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 


  1. Good to hear about the activities of MI9 in the desert in this interesting episode from Keith.I had not heard of this organisation before.Of course we all know about MI5 and 6. Another example of how the lesser known or praised people and offices are highlighted and brought to the wider public in this blog.There were clearly helper networks even in the most seemingly inhospitable environments such as the desert here. The lectures were informative but with the serious message that the evaders must not speak about their briefings or the helpers in any way. 'Careless talk costs lives' as was drummed into them with good cause.
    "To have news value is to have a tin can tied to one's tail."
    T.E. Lawrence-again....
    Looking forward to the next posting.

  2. Thanks for your comments Helen. Evasion in the Western Desert is an interesting area of E & E and a total contrast to the Escape Lines of Western Europe. The huge distances involved produced a whole new mind set outside of simply trying to avoid capture, and how MI9 became organised and effective in the area is another example of its ingenuity.