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Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101, brought to you by Audible.com, the Internet’s leading provider of spoken-word entertainment. Get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up today. Logon to audiblepodcast.com/british101 today for details and your FREE audiobook download.
Tonight’s episode was not inspired by any thought or research taken on my own initiative; rather, it is the result of an opportunity I was graciously offered and decided to take. We’ll get to that later. First, the history.
In the First World War, units known as Light Car Patrols were used by the Allied forces in combat in the Middle East and North Africa. The Light Car Patrols were made up of Ford Model Ts converted to carry a Lewis machine gun and intended to carry out reconnaissance and brief hit-and-run strikes against Central Power forces. This was known to a certain Ralph Bagnold, and it is with this man that our story begins.
Ralph Bagnold was born in 1896 and became a veteran of the First World War, fighting for three years in the trenches of France. He enrolled at Cambridge after the war was over (although we must always ask ourselves – did the First World War ever really end, or was the armistice merely a pause before 1939? But that’s for a later show). He enrolled at Cambridge after his duty in France but returned to the armed forces in 1921 and served in Cairo and India, places where he spent the majority of his free time exploring nearby deserts: for desert exploration and mapping was Bagnold’s true passion. He even took part in a 1929 expedition across the sand in a Ford Model T, the same car used by the LCPs in the “war to end all wars.” He gained a spot in history as a pioneer of desert exploration in 1932 when he made the first recorded east to west crossing of the Libyan Desert, a dangerous undertaking even today. Bagnold also pioneered practical aspects of desert travel, such as lowering tyre pressure when travelling across loose sand, driving over large sand dunes at high speed, and what would come to be known as the Bagnold sun compass – a compass which is not affected by the large deposits of iron ore found throughout the desert and the metal content of the vehicles navigated by it.
Bagnold left the army in 1935, but it was only to be a few years before he was deeply involved in service to Britannia again. By chance, Bagnold happened to be in Cairo when Italy declared war on Great Britain in 1940; with his knowledge of the African desert, past military service, and remembrance of the utility of the Light Car Patrols in the First World War, Bagnold thought the same principle could be applied to combat the Italians in North Africa. Let us not forget that Bagnold had previously travelled into the desert astride a Model T! He requested an interview with General Wavell, the commander of the North African military forces, to ask permission to form a group similar to the LCPs. Bagnold had made this suggestion in 1939 but it had been rejected; now, however, with the threat of Italian forces coming across the top of the African continent, the army was much more willing to listen, and Bagnold was given 6 weeks to put this group together. Bagnold’s new outfit was duly established on 3 July 1940, and it would become a group later known even to Erwin Rommel as a highly effective special forces unit – the Long Range Desert Group.
Bagnold founded the Group with two equally qualified men, Bill Kennedy Shaw and Pay Clayton. Captain Kennedy Shaw was a British desert explorer, botanist, and archaeologist. If anyone knew anything about the desert, it was Kennedy Shaw. Bagnold brought him aboard as the intelligence and chief navigation officer. Pat Clayton had even more localized experience – he had spent 20 years with the Egyptian Survey department.
The Long Range Desert Group was distantly inspired by the Light Car Patrols of the First World War, and would carry out mechanized reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and desert navigation and mapping. Its main purpose was recon and intelligence, but the LRDG was sometimes called upon to carry out heavy strikes against the Afrikakorps and their Italian allies in the North African desert. Interestingly, Bagnold originally requested that the unit be made up of Australians and New Zealanders, with the thought that due to their knowledge of rural and farm living they would be better suited for navigating across the desolate desert sands. The Australian government refused to let their soldiers join the LRDG, as Australians were only to fight in Australian combat groups. This was more than offset by the enthusiasm of New Zealander soldiers – 150 volunteered. Later, British and Rhodesian soldiers would also join the Group.
The Group quickly earned a well-deserved reputation as expert desert navigators, and for this reason they were often use for various transport missions. They travelled many, many miles through desert wastes to transport the SAS, the Free French in Africa, rescued prisoners of war, captured prisoners of war, downed pilots, and even irregular units like Popski’s Private Army.
Popski’s Private Army, or PPA, deserves mention here on its own. Officially the unit was designated Number One Demolition Squad, PPA, and was formed in 1942 by Major Vladimir Peniakoff. Due to the difficulty some had with the major’s name, he was often simply called Popski. The PPA was formed as part of the British 8th Army to attack Erwin Rommel’s fuel supplies involved in the Battle of El Alamein. You can gather from the PPA’s official designation what their missions were in layman’s terms – they blew stuff up, and were very good at it. Popski’s Private Army, driven around the desert in the trucks of the Long Range Desert Group, served with distinction in North Africa and went on to see action in Italy as well.
A few minutes ago I mentioned the Free French, and this mention is due to incredible work on the part of Ralph Bagnold. The LRDG was able to transport the Free French around Africa precisely because of what Bagnold did in 1940. In that year, Bagnold travelled to Chad and entered negotiations with the Free French there. Prior to his arrival, the French were not allies of the British forces in Africa. When Bagnold left, they were. With the help of these additional men, the Long Range Desert Group was able to accomplish one of its biggest combat victories, the capture of Kufra, where the LRDG established headquarters in 1941.
The Long Range Desert Group went on to contribute greatly to the war in North Africa. Through gathering intelligence on Afrikakorps and Italian troops, mapping terrain never before traversed (and often never before seen) by British military forces, and quick, decisive, and devastating strikes against the enemy, the Long Range Desert Group was a major part of Allied victory in North Africa. Could we say that Montgomery would not have defeated Rommel in Africa without the help of the LRDG? It is hard to give a definitive answer, but in my opinion the answer is yes. It is entirely possible that the Allied war effort in North Africa would have ultimately been a failure without the efforts of the Long Range Desert Group and the units it worked with to defeat Hitler’s Afrikakorps. The Group would go on to serve in the Greek islands, Italy, and Normandy, but it built itself a lasting legacy by its achievements attained in the sandy wastes of Africa. Without the knowledge held by Ralph Bagnold, Bill Kennedy Shaw, and Pat Clayton, none of it would have ever happened – proof that their lifelong dedication to the desert served a higher purpose!
Let’s take a moment to thank the sponsor of British History 101, Audible.com. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider in spoken-word entertainment, and has over 35,000 titles to choose from to be downloaded and played back anywhere – just like British History 101. Logon to audiblepodcast.com/british101 to get a FREE audiobook download of your choice when you sign up today. Again, go to audiblepodcast.com/british101 for your FREE audiobook. As a matter of fact, if you sign up with Audible, you can download the book that inspired today’s episode and see precisely why I wanted to share it and the story behind it with all of you. As fellow historians I know you’ll enjoy it, and here’s why.
Earlier I mentioned that this episode grew out of an opportunity given me. I was contacted by a book publicity firm to review a book called Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield. I accepted the invitation and duly read Mr. Pressfield’s book; as soon as I was a few chapters into it, I knew I had to do an episode of British History 101 on the book’s subject. Killing Rommel chronicles the time spent by one man with the Long Range Desert Group on their book-titling mission – to kill Erwin Rommel, the legendary ‘Desert Fox’ whose mere presence at a battle struck fear into the hearts of Allied soldiers. The book is written in the style of historical fiction; that is, the events and people in the novel all either really happened and existed or are heavily rooted in historical reality.
Steven Pressfield is an author with vast experience in war writing, and penned such works as Gates of Fire, Tides of War, and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Mr. Pressfield was kind enough to allow me to interview him for the show, and what follows is are the questions and answers exchanged by us. I think they have enormous value for anyone interested in reading Killing Rommel but there is also much to be gained from them for anyone interested in history and historiography, such as listeners of British History 101:
Why Killing Rommel? What drove you to write this novel out of all the topics you could have chosen?
I was researching the cavalry tactics used by Alexander the Great – not easy because there’s very little extant from the ancient sources. So, moving further afield, I began studying horse tactics used by Frederick the Great, Napoleon, our own Civil War generals … sure enough, I wound up with Rommel and Heinz Guderian, the great German masters of mobile armored warfare, the tactics of which are a lot like ancient cavalry tactics. That was it. I was hooked.
Why this style? You have taken factual events, people, and places and placed a fictional character in their midst. Was there too little information on any one person to create a narrative from a real LRDG member, or did you simply prefer the freedom of using your own?
I’ve used the fictive memoir in earlier books, particularly “Tides of War.” I like it. It’s immediate, it’s intimate, it sucks the reader in and really gives him the picture. Plus, in studying various WWII memoirs, I was captivated by the style (three great ones: “The Forgotten Soldier” by Guy Sajer, “Brazen Chariots” by Maj. Robert Crisp and “Take These Men” by Cyril Joly). Real-life accounts of the desert exploits of British special forces units, the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group, were equally riveting. I decided to use the real-life WWII memoir as the template for my fictional story.
As to why I inserted a fictional character, I never thought of doing otherwise. My aim was to write a novel, not a history. It was imperative to have a character I could shape to a theme. The real-life characters are there primarily for verisimilitude, to ground the story in reality. It’s a technique used to wonderful effect by the American writer E.L. Doctorow in “Ragtime” and other books, where he tosses real historical characters like Stanford White in with characters of his own creation. It works!
The Long Range Desert Group – how did you carry out your research on this prestigious covert force?
There are a number of memoirs and books written by former LRDG officers and men, and other really good accounts on the subject written by historians and enthusiasts since then. I read and studied them – and everything else I could find about the era. I also went to the Imperial War Museum in London and the National Archives…and photocopied great rafts of actual Long Range Desert Group documents – Operations Orders and Combat Reports, that sort of thing. Those were invaluable, not to mention absolutely fascinating. One of the best byproducts of this research was that I was able to send to the son of one of the LRDG heroes (Rev. Warner Wilder in New Zealand) a copy of the actual combat report made out by his Dad, Captain Nick Wilder of the Long Range Desert Group, in which Nick Wilder made a reconnaissance discovery that helped turn the tide of the whole North African war. That was fun.
Killing Rommel is obviously an exhaustively researched book that doubtlessly took many, many months (if not years) of work to bring together. It is clear to the reader that you think it is important to remember the Long Range Desert Group; why is it important?
My aim was not specifically to do anything about the LRDG. What fascinated me was two aspects of the war in the Western desert – first, the chivalry demonstrated by both sides in this krieg ohne hass, as Rommel called it, “War without hate,” and second, the aspect, evinced particularly by the British and Commonwealth troopers in these early Special Forces units, of being “regular blokes,” not professional lifelong soldiers, who nonetheless rose spectacularly to the occasion when necessity demanded this. I wanted to showcase this quality that distinguishes British and empire forces so frequently (and Americans as well, even though there are none in this story.)
In this contemporary era of suicide bombers and waterboarding, when chivalry and voluntary self-restraint in war seem so remote as to be virtually impossible to imagine, I think it might serve a purpose to remind ourselves that there really was a campaign, not too long ago, that though it was contested fiercely and to the death by armies locked in a mortal struggle of global scale and consequence, was yet fought with honor and respect for the enemy, seeing him a fellow human being. That’s why “Killing Rommel” ends the way it does, in a highly affirmative way.
Again, I’m not trying to write history, I’m writing a novel and a novel has a theme – which hopefully is pertinent in this contemporary time, even if the actual story takes place in the past. The war in the desert was, from everything I’ve read, indeed a “war without hate.” That’s why I “went there” – to tell a version of that story and bring it back to this modern day.
Many thanks to Mr. Pressfield for sharing his thoughts with both me and the listeners of British History 101. Killing Rommel is available through most booksellers and the usual Internet outlets such as Amazon.com; I highly recommend it to everyone, and especially through Audible.com. Listening to a book being read is really an enjoyable experience! For more information on the background of the book, head over to http://www.killingrommel.com, where you can find a wealth of information and three videos there made by Mr. Pressfield in the desert with re-enactor vehicles and WWII war footage – there’s a ten minute video, a three minute video, and a thirty-second clip that you might find very interesting on this subject. You can find out more about Mr. Pressfield at http://www.stevenpressfield.com. You can find my review of Killing Rommel immediately under the transcript for this episode at BritishHistory101.com. Again, many thanks are due to the author. I extend my warmest gratitude for giving us a great episode!
One of the concepts you will find discussed in Killing Rommel is the apparent chivalry displayed by the belligerents in the North African campaigns, and I don’t think I’m giving away too much of the book to talk about it a bit here. Medics were almost always allowed to retrieve wounded men, and it was not uncommon for troops from both sides of the conflict to be treated shoulder to shoulder by the same doctor. Men obviously incapacitated were not targeted, and much of the cruelty seen throughout the rest of the Second World War was often absent. This is interesting when viewed in light of warfare before and after the War; we must compare the War in Africa with the fields of Agincourt, Bosworth Field, Austerlitz, the Somme, Fallujah, Afghanistan, Normandy, and countless other battles throughout history. How did chivalry in combat play out in history? Was it a noble but unrealistic idea or discernable code of behavior? Why was it that the soldiers fighting in North Africa felt it their responsibility to treat the enemy with humanity and decency? This stands in stark contrast to the horror in war we read about every day in newspapers and on websites. Where has the chivalry gone? Why wasn’t it present on some battlefields before the Second World War and farther back in history? I suspect the answers to these questions extend far beyond the bounds of this podcast, but they are food for thought nonetheless.
You can find another video sent to me by Mr. Pressfield at British History 101’s newest Internet location. The blog at BritishHistory101.com will still be, by far, the main site I use to share ideas and news with listeners; however, those of you involved in the social network Facebook will now be able to find British History 101 there, as well! Simply search for British History 101 and you’ll find my page there, complete with videos, photos, events, discussion topics, contact information, and the ability to become an official, tried-and-true fan of the show! With this new Facebook page comes a bit of a confession, however, and two years into the show I feel it’s time to fess up. You’ve known me from the beginning as Michael Anthony, and this name is completely accurate. However, it’s not my full name. Michael is indeed my first name, and Anthony comes right after it, although it’s not my last name. My last name is Skaggs, S-K-A-G-G-S. When I began the show, I had the feeling that Skaggs wouldn’t roll off the tongue quite as well or be as audibly acceptable as Anthony, so I stuck to just the first and middle names. I’ll continue to use just those two, since that’s how it’s always been, but I didn’t want those of you who visited the Facebook page to be confused by the fact that the page is administered by Michael Anthony Skaggs and not just Michael Anthony! The same goes for why my Twitter name is maskaggs. As I said before the show will still officially be owned and produced by Michael Anthony, and that is how I’ll address all correspondence, but the truth is out now. So that’s where we stand. I do hope you will forgive my name truncation and enjoy the show all the same!
With that, we’ll conclude this episode of British History 101. Thanks are due to so many people – author Steven Pressfield, master musicians John Hawksley and Simon Mulligan, and Audible.com, but most importantly they are due to each and every one of you. Listeners have been tuning in to British History 101 for over two years now, and every episode is my distinct privilege to produce and share with you. Thank you so much for learning with me and being my faithful companions along my own journey into history. You’ve often heard me describe learning history as a journey, and I think this is the most accurate description we can give it. Let us hope we never reach a destination – the travel itself is our goal.
A transcript of this and past episodes of British History 101 is available at BritishHistory101.com. Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. I can also be reached via Skype at BritishHistory101 and through Twitter on the name maskaggs. If you’d like to contact me by regular mail, my address is:
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I feel every episode is even more fun to produce than the last. It is in such hope that I bid you good evening until we meet again to sit round the campfire of history and learn more about our cherished Britain!