Mike “Lofty” Carr, who has died aged 101, was one of the top navigators in the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG); he worked with the SAS on navigation and took part in many raids in North Africa deep behind enemy lines.
On the night of September 15 1942 Carr, equipped with a Vickers K machine gun, navigated a mixed force of LRDG and a detachment of the Sudan Defence Force (SDF) towards the Italian-held fort at Jalo.
Jalo was a desert oasis about 250 miles south of the Mediterranean port of Benghazi on the Libyan coast. In the build-up to General Montgomery’s major offensive at El Alamein, capture of the fort would provide the SAS with a strategic base from which to launch hit-and-run raids on the enemy lines of communication.
Four miles from the village, the force dismounted from their vehicles and formed three columns. Carr led them forward for more than an hour in pitch darkness.
They had just skirted a minefield when they were challenged by an Italian sentry. Carr grabbed his Vickers K machine gun and silenced him. The commander, Captain Anthony Hunter, urged his men forward, but they had only gone a few yards when they came under a hail of small-arms fire from the fort. Most of the SDF fled, pursued by their officers. A mortar round landed close to Hunter, blowing out his eardrums.
Carr tried to fight his way through to the left column, which was engaging defenders inside the fort, but the opposition, equipped with rifles and hand grenades, was too strong. Firing long bursts from his Vickers gun he covered the withdrawal until his gun jammed.
He could see no sign of his comrades, but he heard Italian voices heading his way; he stumbled over a well and hid in it. Unknown to him, his patrol had pulled back to join the rest of the force on the edge of the oasis.
At first light, he climbed out of the well, crept through the village and hid in a hen coop. When the owner emerged from his house Carr, using sign language and very basic Arabic, managed to make him understand that he needed a camel to make good his escape.
The villager, nodding enthusiastically, disappeared – only to return with German soldiers. Carr dived into a heap of straw, but when the Germans started prodding it with their bayonets, he gave himself up.
The raid had failed. The garrison had been reinforced by the Afrika Corps at the last moment, and intense darkness had prevented the guides from identifying the defences until they were almost on top of them.
There had also been a leak of intelligence: the enemy was expecting them. It had cost six men wounded, 10 captured and 14 vehicles lost.
Stuart Michael Carr was born at Frome, Somerset, on October 29 1920 and came from a family of Anglo-Irish soldiers. His father managed a brewery at Stone in Staffordshire, and his mother, an ambitious woman, sent young Michael to Stone Grammar School and his brother to Newcastle-under-Lyme High School.
Six foot four inches tall and weighing 15 stone, he had the build of a rugby player, but there was more to him than brawn. He had a passion for astronomy and would have become a surveyor but for the outbreak of war.
In 1939, he enlisted in the Staffordshire Yeomanry TA and swiftly gained a reputation as an accomplished navigator. In 1940, he was a trooper working in the stables when Major (later Brigadier) Ralph Bagnold, the pioneer in desert exploration, heard about Carr’s rare skills and gave orders that he be released from his unit. His commanding officer refused to let him go, however, so Bagnold sent two military policemen to fetch him.
Bagnold, a 44-year-old veteran of the First World War, had studied Engineering at Cambridge University. In 1927, when he was a major in the Royal Corps of Signals, he and a group of fellow explorers had driven Model T Fords from Cairo to the Siwa Oasis 400 miles to the west.
In the next 10 years, he established himself as the foremost expert on the Western Desert. He invented the sun compass, a primitive but effective navigational device. The metal in vehicles and ferrous deposits, he discovered, made magnetic compasses unreliable. At night, using a theodolite, he took bearings from the stars. The British Army had adopted his sun compass, but few soldiers had much idea how to use it effectively. By 1939, Bagnold’s expertise in desert navigation was in great demand.
In June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France. A large Italian garrison was stationed at Kufra in south-east Libya, and served as an air base for Italian East Africa. It was then that General Archibald Wavell, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East Command, accepted Bagnold’s proposal that a Long Range Patrol be established, for reconnaissance and to find out what the Italians were up to.
The men, mostly New Zealanders at this stage, were selected for intelligence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, resilience and the ability to live in close proximity with each other. Their vehicle was a modified Chevrolet truck, crewed by three men, equipped with a machine gun and carrying rations, fuel and equipment to last 2,500 miles.
With his specialist skills, Carr became an important figure in the unit, soon renamed the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), much celebrated at the time and photographed by Cecil Beaton. It quickly expanded into two squadrons, each with three patrols. The trucks were equipped with Bofors guns, anti-tank rifles and Lewis guns.
Early in February 1941, Y Patrol of the LDRG was formed out of volunteers from Yeomanry regiments. It was commanded by Captain Pat McCraith from the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and Carr, with his navigational flair, was quickly recruited.
The Patrol trained on sand dunes. Some of them were 300 ft high and given names like “whaleback” or “razorback”: they had to be negotiated adroitly if disaster was to be avoided.
In the summer of 1941, Bagnold handed over command of the LRDG to Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Prendergast, but he continued to stay in Egypt and took Carr on missions as his driver and navigator. The two men formed a close bond.
They crossed the desert to Kharga, about 375 miles south of Cairo. The town was a hotbed of espionage and Bagnold had many contacts there among headmen of the Senussi people. Desert nomads, they had been ill-treated by the Italians and were a valuable source of information for the British.
Later that year, Y Patrol was split into two units, Y1 and Y2, each comprising 15 men and five trucks. They were commanded by Captain (later Major General) David Lloyd Owen from the Queen’s Royal Regiment and Captain (later Colonel) Frank Simms from the Warwickshire Regiment. Simms, in command of Y1 Patrol, selected Carr as his navigator.
In November, three Beaufort fighter planes mistook the patrol for the enemy and made three runs, concentrating their cannon fire on Carr’s navigation truck with its prominent aerial poles. They flew so low, he said later, that it looked as if their propellors were being polished by the desert. The truck was set ablaze and Carr and Simms ran for their lives. The next day, two German fighters came in low, took them for allies, waggled their wings and flew off.
On December 1, they discovered a large enemy camp near the coastal town of Derna, Libya. Raiding parties attacked at sundown, destroying 15 vehicles.
When Carr got back to his truck he found that part of the patrol was missing. He was searching for the men when a German soldier leapt down at him from the back of a truck. Firing from the hip, Carr dealt with him.
The patrol, assuming that he had been captured, moved off. Carr knew where the next night’s raid was planned, and decided to walk there. He stopped at a Senussi settlement to ask for food and water, but after drinking camel’s milk he became ill and was put to bed on sheepskins.
It was almost a week before he recovered; then enemy patrols moved into the area and he had to hide in caves to avoid them. His narrowest escape was when six tanks came into the village. He was not sure whose they were and started walking towards them. The crews were wearing forage caps and, at almost the last moment, he realised that they were Germans. Dressed as an Arab, Carr quickly ducked into a tent.
A week later, a wounded Royal Australian Air Force officer arrived. The man would have died within two days if he had not been rescued, Carr said later. He managed to get a note delivered to a gunner regiment. A few days afterwards, the two men set off on donkeys and were picked up by a truck and returned to the Allied lines.
Next, Y1 Patrol was ordered to undertake a dangerous reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory to Marada, about 60 miles south of El Agheila, Libya, where a radar direction-finding station, detecting allied shipping in the Mediterranean, had to be destroyed.
Carr had the task of navigating the three-vehicle patrol. When he and Simms were within five miles, they went forward on foot with Carr, using his theodolite and the stars to check his bearing. After Carr pinpointed the position of the radar station, Simms and a comrade, Harry Chard, decided to carry out a recce of the fort.
Two German trucks appeared, and an officer and his driver got out. They quickly spotted the tracks in the sand that Simms and Chard had made, and set off after them. Chard fired at one of them, but his revolver jammed. The two men made a run for it, but Simms was shot in the thigh and both were taken prisoner.
Simms subsequently escaped by tunnelling out of Campo 35, the Italian PoW camp at the monastery of Certosa di San Lorenzo in Padula. He was recaptured and sent to the Forte di Gavi, the “Colditz” of northern Italy. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, Simms jumped from an open-top cattle truck taking him to the railway station at Acqui Terme for transfer to a PoW camp in Germany.
The lorry stopped in a swirl of dust. The guard’s gun jammed. Another guard with a Tommy Gun pursued him into the woods, but Simms outran him and hid in the undergrowth.
For the next six weeks, he and a companion trekked hundreds of miles southwards down the Apennine range to the British lines near Campobasso.
Separated from Simms, Carr, who had orders to lead the patrol to safety if his CO was captured or killed, drove through the night, covering almost 300 miles. In daylight hours they hid from the eyes of enemy fighter pilots.
Meanwhile, the embryonic Special Air Service – after a disastrous first mission involving a parachute drop in 1941 during the North African Campaign – had switched from parachuting as a means of infiltration to using the LRDG as their “Libyan Taxi Service”.
But in early 1942 the SAS were not yet self-sufficient, lacking vehicles and trained navigators. David Stirling, their commander, tried to persuade Carr, with his skill at training them up in navigation, to join him, but Carr said no, just as he had always declined the offer of a commission. He wanted to stay with his friends and remain in the ranks as a lance-corporal.
In the first six months of 1942, with the support of LRDG’s “taxi service”, the SAS raided every important German and Italian aerodrome within 300 miles of the forward area and destroyed more than 140 aircraft.
Carr believed, however, that the SAS grew too quickly and that some of the new recruits were below standard. Stirling, he felt, was a brilliant fighting commander but did not want to be bothered with the humdrum business of administration and worrying about where food and water, fuel and ammunition were to come from. The LRDG, on the other hand, had first-rate administrators in Bagnold, Kennedy Shaw and Guy Prendergast, who was a sort of father figure to Carr.
Carr maintained that the LRDG had made the desert their accomplice and they could always outwit the Germans on the ground. The Germans, he said, were afraid of the desert; they were efficient but, in any given situation, their actions were predictable.
It was the low-flying aircraft that frightened Carr, particularly the slow, single-seater, Italian Fiat CR.42 biplane. On one occasion Carr’s truck was strafed by a CR.42 that came in so low that he had a clear view of the pilot. Carr hugged the ground so hard that it left an outline of his body in the clay.
After Carr’s capture at Jalo, he was handed over to the Italians and flown to Benghazi, where he was interrogated by a German officer. He insisted that he was merely a clerk in the Staffordshire Yeomanry who had lost his way in the trackless, featureless desert. The German listened patiently before revealing that he knew exactly who Carr was.
He was sent to a PoW camp in Italy, but after the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Germans began moving PoWs north, and he made his escape from captivity in Poland. He walked several hundred miles south-west, subsisting mostly on carrots from farms and navigating by the stars.
After two months, Carr was ready to drop from malnutrition when a farmer told him that there were American soldiers in a church two fields away.
In the spring of 1945 he was flown back to England. His parents had been told by telegram on three separate occasions that he was “missing, believed killed” and they did not expect to see him again. By coincidence, he arrived home on the same day as his brother, Dan, who had been awarded an MC and Bar.
For many years Carr worked as a surveyor and valuer at the Liverpool office of Atlas Insurance, but in the 1960s he felt he needed a new challenge. He went to university and, having graduated from teacher-training college, he taught art until he retired. He was an accomplished artist as well as a woodcarver and potter.
Lofty Carr married first, in 1946, Anthea Harber. The marriage was dissolved and their two children predeceased him. In 1959 he married Barbara Leese, a primary school teacher, who survives him.
Lofty Carr, born October 29 1920, died April 5 2022