When Italy declared war on 10 June 1940, the frontier in the Libyan desert posed a challenge to both sides. The difficult terrain included vast sand seas of giant dunes which made it impossible for large forces to penetrate inland.
However, Britain and its allies believed it was important to gather intelligence from behind enemy lines, hundreds of miles across the desert. For this purpose, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was formed in July 1940 under Major Ralph Bagnold, commencing operations in September.
Through Bagnold’s training, the LRDG soon became masters of mechanised reconnaissance and desert navigation. Their role was soon expanded to include offensive action as well as gathering vital intelligence.
The LRDG also provided assistance to other special forces operating behind enemy lines. The Special Air Service (SAS) was formed in July 1941 by the 'Phantom Major' David Stirling to attack behind enemy lines using small raiding forces. After a first abortive attempt to attack desert outposts by parachute, the SAS relied on the skills of the LRDG to transport them to their targets - earning the LRDG the nickname the 'Libyan Desert Taxi Service'.
L' Detachment SAS, January 1943
This photograph shows a heavily armed patrol of 'L' Detachment Special Air Service (SAS) in their Jeeps, just back from a three-month patrol. The SAS got their own jeeps at the end of 1942. Until then, they relied on the Long Range Desert Group for transport across the desert.
During the Second Battle of El Alamein in autumn 1942, the LRDG undertook a 'Road Watch' surveillance, providing vital intelligence on troop movement and enemy strength. Later in the Western Desert Campaign, in March 1943, the LRDG's superiority in the desert was invaluable in finding and navigating the British Eighth Army through a route in the desert to outflank enemy positions at Mareth - a decisive move in the Allied advance to victory in North Africa a few weeks later.