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Photos show elite Allied soldiers storming Italian airbase in Libya during 1942 Operation Caravan

It was a mission in which 47 highly-trained men launched a daring raid on an Italian stronghold in North Africa.

Operation Caravan – carried out in September 1942 – saw members of the elite Long Range Desert Action Group (LRDG) attack the town of Barce and its accompanying airbase, in northern Libya, during the Second World War.

Acting from behind enemy lines, the men stormed into the base and town in the dead of night with orders to 'cause the maximum amount of damage and disturbance to the enemy.'

They destroyed or damaged 23 Italian planes which were being used to drop bombs on Allied troops.

The men also destroyed transport, fuel and ammo supplies – severely hampering the Italian operation in North Africa, which Adolf Hitler's Nazis relied upon to keep Britain and its allies at bay in the region.

Incredibly, whilst ten members of the force were captured and 11 were injured, no one was killed. Out of the 17 vehicles they set off with, only three made it back.     

Now, rare images show the elite troops in the build-up to and aftermath of the raid. 

The previously unpublished pictured are revealed in book The Long Range Desert Group in Action 1940-1943, written by military historian Brendan O'Carroll and published by Pen & Sword.

Some pictures were donated by the families of veterans while others were shared by collectors and other historians.

They were taken using personal cameras carried by soldiers. Even though this was against army regulations, Mr O'Carroll says the LRDG 'tended to do things their own way and the rule was not enforced.'

Operation Caravan– carried out in September 1942 – saw members of the elite Long Range Desert Action Group attack the town of Barce and its accompanying airbase, in northern Libya, during the Second World War. Now, rare images from Brendan O'Carroll's book The Long Range Desert Group in Action 1940-1943 show the elite troops in the build-up to and aftermath of the raid. Pictured: The LRDG's Captain N.P. Wilder holds a map while he addresses his men in preparation for the attack on Barce airfield. The men are looking vigilant, looking out for an enemy aircraft that was flying overhead at the time

Acting from behind enemy lines, the men stormed into the base and town in the dead of night with orders to 'cause the maximum amount of damage and disturbance to the enemy.' Pictured: Barce Airfield

The LRDG's T1 patrol attacked the airfield at night and destroyed or damaged twenty-three aircraft on the ground, plus fuel and munitions dumps. Pictured: While on their eleven-day journey to Barce, T1 Patrol trucks line up at the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Over the two patrols, the mission set out with five jeeps and twelve trucks. However, of those that saw action, only one truck T6, Te Anau II, the fitter's truck (on the right) returned, along with a jeep. One truck was concealed outside Barce as a supply/rescue rendezvous point. The rest were lost to enemy action, accident or breakdown

The LRDG was conceived in July 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold, a soldier described by Mr O'Carroll as a 'British army signals officer, geographer and desert explorer'.

After venturing into Libya in the 1920s and 1930s, Major Bagnold had significant knowledge of desert travel, navigation and survival techniques.

Italy had entered the war in June 1940 and, because Libya had been an Italian colony since the 1920s, Egypt was under threat.

The task of Major Bagnold's new formation was to go behind enemy lines and provide intelligence on the activities of Italian forces in southern Libya, near the Egyptian border.

The men used their knowledge of the desert to guide other forces such as the Special Air Service (SAS) on their own sorties. 

From the time of the LRDG's formation until 1943 – when Axis forces surrendered in the region in May 1943 – their troops roved over the deserts of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and won hard-fought victories.

Corporal M.H. Craw's truck T5, Te Paki III, was hit by enemy fire in Barce town and crashed. Some of the crew were injured and all taken prisoner. The truck was burned out. See the destroyed stores in the back, a .50 Vickers heavy machine gun, plus a Vickers K on the ground

The underside view of Te Paki III truck. The box fixed to the side held the time-bombs used by Corporal Craw in the airfield attack. The wreck was a curiosity for the locals, who the night before would have kept their heads down when the town was shot up by the LRDG's G1 Patrol

Private J.L.D. Davis (pictured left) navigated the truck Te Anau II to take the wounded to an abandoned RAF landing ground for rescue after the rescue. Private Davis is seen left wearing a keffiyeh, which was only worn by troops in North Africa. It  replaced by a black beret as the official headdress from mid-1943. Davis went on to serve with distinction in the Aegean operations of late 1943 and was awarded the British Empire Medal. Right: Captain R.P. ('Dick') Lawson MC. Known as 'Doc' among the troops, he was a long-serving LRDG medical officer. He served on the Barce raid and won the Military Cross for sheltering the wounded while under fire from air attack.

The city of Barce was described by Mr O'Carroll as a 'classic Italian colonial town near the coast'. Barce is now named Al Marj

The Barce (now named Marj) airfield and town raid was part of a plan by special forces to divert enemy attention from the build-up to the defining conflict at El Alamein.

That battle, which took place between October and November 1942, saw Allied troops famously defeat Nazi and Italian forces in Egypt.

The Operation CARAVAN force was led by Major J.R. Easonsmith and made up of 47 men travelling in five jeeps and 17 heavily-armoured trucks.

Their orders were to 'cause the maximum amount of damage and disturbance to the enemy.'

The group was made up largely of New Zealand and British troops, as well as men from the Libyan Arab Force.

To get to Barce, the men travelled for 11 days behind enemy lines. They had to cross two sand seas during the 1,150-mile (1,860km) journey.

During the trek, a jeep capsized after being driven over a dune at high speed. 

The commander of one of the units, Captain Timpson, suffered head injuries while his driver - Guardsman T. Wann, was paralysed from the waist down and had to be rescued.

During the trek, a jeep capsized after being driven over a dune at high speed. The commander of one of the units, Captain Timpson, suffered head injuries while his driver - Guardsman T. Wann, was paralysed from the waist down and had to be rescued. Pictured: Captain Timpson being treated for his injuries  

On September 13, the LRDG patrols approached the outskirts of the town. Their first step was to cut all the telegraph wires and destroy a police checkpointPictured: Captain N.P. Wilder (standing centre) reads the operational orders to his men as they enjoy their evening meal. They are hidden under the trees in the outskirts of Barce in preparation for the attack that night. The bald soldier on the extreme left is Major V. Peniakoff

Trooper A. Vincent cleans his jeep-mounted Vickers K machine gun before the mission began. These were originally RAF air gunners' weapons adopted by the LRDG and used in single or dual mounts. With a 100-round enclosed magazine, they were very effective, producing devastating fire-power of 950 to 1,200 rounds per minute. Dust meant that the weapons had to be covered as much as possible and regularly cleaned. Note the flare pistol on the bonnet

An Italian L3/35 (Carro Veloce CV 35) two-man light tank armed with twin 8mm machine guns. T Patrol encountered these on the airfield raid, but in the darkness was easily outmanoeuvred. To clear a way through, Captain Wilder had to crash his truck into a pair of them serving as a roadblock in Barce town. The light tanks were then put out of action with hand grenades

Barce is described by Mr O'Carroll as a 'classic Italian colonial town near the coast'.

The airfield housed the Italian bomber and reconnaissance planes. Also based there were ground forces with armoured cars, tanks and heavy weaponry.

On September 13, the LRDG patrols approached the outskirts of the town. Their first step was to cut all the telegraph wires and destroy a police checkpoint.

Whilst the Guard Patrol headed into the town, T1 forces went to the airfield.

Mr O'Carroll describes how the men sent to the town took the Italians 'completely by surprise'.

They 'shot up' the army barracks before using their 'devastating fire-power' to cause 'shock, horror and destruction'.

The men destroyed transport, fuel and ammo supplies and created 'general havoc' around the town.

As this was happening, the T1 patrol 'crashed through' the gate of the airfield, shooting Italian guards who got in their way.

The men then targeted 30 aircraft which were arranged in a semi-circle.

They used a 'destructive cocktail of tracer, incendiary and explosive ammunition' to target the planes. In total, 23 were destroyed or damaged.

Mr O'Carroll describes how, by this point, the enemy was 'truly alerted' but found it difficult in the chaos to target the LRDG forces - who were 'always moving' – and were worried about shooting their own planes.

The patrol then set fire to the fuel dump and used the light of the flames to also set fire to the administration, hangar and barrack buildings.

With their mission largely complete, the Guards and T1 unit had to escape. The T1 troops were expecting the road which they used to get to the airfield to be blocked, so they instead drove at 'high speed' through Barce's main street.

Corporal M.H. Craw of the LRDG's T1 Patrol. He stands draped in machine-gun belts in front of an old 1938 Ford V8 In the Barce Raid, he won the Military Medal for personally destroying ten aircraft with timebombs. He was later captured, but escaped a year later

Trooper R.E. Hay behind his .303 Vickers heavy machine gun. He was captured in Barce, as part of the crew of the truck which crashed during the escape after the troops finished their work at the airfield and in the town. Trooper Hay had bravely rescued Trooper K. Yealands, who was badly wounded lying in the back of the burning truck

Te Anau II was the sole surviving truck after the raid. It carried the wounded on a long and dangerous journey to a landing ground, where the men were evacuated by air. It was overloaded with weapons and stores acquired from other vehicles, plus the wounded. Most of the patrol trucks were put out of action in the battle or the following day by air attack while escaping the town. Major Peniakoff stands next to the well, while the driver Private D.P. Warbrick is seated

Sergeant J. Dennis (right) took over command of G1 Patrol after Captain Timpson was injured. He is seen driving his jeep with Guardsman R. Duncalfe behind the twin Vickers K guns. Behind Sergeant Dennis a grenade launchers is visible. This weapon was used in the attack on Barce town and the Italian barracks. Grenades were launched through doors, windows and into trenches

T1 Patrol trucks lined up displaying their Maori names. Tutira III on the left was Captain N.P. Wilder's truck. The Chevrolet was later put out of action after crashing into two light tanks while attempting to break through a Barce town roadblock

But the men were confronted by two Italian light tanks blocking the way. The headlights of the lead truck, being driven by Captain N.P. Wilder, blinded the tank crew.

The Italians therefore fired their guns too high but, because there was no room to turn around, Captain Wilder simply drove his vehicle into the tanks.

The collision created space for the rest of the vehicles to get through but Captain Wilder's truck was crippled.

He and his crew jumped into a jeep, but that vehicle then hit a kerb and overturned, trapping Captain Wilder underneath.

Fortunately, troops from another truck freed him but the soldier and several other men were injured. 

Major J.R. 'Jake' Easonsmith stands alongside his Ford F30, in late 1941. He was a highly-respected and brave British officer who commanded the LRDG's R1 Patrol. LRDG medical orderly Private Mick Allen wrote of his officer as 'The gamest and finest man in the desert!' It was under the command of Easonsmith, that the LRDG T1 and G1 patrols launched Operation CARAVAN

Trooper F.W. Jopling was the chief navigator responsible for guiding the column on their two-week journey to Barce. Here he employs a theodolite - a device for measuring angles - to help plot his position. After the battle, he was slightly wounded in the withdrawal from the town. However, following a ten-day trek terminating with a gangrenous leg, he was captured and recovered from his wound


The North African campaign began in June 1940 and lasted for three years. Allied and Axis forces pushed one another back across the Sahara.

At this point, the Allies consisted predominantly of British, French and British Indian forces, with the Axis countries being Germany, Japan and Italy. 

The Allies had the back up of American forces in North Africa from 1942.

Although both sides had former colonial interests in the region, the Axis aims were around denying the Allies access to Middle Eastern oil supplies and cutting Britain off from the network it had in North Africa.

In three phases, the campaign covered western Egypt and eastern Libya (the Western desert campaign), Algeria and Morocco (Operation Torch) and Tunisia (the Tunisia campaign). 

The skirmishes started almost as soon as war was declared, with Italian forces invaded Egypt in September 1940 and British forces responded in December.

There were numerous pushes back and forth, but the Second Battle of El Alamein in late 1942 is regarded as a turning point, when the British army drove Axis troops all the way back through Libya. 

Operation Torch of November 1942 brought in thousands of British and American troops, flushing out remaining Axis troops from Tunisia and bringing the campaign to an end. 

Throughout the entire three-year campaign, Germans and Italians suffered 620,000 casualties, while the British Commonwealth lost 220,000 men. Nearly 900,000 German and Italian troops were killed or 'neutralised' in the conflict. 

Allied victory in North Africa allowed the invasion of Italy in 1943. 

Sources: The Atlantic and USHMM 

Elsewhere in the town, the LRDG crew who were manning another truck were captured after their vehicle crashed into the entrance of an air-raid shelter.

Overall, of the five T1 patrol vehicles which took part in the attack on the airfield, only two made it to the rendezvous point.

Six New Zealanders who were part of T1 were also captured, meaning only ten from the unit escaped. Four of those men were injured.

The patrols which did make it out of Barce itself then joined up. Overall, there were ten trucks and three jeeps.

But these men were ambushed in a valley and had to repair a puncture on one of their trucks as LRDG forces returned fire.

Incredibly, only three men were wounded and the force carried on its journey.

The next day, spotter planes had been sent to look for the raiders while ground forces also hunted for them.

The LRDG had camouflaged their vehicles and were hiding under trees, but the planes sent bullets raining down on all areas of potential cover.

Amazingly, only a few were hit by bullets – bringing the total number of wounded to 11.

However, most of the vehicles in the convoy had been shot and were burning.

It meant they only had one truck and two jeeps to carry 33 exhausted men 1,226km to Kufra, also in Libya.

The remaining men were split into smaller parties to avoid being seen by aircraft.

Medical officer Captain R.P. Lawson travelled with the wounded and others in one of the remaining trucks.

They finally arrived at an abandoned RAF landing ground where they rested before they were found by another patrol and the wounded were air-lifted out.

The truck which got them there had 39 bullet or shrapnel holes in it.

Meanwhile, the walking party had to endure a tough and arduous trek. They had only one jeep and took turns riding in it before reaching a hidden supply truck after 80miles.

However, several men became separated from the main group, including one unit of nine Guardsmen who were being led by Trooper F.W. Jopling, even though he was injured.

After four days, Jopling and the 'exhausted' Lance Corporal E. Gutteridge were slowing down the main party and so the others went on without them.

They were very short of water and their mouths became dry and sore.

Jopling recorded: 'The saliva dries in my mouth and I have to scratch my lips, tongue and roof of my mouth with my fingernails to scrape it off.' 

The LRDG column close to Barce. The vehicle on the right is the Breda gun truck. This was put out of action due to an accident in the dark, when one vehicle ran into the back of another

A heavily-loaded jeep with jerry cans of fuel and water on the way to Barce. Major Easonsmith takes notes in the shade of the vehicle. The covered twin Vickers K guns were used later with great effect when he shot up Barce town. He alone destroyed ten vehicles, plus a fuel tanker and trailer

A rear view of Captain J.A.L. Timpson's jeep driven by Guardsman T. Wann (pictured). Note the twin Vickers K mounted in front. On the outward journey, the jeep capsized while crossing a large razorback dune. Captain Timpson suffered head injuries and Guardsman Wann broke his back. They were both evacuated by aircraft

Things became so bad that the men had to drink their own urine and Jopling's leg injury became gangrenous.

Fortunately, the pair came across some Libyan Arabs who cared for them. Jopling was taken to a doctor and was told he needed urgent medical care.

The doctor arranged for Jopling and his companion to be surrendered to the Italians for their own good.

Jopling was treated in a field hospital and narrowly avoided having his leg amputated. After recovering, he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.

Overall, the cost to the LRDG of the Barce raid was ten captured and 11 wounded, some of whom became prisoners of war.

Captain Wilder's truck Tutira III in Italian hands. While escaping the airfield raid, he crashed his truck into two Italian L3 light tanks as he broke through a roadblock. The crippled vehicle was abandoned and the crew transferred to jeeps

Barce airfield re-visited in 1943. The destroyed aircraft can still be seen in the background. The LRDG used a 'destructive cocktail of tracer, incendiary and explosive ammunition' to target the planes. In total, 23 were destroyed or damaged

Barce is seen above after being liberated by the Allies, in 1943. During the 1942 raid, while T1 Patrol attacked the airfield, Major Easonsmith and G1 Patrol under Sergeant Dennis shot up the town including vehicles, supplies and the military barracks

The mission set out with 17 vehicles but returned with only three – a jeep, the damaged truck and the reserve lorry picked up on the way back.

Operation Caravan took pressure off of the Eighth Army as it prepared for the El Alamein Offensive.

The raid also meant that the Axis forces had to reinforce their bases and airfields against raiders, taking valuable units away from the front line.

In terms of the cost to Italy, Mr O'Carroll says they suffered a 'huge setback' in their operations by losing valuable aircraft and material.

Four soldiers were killed and 15 were wounded.

Mr O'Carroll writes: 'Despite the considerable price paid by the LRDG, this small force had inflicted great material loss and psychological damage to a more formidable enemy, who had felt secure behind their lines.

'It encompassed all the elements of the difficulties of negotiating desert travel, skilful navigation, independent action, fortitude, evasion and survival against the odds; factors common to the success of many other LRDG operations.'

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