Two years in the Western Desert

The Western frontier of Egypt is over 700 miles long. Most of this is desert, with only a narrow habitable coastal strip heading away towards Tripoli. To the west of British-controlled Egypt, Arab and Berber tribes in 1916 were being agitated by German and Turkish propaganda, and fuelled by German money and they began to attack the British frontier posts. The Western Frontier Force or WFF was formed out of battalions from different countries to protect Egypt.

Not again
Simon Digby’s father Tom served in the 4th Dragoon Guards. Starting the war as a cavalryman on the Western Front, he then transferred to the armoured car division as part of the Western Desert Force under Major General William Watson, where he was mentioned in despatches. He gained the rank of Captain in 1919 in the service of the Battery of Light Armoured Cars, Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
The first Rolls-Royce armoured car was a privately owned vehicle fitted with a machine-gun and a limited amount of armour plate at a dockyard in France. It was used by the Royal Naval Air Service in Flanders in 1914. Backed by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, better versions followed until, by 1915 there were about 100 armoured cars which were handed over to the Army. Soon there were Rolls-Royce armoured cars operating in German South West Africa, the Western Desert, Gallipoli and the north west frontier of India. All of them used the classic 40/50hp Silver Ghost chassis. Production of the cars chassis was halted temporarily in 1917 to enable Rolls-Royce to concentrate on aircraft engines.
Lt. Col T.E. Lawrence used armoured cars on a number of his expeditions and raids in Arabia and noted that the cars were ‘more valuable than rubies’ for desert action. In his book Revolt in the Desert (1927) an abridged version of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence praised his armoured cars as ‘that most involved and intricate weapon’.
The Digby family are very lucky as a war diary survives of Tom’s experiences in Western Egypt and the Lybian (sic) desert in 1916 -1917. The journal contains interesting photographs, and one or two of Tom’s own sketches and drawings, including one of desert rats! Tom started to write entries on 24th December 1915, while still in France. The three batteries of high armoured cars left Flanders on Christmas Eve for St Omer to entrain for Marseilles en route for Egypt. It took several days to load all the cars etc. on board. Their ship was busy dodging submarines for most of the voyage but eventually they landed safely at Alexandria and their African adventure began.

Sheikhs of Araby
This article can give only a flavour of some of Tom’s desert adventures in an area so recently a battleground once more. Tom’s diary entries give some insight into the desert battle waged by soldiers of the British Empire against the Senussi, a religious sect of tribesmen, based in Libya, who were supported by both the German and the Ottoman Empires. Tom worked alongside the Duke of Westminster and Major Owston and many other characters whose antics he describes affectionately in his journal, including one of the porters called Mohamed who “thought nothing of consuming a whole tin of jam at a sitting”- presumably Tickler’s!
HMS Tara was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Libyan coast on 5th November 1915. The crew were saved by the Germans and then handed over to Senussi tribesmen who held them as prisoners at Bir Hakkim along with the crew of the HMT Moorina, a horse transport. On 14th March 1916 the Duke of Westminster’s armoured car brigade, including Tom Digby, dashed 120 miles across the desert in their Rolls-Royces to rescue the prisoners. The brigade also used 6 Model T Fords armed with Lewis guns.
The armoured cars were a mixed blessing in the desert as they often got stuck in Wadis or needed hauling up steep sand dunes – hard work in the relentless heat. If no mules were available the men had to drag the cars themselves. Cars broke down all the time and needed constant attention and tyre changes. Distances were measured in how far a camel could march in a day. The men had to build roads by strengthening desert tracks and scout ahead to find suitable vantage points for using their heliograph machines.
Finding enough water for man and beast was a constant problem and Tom drew a fascinating diagram of one underground well they managed to reach by wriggling on their tummies down a pothole. He also mentions the dead camel they found in a well whose water they had been told by a doctor was safe to drink!
There were ample opportunities for hunting, fishing, sailing, bathing and other gentlemanly pursuits. Amid details of skirmishes with the Senussi, and problems with their cars, Tom made a note of the birds he saw, including one day plovers from his home county of Norfolk.

Tom was part of the British force consisting of armoured cars, under the command of Brigadier-General Hodgson which was dispatched to Siwa in February 1917 and won an engagement against the Senussi. The Senussi leader was forced to withdraw from Egypt into Libya and in April signed a peace accord with Britain and Italy. The attack by the Senussi on Egypt did not allow the Ottoman Empire to win against the British east of the Suez Canal. The majority of the Egyptian population did not join the Jihad, and they did not rise against the British. Operations continued until 1918, but the western threat against Egypt and the vital Suez Canal had been defeated. Sayyid Ahmed was forced to go into exile in Constantinople and his nephew eventually became King Idris I of Libya.Tom’s journal ends abruptly in November 1917 when he seems relieved to be going “After nearly two years in this desert”.

Thomas Hankinson Digby was born in 1892 and educated at Marlborough College. He married in 1938 and died in 1985 aged 93. He had three sons Simon, Patrick & Robin. Simon lives in Ramsgate.

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