Egypt is a wonderful place. A bit like an onion, if you peel back one layer of Egyptian history, you find another, and another, and still another. Walking along a street you might pass a Pharaonic statue, next to a 1920s belle epoque villa, abutting a 1960s Soviet-era brutalist concrete façade, all overshadowed by a 21st Century solar panel array – and the whole lot built on a Neolithic site full of flint tools. The Egyptian desert is much the same, and for those interested in the history of the LRDG it can be an historical treasure-house.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of my adult life travelling around Egypt and the Egyptian Sahara and regularly encountering historical echoes of that band of piratical scorpions, the Long Range Desert Group. It might therefore be worth sharing some of the locations of those encounters for those making a trip to Egypt themselves. This piece has appeared in a slightly different form in Tracks, the magazine of the Long Range Desert Group.
It would be nice to start at the LRDG’s informal Cairo Headquarters, established in what, pre-war, was Madame Aurelie’s boarding school, in the Cairo suburb of Maadi on Al-Nahda street. Sadly, this was demolished years ago – today an anonymous apartment block stands in its place. This is the first instance of a pattern that will affect a search for LRDG sites in Cairo – in 1940 the population of Cairo was 1,500,000. Today it is 22,000,000. A new child is born every 15 seconds. This means that many of the places known by Bagnold, Clayton and the rest have been long since swallowed by the vast, fast-growing city. A good example is Maadi Camp, the “tented town” where New Zealand forces (up to 76,000, amidst a local population of 2000) were based in 1941. The remains of this now sit under modern Maadi, between Victory College and Wadi Degla (Alex Hedley’s excellent book “Fernleaf Cairo” published by Harper Collins New Zealand, is a goldmine of information on Maadi Camp). The New Zealand Expeditionary Force memorials on Canal St and in Al Nahda Square too have vanished. Also gone, as noted elsewhere on this blog, is Shepheard’s Hotel – another keystone in LRDG life.
It is possible, however, to see the villa where Patrick Clayton lived with his family. This still stands, again in Maadi, on Road 83. It is in a sad state of neglect and has been split into apartments – but it’s still there. Part of the property is a large garage and (now rather ramshackle) workshop area. It’s tempting to assume this was the gathering point for Clayton’s desert vehicles and equipment – by pure chance it certainly was the gathering point and workshop for our group of desert-travelling Land Rovers throughout the 2000s and 2010s!
The LRDG’s more formal Headquarters, Workshops, stores and vehicle assembly area was at the mighty Citadel of Saladin in the centre of Cairo – this is very much still there, and well worth exploring. Also still to be seen in Cairo is “GHQ Middle East”, the block of offices and general staff in Garden City known as “Grey Pillars” which included General Wavell and other officers responsible for LRDG and SAS operations (and described as “fossilised shit” by David Stirling, founder of the SAS) – this is the location where Bagnold had his historic “piracy on the high desert” meeting with Wavell, and it can justifiably be called the birthplace of the LRDG. Today it has reverted to the apartment block that it was before the war. In the 1940s it was on Tolombat St – today this has been renamed Ittihad al-Muhamiyin al-Arab, but Grey Pillars is still there, and can be visited.
Whilst operating away from Cairo, the LRDG maintained centres of operations in other towns. The most notable was at the bar of the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria. Today known as Monty’s Bar, the main bar at the Cecil was the LRDG Officers’ Mess around the time of the battle of El Alamein. Returning long range patrols were toasted “home” with a silver goblet bearing the LRDG crest. The bar survives and can easily be visited. The story of the goblet is mentioned in another blog entry and in Tracks issue 2.
Heading out of Cairo and into the desert close by, it’s worth visiting the Guhannim dunes near the Fayoum oasis region – this dune line was the “desert training ground” for prospective LRDG and SAS desert drivers in the early part of the war. The dunes are a long, low line stretching north-south and it’s immediately apparent that they are a useful practice area for the art of driving in soft sand. Close by is the Auberge Fayoum, once King Farouk’s hunting lodge and used during the war as a convivial drinking spot and place to stay for LRDG and SAS officers. It survives today as the Helnan Auberge Fayoum and still operates as an hotel.
As you head into the desert north and east of Fayoum, you encounter the debris of war (though still behind the front lines, which never advanced further east than El Alamein). Towards the 30° Latitude 30° Longitude confluence point in the northern deserts you find the remains of the WW2 exercising of early heavy British armour – tank tracks and solid shot from 2pdr and 6pdr tank guns. However if you travel east of Fayoum you start to find points in the desert which are obvious wartime refuelling points – piles of flimsies dumped where their contents had been emptied into thirsty vehicles. LRDG? Unlikely – possible, but lots of units used flimsies. It’s in areas like this that detective work begins.
LRDG units seldom deployed in the deserts directly south of Fayoum. They had no reason to, other than training. Similarly, oases of Farafra, Bahareya and Dakhla were of little interest to them as they were merely navigation points on the journey elsewhere. I found a low hill west of Farafra where a deep-desert unit had paused to refuel and zero their weapons, and this gives an example of the detective work needed – a lone “flimsy” (pre-1942 british petrol tin) 100 yards from the hill had been a target for lots of .303 ammunition, and the spent cases on the hilltop had a very distinctive firing pin mark – from a Bren gun. The LRDG did not use Bren guns, so who was it? Indian Long Range Squadron? Hard to tell. This is a not uncommon encounter in the open desert – relics and evidence from “someone”, some Commonwealth unit – but finding out exactly who can be tough.
One of the most interesting sites for LRDG (and SAS) enthusiasts is Siwa oasis, the first operational LRDG HQ, especially Shali, the old mudbrick citadel at its heart. Perhaps the most famous wartime photo of one-time LRDG commander David Lloyd Owen is with his 30cwt Ford outside the Prince Farouk Hotel in Siwa, and though the hotel has fallen into ruin, the extensive remains are still available for exploration a short walk from the town itself. Within Shali, the famous mudbrick “kasbah” at the centre of Siwa, it’s still possible to find flimsies, jerrycans, parts of WW2 vehicles, wooden ammunition boxes and other wartime ephemera used as construction materials. Cleopatra’s Pool, in the palm groves of the “larger oasis” of Siwa, is also of interest – there are several photos showing LRDG troopers and officers enjoying the waters there.
For artefact hunters Siwa can also be a magnet. Until the explosion in tourist numbers in Siwa in the mid-2000s, it was still possible to find the remains of the many Allied units that passed through Siwa before, during and after WW2, amongst which of course were the LRDG. Some of the best “finds” are sand channels – the heavy steel plates whose prototypes were cobbled together from Cairo roadmenders’ steel bridging plates. Replaced after the desert campaign by lighter, less specialised Marston Matting (commonly called PSP – Pierced Steel Plate), these were only really used in action by Commonwealth troops in the Desert War. I’ve found sand channel in Siwa before, but there’s no guarantee the ones you may find are LRDG! After all, most Commonwealth desert units equipped their vehicles with sand channels in 1941 and 42.
Of similar interest is ‘Ain Della oasis in the Great Sand Sea – sadly of academic interest only, as this location – first a Roman garrison, then an SAS and LRDG patrol halt, is now an operational Egyptian military base, and strictly off-limits to civilians. Kharga oasis was also frequented by the LRDG as part of their patrol route east to Kufra in Libya, but little remains of the unit here.
The deep desert holds many sites of importance to the LRDG. Big Cairn, built by Pat Clayton’s expedition in 1932 to mark the first crossing of the Great Sand Sea by vehicle, was often used as a forming-up point for patrols entering or leaving Libya. Pillar Rock in the Great Sand Sea was another such landmark (and today Pillar Rock still has traces of the Wyndon Aerials used by LRDG trucks for radio communication embedded it it). Further south, and west of the Gilf Kebir, lie three distinct rocky hillocks sticking out of the desert – a feature called “Three Castles” which was used by pre-war desert explorers as well as the LRDG. The LRDG used it as a patrol rendezvous, and the fact that there is a large pile of flimsies, empty cigarette tins and discarded ration pack items scattered over a large area suggests that housekeeping wasn’t uppermost in their minds when they were there!
Famously there are also several WW2 “truck wrecks” scattered around the Egyptian desert. Several are LRDG, including of course the Chevrolet WB 30cwt “Waikaha”, now in the Imperial War Museum in London. Like Waikaha, some were repurposed after the war by units like the Sudan Defence Force. Some, like the White 6×6 on the sand sheet west of the Gilf Kebir, belonged to the Heavy Section of the LRDG. Some are units associated with the LRDG, like the “waterfall Ford” with a huge RAF recognition roundel, east of the Gilf. Many are of great interest to model makers because, often with bodywork inverted and protected by drifting sands, they preserve original LRDG camouflage schemes of which no colour photographs exist. Many are along the route of the Kharga-Kufra patrols.
Exploring Egypt is an absorbing and exhilarating pastime. Searching for sites and relics from the Long Range Desert Group can be both fascinating and rewarding. Sadly however, at the time of writing, large areas of the Great Sand Sea and the “deep desert” are strictly off-limits for travellers because of the presence of insurgents from Libya. Should you want to venture into many of the locations detailed here you will need a guide by law. Be careful who you pick! If you’d like to know more, including GPS coordinates for the locations mentioned or recommended guides to use, please drop me an email