When most people think about the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) they are most likely conjuring up images of men in vehicles traversing the deserts of North Africa during World War II. These forays against the Germans and Italians deep behind enemy lines required a special breed of men who navigated the vast desert regions on missions lasting several weeks and ranging in hundreds of miles. The LRDG conducted reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and raids during the Africa campaign. The LRDG also guided and transported units of the Free French as well as elements of the Special Air Service. Members from several allied nations made up the LRDG to include those from Britain, New Zealand, and Southern Rhodesia.
What is less known about the Long Range Desert Group is that after the successful conclusion of the Africa campaign the unit was deployed to the Aegean Sea to help defend a series of strategic islands located between Greece and Turkey against an invasion by the Germans. This employment phase of the LRDG was a less successful endeavor and resulted in a number of LRDG members killed, wounded, or captured.
Brendan O’Carroll, the author of The Long Range Desert Group in the Aegean, traces the movement of the LRDG from Africa to a training base in Lebanon and on to their destination on Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. The book provides a lot of detail on the use of the LRDG in the Aegean and how the combat operations unfolded. O’Carroll, residing in New Zealand, has had a long interest in military history. New Zealand provided a significant number of volunteers that served with the LRDG in both Africa and the Aegean. O’Carroll has wrote about the LRDG in previous books as well. In this book he provides information found in official British and German sources as well as individual accounts by members of the LRDG.
Prior to deploying to the Aegean the unit underwent an extensive retraining period in Lebanon. The unit members were trained in mountain operations and movement on foot – which was quite a change from their use of vehicles in the desert. While in Lebanon the unit trained up on demolitions, long-range communications, skiing, use of mules, and parachuting. The physical conditioning was extensive as it was believed they would be required to carry heavy packs on foot in future missions.
In late 1943 the Italians left the alliance with the Germans. This established a void on many of the islands in the Aegean that were occupied by Italian forces. Winston Churchill decided that the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea should be occupied by allied forces. Churchill believed occupying these islands would distract German attention from the Italian campaign and provide a base for air and sea operations against the Germans in the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’.
In September 1943 the LRDG received the task to head to the Aegean Sea region to conduct island coast watch operations and intelligence gathering. The plan envisioned that Italian troops garrisoned on the islands would join the Allies in opposing the Germans. In addition, there was hope that perhaps Turkey would enter the war on the side of the Allies as well. Despite American reluctance in supporting this plan – their attention was focused on Sicily and Italy – Churchill proceeded with Operation Accolade. The British landed 3,000 troops of 234 Brigade on the island of Leros as well as other nearby islands. About 200 men belonging to the LRDG – as well as men from the Special Boat Service (SBS) and No. 30 Commando – joined the occupation of these several islands.
The Germans wasted little time – deploying experienced troops with significant air power – to take the islands from the British and Italian forces. Many men of the LRDG were casualties or became prisoners of war. However, some of the LRDG were able to escape from the islands. Operation Accolade proved to be a failure and an embarrassment to the United Kingdom. The Long Range Desert Group conducted themselves well under adverse conditions . . . but the use of the unit in this campaign was ill-advised. The LRDG lost more men in three months in the Aegean than it had in three years in North Africa.
The book was published in November 2020 by Pen & Sword Books. It is available in hard cover as well as an ebook. O’Carroll provides an interesting and informative read about a little known action by a World War II era special operations unit and an important part of SOF history.
Map of Dodecanes Islands By Pitichinaccio – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3260045