One generally associates the names of Sollum, Bir Hacheim and Siwa with the mechanised operations of World War 2, but in fact British armour was actively employed in the Western Desert during the Great War as well. The enemy then was a Moslem religious sect known as the Senussi, armed and paid jointly by Germany and Turkey, and supplied by U-boat. It might be thought that an army of desert tribesmen posed little threat to the British in Egypt, but with most of the permanent garrison serving in the Dardanelles and the population rife for rebellion, the threat was a very serious one, especially as the Senussi possessed artillery and machine guns with Turkish instructors to man them.
The Senussi fought hard and well, causing considerable loss until the arrival of the Duke of Westminster’s Rolls-Royce armoured car squadron, which turned the tide irrevocably. The tribesmen could not hope to compete with the cars' firepower and mobility, and suffered one shattering defeat after another until they were eventually ejected from their desert fastness at Siwa. At Bir Hacheim, a hitherto unknown cistern in the heart of the desert, they lost their trump negotiating card, the survivors of the armed boarding vessel Tara, when the armoured cars swept down from the north, leading a long convoy of Ford and Rolls-Royce tenders and ambulances. (The photos of the restorated T-Ford below - courtesy of Bas en Marloes - taken at the the re-opening of the Zillebeke WW1 Museum. )
Their power broken, the Senussi retreated deep into Libya, and eventually the armoured cars were replaced by Light Motor Batteries (LAMBYs for short) each consisting of a number of Light Car Patrols equipped with Model T Fords. The cars differed little from their civilian counterparts, save that a small cargo space was constructed on the back for the carriage of supplies. They usually carried a crew of two and were armed with a Lewis machine gun, and although no standard mounting seems to have been provided for the weapon, it was easy enough to handle either during dismounted action or from the vehicle itself.
Like the armoured car crews, the men of the LAMBYs considered themselves to be something of an élite; with some justification. When war broke out in 1914 only a tiny percentage of the population had any sort of working knowledge of the automobile, and this was in turn divided into two groups - a comparatively small number of the well to do, not all of military age, who drove their own cars; and professional drivers, chauffeurs, mechanics and members of the infant motor industry. The latter group was intensely jealous of its skills, and was not easily persuaded to pass these on to outsiders; on the other hand, the men were completely self-reliant, their standard of maintenance was exceptionally high, and it was a matter of personal pride for them to get their vehicles over what might otherwise be considered to be impossible terrain. After all, motoring was still considered to be something of a sport, and memories of the great Peking-Paris and New York-Paris motor races were still fresh in everyone’s minds.
However, one does not tackle the desert in a spirit of sportsmanship unless one seeks a lonely and unpleasant death. Light Car Patrol commanders were acutely aware of the problems facing them, and established a set of basic principles which hold good to this day, and which form the essence of the Army's standing orders for operations in desert countries. Good navigation was essential, and once a route had been chosen in advance, no variation was permitted. A team of fitters and recovery experts accompanied each patrol, in the manner of the modern Light Aid Detachment; for emergency use, air recognition panels were carried, as were at least two spare wheels; and an adequate margin of petrol and water was allowed for. It must be remembered that in those days cooling systems were not pressurised and boiling was the rule rather than the exception. In such circumstances, the vehicles had the prior claim on the available water and if necessary the men were expected to go thirsty. To use the water in the radiator for drinking was an offence involving an automatic Court Martial, and if a unit was equipped with Maxims for any reason, the contents of cooling jackets were equally sacred.
The Light Car Patrols combed the desert from end to end, going as far south as Siwa, and west to Bir Hacheim and beyond. The information they gained provided the Army with detailed maps which were used in World War 2, as well as a thorough knowledge of how men and machines could be made to operate efficiently in such harsh, demanding conditions. Their work was continued between the wars by Army Motoring Clubs formed by the garrison of Egypt. It would not, therefore, be out of place to claim that the Light Car Patrols of the Western Desert were the original ancestors of the Long Range Desert Group.
One officer, Lieutenant G. W. Richards, seconded from the Royal Welch Fusiliers, would return to the precise scenes of his patrols in the Model Ts, a quarter of a century later. As Brigadier commanding 4th Armoured Brigade he met Rommel’s opening thrust of the Knightsbridge battle slightly north east of Bir Hacheim, and subsequently commanded 23rd Armoured Brigade throughout the Second Battle of Alamein and on to Sicily. Because of his vast experience, he became Montgomery’s principal adviser on armoured warfare for the remainder of the war, with the rank of Major-General.
Model Ts were also employed in Mesopotamia and in Palestine against the Turks. The latter theatre of war provided one of history’s rare examples of large bodies of cavalry working harmoniously with motor vehicles to achieve a complete victory. The Ford Light Car Patrols acted as the eyes of the Cavalry Divisions to which they were attached, and proved of inestimable value as Allenby pursued the beaten Turkish Army northwards. Their operations must have been watched with considerable interest by a member of Allenby’s Staff, Lt-Colonel Archibald Wavell, later to become the architect of one of the greatest desert victories ever.
The Model T Ford was therefore, not just simply one of a number of soft-skinned vehicles used extensively by the Army; it could, and did, fight and was very highly regarded.
-Excerpt from Article originally published in Airfix Magazine April 1979