Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Special service remembers the incredible WWII derring-do of NZ's Long Range Desert Group

Kiwi Long Range Desert Group soldiers keep a beady eye out for the enemy in North Africa during 1941.  Photo / Harold Paton
Kiwi Long Range Desert Group soldiers keep a beady eye out for the enemy in North Africa during 1941. Photo / Harold Paton

Yesterday, a special Anzac Day event in Los Angeles was held at dawn. The main attraction wasn't the New Zealand or Australian dignitaries, but rather two rugged, beige-coloured utes. The two fully-restored vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group, complete with New Zealand insignia and details, have been carefully reproduced as reminders of some of the most amazing raids by Kiwi soldiers - and indeed any Allied troops - during World War II, reports Kurt Bayer.

They were Kiwi farm boys. Tough, energetic, durable, easily-maintained; qualities they shared with the machines they used for the top-secret missions deep behind Nazi enemy lines.

The elite special forces group criss-crossed the North Africa desert, launching hit-and-run raids, outflanking opposing forces, laying false traps, making maps, and gathering critical intelligence on German and Italian targets.

The covert exploits of the men of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) would go down as legendary in the annals of special operatives everywhere.

Founded by Major Ralph Bagnold in 1940, and initially known as the Long Range Patrol Unit, the LRDG came along more than a year before David Stirling's famed SAS.

Bagnold wanted volunteers, particularly young Kiwi farmers from the 2nd New Zealand Division whom he knew as being hardy, resourceful, and able to repair machinery with anything they had to hand. More than half of the division put their hands up.

In crack patrols, of 40 men each, they used two-wheel drive Chevrolet trucks, stripped of all non-essentials like doors, windscreens and roofs, and equipped with machine-guns, anti-tank weapons, and communication equipment.

During its first operation in August-September 1940, two units soon proved the LRDG's worth. They moved 6430km undetected across the desert to scout and then attack Italian outposts, surviving the extreme heat of the day and bitter cold of night, before making a successful return to base.

One officer later wrote, "There cannot be many instances of continued survey work behind the enemy lines in war-time", while Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery - who orchestrated the victory at the Battle of El Alamein, said without the LRDG's help, some key operations in North Africa would have been a "leap in the dark".

A total of 250 New Zealanders served in the unit, nicknamed the Libyan Desert Taxi Service, and which never numbered more than 350 men.

It was moved to the eastern Mediterranean after the Axis forces surrendered in Tunisia in May 1943, before being finally disbanded in August 1945.

Yesterday, at the Los Angeles National Cemetery a dawn Anzac service paid tribute to the incredible exploits of the LRDG.

There were around 250 guests in attendance, including Leon Grice, Consul-General of New Zealand and Chelsey Martin, Consul-General of Australia.

Former New Zealand soldier and Australian SAS vehicle mounted operator Kevin Bovill laid a wreath at the event.

Bovill and his comrades went "back to the basic lessons learned by the LRDG" and is proud of New Zealand's role in setting up the forerunner to the modern SAS.

"Maintaining all aspects of our military history and heritage is important for future generations to learn, understand and appreciate the sacrifices of their forefathers and how they formed New Zealand's place in the world," Bovill said.

- NZ Herald

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