Long Range Desert Group
Brendan O’Carroll is the only living link between the veterans of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) who have now all passed away, and us. Local historian and author, Brendan, is acknowledged as the foremost authority on the special forces LRDG of WWII. He has now completed eight books, including two recently published.
One of the first Special Forces in the Second World War, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), was formed to do reconnaissance hundreds of miles behind enemy lines in Libya in WWII. The distances were so vast that aircraft reconnaissance was impractical.
The first units of the LRDG were made up of NZ volunteers. Its first volunteers answered a call for a ‘special mission’ which specified men, “who do not mind a hard life, scanty food, little water, lots of discomfort, and possess stamina and initiative.” Almost 1,000 volunteered from troops stationed in Egypt. 120 were selected – the best of the best.
These were self-reliant, hardy men, who were good with vehicles and had soon adapted to desert conditions. Most had never endured a sandstorm, suffered the extremes of heat and cold, or even seen a snake or scorpion before.
The LRDG was comprised of individual patrols; W, R, and T being the New Zealand patrols with their vehicles bearing Maori names starting with that letter.
Their most significant intelligence gathering role was the ‘Road Watch’ that entailed the constant observation, day and night between 2 March and 21 July 1942 of the Tripoli –Benghazi road (Via Balbia) - 643 km behind enemy lines.
Later the LRDG trucks also carried heavier armament that enabled them to operate more offensively. Using ‘hit and run’ tactics they would ambush Axis convoys and supply dumps, attack any targets of opportunity, and then would melt into the desert. The LRDG came and went so quickly that the Italians called them Pattuglia Fanatasma (Ghost Patrols).
Appropriately, the insignia chosen for the LRDG was a scorpion within a wheel. With their role like that of a scorpion being a potent symbol of power in a small unit; hiding, watching, and waiting, capable of striking suddenly and with deadly effect. The sting in its tail was in its firepower combined with the element of surprise.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, during the desert campaign commented: “The LRDG caused us more damage than any other unit of equal strength.”
After the success of Brendan’s first book, “Kiwi Scorpions”, he was given access to veterans. He eventually interviewed or corresponded with 37 LRDG veterans. These wonderful men were pleased that someone had shown an interest in their ‘forgotten’ history and kindly provided Brendan with numerous previously unpublished stories and photos along with the loan of badges and insignia to photograph. In fact, while Beacon was interviewing him, a packet of original photos arrived via courier!
In 2008 he went with two friends to Libya for a month to find the lost LRDG battlefield of Jebel Sherif. The party was accompanied by a film crew and the documentary Lost in Libya was produced and shown on New Zealand TV. "Being the first New Zealander to see the battle site was quite moving. There was still ammunition lying around. Everything was still there. The desert preserves things," Brendan says.
The intense interest in the LRDG from around the world has surprised him. This has led to ongoing research and more books. In 2020 he had two books published by Pen & Sword UK. The Long Range Desert Group in the Aegean and The Long Range Desert Group in Action 1940-43. He says he still has two more books in him, which we are sure will delight enthusiasts.
The financial returns have never matched the thousands of hours of research, but Brendan’s greatest reward was meeting and recording the stories of these great men, that otherwise may have been lost to time. We can be grateful for Brendan’s work in documenting this elite force that was initially composed of kiwis and led to the formation of the Special Air Service (SAS).