Searching for missing vehicles that had set out to spy on Rommel’s Mareth Line defences in the Tunisian desert in WWII
We called it the ‘berm.’ There wasn’t really any other name for the slightly eerie and bizarre wall of sand that dominated our view to the west. This intimidating feature, standing over 100 m high, stretched as far as the eye could see north and south. According to our WWII era maps the berm hasn’t moved in over 70 years. Beyond lies hundreds of miles of a vast sand sea, the Grand Erg Orientale. As we wandered about our base camp, eyes were often drawn to the mysterious.
We had come to Tunisia to search for the missing WWII vehicles of the ‘lost patrol,’ a joint Popski’s Private Army (PPA) and Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) patrol that set out from Libya in the closing months of the North African campaign to scout for information on Rommel’s Mareth Line defences. The patrol reached the berm on January 24, 1943, and set up a hide in a wadi at its base. Four Jeeps then set off to scout the area around Matmata to the north-east while seven LRDG and PPA trucks remained in the hideout. Unfortunately, the Germans got wind of the patrol and aircraft discovered the vehicles, destroying them with numerous strafing runs. The crews, who had hidden in the dunes, were forced to walk across the desert towards Tozeur, 200 miles away, and were rescued by the American First Army.
As far as our research could determine, there was no record suggesting the wrecks had been recovered. Led by our historian and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, Alan Hall, we searched the War Office records and other accounts of travellers to the region but could find no records indicating the fate of the vehicles. As far as we could tell, their remains might just be laying there, abandoned, in a wadi beneath the unmoving wall of sand that was the berm.
Our group set off from the UK on October 27, 2019, in four Land Rovers, including three ex-military 110s and a modified Lightweight. By ferry and road we reached Tunis on October 31. After a brief pause the expedition set off for the desert town of Douz, which sits as a gateway to the Grand Erg beyond. Parked up in the Camping Desert Club run by the well-known Sophie and her partner Abdallah, the vehicle crews set about stripping down the trucks into desert trim. Softops, doors or door tops, windscreens, as well as extra kit, were all collected to go into storage while water jerries and fuel tanks were filled. Teams walked into the local souk to load up on fresh vegetables, bread and meat. Radios and satellite tracking systems were tested and maps studied.
The expedition had been organised by Popski’s Private Expeditions, an informal group who share a love of open-top desert travel and whose name obviously pays homage to one of the most unique special forces units of WWII, Popski’s Private Army. After years of Moroccan trips, we were looking for something new and in late 2018 it occurred to us that there might just be long-lost vehicles waiting to be discovered in Tunisia. Research started early in 2019 with the study of several WWII-era accounts from the PPA and LRDG as well as old War Office maps dated 1941. The PPA commanding officer, Major Vladamir Peniakoff, known to all as Popski, left detailed accounts of where the vehicles had been hidden. His 2iC, Captain Bob Yunnie, also described the location in his wartime account. Slowly, as the evidence began to accumulate, a plan was hatched to undertake an expedition in search of the lost patrol vehicles.
As the main PPE organiser, I set about recruiting a team that included not only our historian Alan, but other ex-military desert veterans, a paramedic, former search and rescue pilot and even a classic race car driver. The PPE already had three desert-equipped Land Rovers but unfortunately our 1990 Defender 90 needed a major rebuild, so had to sit this one out. Our main workhorse, Tembo the 110, was prepped for the venture and was joined by our latest addition to the fleet, Shimi the 1982 Dutch Army Lightweight. Shimi, named after the Lord Lovat, commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade, was a standard Lightweight that had been upgraded with a de-turbo’d 200Tdi engine and Discovery gearing. John Manning, our expedition 2iC decided to build his own desert expedition truck and sourced an ex-military 110 with standard 2.5 diesel. The final vehicle came from Andrew, our search expert who modified his 2.5 110 for desert as well. This mainly involved stripping out any unneeded weight. While none of the trucks were what would be considered fast during the trip down from the UK, once in the desert all four proved up to the challenge.
Since this was to be our first venture into Tunisia, we engaged a local expedition company, SaharanSky, to provide advice and support. Ilyes Sasi, our support team leader, spoke excellent English and became a key part of the adventure. We called on his team’s services a number of times and they never let us down.
Departing Douz on November 2, we set off south-east, headed for the ancient Roman ruin, Fort Tisavar, that the PPA, LRDG and the SAS had used as a navigation point. We had read in the WWII accounts that the Tunisian sand was unlike the sands of Libya and Egypt, which was also backed up by more modern accounts. Soon we discovered why; the close-packed dunes, which followed no apparent pattern, were filled with often silty sand that quickly bogged down the trucks. Airing down to no more than 16psi we pushed on. While the agile Lightweight had a relatively easy time of it, the heavier, longer wheelbase 110s struggled to make the tight turns needed to negotiate from one dune to the next. At least it gave us all a chance to practice our shovel skills and recovery techniques. After a time, we worked out a system of the Lightweight scouting ahead for routes while the 110s brought up the rear.
The trucks at Fort Tisavar
We reached the fort the next day and it was a great moment for us all. The ruins still sit much as they had back in 1943 and unlike many ancient sites in the world are unbothered by touts or touristy shops. In fact, other than the oasis of Ksar Ghilane which sits a few kilometres distant, all that can be seen from the fort is desert as far as the eye can see. We camped in the valley beneath the fort and in the morning headed into the oasis to resupply.
Ksar Ghilane had been mentioned in the wartime accounts and probably hasn’t changed all that much in the decades since. It is, however, now home to a beautiful little swimming hole fed by a fresh-water spring and surrounded by simple Arab cafes. European tourists frequent the oasis and its hotel, spending their days on desert camel or quad bike excursions. While overlanders do often pass through, our group certainly raised a few eyebrows as we rolled slowly through the village centre. We parked up next to a concreted spring with fast-flowing fresh water to top up our jerry cans and ordered some bread from the local baker to take with us. Resupplied, we pushed on south for our objective at a feature called Qaret Ali. This small hill, at the head of the wadi, was mentioned in all accounts as the location of the vehicle hide.
With careful navigation by our search and rescue expert, comparing notes with our historian, we arrived later in the day at the area we believed to be Qaret Ali. Throughout our drive south from the oasis the mysterious berm dominated the western skyline. We set up a base camp a short distance from the feature and began to organise for our search.
The next day we conducted a carefully planned but somewhat less well executed search of the area. Despite Andrew’s carefully planned search programme, the silty nature of the sand made it impossible to stay in regular lines. At first we were flummoxed as nothing made sense. So Andrew and I drove partway up the berm in Shimi to get a better perspective. From here we could see the lay of the land and immediately spotted some terrain that seemed to match the wartime accounts. Re-joining the others, we realigned our search bearing and set off again. I was the first to spot something unusual. Sitting half in the sand was an old embossed tobacco tin, made in Scotland, and certainly from the wartime period. Shortly after, Andy and Roger in Tembo reported over the radio that they had discovered some vehicle parts near a dry well. Rushing over, we found an assortment of old vehicle pieces including one piece that had a large calibre bullet hole, similar to what would have been fired by German fighter aircraft. Further searching turned up what appeared to be an old gun oil can and what may have been a bonnet section that had been hammered flat.
Returning to base camp we were all pretty excited about our discoveries. While we had all been hoping to find the actual vehicle wrecks, it had always been a long shot. But if these artefacts turned out to be from the 1940s era and we could identify the vehicle sections, that would mean the local camel herders had dragged these parts to the well from somewhere close by. Alan was tasked to study the pieces and try to confirm or discount their value as evidence we were in the right place.
Our search never did turn up the actual wrecks but we marked the location on our maps and determined that we would return in the future to continue our search. After resupplying at Ksar Ghilane once more, we pushed west around the northern extent of the sand sea following the route that the walking party took after fleeing from the vehicle hide in 1943. Several more days in the sand sea tested all of us and our Land Rovers before we finally turned for Douz once more and home.
The trucks had proven their worth as ships of the desert. We had bent a steering track rod and shorn the bolts off an alternator mount, but both were quickly repaired and other than that our vehicles never let us down. We did decide that for the follow-up expedition we would look to have more short wheelbase trucks to undertake a crossing of the heart of the sand sea while the 110s served as support vehicles.
Bonnet proved to be an exact match for one found on a 1941 Chevrolet truck used by LRDG
On our return to the UK our early research efforts turned up some very positive results. The bonnet piece is an exact match for the one found on a 1941 model Chevrolet truck of the type used by the LRDG. The tobacco tin turned out to also be an exact match for a type produced by G. Dobie and Sons of Paisley, Scotland between 1930 and 1940. There are still several other items we are researching but all of us are convinced we have found evidence of the last resting place for the doomed vehicles.
Tunisia turned out to be a safe, welcoming and open place with massive areas to explore and to challenge ourselves. PPE will definitely be returning in 2020 to continue our quest for the lost patrol.
TRAVELLING TO TUNISIA
Ferries: Overnight ferries operate weekly from Marseille, Genoa and Civitavecchia. We paid £935 for the CTN ferry from Marseilles for a vehicle, (two person and a cabin).
Visas: Visas are not required for UK and most European citizens.
Customs on arrival: On landing the port process is simple and quick. Just bring your passport and V5. Have a destination hotel or campsite if asked and a printout of your vehicle registration, names of travellers and passport details.
Desert Authorisation: You do not need to register to travel in the southern desert but it is advisable for first time visitors. The sand seas here are vast and breaking down or getting stranded could be serious. Reputable guide services can handle this for you. We used Ilyes Sasi at SaharanSky.
Book Now for 2021: There are European-based 4x4 tour operators going to Tunisia, but none in the UK that we are aware of. Popski’s Private Expeditions is returning in October 2020 and we are always looking for good crew if you can pass selection or have a good Land Rover that meets our expedition criteria. Contact James Davis at [email protected]