Friday, 14 June 2013

MI9 In The Western Desert

Members of the Long Range Desert Group in 1942 -© IWM (CBM 2220)

In last week’s post, RAF pilot Tony Payne later recounted that he was convinced his evasion in the Western Desert had been guided by a dedicated desert escaping organisation. Other evaders reaching safety must also have had similar thoughts in their own minds. The level of aid given by some of the Arabs with their well organised journeys, expert knowledge of the desert and rendezvous made ostensibly in the middle of nowhere were clearly not the product of local patriots randomly assisting the cause. 

Whilst some evaders did make their way back with impromptu assistance from the natives, from mid-1942, many were in fact helped by personnel working for Military Intelligence Section 9 (MI9- Escape & Evasion) who had established organised field sections working behind enemy lines. The Long Range Desert Group were involved in prearranged pickups of evaders and MI 9 had started to use the Libyan Arab Force, which contained Senussi Arabs, trained in Egypt by British officers who themselves had volunteered to head MI9 patrols in the desert.

A typical journey for the lead officer would be to travel into the desert with a Long Range Desert Group convoy, establish an MI9 dump(s) of supplies and then move well behind enemy lines to choose a collecting point for escapers and evaders.
The network would function with an Allied MI9 officer and wireless operator commanding a detail of Arab agents working behind enemy lines or a short distance from the flank of a battle area. The MI9 officer established a dump of supplies and split the surrounding area into sections with a separate Arab agent working in each one. They would adopt local dress and merge into the area, establishing contact with various Bedouin tribes who were in the locale. Each Arab agent would already have been given a rendezvous location to report to the MI9 officer at given times, and independently the agents would then harness help from Bedouins and also organise meeting points with them, where members of the tribe would bring escapers and evaders.  

The MI9 officer and his wireless operator selected a different location as their own headquarters, along with the separate rendezvous point with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) or SAS.  This method ensured that the Arabs did not know the exact location of the MI9 duo, the LRDG rendezvous point or the main food and water dump. Similarly the agents set up the same type of system amongst the Bedouin Arabs within their own sections, ensuring that if betrayed or captured, the amount of information which could be revealed to the enemy by any one party was limited.
It was a French officer, Captain P Grandguillot who put the MI9 plan into action. He had volunteered for service with the British after France had fallen and had excellent local knowledge having lived in Alexandria for a number of years. The first operation recovered a number of evaders, established better links with the Senussi Arabs and obtained further information which allowed MI9 to make more detailed plans for future missions.

As the position of Allied and enemy lines fluctuated, so did the area of operations for the Group. Advance and retreat in the desert war often covered huge distances and units and individuals could find themselves cut off or left behind. The MI 9 units picked up numerous personnel in these situations, especially after the withdrawal to El Alamein.
A larger network of food and supplies dumps was established within the areas of operation and huge distances across the desert were covered. One major success was around the easterly edge of the Qattara Depression, a large area of land impassable to motor traffic. The southern flanks of both armies at El Alamein ended there and MI9 saw an opportunity to utilise an area rarely used by both sides apart from foot patrols. Although the terrain was difficult and no vehicles could be operate there, a series of supplies dumps was established and many lives were saved. Operations continued along the Depression until the Allied advance pushed forward beyond the area.

 Pilot Officer Brian Johnston (RCAF) and crew (above) were discovered on the edge of the Qattara
 Depression  by MI9 agents after 27 days in the desert. They were led to a rendezvous and
 on day 29 were picked up by No 4 South African Armoured Car Division who took them to safety.
 Photograph taken at Alexandria on day 30 - (Mrs P  Bridgewood)                                                  

Accounts by servicemen who escaped or evaded in 1942 make no real mention of any dedicated rescue group operating in the Western Desert. They would not have been aware until well beyond July when Captain Grandguillot made his first successful operation, but as the network grew, references must have been made in the evasion training given. To what degree is not entirely clear, and military personnel would have been forbidden to talk about it. One possible indicator is a typescript specimen lecture document from Advanced A Force HQ in North Africa held in the National Archives. It is undated and unsigned but likely to have been written during the latter part of 1942:

My talk to you today is on the subject of your own safety and wellbeing, not whilst you are actually flying, but in the event of your being unlucky enough to have to bale out or forced land behind the enemy’s lines.


Now I had better explain that there is an Inter-Services Branch in the Middle East whose job it is to try and drill Air Crews and indeed personnel of all three services in their conduct as P/W*, and to try to do everything possible to help evaders, and escapers if they are unfortunate enough to find themselves P/Ws."  *Prisoner of War

The lecture covers a range of instruction and advice around escape and evasion, plus tips and general routes to follow for evasion in Western Europe, Sicily, Italy, Crete, and Greece. It then moves on:

"Now for evasion in North Africa and Libya. This Inter Services Branch has for some months passed organised rendezvous in the Western Desert and Tripolitania behind enemy lines. At these rendezvous are British Officers and local Arabs, and they are there for one purpose only, to get any person cut off or forced landed back to our lines.
In this work they are assisted by local tribes of Arabs under our influence (and cash.)

This rescue work has had a good deal of success in spite of the dangers and during the past few months over 80 personnel of the three Services have been assisted back to their units by means of this organisation, the Arabs, and by means of the Aids and Devices."

The script explains about the Aids and Devices, approaching Arabs, travelling by night and concludes:
"Now for the final word, and that is security. Although the enemy may know of the Aids and Devices, he does not know of the existence of an organisation to help evaders and escapers.

We must rely on YOU, who have listened to all of this, NOT to talk about the Aids and Devices and the help given by the Arabs, nor the existence of rescue parties behind the enemy lines. You will not only spoil your own chances of rescue, but you will also imperil the lives of our chaps in the organisation who are working on your behalf. Do not discuss these matters between yourselves or with anyone but your Intelligence Officer.
Remember that the lives of our own boys and the lives of officers and others in Tripolitania, Tunisia and Europe will be in greater peril, if you through carelessness, spill the beans."

Senussi Arabs. They stayed loyal to the Allies despite executions
and reprisals by the Italians - (Air Historical Branch)                     

Shot Down and on the Run - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork
MI9 Records - National Archives
MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 - M R D Foot & J M Langley

Next post in a fortnight
© Keith Morley 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Late Arrivals Club

Late Arrivals Club Silver Winged Boot Badge - Alex Bateman Collection - Courtesy

Late Arrivals Club Certificate -  Courtesy

The Late Arrivals Club was an informal Association which began amongst British servicemen in the Western Desert during the Second World War. Membership was awarded to military personnel serving under British and Commonwealth Services, who had walked back to their own side from behind enemy lines, although later there were examples of the concept being adopted by some Americans, and for similar incidents in Burma. For obvious reasons, members of the Club were in the Royal Air force or its colonial Squadrons, and they had often been missing for weeks before turning up having been helped out of trouble by the Arabs.

Members were awarded certificates containing the words “It is never too late to come back,” along with a silver badge designed as a winged boot which could be worn on the left breast of flying suits. The badges were sand cast in silver and made by local jewellers and silversmiths.

Escape and evasion in the Western Desert was a contrasting experience to being on the run across Western Europe. Servicemen faced huge expanses of uninhabited inhospitable terrain, blistering heat in the day and freezing temperatures at night. There were often few landmark aids to navigation apart from the stars, and airmen could find themselves hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, which constantly shifted due to the rapid advance and retreat of armies in the desert war.
Sergeant Michael Mackintosh survived a bad arm and elbow injury to get back to his own lines with the help of Arabs. (See post ‘Evasion and the Animals Part Two’) His actual evasion was typical of other personnel who also became members of The Late Arrivals Club. Miles adrift behind enemy lines, he travelled long distances on foot with little food or water, secured help from the Arabs and was hidden, then escorted to a rendezvous with the Long Range Desert Patrol. Others were taken all the way back to their own lines by the Arabs/nomads and some managed to return under their own steam or were picked up exhausted by an Allied patrol. 

Hurricane pilot Roy Veal from RAF 6 Squadron crash landed and was captured by the Italians. He managed to escape from a desert POW camp and started the long journey back towards Allied lines. Days later he was picked up on the point of collapse by a British patrol having lived on insects, drinking little water and somehow surviving the extremes of desert day and night time temperatures. He had become a Late Arrivals Club escaper rather than a straight evader.
Vickers Wellingtons Over North Africa

Tony Payne’s RAF 37 Squadron Wellington bomber was unable to locate its target and the crew were forced to jettison bombs and make for home. The aircraft was almost out of fuel when the pilot made a forced landing at night on open ground behind enemy lines. The crew had been airborne for nearly six and a half hours and were lost. 
Distant specs of light on the ground were spotted and the aircraft flew over them to get a closer look. They were camp fires. The terrain looked vaguely flat and a forced landing had to be made as fuel tanks were almost empty. It was risky, but the pilot kept control, guiding the Wellington down in one piece.

Desert nomads had pitched up for the night and informed the two crewmen sent to speak with them that their location was around 650 miles behind enemy lines. The airmen took what food and water they could carry from the aircraft and travelled across the desert at night, resting up in the day if they could find shade. Their flying gear was totally impractical for daytime wear, but the Irving jacket, battle-dress trousers, khaki shirt and fur-lined boots helped protect them against the freezing night time temperatures.

Two sets of nomads proved a key to this group’s survival. The first gave them crucial directions and the second guided and escorted the men long distances until a British patrol was encountered. The latter group’s knowledge of the desert, their work rate and the fact they were spirited away by the British once safety was reached, convinced Payne that their guides were a dedicated desert escaping organisation.
Bristol Beaufighter

Squadron Leader Derek Frecker and his navigator, Pilot Officer Tom Armstrong took off on 6 December 1942 in a Bristol Beaufighter from Berca airfield, Benghazi. The two man crew were on an armed reconnaissance mission, but had an extra passenger. Sergeant Paddy Clarke, one of the ground crew who looked after the aircraft was along for the ride having persuaded the CO to allow him to fly with Frecker and Armstrong.

The aircraft was hit by flak whilst attacking lorries parked by the airfield near Wadi Tamet. With damaged instruments, oil pouring from the oil cooler, two hits on the starboard engine and a shattered windscreen, Frecker turned the aircraft away, managing to crash land at 13.20. No one in the crew was injured, so miles from any civilisation, they regrouped and began walking at 16.40.
Tom Armstrong (left) & Derek Frecker looking unfazed after their Beaufighter had crashed behind enemy lines. Photo taken by passenger Paddy Clark - T Armstrong DFC
Tom Armstrong reported in his diary account what happened:
 ‘…with a tank of water and remains of kit in nav. bag slung between the three of us – rather heavy on shoulders. Sgt Clarke’s heels (or lack of same in stockings) giving trouble. Many rests.

18.15: ‘Decided to have dinner and sleep (?). Dined off one tin of bully and biscuits. Wrapped the chute silk around our bodies and lay on maps and charts – but were frozen.
2nd Day: Monday 7 December 01.00: Decided it was too cold to stay still so draped ourselves with water bottles, ration bags etc and set off. Found it easier to stay on course by stars, than in daytime. Everybody pretty tired – many stops until we got cold and then walked on until we warmed up again.’

This account is typical of the initial experiences of evaders stranded in the desert. Armstrong goes on to describe an inventory of supplies and the need to ration water stocks. Innocuous details provide colour to the account. At 15.45 a swarm of locusts passed over and by 18.05 ‘All pretty tired, not making much headway.’
By day 5 the group were on minimal rations and the water was nearly exhausted. Apart from sighting a few distant aircraft, and at 17.30 spotting two natives plus a camel, the men saw no signs of life. At 19.30 they observed lights on a road and all traffic moving west. It was certainly the enemy. The group celebrated reaching sight of the road with a tin of asparagus tips.

On day 6 more military traffic was observed and they hid from around 80 Italian soldiers on the road ahead. The water had gone apart from the emergency cans so a decision was made to approach any Arabs the following day and risk if they were friendly or not, as ‘quite a lot’ were ‘knocking about the place.’
The men’s military discipline and resilience in the face of hardship is clear to see in the account, but there was a change of fortune. Armstrong describes what happened on the 7th, Day Saturday 12 December when they were forced to masquerade as the enemy and were also treated to an unusual cosmopolitan meal:

‘We are very miserable at daybreak. See Bedouin boy and have words with him but he does not seem to understand and is rather frightened – he runs away. Two men come near with two children. They are quite friendly when we explain who we are and what we want and promise to look after us. They take us over the escarpment, light a fire, dry our clothes, get us as much moya as we want…and make us some wizard coffee and produce dates to eat. We spend some uncomfortable moments when some neighbouring Arabs visit the gathering, but have to suffer the indignity of pretending we are Germans until they leave…We move on to another place where they dress us as Arabs in blanket like affairs – must be about four times the size of an Army blanket. Next, food is produced. German herrings in tomato sauce…hot macaroni (Italian) and tomatoes (English) while we doze for a while…One of the Bedouins has produced some soap, scented too, so we are looking forward to having a wash later. They even produced china saucers with floral design and spoons and forks. After dark they took us very cautiously to an Arab tent. Here we got more coffee, goat’s milk, eggs and more macaroni etc. ‘
Armstrong’s feelings are an understatement when he says:

‘We seem to have struck lucky meeting this Arab – he is the Sheik of a Senussi village – about twenty tents. His name is Ali Ben Athman’
On the 8th day the hospitality continued with only two negative points being recorded:

‘Our rears and hipbones are quite sore with all this sitting and lying about. The only time we can obey the calls of nature is during the hours of darkness. Very awkward.
12th Day Thursday 17 December: had a bad night last night. Many bites and much scratching. Woke up at 05.50 to find it teeming with rain and the tent full of goats.

10.00: Two German armoured cars came to the village. Great panic – hid under boxes and huge piles of rugs – very uncomfortable – nearly smothered us…as soon as the armoured cars had gone they took us about three miles outside the village and hid us behind some bushes…we heard the armoured cars patrolling around us all day. One came very close, about 200 yards, we could hear them talking.’
Armstrong finishes the entry in typically British style: ‘The weather was glorious.’

German Armoured Car - beutepanzer ru
Ali Ben Athman, Mahommed and Msud of the Senussi were responsible for guiding Armstrong, Frecker and Clarke to safety on Day 15 having kept them hidden from the Germans and then searching out the British, who returned with an armoured car. Without the bravery and help from these Arabs it is doubtful whether the three evaders would have been in Cairo to receive their Late Arrivals Club certificate and silver winged badge.
The help given to Allied evaders in the Western Desert by friendly Arabs often made the difference between freedom and capture and survival and death.  

Late Arrivals Club on Pathe News:

Free To Fight Again – Alan Cooper

MI9 Files

Cairns Post 8 January 1942
Image of certificate and  badge courtesy of B Schwartz
 ©Keith Morley