The Ghibli scours the Face of the Desert and the Hearts of Men.

The shifting face of the Desert lands.

The beauty of the Desert is timeless but this photo is unique, by the day after I took it the shape of these dunes would have changed.

It seems almost disrespectful to go chattering on this week about events in my inconsequential life when the whole of the Ancient World seems to be in chaos.  We are -once again – living through monumental changes, we are witnessing the shifting sands in the desert countries to equal the collapse of the Iron curtain, the ‘Cultural Revolution’,  the end of apartheid and the immensity of Mandela.

I wonder, when the history of the start of the C21st comes to be written, will 9/11 be seen as the touch-paper which lit the desert fires, raging with the heat of terrible battles and turning the sands of time and oppression to clear glass in the countries of Asia Minor and North Africa.  It is certainly an astounding sand storm.

It is not the place here, in the tranquil setting of Welshwaller’s blog, to go commenting on the rights and wrongs, political actions and inactions and the unknowns of the future.  The past however is a different matter and my interest in the Libyan Desert can, perhaps, be my tribute to the bravery of the common Arab for whom the desert and the Ghibli are allies through these turbulent times.

The shades of sand

Out of the shade and into the sunlight, the Dunes are analogous.

I visited the desert when I was a young, fit man and it left an impression.  I have mentioned previously my studies of the 2nd World War and the Desert War holds a particular fascination for me.  Partly this is linked to my long-time interest in Egyptology and the explorers of the C19th and early C20th.

The 1st World War was itself an interesting period for desert activity with the great escapades of T.E. Lawrence (narrated in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and captured in Lean’s epic 1960s film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’). After the war the frenzy of ‘digs’ in places such as the Valley of the Kings- culminating in Cardigan’s and Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, caught the imagination of the world.  However, at the same time a small international group of explorers, perhaps not having the financial backing to go after one of the Pharoah tombs, were wandering the western and southern Sahara desert in search of antiquities there.

Under the leadership of men like Bagnold (Brigadier Ralph Bagnold O.B.E 1896-1990) these merry men developed the techniques of travelling the desert in motorised transport.  The wonderful Model ‘T’ Ford and Model ‘A’, in pick-up form, was modified to make it a suitable and sustainable ‘off-roader’ .  Of particular later significance was the invention of a condenser that was fitted in front of the radiator and took the hot vapour from the radiator and cooled it back to water, the vacuum thus created in the block and radiator sucked the cooled water from the condenser back into the radiator.  Another simple invention was the sun compass, very similar to the garden sun-dial,it cast a shadow made by a slim upright needle and established the northern semi-sphere and was not affected by the high metallic nature of many of the desert rocks .  They were the first to realise that letting air out of the tyres assisted driving in soft sand.

Another less well known explorer of the time was Peter Clayton who was a mapper for the Government and was recruited by Bagnold at the onset of war.  Bagnold, along with Clayton and David Lloyd Owen, created the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) to roam the desert spying on the enemy.  Out of the early reconnaissance missions of the LRDG came the idea that inspired David Stirling to establish the S.A.S. (Special Air Service).  These two groups along with ‘Popski’s Private Army’, made the ‘Desert their dwelling place’ (actually the title of David Lloyd-Owen’s account of the LRDG in the North African campaign – The Desert My Dwelling Place). I became an enthusiastic student of these campaigns but it was not until the late 1970’s and a chance encounter with two ‘Originals’, that I became inspired to recreate one of the iconic modes of transport.

Whilst attending a course at a rather ‘Gentrified’ country house in a small village called Burwash in Sussex, I met a most interesting man.  The gardener was a quiet ‘shadow’, rarely seen and barely noticeable.  There is something in me that attracts me, inevitably, to seek out such folk and I nearly always end up in deeply protracted conversations with them.  After several ‘sit and chat’ sessions he told me of his ‘war’ (something he did not speak of to strangers nor indeed his family, as I found out when I attended his funeral some years later).  It came out as we sat one star lit evening on a bench on the lawn of his tied cottage,  he started saying things like “Orion is bright tonight”, “the Dog star is a wonderful guide” and so on.  Now I knew few of those celestial lights and asked how he was so knowledgeable, I assumed he was somehow involved with the famous local ‘Star Gazer’, the astronomer Patrick Moore.  It transpired he had in fact been a Navigator in the Long Range Desert Group (and Celestial ‘dead reckoning’ was his forte).  He had been Clayton’s Navigator and had been captured with him in January 1941.  They had been transferred to the Abruzza area of Italy.  He mentioned then a name that meant absolutely nothing to me but in recent years has been another of my Libyan links.

Through him I had the honour of meeting Bagnold and David Lloyd-Owen  (and they helped me in the re-creation of one of their raiding jeeps).  At the time I was living in Brighton and it was there that I met another ‘Original’ (that is the title given to those who made up the first members of the LRDG and the SAS) but this one was a warrior.  Whereas the Long Range Desert Group concentrated on reconnaissance and intelligence gathering (Clayton in fact was Intelligence Corps) Sterling’s idea was for a raiding unit which would create havoc in the rear of the Italian and German massively over-extended lines of communication.  The name Special Air Service was a simple attempt at making the Germans believe the British had developed a parachute force (which the Germans already had in large numbers).  Stirling recruited some special officers, ‘Paddy’ Blair Mayne and Jock Lewis being the main leaders (Lewis came up with the ‘Who Dares Wins’ motto and the light and dark blue regimental colours come from the fact that the two founders had respectively attended Oxford and Cambridge).  One night in a pub in Hove with my mum, I was introduced  to a friend of hers.  He turned out to be a fellow called Jock Easton, himself one of Sterling’s crazy originals (who had pursued a career as a film stunt man after the war including ‘Where Eagles Dare’),  Jock was a heavy drinking bull of a man but kind hearted and dignified.  He helped me immensely with the little personal details of what was carried, and written, on the raiding jeeps.  He invited me to his flat to show me his photos, and there, whilst scrummaging through an overflowing drawer he tossed aside a box out of which fell some medals.  My ‘Americanisation’ would lead me to say “and then some!”.  There were many, they were grubby, the ribbons tatty, unloved one might say.  Apart from his Military Cross (with Bar), his Legion d’Honneur, his Croix de Guerre and his Belgian Cross of Honour were what seemed like dozens of campaign medals.  It was a very humbling experience to meet men like Bagnold and Lloyd-Owen, Stirling and Easton, the thing that most stood out was the unassuming quiet dignity of the men.

Now then, I am rambling on aren’t I !!  Another connection to Libya comes with the story of my dear Aunt Bet’s brother (have a read of my post  ‘This is your Victory’ back in May 2010).  Aunt Bet is the widow of my dear Uncle Bill, himself a warrior, who sadly passed away last year at the age of 91.  She lost a brother in the Desert campaign.  All she (and her brothers and sisters and mother) were told was that he was MIA and therefore presumed KIA in the summer of 1941 whilst flying his Beaufighter over the Libyan sands.  No further information was ever forthcoming until a chance meeting with another friend of my mother’s in Brighton in 1985.  He too had been in the R.A.F. in the desert and was involved with a Veteran’s Association.  He managed to trace the grave of aunt Bet’s brother to a British War Cemetery near Benghazi.  Of course she will never get to see it, but her daughter – my cousin – has resolved that she will go (although we shall now have to await developments there).

The final link with that Desert Kingdom (for such it was until Mr Gadaffi took over) comes through another ‘it’s a small world’ experience.  In 1996 I was enthralled by Mughella’s film based on Michael Ondaatje’s homonym novel ‘The English Patient’ (1992).  The cinematography was stunning I thought, the story compelling and whilst I knew the story of the discovery of the Cave of the Swimmers was based on a real event, I imagined the rest, including the characters, to be pure fiction.  A few days later I was at the home of some dear friends of mine in the Pontardawe area of the Swansea valley and I began telling Jenny about the film, how marvellous I thought it was, how she ‘must go to see it’. It transpired she was a friend of Ondaatje’s London agent !  I mentioned briefly the plot and went on to say how it related to the between-wars exploration of people like Bagnold and Clayton.  I mentioned the ‘fictional’ Almasy and she immediately interjected saying “oh I’ve got letters from him to my uncle Godfrey” !  I was dumfounded; she began to tell me of the uncle she had loved, who had been this dashing Royal Flying Corps pilot in the 1st World War and who had stayed in the R.A.F. through the campaigns in the North-west frontier region, ultimately being killed whilst doing experimental bombing in a Hawker Hurricane at the start of World War 2.  It transpired that he had been on the expeditions with Laszlo Almasy (a real life Austro-Hungarian explorer) and Clayton (Peter Madox in the film) seeking out the ancient sites of the southern Sahara.  He was one of those intrepid flyers so beautifully represented in the film.  She went upstairs and brought down an old carrier bag full of Godfrey’s letters which she allowed me to borrow.  Astonishing to be reading the letters from Almasy and others describing their trips and discoveries.  I asked about his military career, “Oh there’s a box of stuff belonging to him in the attic”.  That ‘box in the attic’ contained the priceless possessions of that Libyan explorer; his shaving kit, his compass, cologne bottle, some ragged photos, oh yes, and a box of medals.  Once again I found myself handling the ‘unloved’ representations of a Man’s courage and devotion to duty. A Military Cross, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre, campaign medals for places I did not know – Waziriland ! and those I did.  Photographs galore of early desert flying, of early bombing experiments with bi-planes on the hostile tribes up near the Khyber pass, amazing unique artefacts. (I am hoping to write a short biography of Wing Commander Godfrey Pendrell for the County Historical magazine – the folk of Pontardawe should know of their local hero)

Egypt and Libya - the Desert War

The Desert War, names known to very few until this last week. Almost the size of India but just sand and rock, apart from the coastal belt and a few isolated Oasis.

As I studied those letters from Almasy, with the ‘English Patient’ fresh in my mind, I remembered the  story old Ben (the LRDG Navigator) had told me about his P.O.W. experience with Clayton in Italy.  He said they were saved from execution (Hitler had ordered that all Special Forces and Commandos were to be shot on capture) by a German officer called ‘Almasy’ who was a friend of Clayton from before the War, they had been exploring the desert together…..

(Almasy was actually involved – as was hinted in the film – at smuggling two German spies across the Libyan desert and into British HQ in Cairo and eventually succeeded in acquiring Clayton’s maps).

So I think you can imagine my particular interest in the events of this past week and hopefully excuse this elongated account.  As a reward I have shared with you my three all time favourite photographs of the desert – in my heart it is  ‘My Dwelling Place’.

Dunes of time

The Sands of time are running in the Desert Kingdoms. The Scirocco wind, the 'Ghibli', will blow over a much changed landscape for the next decades.

Enough for now methinks, I am storing up many tales of daring-do here in the hills and vales of Wales.  We are marching onwards in the Rugby Six Nations Championship, Scotland and Italy both put to the sword, but the French and Irish are coming….  Blue skies and daffodils are here and stones await my gentle hands, nature is awakening so there will be much to report in the next post from Welshwaller.

As the S.A.S. stand-by to return to the Libyan desert, some 70 years on, here are some photographs of the vehicle I recreated with the help of the ‘Originals’ mentioned above.

 

An IWM photograph of an armoured S.A.S. raiding jeep in the Western deset 1942

This photograph is an Imperial War Museum photo of one of the raiding jeeps which the S.A.S. used to roam the Libyan desert in 1942 (the Jeep had become available after the U.S. entered the war in Dec. 41)

 

Fascimile copy of a S.A.S. jeep as used in the desert in 1942

This is my version, the Jeep is a Willys of 1942 vintage (which I acquired from Charlie Mann after he had provided it for use in the film 'A Bridge too Far' - it was the one driven by James Caan through the woods whilst rescuing his Capt.). Most of the accessories are original examples, even down to Whermacht 'Jerry Cans' and U.S. Gas cans - the British did not have 'Jerry cans until they captured Tobruk and obtained the moulds - they had useless biscuit-tin type petrol cans called 'Tilly' cans. Note the water condenser fitted to the front and the cut away radiator grill which increased air flow but, as Jock Easton told me, it was useful for accessing the radiator to plug any bullet holes, which they did with soap ! the Vicker's 'K' machine guns were chosen by the S.A.S. partly because they could get them - they were fitted to the R.A.F. Beaufighters and hence parts and ammo was plentiful - and they had an immense rate of fire. This picture, myself as gunner and my cousin Malc (himself ex S.A.S) driving, was taken whilst we were taking part in the London to Brighton Historic vehicle run in May 1979. .

S.A.S. jeep and an 'original' warrior.

Capt. Jock Easton M.C. standing next to my recreation of a desert raiding jeep as used by the Special Air Service in the Libyan desert in 1942. (the Union Flag on the garage doors was in celebration of the Queen's Silver Jubillee)

ma’a as-salaama

Allah yasalmik

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