It is a pretty rare thing in the modern world to discover in the texts of decades-old accounts a ‘lost’ treasure that is both accessible and, as far as we can tell, no one has gone in search of yet. But here we are and plans for our upcoming expedition to the dune seas of Tunisia are well advanced.
What treasure are we seeking? Well, not gold or jewels or lost cities of antiquity; but something a little closer to our hearts for those that are fans of Popski’s Private Army (PPA) and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). Towards the end of the WWII North African campaign a joint PPA and LRDG patrol set off from Libya seeking to gain more information about defences west of the German Mareth Line. Thirteen vehicles set out including jeeps, LRDG Chevrolets and a pair of 3-ton heavy section supply trucks. The supply trucks turned back before crossing into Tunisia after establishing a supply dump and the remaining eleven ‘fighting vehicles’ pushed on, eventually reaching the eastern edge of the Grand Erg Orientale sand sea. Here seven of the vehicles were hidden in the dunes while four jeeps set off to scout the area around Matmata. However, the stashed vehicles were discovered by the Luftwaffe and the crews had to abandon all seven vehicles as aircraft strafed their hideout. Later the survivors linked up with the returning jeeps and marched northwest to link up with the approaching American 1st Army near Tozuer, 200 miles away.
So what ever happened to the seven abandoned special forces vehicles left behind? Well, we know that the LRDG always tried to recover their lost vehicles, but since these were all damaged by aircraft fire or explosives set by their own retreating crews, they may not have made the effort. The PPA had a more laissez faire attitude and Popski always claimed ‘war is wasteful’ and went on to acquire replacement jeeps from the Americans. The quick end to the African war and pressure to look towards Europe may also have played a part as the LRDG was to give up their vehicles in future operations in the Adriatic. Did the local Tunisians drag off or dismantle the wrecks? The answer to all the above is that we just don’t know.
So, towards the end of October 2019 the PPE is going to set off in four desert-equipped trucks with eight crew and go in search of any remaining signs of the ‘lost patrol.’ Having studied a number of print accounts, old War Office records and maps we have narrowed the area down to a reasonable size. Our search will be led by a former search and rescue pilot experienced in coordinating ground searches. The rest of the crew members include experienced desert hands, a paramedic, journalist and other adventurers up for the trip.
What will we find? In all likelihood nothing but sand. Maybe a few old ration tins or ‘flimsy’ fuel cans if we are lucky. But perhaps as the sands shift we may discover the actual remains of a late desert war special forces vehicle or two. But those discoveries yet lie ahead of us…so stay tuned.