Through the courtesy of Mr. G. L. Mackie of Exeter I have been reading “Libyan Sands” by Ralph A. Bagnold, who was an Officer of the Royal Engineers, Signals and Tanks, stationed at Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo when his interest in desert motoring was first aroused, a book published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1935, but reprinted in 1941 and again, twice, in 1942. It is very interesting about this subject and conveys admirably the irresistible attraction of the dead world of sand as the author saw it, and he simply but graphically describes his travels therein.
Bagnold regrets that as far as he could trace no records of the Light Car Patrols of WWI were ever published (although I believe there may be some reference to them in “Rulers of the Peacock Throne”, if that is the correct title). He says the story of the motor-car in Egypt started with these Patrols, forayed with Model-T Fords in 1916, which tiny force of the British Army, with machine-guns, “guarded the whole 800-mile frontier against a possible recrudescence of the Senussi menace. . . took part in the final capture of Siwa Oasis. . . and, among other things, they succeeded in mapping, with the aid of speedometer-readings and compass-bearings, a great part of the northern desert. . . between the Nile and Sewa.” After the war this Patrol was gradually disbanded but a few of the Fords were finally transferred to the new FDA, and used for routine work along well-defined tracks. Incidentally, it is astonishing to read, time and again, how Bagnold and his fellow travellers found the wheel-marks of these 1916-1918 Fords and many later desert vehicles still visible in the sand. It wasn’t until 1924 that King Found revived such travel. But when Bagnold went to Egypt late that year, after years spent in war-time France and then his postponed spell at Cambridge, there was no road to Suez. A Ford could just cope with the old “Overland Route” of 1865 if there were enough people to push it when it floundered and if you were prepared to take six hours or more on an 80-mile journey. When a salesman got all the way from Egypt to Palestine in 1925 it was regarded as a wonderful feat.
Bagnold had his enthusiasm for desert driving kindled by Lt. A. J. Bather, who had lived for a year or so with the last relic of the war, having joined the 3rd Armoured Car Company, which represented the Royal Tank Corps in Egypt, several of whose Officers had come from the Duke of Westminster’s unit of Siwa fame. Bather had been at an isolated Armoured-Car station at Sollum, where the Light Car Patrols had had a base, before being recalled to Cairo in 1924. The first need, if he and his friends were to explore the desert, was suitable cars. Most of those owned by the Mess were “cheap but highly-respectable English ones, very suitable for journeying into Cairo and fit to be found alongside one’s Colonel’s car at Gezira Club”, but useless for the desert. So one of the party, Lt. V. C. Holland, was persuaded to buy a Ford, in which he and Bather, who already had a Model-T, set off at Christmas 1924 for a week’s cruise in the Western Desert. By the way, it had been a strict rule of the Light Car Patrols that one must never go far off the beaten track with less than two vehicles and or long journeys there had to be more than two, because “the risk of disaster must be reduced to a second-order chance, for out in the desert one is not entitled to any outside help”, which the unlucky Mark Thatcher needed on the recent Desert Rally.
Bagnold disposed of “the little English car I had brought out with me which had carried me so reliably on English roads” (could it have been an Austin 7?) and also bought a new Ford. After some excursions in these it was decided that three cars were necessary and Lt. E. Bader of the Sappers was shown the advantages of a Ford; he examined “its queer design with a technical eye”. After he had crashed his “three-wheeled affair to which he was much attached and with which he would not part” (it must have been a Morgan) by colliding one night with some level-crossing gates on which the State Railways had neglected to hang a lamp, and when had come out of hospital he, too, acquired a Ford, a two-seater, brand-new out of the local agent’s shop window. Bagnold knew the worth of the Model-T, primitive as it was, remarking on “its queer pedal-controlled gears” and calling it a “Tin Lizzy”. Holland’s was a year older than Bagnold’s and “had lost its early briskness”. Out in the desert it burst its radiator. Bagnold says, however, that the Model-T’s chief weakness in hilly country was that the brake bands for the epicyclic gears “burnt out quickly on long sustained hills, giving warning of their approaching end by a peculiar smell of burnt chocolate”. It then took a whole morning to dismantle the transmission cover. Other troubles were named as broken main springs both front and rear, through age rather than bumps, changing a front one taking half-an-hour, a back one two to three hours. Otherwise, few constantly recurring problems, although at least half-a-day was spent on servicing them in every two or three days’ running.
Incidentally, the Officers, doing these expeditions for fun as part of their leave, enjoyed such work, or at least, says Bagnold, “I did. Everybody craves at heart, I believe, to cease at times from giving orders, and to get down to do some detail personally, to exercise whatever manual skill they have, to feel a pride in contriving something with their hands.” “Who in England”, he adds, “would crawl beneath a car to finger oily nuts clogged with black steel grindings and road dust, when there is a cheap garage around the corner? But where there is no menial to do the dirty work, no specialist at hand, and no custom debarring one from doing the work oneself (he was writing as an Army Officer remember), what a secret joy it is to do it . . .” While on Bagnold’s philosophy, he remarked that “there is an unfailing joy in identifying oneself with the actual sites where great things have happened long ago. It appeals to the human trait in all of us.” I know the feeling, if only when trying to locate old speed-trial courses or defunct motor factories, not the place “so old that it might be where Moses received the Tablets of Law”. Even Bagnold admits the feeling extends nearer home to, say, some old house “where the Murder took place, perhaps”.
Space precludes writing of all the desert explorations the book describes so interestingly. After those with the Model-Ts, Bagnold went with the 1928 Cotton Research Board’s exploration of the desert 300 miles south of Aswan. It was thought that six-wheelers were needed and what he calls the “House of Renault” sold them three demonstration lorries of this kind, M. Leblanc of Renault’s accompanying them, with two mechanics, and joining the expedition. When the railway couldn’t get the lorries up the Nile to Cairo in time, they were driven 350 miles over mud flats to the narrow-gauge railway at Kharga. The Renaults were slower than the Fords but sailed along well, although one big-end had to be changed. They would spot old thin, double-grooved tracks left by the Citroën caterpillars of Prince Kemal-el-Din, the thicker, broader ones of Prince Omar-Toussoon’s Renaults, but mostly those of Fords, perhaps of the Desert Survey or of the FDA Patrol going to Baharis Oasis. Such tracks might last for 20 years or more but those of Bearnell’s Renaults were more recent. To join the expedition Bagnold flew from Cairo to Baghdad by air, a nostalgic reminder of Imperial Airways opening up the Empire routes.
Posted to India, Bagnold decided to explore the Libyan desert, flying to Egypt and back to recruit his volunteers by the new route to India which Imperial Airways had opened up in April 1929. The Desert Survey had tried the New Ford (the Model-A) and found it “very good indeed”, and he liked its more powerful engine, and the fact that “the transverse springing, which had made the old model so successful across country, had been retained”. A few of the new tourers and lorries had eventually arrived in India, after delays, but Bagnold decided on a new Ford truck. It did about 19 m.p.g. which meant around 12-14 m.p.g. in the desert, and had enhanced carrying capacity. Two 30 cwt. Ford lorry chassis were ordered, Bagnold’s having a light wood body made to his own design in Rawalpindi. It was joined by another Ford lorry and a new Ford tourer. Bagnold first drove his lorry from India to Cairo in late 1929, as a test. On one occasion a Harley-Davidson motorcycle combination joined in.
There is the major 6,000-mile Libyan sortee, the Fords doing well, apart from one gearbox dropping its contents onto the sand. These 1932 trucks could carry 1,750 lb. each, the only modification being two extra leaves in each back spring. Petrol and oil were dumped for them by Shell, up to 960 gallons being conveyed by camel-train.
Bagnold paints a fine contrast between the luxury and bustle of Cairo and the desolate sandy wastes beyond the Mena House Hotel (built by H. F. Locke-King of Brooklands fame). As he set off from there one wonders whether he spared a thought for Count Zborowski who ventured unwisely far into the desert with Chitty II and Chitty III, their radiators boiling nearly dry?
This presumably now-rare book contains some aeroplane mentions, and is another that refers to Brooklands, in respect of the death there of Lady Clayton East-Clayton, when she fell out of her Simmonds Arrow while taxiing from the Clubhouse to take-off (as I well recall seeing), she being the wife of Sir Clayton East-Clayton who did a desert survey with Count de Almasy in 1932 in a DH Moth. — W.B.