Ralph A. Bagnold (1896 - 1990), during World War II, was the founder and first commander of the British Army's Long Range Desert Group. He is also generally considered to have been a "pioneer" of desert exploration, an acclaim earned for his activities during the 1930s. These included the first recorded east-west crossing of the Libyan Desert (1932). Bagnold was also a veteran of World War I. He held a degree in engineering and was the author of The Physics of Blown Sand (1941), which has been used by NASA in studying sand dunes on Mars.
He is credited with developing a sun compass, which is not affected by metal vehicles as a magnetic compass might be. During the 1930s his group also began the practice of reducing tire pressure when driving over loose sand.
In addition, Bagnold is credited with discovering a method of driving over the large sand dunes found in the "sand seas" of the Libyan Desert. He wrote, "I increased speed... A huge glaring wall of yellow shot up high into the sky. The lorry tipped violently backwards - and we rose as in a lift, smoothly without vibration. We floated up on a yellow cloud. All the accustomed car movements had ceased; only the speedometer told us we were still moving fast. It was incredible..." However, noted Fitzroy Maclean, "too much dash had its penalties. Many of the dunes fell away sharply at the far side and if you arrived at the top at full speed, you were likely to plunge headlong over the precipice...and end up with your truck upside down on top of you."
World War II
Bagnold wrote, "Never in our peacetime travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled of by sheer distance, lack of water, and impassable seas of sand dunes. Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use."
After Italy declared war on Britain, Bagnold requested an interview with General Wavell and asked permission to create a mobile scouting force. Wavell asked him what he would do if he found the Italians were not doing anything in the desert, Bagnold then suggested that his unit might be able to commit acts of "piracy". Bagnold was given six weeks to form his unit under the conditions that any request he might make of "should be met instantly and without question." This unit would become the Long Range Desert Group.