddle. When we reached Murzuk half a day later all we had to do was order some tea, not blow up an enemy garrison!
Nothing remains of the old airfield at Murzuk, but the far older mud brick fort, once occupied by the Italian forces does remain. Over our tea we were thankful to be living in relatively peaceful times when it is possible to drive our Land Rovers great distances to see these incredible sights. Our own round trip of 5500 miles was completed without danger, yet had plenty of excitement, but the highlight will forever be the thrill of driving the same trails as those brave chaps 68 years ago and finding a few of the bits they chucked away to lighten their load.