The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was formed in the weeks immediately after Italy declared war on the Allies, and was tasked to provide long range reconnaissance of enemy activity in the North African desert. This was done by penetrating deep behind enemy lines by travelling through the southern, inner desert of Libya, which was considered virtually impassable for large units by the Italians, and was such a vast expanse of largely featureless terrain that it was impossible to adequately patrol anyway. The LRDG also became very useful at ferrying agents to and from enemy territory, extracting downed aircrew, and later on they also fulfilled an important role in transporting special forces such as the new SAS to raids behind Axis lines. The information they provided was immediately appreciated by the Allied command, and they were often credited with disclosing important information about enemy activity, although it was only well after the end of the war that the pivotal role that Ultra intercepts played in this was revealed.
The very first thing that struck us when we looked at this set was the many combat poses. The LRDG were not an offensive unit, and their prime role was in fact to be unseen by the enemy as they collected their information. Of course, this does not mean that they never engaged in a fight, or ‘beat-up’ as they called it, and they were sometimes tasked to make some nuisance attack at the end of a mission, when they were ready to head back to base. The most famous of these actions was the raid on Barce in 1942, Operation Caravan, which was a reaction to heavy pressure on the main front, and not typical of LRDG activities. However, it followed a similar theme to other actions, whereby the men used vehicle-mounted machine guns and grenades to attack targets, particularly aircraft and vehicles, and then exited before the enemy could properly respond. Such fights were few, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy must have been very rare indeed, yet that is what most of these poses seem to be doing. Many are firing rifles or submachine guns, and one is even delivering a bayonet thrust over his head. Did any LRDG man ever do this? We cannot say for sure, but he highly doubt it, and certainly it is not typical of their actions, even in a fight. In the wide open expanse of the desert, a man kneeling firing a pistol is even more absurd than most WWII pistol poses, so even if you accept that Orion have clearly tried to make the set more exciting by concentrating on the rare firefights, most of these poses would be rare indeed. Much the best of the poses are the man using a spade (for so many possible tasks), and the two seated men, but for the rest, the poses are generic WWII choices but not well thought out for the LRDG.
We must next turn to the weapons that these men carry. In reality, the most important weapons the LRDG used were the machine guns mounted on the vehicles, but of course they were also armed with standard rifles, pistols, and grenades, plus some Thompson submachine guns. These are to be found in this set, but also some that likely never made it into the hands of any LRDG patrolman. No fewer than three of the poses carry a Sten gun, which was an effective but cheap weapon produced originally as an emergency measure from 1941. Relatively few seem to have made it to the Western Desert before the campaign came to an end, and there is no evidence the LRDG ever used them. They liked the Thompson, which was indeed an excellent, high-quality weapon, and as they never numbered more than a few hundred men, the command could provide them with the weapons they chose, and they did not choose the Sten over the Thompson. In addition, one man carries a Bren gun firing from the hip. Again, it was rare for this to happen, and again, it seems the LRDG never adopted the Bren. With such small numbers in a patrol, they needed weapons with a high rate of fire, so they used ones like the Vickers K, with a 1,200 rpm capacity, and not the 500 rpm Bren. The rifles and Thompsons are fine, and a Lewis gun or two would have been a far better choice, but many poses here are unusable because of the bad choice of weapons.
If this all sounds a bit grim, then there is more, because now we come to the subject of uniform. Conditions were tough for anyone surviving in the desert, but when on a long patrol far from any support, the LRDG faced the extremes of the environment, and not surprisingly their choice of clothing was as vital to their survival as their weapons and logistics. Basically, each man wore what he wanted, and that might well include the costume found in this set. Starting with the feet, these men wear an assortment of sandals, ammunition boots, and one seems to have chaplis shoes, which were particularly popular because, like everything else, they were practical if unmilitary. Those wearing army boots also have socks, mostly pulled up, although one has his rolled down, which is fine. For the uniform, every man here wears standard KD shorts and either a KD tropical shirt or bush shirt, and every man wears the Arab keffiyeh. All of this is indeed the kind of clothing such men might wear, but we must be careful, because this was not the standard costume of these men, and in reality their clothing varied enormously between individuals – no photos of them away from base show them all wearing the same thing, yet here they do. Worse yet, while the keffiyeh had some practical advantages, it was prone to getting entangled in machinery and weapons, so was rarely worn except in a sand or dust storm (or sometimes back at base), and most photos of the LRDG show them without this item. So, while each man here is plausible, finding a whole group dressed in this way and all wearing the headdress is, we propose, something that never happened. Instead, a vast array of clothing, including hats and caps of all sorts, would have been appropriate, reflecting the many photographs of these men. It is amusing to notice that Orion themselves seem to have been unable to find any photos to back up their design decisions, and so used one of the SAS for their box art instead!
Some of the men wear standard ’37 pattern webbing, which does not show up in photographs, but might have been donned when action was expected. Other than that, some have a water flask and some a pistol holster. Given how rarely such men would dismount and fight as infantry, it is hard to say if this is correct or not, but on the face of it we cannot dismiss the possibility that it happened. One very obvious omission however is that not one man has goggles or any form of eye protection. Travelling at speed in the desert, or simply to shade your eyes from the sun and glare, you will soon realise that goggles are an essential, and even if they would not be wearing them in a fight, they would still have them close at hand if it were daylight.
The sculpting of these figures is really nice. The clothing looks realistic, the keffiyeh is nice and natural, and the weapons are well done too. Flash is largely at a low level, but as usual there are exceptions, and this is most obvious with the running figure in our second row, who has a great deal of flash. In addition, the man with binoculars has some extra plastic behind his left arm, so work is needed to clean many of these figures. With no spare water for shaving, all patrolmen grew a beard whilst in the field, and some of these figures clearly have such a beard. Presumably the rest have a shorter one which will need to be painted on.
This set does have several problems that make it a poor representation of the LRDG. The mere fact that they are acting as infantry shows them in a very unusual circumstance, as these were highly skilled men who were not to be risked in ordinary battle except in extremis. Since the usual contact with the enemy was either mounted on the vehicle or defending themselves from aircraft, few of these figures fit the typical picture. That all of them wear the keffiyeh is also a problem, and exposes a problem we have with scoring. The clothing of any individual here is quite plausible, yet as a group, this is not a realistic depiction of these men, so does that mean accuracy is good or bad? Undeniably the bad choice of Brens and Stens marks these down on accuracy, but we were pleased to see the driving figure is wearing gloves at least, and the variety of footwear is good. Ultimately, although the sculpting is very good, it is the design of this set that really lets it down. Anyone looking at this set will learn nothing about how the LRDG operated, or how they looked most of the time.