The long-forgotten story of an elite group of Kiwis who operated deep behind enemy lines in North Africa during World War II has been celebrated in a new book by a British historian.

The men of the Long Range Desert Group carried out clandestine operations deep behind enemy lines in WWII and were the 'brains' behind the SAS.

They also launched hit-and-run raids and gathered intelligence on German and Italian targets.

They carried out numerous missions in tandem with the SAS, using their unparalleled knowledge of the treacherous Sahara desert to guide the elite unit to enemy airfields where attacks would be launched.

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The reason New Zealanders were specifically hand-picked for the dangerous missions was their toughness and ability to repair trucks on their farms.

Photographs of the men have been released in a new book by British historian Gavin Mortimer, entitled The Long Range Desert Group in World War II.

LRDG soldiers discuss the best method to extricate their vehicle. Photo / Supplied
LRDG soldiers discuss the best method to extricate their vehicle. Photo / Supplied

Kiwis recruited

From 1925 to 1935, Major Ralph Bagnold had explored the Great Libyan Desert, 1770km east to west, 1600km north to south, as part of an international group that included the future central character of the novel and film The English Patient, Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy.

"Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use," Bagnold wrote.

The unit was founded by Englishman Bagnold in 1940 and was initially known as the Long Range Patrol Unit.

Bagnold wanted men who were self-reliant, physically and mentally tough, and able to live and fight in seclusion in the Libyan desert.[7]

He felt New Zealand farmers would possess these attributes and approached the 2nd New Zealand Division for volunteers. More than half the division volunteered.

Bagnold was ready in just five weeks. For vehicles he chose Chevrolet trucks for their proven durability in the desert. One of the reasons he chose Kiwi farmers was their ability to repair trucks on their farms.

For equipment, he used a sun compass he had designed and army radios with a range of 1930km.

In its first operation, in August-September 1940, the Long Range Desert Group proved its worth as two units, one led by Bagnold, crossed 6430km undetected, scouted and attacked Italian outposts, survived the paralysing heat of the day and freezing cold of the night, then successfully rendezvoused.

The group traversed huge areas of the Sahara that had never been explored by Europeans before, and their information gathering was so important to success in North Africa that General Bernard Montgomery said without them operations would have been "a leap in the dark".

Historian Mortimer interviewed surviving veterans and gained special access to the SAS archives to tell the story of the origins and dramatic operations of the unit. Photo / Supplied
Historian Mortimer interviewed surviving veterans and gained special access to the SAS archives to tell the story of the origins and dramatic operations of the unit. Photo / Supplied

A special bond

What the images reveal in the book is the close bond that existed between the members of the unit whose diligence dovetailed perfectly with the superior firepower of the SAS to defeat the enemy.

Cameras were banned so the soldier who took the fascinating photos did so without the authority of his senior officers.

With the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943, the Long Range Desert Group moved operations to the eastern Mediterranean, carrying out missions in the Greek islands, Italy and the Balkans where they operated in boats, on foot and by parachute.

The short-lived unit - which never numbered more than 350 men - was disbanded in August 1945 after the War Office decided against transferring them to the Far East to conduct operations against the Japanese Empire.

In time, the unit would incorporate soldiers from Britain and Southern Rhodesia.

An LRDG observation post in the Libyan Desert, with a soldier perched precariously on top of a palm tree. Photo / Supplied
An LRDG observation post in the Libyan Desert, with a soldier perched precariously on top of a palm tree. Photo / Supplied

'Deep behind enemy lines'

Historian Mortimer interviewed surviving veterans and gained special access to the SAS archives to tell the story of the origins and dramatic operations of the unit.

The LRDG was established almost a year and a half before the SAS were formed in November 1941, making them the first ever British-based special forces unit.

The extraordinary men of the unit would stay hidden concealed in bushes or ditches for days at a time just yards from German and Italian forces observing the enemy's every move and relaying that valuable information via radio to the SAS.

Mortimer, 46, who lives in Paris, said: "The Long Range Desert Group was actually established before the SAS and for the war-time generation they were more famous than them.

"It was only the Iranian siege of 1980 which propelled the SAS into public consciousness.

"The Long Range Desert Group disbanded at the end of the war and they have been lost to history so this book is really to make people aware of the importance and contribution of that unit to the Second World War.

"They were the brains of the operation in the desert while the SAS were the brawn. It was their role to navigate them to their targets.

"I believe the Long Range Desert Group were more important and valuable to the winning of the war in North Africa than the SAS.

"They would drop deep behind enemy lines and their surveillance was crucial as they reported back to General Montgomery the strength of the Germans and where to attack them.

"They were the eyes and ears of the offensive. What they did was painstaking - they would spend days hidden just yards from the main coastal road which the Germans would use.

"They would take notes of how many vehicles passed, how many soldiers there were and even the mood of the soldiers - if they were singing or depressed - and this information would be radioed back.

"Personnel would work in pairs sometimes hidden in a bush or concealed in a drop in the ground. They would camouflage themselves and observe using binoculars.

"When night came, they would hurry back to their patrol a mile or two further into the desert and would radio in all the information.

"There were very narrow escapes. Once a German convoy camped just yards from where a couple of men were hiding and one of the soldiers wandered over and relieved himself in the bush they were concealed in.

"I began my research three years ago and there were still 15 veterans from the Long Range Desert Group. Now that number is six or seven.

"I was able to speak to some veterans who have never spoken publicly about their experiences before now. They are such a modest generation but what they did took extraordinary discipline and courage."

- The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, by Gavin Mortimer, is published on April 20 by Osprey Publishing