Commonwealth troopers and their Canuck-built Chevies
December 1, 2002
RENO, Nev. - The War in Afghanistan may have fizzled out, but with operations spreading to Iraq and perhaps elsewhere, we can only hope that the outcome will be as beneficial to us as that of World Wa...
RENO, Nev. – The War in Afghanistan may have fizzled out, but with operations spreading to Iraq and perhaps elsewhere, we can only hope that the outcome will be as beneficial to us as that of World War II.
“The last good war,” as some wistfully call it, ended 56 years ago, yet interest in it endures.
Canadians and Americans provided men, munitions and machinery in support of the Allied cause, and here’s an example: a desert patrol truck which fought as well as hauled. It’s a replica of a group of special, militarized Chevrolets built early in the war by General Motors Canada in Oshawa, Ont., for the British Army.
The replica was assembled from 1941 to ’46 GM civilian trucks and outfitted with authentic military equipment from the period. It’s owned by a pair of California enthusiasts who took it to the American Truck Historical Society’s annual convention in Reno, Nev., last June. That’s where I spotted it and one of its owners, Jack Valenti of Pebble Beach, founder of the LRDG Preservation Society.
The initials mean Long Range Desert Group, an irregular reconnaissance unit that worked behind Italian and German lines in North Africa, starting in September 1940. It was formed the month before by New Zealanders led by British officers. The Brits were expatriate desert explorers working in Egypt when the war started.
“Because the LRDG was made up of volunteers it never really had regimental status,” says a passage of military history posted on the society’s web page. “The men wore whatever clothes were comfortable. Beards and other non-regulation military practices were common, adding much to the ‘piratical’ flavor and swash-buckling image of the LRDG force.”
Later, Afrikaners, Rhodesians, Aussies and other Commonwealth troops rotated in and out of the unit, explains Valenti. He was wearing a typical irregular uniform when he showed the truck at the convention last summer. “There was one American that we know of,” he says. “There may have been some Canadians, because they went over to Britain in the beginning of the war and may have been in British Guards units that sent troops to the LRDG.”
The LRDG snuck into Italian and German territory, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles and navigating featureless terrain by the sun and stars.
Troops knew how to read the tracks of previously passed vehicles, men and camels, and sometimes hid the trucks as they watched convoys and counted enemy soldiers and equipment, reporting back to the British 8th Army by radio.
The LRDG usually numbered 350 to 400 men, and in its three years in the desert lost about 25 killed in skirmishes.
Though the feats accomplished by them and their trucks were remarkable, the militarized Chevies’ basic components were mundane: Capacity of 30 cwt, or hundred-weight (1.5-ton), an 80-horsepower, 235.5-cubic-inch, inline 6-cylinder gasoline engine (though Valenti says it was probably a 216-ci, for which parts were more readily obtainable in North Africa), with a 4-speed transmission and a wheelbase of 134 inches.
Tires were a bit unusual, being 10.50 x 16 run-flat types. Net weight was 6,540 pounds.
Valenti, a 64-year-old retired pharmacist whose poor eyesight kept him out of the Vietnam era military, says he grew up hearing stories about World War II, and eventually became interested in the LRDG. The result is his society, which charges no dues and has no elected officers, and the truck, built by his long-time friend, mechanic, and Naval aviation vet, Rick Butler in Yreka, Calif.
At Valenti’s request, Butler assembled the replica over a two-year period using parts from six trucks and a bus.
The work included a conversion to right-hand drive, which GM installed in the original 1.5-ton “India format” trucks.
They also had cut-down cabs, flotation tires, weapons mounts, and other modifications to their civilian chassis.
The British ordered 200 from GM Canada, but 25 to 50 were lost in convoy sinkings by German U-boats. The rest made it to Egypt and went into service.
They were the unit’s third main group of trucks, Valenti explains. In 1940 the LRDG originally obtained 1.5-ton Chevrolet and GMC “platoon trucks,” like those used by the Egyptian army, from dealers in Cairo and Alexandria.
As these suffered damage or wore out, they were replaced with Ford-built military spec 4x4s.
These got through sand better, but burned far too much petrol – 6 miles per gallon, compared to 12 mpg for the original GM 4×2 trucks.
That’s why the Canadian-built ’42 Chevies were 4x2s. LRDG troops stayed on solid ground when possible, and used “sand mats” made of canvas and steel channels to get across soft sand and extract stuck trucks.
The steel bodies were of military “general purpose” design, and carried radios, heavy weapons and supplies.
Butler worked from pictures to hand-build the replica’s body. It’s configured as a “fitter” truck, which carried extra rations, fuel and water.
But it also mounts a pair of .303 calibre machine guns – an air-cooled Bren up front and a water-cooled Vickers in the back.
With water a precious item, the Vickers’ barrel jacket actually contained glycol, Valenti explains.
The truck wears authentic desert-tan colors and is dinged and dented, as though it just came back from a recon patrol.
The truck is ponderous to drive, mostly because of its limited visibility and strange (for North American roads) right-hand drive, Valenti says.
So he, Butler and their comrades usually trailer it to shows on the West Coast. Check the society’s Web page, www.lrdg.org, for listings of its next appearance.