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WWI Desert Rats And The Origins Of Special Forces

Here is the story of early special operations from a former special forces and CIA operative, military historian and conflict archaeologist

Hedgehog force

In his book, ‘Masters of Mayhem’, military historian and combat archaeologist James Stejskal, a former special forces and CIA operative, tells the story of the origins of modern unconventional warfare. Here, the author looks into the origins of special operations that formed units in North Africa ... and the SAS.

His book can be purchased from Casemate using the code FORCES18 to get a 25% discount.

Article by James Stejskal

Introduction

•    Striking where the enemy is weakest and melting away into the darkness before he can react. 

•    Never confronting a stronger force directly, but willing to use audacity and surprise to confound and demoralize an opponent. 

•    Operations driven by good intelligence, area knowledge, mobility, speed, firepower, and detailed planning executed by a few specialists with indigenous warriors…

…this is unconventional warfare.

Here is the story of one of its earliest First World War practitioners…

Preparing to Launch

A long line of vehicles sat under the black sky, their engines murmuring quietly. It was just after midnight on 17 March, 1916, in North Africa.

There was a last-minute flurry of activity as the men threw all manner of boxes, food, water, and kit aboard the ambulances and the 30-odd Model-T Ford patrol cars. 

It was just after midnight and the air was cool - it would get even cooler as the night progressed.

early car

A 1915 Model T Ford (image: Don O’Brien)

The patrol was led by a major, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster - the richest man in England.

A veteran of the Boer War, he’d volunteered to re-enter service at the beginning of World War 1 and soon found himself in a position to influence the development of a new weapon – the armored car.

There were several of these vehicles - sinister-looking metallic beasts - guarding the convoy that night. 

One might say they looked out of place in the desert but then they also looked out of place next to cars of the day. Their most striking feature was their squat crew compartment. This sat behind the long bonnet and had a round turret on top that looked like a giant tuna-fish can.

Each vehicle also hauled a .303-calibre machine gun in its revolving turret, making it a formidable gun platform. And the 7.5-litre straight-six engines roaring within meant that, for their day, these were rapid-moving assault units, though their route to the North African desert had been rather circuitous.

Origins

Early in the war, the Duke had taken command of the Royal Navy Armored Car Division’s Number 2 Squadron. France was their initial destination.

At this stage, automobiles and trucks were being used in all sorts of ways that their inventors had not envisaged, moving supplies and men, serving as staff cars and ambulances and ferrying communications and orders to and from HQs.

They also played a role in the mobile, opening phase of the war as antagonists tried to outflank each other. 

first world war
A ‘sinister-looking beast’ – one of the 1914 Admiralty Pattern Armored Cars ‘LC 340’ in Libya (image: IWM Q 15725)

This ‘race to the sea’ consisted of the maneuvers performed by both sides as they leapfrogged their way northwards to the Belgian coast, trench lines being constructed in their wake. 

This Battle of the Frontiers may have ended in geographic stalemate but technologically, it spawned a rapid evolution in mobile armored warfare. 

Combatants had realized that weapons could be mounted on armored cars and the potential of this was soon recognized further up the chain of command. In London, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill authorized the construction of 60 more of these vehicles. 

A number of modified, armored versions existing automobiles soon emerged: 21 Clement-Talbots, 21 Wolseleys and 18 Rolls-Royces.

Production hurriedly began at factories around England and, by January 1915, six squadrons were dispatched to France. 

The Duke purchased his squadron’s cars out of his own pocket and brought his own Mulliner-bodied Rolls-Royce tourer along as a command vehicle. 

Rolls-Royce
The Duke of Westminster in his ‘command car’ (image: Edwardian Rolls-Royce, Vol 1 & 2, Published by John Fasal, 1994)

The driver, S.C. Rolls (no relation to the car’s creator), later wrote that their cars were given characteristically ferocious names like Bulldog and Blast. 

Their job was to harry and delay enemy advances while Allied forces withdrew to avoid being overrun and annihilated. 

RNAS cars continued to serve in the Ypres campaign assisting the British Army’s 3rd Cavalry Division until the summer of 1915.

By this point, it was clear that the Rolls-Royces were superior to the other makes, both in their reliability and because they carried the heavy armor plating most effectively. From this point on, they became known as the Admiralty Mark II Pattern Armored Car and they would remain largely unchanged for the remainder of the war.

What would change was the choice of theater – Churchill could see that trench warfare and static battlefields made them largely redundant on the Western Front.

North Africa

Instead, the Duke and his squadron were sent to Egypt where they were first re-designated (as an Army unit) and then rebranded, as the ‘Light Armored Motor Battery’, or LAMB.

They arrived in the midst of frantic efforts to deal with a local uprising instigated by the Ottoman-Turks and Germans. 

The British were understrength and already engaged with the Turks in the west. Now, Senussi tribesmen were coming at them in the west, where they were most vulnerable. It was time to see if the Duke’s LAMB could be of any help. 

First World War Royal Navy car
An unarmored support car with a Maxin-Vickers machine gun in the rear (image: Edwardian Rolls-Royce, Vol 1 & 2, Published by John Fasal, 1994)

First, the cars would have to prove themselves up to the challenge of operating in the harsh desert climate. It was a time of trial and error as well as innovation. The men had to learn to carry large quantities of water, not just for themselves, but also for the cars (which burned off about a gallon an hour) and for the machine guns, which were water-cooled. 

Petrol was also carried in significant quantity - the Rolls-Royces consumed one gallon every four miles, while modern cars can usually manage at least 30. 

And then there were the tyres. War diaries attest to the constant shortage of tubes. Rocks and thorns were the main cause of punctures, though, this being a war, gunfire was another occupational hazard.

Yet, the commander of British troops in Eygpt, General Sir Archibald Murray, later attested to the fact that:

“(The) mobility... skill and energy… (as well as) the dash and enterprise of the armoured car batteries and the light car patrols … have made them an ideal arm for the Western Desert, where the sand is not so heavy as on the east… (The) enemy has found many times to his cost that their range of action is far beyond that of any troops mounted on horses or camels.”

And just as they had innovated their way around environmental obstacles, the type of operations the patrols conducted also became experimental. 

That’s because in late 1915, the crewmembers of two British vessels sunk by a German U-boat, over 100 men in all, were taken ashore and turned over to the Senussi. This in turn led to a six-month hostage rescue operation.

As the British slowly pushed west to eliminate the Senussi irregulars, the prisoners of the HMS Tara and HMT Moorina were moved deeper into the desert - their location was totally unknown.

But on February 16, 1916, the town of Sollum on the western Egyptian border was retaken by the British. 

St Mary’s Church Eccleston
A bust of the 2nd Duke of Westminster at St Mary’s Church Eccleston (image: ViennaUK)

By this point, the LAMBs were coming into their own and the Duke’s cars were ‘cut loose’ during the attack to conduct an encircling movement on a Senussi camp a few miles beyond the town, so as to catch the escaping enemy. 

It was a high-speed pursuit, the roar of the cars’ open exhaust and the barking Maxim guns terrifying the tribesmen and their beasts of burden, forcing them into a disorderly retreat. The chase covered ten miles and resulted in the capture of many prisoners and much equipment, including the Senussi’s three artillery pieces.

Meanwhile, back at Sollum, a letter addressed to the British forces there by Captain R S Gwatkin-Williams, commander of the Tara, was found. It revealed the location of the prisoners: Bir Hakim, an isolated post in the desert west of Sollum. 

A daring night raid

A rescue mission was ordered and, knowing that speed was essential, the Duke of Westminster’s LAMB was chosen to lead the operation.

The Duke’s patrol, along with over 30 Red Cross ambulances and support vehicles, was to act as an independent flying column to move over a hundred miles across the desert. 

It had been four months since the ships’ crews were captured. Their condition and, despite the letter, their location, both remained unknown – where the heck was ‘Bir Hakim’?

first world war desert raid
A map showing the route of the raiders (image: writer's collection)

Under interrogation, a Senussi prisoner revealed that he knew the place and was enlisted as a guide for the expedition. 

After a day of preparation, the Duke of Westminster led his column out of Sollum just after midnight on 17 March.

The first obstacle to be surmounted was the steep escarpment that separated the coast from the inland desert. They followed a path, little more than a donkey trail, to the base and then upwards. The traverse took hours as rocks had to be tossed out of the way and picks and shovels slowly eked out a way forward.

Mile after mile passed until the Duke was certain the guide had no idea where he was. Thus accused, the man first became angry and then animated, waving his arms and pointing seemingly towards the edge of the world. He swore to all who listened that he was sincere and the convoy continued. 

Many more miles passed, 90, then nearly 120, before the Duke called a halt, intending to return to base after a short rest. But the guide continued to stare at the terrain and then yelled out that he could see Bir Hakim.

Still not ready to believe, the Duke’s binoculars came out and, several miles away, two mounds could just be seen through them on the horizon – the ancient Roman wells of Bir Hakim.

Libya desert
Bir Hachim shown in a 1990 photo (image: Jerryscuba)

Leaving the ambulances and light Fords behind, the armored Rolls-Royces roared out across the desert towards the wells. 

As they approached, the Senussi guards ran into the desert attempting to escape. 

Seeing the emaciated prisoners, several of the cars continued and caught the Senussi exposed. They opened fire, killing the guards in a blind rage.

The 91 captives were somewhat worse for wear, most suffering from acute dysentery and malnutrition, a result of a diet of snails and weeds. 

But they were alive and most were able to walk. Once the other vehicles arrived, the former prisoners were all loaded up and the convoy returned to Sollum with its precious cargo. 

The Duke’s military operations were not the first involving motor vehicles nor even the first that employed armored cars. But the long-range raid to rescue the crewmen was certainly one of the first such ‘special’ operations.

And there were more ‘adventures’ to follow. A new unit, the Hajaz Armoured Car Battery (HACB), was formed and, in August 1917, sent east by cargo ship.

Sam Rolls and other men of the HACB would rendezvous on a beach at a place called Aqaba, a town recently raided by another audacious British officer: T E Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

Arab Revolt
Aqaba shown under the red marker, nestled between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas – the Suez canal is just visible top right (image: Google)

Lawrence was an innovator and constantly sought out new ways to employ weapons and vehicles. The Rolls-Royce was perfect for his campaign in Arabia and he wrote about the cars glowingly in his tome, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. Notably, when a car finally broke down, he said: 

“A Rolls in the desert was above rubies; and though we had been driving in these for eighteen months, not upon the polished roads of their makers’ intention, but across country of the vilest, at speed, day or night, carrying a ton of goods and four or five men up, yet this was our first structural accident in the team of nine.”

After fixing a broken spring with wood planks and bailing wire, the car continued on without further need of repair - Lawrence assessed them to be “worth hundreds of men to us in these deserts”. 

Over the hard desert landscape, the cars could easily reach 60 to 70 mph flat out with the exhaust cut-out wide open, a capability that was as necessary for attack as it was for escape.

Arab Revolt
The Hejaz Armoured Car Section and RFA 10-Pounder Motor Section in Wadi Rum. Mar-Apr 1918. (Photo: Harry Chase, James A. Cannavino Library, Archives & Special Collections, Marist College, USA)
first world war
Lieutenant Colonel TE Lawrence and Army Service Corps driver, sitting in “Blue Mist,” Marjeh Square, Damascus, Oct 2, 1918. (Courtesy: Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust)

The mobile tactics developed with Rolls-Royces by the Duke of Westminster and T E Lawrence proved to be very effective both against the Senussi as well as the Ottoman-Turkish Army in Arabia. 

Speaking of the tactics developed during the Arab Revolt, General Sir Archibald Wavell noted in his history of the Palestine Campaign:

“Its value to the British commander was great, since it diverted considerable Turkish reinforcements and supplies to the Hejaz, and protected the right flank of the British armies in their advance through Palestine. Further, it put an end to German propaganda in south-western Arabia and removed any danger of the establishment of a German submarine base on the Red Sea. These were important services and worth the subsidies in gold and munitions expended on the Arab forces.”

Wavell observed Lawrence during the Arab Revolt and appreciated his methods and those of the HACB. 

He would go on to approve the creation and employment of two other special operations units in North Africa during the Second World War. The first of these was the Long Range Desert Group. 

The second was the SAS.

Read ‘Masters of Mayhem’ by military historian and combat archaeologist James Stejskal for more – use the code FORCES18 to get a 25% discount. And for other great military titles, visit Casemate Publishing

* This is an edited version of an article first published in 2018.

James Stejskal