Caithness Commandos:Hunting the Desert Fox:Part 2
Imagine a million square miles of empty desert, an unmapped land patched with treacherous quicksand, a blisteringly hot place lashed by sandstorms. Imagine you are given the task of patrolling these godless acres, using 15 cwt petrol-engined trucks laden to their axles with rations, water, fuel, equipment and guns. Imagine you are somewhere along the border of Egypt and Libya. It is October 11th 1941, and you are in the company of two Caithness soldiers, Wick man David Gunn, and John Mackay, a quiet young chiel from rural Halkirk.
David is known as 'Boozie' - a strange pseudonym given that hardly a drop of alcohol goes down his throat from one year's end to another. The equally puzzling byname 'Dead Loss' has been attached to John Mackay. An hour or so in John's company and all becomes clear. When things get a mite vexatious, instead of swearing in good old army fashion, John merely remarks, 'Och, it's a dead loss.' By the time you arrive at your destination, a one-ass place in the Libyan desert, nine days and 850 miles from your starting point, you have not seen a single enemy soldier. Black and blue from bumping over sand-covered rocks, sunburned and very tired, you too may be tempted to say, 'Dead loss.'
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was formed in the summer of 1940. Originally a reconnaissance outfit known as the Long Range Desert Patrol, LRDG was beefed-up a year after its formation, when commandos from the recently deceased 'Layforce' decided that continuing with a Special Forces unit was preferable to a staid life back with an infantry battalion. As well as trained observers LRDG now boasted a level of proven fighting men. John Mackay and David Gunn were two commandos who swapped 'Layforce' for LRDG. Their companions in the newly formed 'Y' Patrol included Willie Fraser (Forres), Matt Deegan, Aberdonian 'Foo' Harper, 'Tich' Lyle and Chris Farmer (Glasgow). 'Y' Patrol was commanded by a Welshman, David Lloyd Owen. Training started in September 1941at the Abbassia Barracks in Cairo.
'Lofty' Carr was to be 'Y' Patrol's instructor. He began with a lecture on Survival Navigation. At first he thought his students were unimpressed with his teaching, but when David Gunn approached him after the lesson and asked for extra tuition, 'Lofty' realised that Scottish commandos were different from their English counterparts. Something else he realised; David Gunn's thirst for deeper knowledge was inspired by a desire not to be outdone by a 'tea 'n a bowlie'. Seizing on this friendly rivalry between Wick and Thurso, 'Lofty' divided his charges into two groups, David Gunn's and John Mackay's. For their part, the pupils gave their teacher another nickname - he became 'Sassie' (Sassenach) Carr.
Training for 'Y' Patrol was strenuous and thorough. Already adept at handling weapons, the commandos now learned how to adapt their ballistic skills to desert warfare. They were also taught to navigate the featureless desert wastes, carry out running repairs on their vintage trucks, and drive them across miles of dreary wilderness. Their main task when not driving was navigation. When the shooting started it would be all fingers on the trigger. One of the chief dangers to small combat units is personal incompatibility. Highly charged men forced by necessity to spend weeks in one another's unbroken company, must needs forge strong bonds. Otherwise trouble is bound to flare up. It is a case of 'get on' or 'get out'. Fortunately for 'Y' Patrol, all its members soon became fast friends.
Their first patrol was to Kufra on the border between Egypt and Libya. Arriving at this desolate spot, 'Y' Patrol found changed orders. They were to go to Siwa, an Egyptian town 400 miles from Kufra. Their task when they got there was to observe enemy troop movements between Libya and Egypt. 'Operation Crusader', a British offensive against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps, intended both to relieve the besieged Libyan port of Tobruk, and to stall Rommel's advance on the strategically vital Suez Canal, was due to begin.
'Crusader' started on 17th October 1941. All the Special Forces took part, 11th Commando staging a daring attack on Rommel's HQ. The 'Desert Fox' was not at home. The commandos tried to shoot their way out of a hopeless situation. Most of those not killed became prisoners of the Germans.
Two days later, 'Y' Patrol's observers were peering through a curtain of wind-blown sand, on the look out for German troop concentrations near Siwa. Since leaving Kufra things had been deadly dull. The only action had been when an RAF Beaufighter had shot up one of 'Y' Patrol's trucks, 'Sassie' Carr and 'Foo' Harper barely escaping in one piece. Wasn't the desert bad enough without being attacked by your own planes? 'Y' Patrol were quick to devise a trick to counter this. On one side of their trucks they fixed a plywood plate painted with an RAF roundel; on the other side was a plywood Swastika.
Suddenly, 'Y' Patrol's watchers saw men straggling towards them through the sandstorm. These men were on foot; they were clearly exhausted. Who were they, and where had they come from? They were the survivors of an ill-fated parachute attack on the enemy airfields at Tmimi and Gazala. Out of 55 men, only 21 made it back to British lines.
Among those picked up by 'Y' Patrol was David Stirling, one-time member of 8th Commando, a rugged individual who had trained alongside David Gunn and John Mackay as part of 'Layforce' earlier in the war. Once Stirling and his fagged-out troops had recovered their breath, they began to tell 'Y' Patrol about their recent debacle. In retrospect a parachute attack had been suicidal. Suppose they had succeeded in getting in undetected - how were they to get back? In the event, they had escaped by sheer determination, cool-headed warriors shooting their way through the German lines. But over thirty men had been left killed, wounded or captured. David Lloyd Owen had an idea. The LRDG would get Stirling and his men behind enemy lines then, the business done, would get them out again. Ever the pragmatist, Stirling saw the wisdom of Lloyd Owen's suggestion. It was the beginning of a fruitful hit-and-run partnership which lasted until Stirling's unit acquired Jeeps of their own. At the time this fighting co-operative first got together, David Stirling was probably somewhat less than buoyant. He had high hopes for his unit; they had failed their first test. No matter, Stirling's commandos went on to become that most famous of Special Forces regiments - the SAS.
On 24th October 1941 the crews of some 30 German combat vehicles were impatiently clicking their heels at a Motor Transport Park outside Gazala. Mechanics were swarming all over their charges, making ad hoc repairs, refueling, pouring gallons of fresh cooling water into thirsty trucks and armoured cars. A dust cloud appeared on the horizon - was this more trucks coming for refreshments? It was indeed trucks, five of them; but they weren't Germans.
The very next minute David Gunn, John Mackay and their 'Y' Patrol comrades came charging in among the startled Germans, Lewis guns blazing, hand grenades raining through the desert air. The panic-stricken Germans ran for cover. By the time they had regained their discipline, 'Y' Patrol were already on their way, leaving 15 German trucks burning in the sun. They also left 'Sassie' Carr behind. Was he dead, or a P.O.W? Three weeks later, 'Sassie' reappeared. Separated from his comrades he had been sheltered by local arabs until the British advance made it safe for him to come out of hiding.
And now 'Y' Patrol commenced a hectic three months of continuous drive and fight adventure. First, four of their trucks stuck fast in a mud basin. Everything had to be unloaded and the trucks dug out. Under a burning sun, menaced by the constant threat of enemy air attack, this was a dangerous undertaking. But it was soon done and 'Y' Patrol went on their way. Two days later, on 29th October, they captured a brand new Ford truck crewed by 5 Italians. When questioned the prisoners needed little prompting to reveal that they were billeted in the nearby fort of El Ezzeiat, along with 20 fellow Italians. Next stop, the fort. One rapid fire shoot out later, and El Ezzeiat was in 'Y' Patrol's hands together with 17 prisoners and a heap of valuable supplies. The fort destroyed, 'Y' Patrol set off along the Derna to Tobruk road, leaving their prisoners 80 miles adrift in the desert, albeit well supplied. Three days later, messers Gunn & Mackay were helping their comrades shoot up a Derna-bound German convoy. On 14th December they celebrated an early Christmas by destroying three German fuel tankers. It was a fitting end to a successful campaign that had taken 'Y' Patrol 1,500 miles behind enemy lines, through some of the most unwelcoming terrain on the face of the earth. On the wider stage, Rommel was in full retreat, his Afrika Corps smarting from an unaccustomed setback Back at their Siwa base, 'Y' Patrol fully expected a well-earned seasonal rest.
Christmas night 1941 was a cold one in the Western Desert. David Gunn and John Mackay probably recalled similar festive times back home in Caithness, with frost-spangled heather and snow on Morven. In Caithness, however, they had never spent Christmas Day in company with a million biting flies like those that had ruined their low key celebrations. Instead of a deserved rest, 'Y' Patrol had been sent on a long range mission to Tripoli, 400 miles behind German lines. It started off bad and got steadily worse.
New Year brought heavy rain and the discovery that 80 gallons of 'Y' Patrol's precious fuel supply was useless - instead of petrol, the drums were full of diesel. Next, approaching Scemech, an enemy fort 'Y' Patrol intended to attack, the trucks bogged down in deep, soft sand. Struggling through this desert morass, they found themselves in a maze of jagged rocks. In pouring rain, the five trucks picked their way towards Scemech. A days progress - 4 miles. It was hopeless. Warned by friendly arabs that the Germans were waiting in ambush, Lloyd Owen took the sensible course, withdrawing his men to a secluded spot, where they holed up to take stock of the situation.
Things did not look good. Thirty 4 gallon petrol cans had sprung leaks leaving 'Y' Patrol with insufficient fuel to complete their specified mission. Nothing remained but to return to their forward base at Jalo. With heavy hearts, Lloyd Owen and his men packed their trucks and started to retrace their tracks.
At Jalo, worn out and desert-beaten, 'Y' Patrol looked forward to a leisurely break. Rommel had other ideas. On January 21st 1942, the Afrika Corps came down like a pack of armoured wolves, sweeping all before them, hounding the British out of Gazala and Tobruk. Unable to contain the German onslaught, LRDG abandoned Jalo, falling back on Siwa. For the commandos of 'Y' Patrol it was back to the grindstone. Sent out to gather vital intelligence about German progress, 'Y' Patrol became entangled in a life or death game of cat and mouse. The Germans were everywhere, surging on through a graveyard of shattered British tanks. With a combination of luck and hard-learned skill, David Gunn, John Mackay and the rest of 'Y' Patrol at last got back to Siwa and good news. They were booked for a spell of leave in Cairo.
Cairo - a city of bars, night clubs, exotic females, hotels with hot water, fresh food and soft beds. No wonder 'Y' Patrol managed to cover 500 miles in less than 24 hours to get there. But it was not all wine and women. There were new Chevrolet trucks to check out, damaged equipment to get fixed, new recruits to assess and train. Time flew in. By February 'Y' Patrol were again hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, lying stone-still under camouflage nets beside the Tripoli to Bengazi road, collecting intelligence on enemy troop movements.
Surveillance was a tiresome task. Silent days in a 120 F heat, eaten alive by flies, dehydrated by a less than a gallon a day water ration; and bored witless. Two week stints of this soul-destroying work was more than enough for anyone. 'Road Watch' occupied 'Y' Patrol for most of 1942. John Mackay and David Gunn were to experience days of tedium when not one human being passed along the road they were spying on; they knew the gnawing hunger that resulted from being unable to eat during daylight hours, due to swarms of flies who immediately settled on anything edible. In June they were witnesses to an unforgettable sight - Tobruk had fallen, and 80,000 British and Commonwealth P.O.W.'s passed along the Tripoli road to Tunis, en route to captivity in occupied Europe. Things were getting desperate. It seemed only a matter of time before Rommel's panzers were parading victorious through the Cairo streets.
Occasionally 'Y' Patrol were given other duties than 'Road Watch'. In their new Chevrolet trucks they delivered agents hundreds of miles inside enemy territory. One of these was that colourful character and intrepid fighter Vladimir Peniakoff, better known as Popski, leader of a Private Army of that name. Then there were the joint operations with the SAS, with 'Y' Patrol acting as guides, transport and communication officers for the combat specialists.
There were lighter moments. Returning to Fayoum just south of Cairo, 'Y' Patrol ran into a fearsome salt marsh known as the Qattara Depression. Legend had it that this was an impassible barrier. Nevertheless, David Gunn, John Mackay and company were not men easily discouraged by rumour. To their surprise they found the Qattara Depression was not only passible, but made good racing ground. Soon, all five trucks of 'Y' Patrol were chasing one another across the sandy waste. The winner of this impromptu race is not recorded.
Early in September every Special Forces unit in North Africa was being assembled at Kufra. Clearly, something big was in the offing. Rumours were rife. The bars of Cairo were alive with reports that the British were preparing to attack Tobruk and other garrisons. German gold purchased many ears, who heard these rumours and reported back to their Nazi paymasters. Clearly, the planned operation was hopelessly compromised. Knowing everything, the Germans were sure to be waiting. British officers wanted the show cancelled. Their advice went unheeded.
On the night of 12th September 1942, John Mackay and David Gunn joined a combined force of SAS, Commandos and LRDG on an 800 mile round trip to Tobruk. Their mission - drop the Commandos outside the city, which they would enter, capture guns, blow up subterranean fuel tanks, release British P.O.W.'s, before escaping by sea. It was a daring plan, nigh on impossible to bring off even with complete surprise. With the Germans aware of every detail, it was, as John Mackay might have said, 'a dead loss.'
And so it turned out. Arriving on the outskirts of Tobruk, 'Y' Patrol came across a steamroller doing duty as a roadblock. This was an ominous sign. But duty called. Off into the desert twilight slipped the commandos. All through the night 'Y' Patrol listened to the sounds of violent action as the Commandos tore into the German garrison. How were things going, they wondered? By first light it was obvious that the operation had failed. Lloyd Owen ordered his men away from Tobruk to a pre-arranged hideout, where a quick radio call confirmed the worst - the commandos were all but annihilated.
There was no time to lose. Within an hour 'Y' Patrol were driving like maniacs across the desert wastes, raising such a dust storm that any onlooker could have been forgiven for imagining that the devil himself was abroad. They had been ordered to a landing strip 80 miles distant. Their mission was to collect those stragglers and walking wounded who, by some miracle or other, had managed to fight their way out of other engagements at Bance and Benghazi. John Mackay, David Gunn and every one of their comrades knew their lives were on the line; at any moment German fighter planes might swoop down from the skies and end 'Y' Patrol's war with a burst of heavy calibre machine gun bullets. But saving commando lives made any risk worthwhile. By dusk they had reached the lonely airstrip and were administering first aid, comforting the wounded and battle-shocked. Next morning an RAF Bombay transport aircraft arrived. Low on fuel, its tanks had to be replenished with endless 4 gallon tinfuls of petrol before it was ready to fly back to Cairo, 400 miles away.
'Y' Patrol remained at the landing strip to pick up any more stray SAS commandos, adrift in the desert. During the next few days, a steady stream of demoralised men came in, each one bearing the same tale - the attack on the garrisons had been a start to finish disaster, though the LRDG attack on Bance was a success, the overall operation was unsuccessful. Ten days later 'Y' Patrol set off to Kufra taking with them 60 survivors. It was a sad end to what turned out to be the last desert operation involving an SAS, Commandos and LRDG team.
At Kurfa the two Special Forces outfits got down to the serious business of repairing trucks and Jeeps. They had no leisure to shed tears over their plight; it could hardly be any worse - could it? They reckoned without the BBC. That august national institution had the bad sense to inform the world that the commando strike against Tobruk had been launched from Kurfa. The very next morning 8 Heinkel 111 bombers swooped low over the British base, guns blazing, dropping bombs on buildings and aircraft. At once every able-bodied SAS and LRDG man sprang aboard a truck and cut loose with anything that would fire. Their aim was true and deadly; 5 German bombers were shot out of the sky and the other 3 were damaged. Miraculously, only two members of LRDG were wounded, one of them being David Lloyd Owen, commander of 'Y' Patrol.
Further afield, developments were in progress which would bring the desert war to a tremendous climax. General Montgomery had taken command of the 8th Army and was setting a trap for the Desert Fox. At the end of October, the trap sprung. The battle of El Alamein marked the end of Erwin Rommel's run of success in the western desert. His famed Afrika Corps were in full flight back towards Tunisia.
Hidden beneath camouflaged mosquito nets beside the main coast road David Gunn and John Mackay counted over 3,000 German army vehicles heading west, on the run from the victorious 8th Army. This sight made up for the melancholy spectacle of all those British and Commonwealth prisoners who had trudged into captivity along this same road only a few months before. Such are the fortunes of war. One moment intoxicated with triumph and basking in glory; the next day swallowing the bile of defeat.
The first weeks of 1943 saw New Zealand Patrols hard at work guiding a force of New Zealand tanks, together with the 7th Armoured Division, in an outflanking movement which resulted in the capture of 400 German troops, along with 5 tanks and 18 heavy guns. By the end of January Rommel's Afrika Corps had been chased out of Libya. For the men of the Long Range Desert Group, the desert campaign was as good as over.
When David Gunn and John Mackay left North Africa they took with them things lacking when they arrived there all those long months before. They had real and lasting friendships of the kind only men who've kept constant company with death know anything about. They had memories of hard won battles when the adrenalin flow was akin to a skinful of strong drink, and men acted beyond themselves in the service of something beyond duty. They also took home bad experiences, nightmares that haunted them to their final days. One thing more - David Gunn was awarded the Military Medal. For precisely what he received this coveted decoration we do not know. With characteristic modesty, David claimed that the medal was given to 'Y' Patrol and he ended up with it because no-one else wanted it. The truth is, he took it because his comrades told him that if it went to a vote, he was their choice to receive it anyway.
By a singular coincidence, the writers of this article each worked alongside one of the Caithness members of 'Y' Patrol, one at HMS Vulcan, the other at Dounreay. Never once were they given any inkling that David Gunn and John Mackay had ever been in North Africa, let alone worn the sacred insignia of the SAS or LRDG. This strange fact stands as a testimony to two quiet heros who had plenty worth boasting about, yet who chose to maintain a dignified silence.
We are indebted to Jim Patch, 'Sassie' Carr, Arthur Arger (all LRDG), Reg Harmer (11th Scottish Commando), Jim Storrie (SAS) and Mrs Sadie Mackay for all their help and advice without which this article would have not been possible. Part three to follow.
While the above story is mainly about "Dead Loss" Mackay and "Boozie" Gunn from "Y" Patrol. It must not be forgotten that their were other Patrols in the LRDG, which have their own stories to tell, some of them more successful than "Y" Patrol. These patrols are the original New Zealand Patrols which were formed from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the desert. These were the "R", "T" & "W" Patrols, which were formed in the late summer of 1940. "G" (Guards) Patrol was formed when "W" Patrols was disbanded late 1940. In early 1941 saw the formation of "S" (Southern Rhodesian) and "Y" (Yeomanry) Patrols. These patrols were then divided into two Squadrons, "A" & "B".
"A" Sqn consisted of the Colonial elements, the "R" & "T" (NZ) Patrols and the "S" (S Rhodesian) Patrol. "B" Sqn was made up by "G" (Guards) & "Y" (Yeomanry) Patrols.
While the LRDG has always been looked upon as being "British", the fact is that only two out of the six patrols, "G, R, S, T, W & Y", were "British", the rest were the Colonials. While this fact is easily overlooked, so is the fact that without the determination of the New Zealanders in the early days, the LRDG would never have existed.
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David Bews 1999
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