November always seems a good time for a family war story, and the new BBC drama “SAS Rogue Heroes” provides an interesting theme. Depicting “the adrenaline-fuelled origins of the fearless, reckless Special Forces unit, its legend forged among the mayhem of WWII” as out-numbered and out-gunned British forces attempted to halt the march of Rommel (the Desert Fox) across the North African Deserts. But the SAS were not the first; a year before the Special Air Services came into existence, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was founded in Egypt in June 1940 as a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army. Initially mainly New Zealanders, but soon joined by a few Southern Rhodesian and British volunteers, never more than 350 men, operating deep behind Italian and German lines.
One of these hardy volunteers was Lieutenant Martin Gibbs (later Major) of the Coldstream Guards. Following the early 1940 successes of “Bagnold’s splendid cheerful New Zealanders” roving about the desert, and opening up “the back door into Libya over the Great Sand Sea”, there was a resolve to expand the LRDG. Three new patrols were formed; one from Rhodesians, one from the Yeomanry regiments, and the third from the Brigade of Guards. Their exploits are described in Michael Crighton-Stuart’s book “G Patrol – The Guards Patrol of the Long Range Desert Group”.
“On 7th December 1940″, two officers and thirty-six men, chosen from the 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream guards and the 2nd of the Scots Guards, assembled in the Citadel of Cairo to start their new life under Michael Crighton-Stuart … We paraded before our start on Boxing Day … stood by our eleven vehicles – three per truck with two extra for luck – twenty-nine guardsmen besides Gibbs and myself …”
“It was the worst country any of us had every experienced … After three days we found ourselves deciding a series of broken escarpments, in one of which Gibbs found caves full of rock paintings and carvings of animals…”
“… Gibbs’s half of G … left Barre on 1st April .. following the track south to Msus … a column of vehicles appeared and as they behaved suspiciously the squadron turned towards them … hotly pursued with McCraith in the lead … the hunt came to an abrupt close when his car ran over a thermos bomb which blew off a wheel and severely wounded him in the arm…”
“… On 9th and 10th May a bad khamseen blew and on the second evening I received a message from Gibbs on the Garbada track that he was in distress and coming into Jarabub. After noon the following day he and his men came in, all suffering badly from heat exhaustion … water ration insufficient to keep their bodies functioning properly… In Gibbs’s words ‘the guardsmen couldn’t guard, the fitter became unable to fit and the navigator went right off his head … Gibbs and several others were evacuated at once to Cairo … hospital … It was two months before he regained his strength and when he did, to the Patrol’s loss, he returned to his battalion.”
Martin’s ordeals in the Western Desert were far from over, as he was then involved in the battle for Tobruk, where he was captured in 1942, escaped and was recaptured twice. To quote from his obituary “Perhaps it was his time as a prisoner of war and then a guest of Italian peasants that influenced his outlook. Certainly he learnt that the two most important things in life above subsistence are love and freedom.”
Last year I received a message from Darren Windsor, who was researching his “nan and grandads family history” and learnt that he had been a ‘batman’ to Major Martin Antony Gibbs from 1937-42. “My nan and grandad met in Egypt as my Nan fled from France around 1939-41.“
The attached commendation letter from M.A.Gibbs notes how D.G.Windsor followed him from peacetime London to the six arduous months with the Long Range Desert Group. “He can drive a car …” from smart staff car to desert jeep – but no mention of the bat-mobile …!