Ralph Bagnold: Two Memoirs

Covers if two memoirs by Ralph Bagnold

In the following pages I shall try to trace the unpremeditated steps by which a few army officers, with no initial thirst for exploration, and no desire to do anything unusual except to see the country they were in came gradually to break away from this conventional city outlook towards things outside; and how, beginning with a sort of touring club, a technique grew up by which it became possible for ordinary mortals, without financial backing, to penetrate to places in the far interior of the Libyan Desert previously thought to be inaccessible.

Ralph Bagnold wrote these words in 1934, while stationed in Hong Kong as Officer Commanding Signals. He could have no inkling, at the time, of how the adventures of his “officers’ touring club” in the Libyan Desert would come to influence the course of the Second World War in North Africa.

Libyan Sands (1935), subtitled “Travel In A Dead World”, details how Bagnold and fellow officers of the Royal Engineers, Royal Corps of Signals, and Royal Tank Corps found themselves sharing accommodation in Abbassia, Cairo, during the 1920s. Possessed of several Ford “Model T” cars, considerable mechanical engineering skills, and a great desire to explore the surrounding area, they began venturing out into the desert—at first merely to visit the pyramids and other relics of Ancient Egypt, but then farther and farther afield as their skills and knowledge grew. From expeditions to the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine and Trans-Jordan in 1926, they gained enough experience to start exploring the Western Desert, and then mounted epic expeditions into Italian Libya, culminating in a six-thousand-mile exploration of Libya and Sudan in 1932.

They had stripped their cars of all superfluous panelling, and had built wooden cargo pallets in the back, designed to be a precise fit for an array of jerry-cans (containing petrol and water) and boxes of canned food. Their radiators boiled constantly, but they piped the steam and boiling water into a water-trap next to the driver. Once the water in the trap became excessively hot, they would turn into wind and stop the engine—and there would soon come a gurgle from the water-trap as water siphoned back into the cooling radiator, refilling it. Wooden packing was progressively used as fuel as supplies were consumed. Bagnold designed a sun compass for accurate navigation, because magnetic compasses were deflected by the metal of the cars and the constantly varying load of jerry cans. (In essence, Bagnold’s compass was a sundial, mounted on a compass rose. By rotating the dial to keep the gnomon shadow correctly positioned according to the time of day and latitude, the compass rose could be kept orientated on true north.*)

Bagnold’s narrative is an endearing mixture of hard-nosed engineering detail, and lyrical passages describing the beauty of the desert.

Here, he describes his party’s approach to Petra:

The dried-up stream bed, turning a sharp corner, entered the mile-long gorge which forms the only gateway to this fortress-city. The overhanging cliffs, but a few paces apart, rise to two hundred feet, leaving the echoing crack between them in deep shadow except at the top where the early morning sun lights up a band of pink rock like glowing metal. One of our guards ahead was singing to himself; his voice, ringing up and down the gorge, echoed back to us multiplied from numberless rock faces, was now as the shouting of an excited mob and now softened to the chanting of a choir or the murmur of a great procession of bygone times.

And here, he resolutely fails to apologize for having included three technical paragraphs describing his party’s attempt to salvage a car that had stripped some teeth from a differential gear.

It occurs to me, having written this, that these details might have been omitted. It is perhaps in some way indecent to mention the insides of cars. A travel book is expected to contain other technicalities such as the names of obscure plants and animals of which not one person in ten thousand has ever heard, and it is permissible to describe the intimate ailments of camels and their cure. But anything mechanical seems to be taboo. Still, I shall leave it as it stands, just to show how important a bearing these sordid little details have upon the success or failure of a modern expedition.

The book is also full of marvellous observations—the way in which sand dunes are self-organizing, retaining their integrity while drifting downwind, crossing any obstacles in their paths; the way in which old wheel tracks, invisible beneath a layer of blown sand, are still detectible as a subtle tug on the steering of a car that crosses them at an angle; and this:

Any unusual and solitary feature in the desert, whether it be mountain, tree or the skeleton of a man, crystallises about itself all the loneliness of the surrounding land. Seeing some object makes one realise the neighbouring emptiness in a way a complete blank desert surface never does.

Bagnold also includes a useful chapter that deals briefly with the history of the Libyan Desert, its early exploration, and the Italian presence there at the time he was writing. And there’s a chapter on “Zerzura, the Wish-Oasis”, concerning the futile search for the mythical “lost oasis city” of Zerzura. My 2011 edition from Eland also contains an epilogue, written by Bagnold in 1987 for the paperback Hippocrene edition, in which he explains how the six years of exploration described in the book were to influence his later life, and the conduct of the war in North Africa.

His autobiography, Sand, Wind, And War (1990), subtitled “Memoirs Of A Desert Explorer”, was written towards the end of Bagnold’s long life, and I wonder if he might not have been inspired to set it down after being asked to provide the short autobiographical note for Libyan Sands in 1987. He delivered the final manuscript shortly before his death, and did not see it in print. Curiously, for the autobiography of a thoroughly British man, it was published by the University of Arizona Press, and was reissued in 2019 by the same publisher—perhaps because of Bagnold’s connection to the United States Geological Survey in later life. This does introduce a few oddities to the text, however: there’s that pointless and intrusive Oxford comma in the title, for instance; some slightly patronizing bracketed translations of British English, such as “car bonnet (hood)”, and occasional outbreaks of American English in Bagnold’s prose—I very much doubt if he wrote “math” and “gotten” in his original manuscript. And the American foreword authors seem to be convinced that there’s an entity within the British military called the “Royal Army”, presumably having reasoned by analogy from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

Bagnold begins Sand, Wind, And War with an account of his fairly privileged upbringing—he and his sister Enid (who went on to be the author of National Velvet) travelled with a French governess. One of his earliest memories is of being knocked over by a flying fish on the deck of a steamship in 1899, as his family moved to Jamaica, to which his father (an officer in the Royal Engineers) had been posted, and where they kept a household in the Blue Mountains.

Bagnold’s father had previously taken part in the failed attempt to relieve the Siege of Khartoum (1884-5), in an expedition which travelled up the Nile in requisitioned Thomas Cook steamers. Interestingly, Bagnold relays a variant of a story which has long been considered a myth:

By custom, Thomas Cook’s steamers carried a reserve of mummies as a special fast-burning fuel for emergencies such as difficult cataracts. My father once heard the captain shout to his engine room staff, “All right, throw on another pharaoh.”

Mark Twain seems to have produced the original version of this tale, narrating his travels in Egypt in The Innocents Abroad (1869):

I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway—I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, “D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent—pass out a King;”—[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]

Bagnold followed in his father’s footsteps into the Royal Engineers, and arrived in France in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, where his experiences were predictably grim, though he did take delight in the “wonderfully comprehensive tool cart” provided for the working sections of the Royal Engineers. He was commanded by the astrophysicist F.J.M. Stratton, who was later to be Bagnold’s tutor when he attended Caius College, Cambridge to study engineering after the war.

There then followed a return to the army, a posting to Egypt, and the explorations described in Libyan Sands. His observations of the shape and behaviour of sand dunes during that time led him to build his own wind tunnel in his father’s workshop, where he experimented with finely graded sand, eventually publishing a pair of scientific papers on the topic, and then his classic monograph The Physics Of Blown Sand And Desert Dunes (1941).

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bagnold was recalled as a reservist, and posted to East Africa. But his troop ship was involved in a collision in the Mediterranean, and he ended up ashore in Port Said, Egypt, waiting for the next convoy—where he was immediately “poached” for service in Egypt by General Archibald Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, who was aware of Bagnold’s expertise in motorized desert travel.

Bagnold was then responsible for setting up the Long Range Desert Group, responsible for raiding and reconnaissance behind Italian and German lines. The LRDG were to be the salvation of the nascent Special Air Service—after a disastrously ill-judged first attempt to parachute into the desert, the SAS raiders spent a while being ferried around by the LRDG’s patrols, before going on to learn the lessons of desert navigation and survival from LRDG personnel.

Bagnold doesn’t write much about the relationship between the LRDG and the SAS, but he’s quite clear about taking credit for another of his wartime achievements. Seeking to extend the operational range of the LRDG, Bagnold flew into Fort-Lamy in French Equatorial Africa, to enquire if the authorities there wished to support the Vichy regime of occupied France, or the Free French. When the governor, Félix Éboué, elected to join the Allied cause, this provided Bagnold with a staging post from which the LRDG could raid far into western Libya, as well as incidentally providing Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, with a much-needed bit of colonial support. And, although Bagnold doesn’t mention it, I’ll point out that his diplomacy at Fort-Lamy provided the Allies with a friendly foreign airfield in Central Africa, providing a vital refuelling point between Nigeria and Sudan on the 3600-mile Takoradi-Cairo ferry route, along which aircraft were transferred to the RAF in Egypt at a time when access through the Mediterranean was interdicted by German and Italian forces.

Map of the Takoradi-Cairo air ferry route
Click to enlarge

The remainder of the book details Bagnold’s post-war scientific research, in which he used his understanding of wind-blown sand to develop a model for the transport of sediment in water, which led to his association with the United States Geological Survey. There are stories of travel and domestic details, and of well-deserved recognition by the scientific community,§ but as we move into Bagnold’s later years the tone inevitably becomes more mellow and reflective.

I recommend Libyan Sands as a compelling and well-written story of adventure and discovery; and Sand, Wind, And War is a fine short account of a life well-lived by a curious, clever and resourceful man. Both are available as e-books, though the Kindle edition of Sand, Wind, And War is ludicrously expensive in the UK.

Bagnold made a cinematographic record of several of the expeditions described in Libyan Sands, and edited them into a fifty-minute silent film with hand-drawn maps and explanatory intercards, now held by the British Film Institute. You can find it on YouTube:

* This was a scientific elaboration of the trick taught to Boy Scouts in the northern hemisphere, back in the prehistoric days when young people wore analogue watches—point the hour hand of your watch at the sun, and south will lie roughly halfway between the hour hand and the 12 on the watch dial. (In the southern hemisphere, I imagine Boy Scouts were told to point the 12 at the sun, and use half the angle between the 12 and the hour hand to find north.)
If you’re wondering why an astrophysicist was tutoring an engineering student, Bagnold explains the role of a Cambridge tutor, which is “… to act in loco parentis towards the undergraduates under his supervision, to watch over their lives and offer help in any private trouble.”
Now N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
§ There’s now a dune field on Mars named in Bagnold’s honour.

3 thoughts on “Ralph Bagnold: Two Memoirs”

  1. These sound like absolutely fascinating reads. It was really a case of crossing uncharted wastes in his day. I couldn’t imagine doing what they did in those early desert crossings.

    I have been slightly aware of the activities of the LRDG for a number of years without knowing the full details and must have read about Ralph Bagnold before but without his name sticking in my mind. I am sure that I saw a documentary, possibly on YouTube, about them a year or so ago but my mind is completely blank as to its title.

    One little quibble however – “jerry cans” in 1932? Surely they would have used the pressed steel “flimsies” as used by the British Army before they ‘adopted’ the much better “jerry cans” after seeing them in use by the Germans in WW2..

    1. Oops, yes, a clear anachronism.
      Bagnold didn’t use the big square four-gallon flimsies either, however, presumably because of the unfortunate properties that gave them their name. He used the much more sturdy two-gallon POL cans (Petroleum, Oil, Lubricant) like the ones here. At first he lined them up along the running boards of the Model T’s, but latter designed the wooden carrying pan I mentioned in the text.
      We had a couple of these at home when I was a kid, and one of my jobs as soon as I was old enough to carry eight kilograms in one hand was to walk up to the local petrol station and fill one with paraffin for our heater. (I have very bad memories of the handle design, which used to chew up the palms of my hands on the way home.) Anyway, these were always called “jerrycans” by my father, presumably after the manner in which generonyms are formed. Hence, I suppose, why I looked at photographs of Bagnold’s “petrol tins” and thought “jerrycans”.

  2. Ah yes, I remember seeing a few of those POL cans floating around when I was a kid in the early 1960’s.

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