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SAND

THE AFTERNOON OF JANUARY 11, 1941, WAS SLEEPY AND QUIET AT THE FORT DEEP IN THE SAHARA IN ITALIAN-OCCUPIED LIBYA, IN AN OASIS CALLED MURZUQ. THOUGH THEIR COMRADES BACK HOME WERE EMBROILED IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR RAGING ACROSS EUROPE, THE ITALIAN SOLDIERS GUARDING THIS OUTPOST, A STRATEGIC ROAD JUNCTION, FELT COMFORTABLY DISTANT FROM THE BATTLE. AS FAR AS THEY KNEW, THE CLOSEST ENEMY WAS HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY, IN BRITISH-CONTROLLED EGYPT. MURZUQ’S DEFENDERS WERE SO RELAXED, SOME OF THEM WERE OUTSIDE THE WALLS FOR AN AFTER-LUNCH STROLL.

Out of nowhere, a column of military trucks and jeeps came roaring toward the fort, spitting machine-gun fire. The invaders—British, French, and New Zealander troops—split into two groups. One hammered the compound with mortars and machine-gun fire, while the second raced toward a nearby airfield. Before most of the aerodrome defenders had time to reach their weapons, the commandos overran them. The Allied troops leaped from their vehicles, dashed into the hangar, poured gasoline over the three bombers inside, and set them ablaze. Snatching up several Italians as prisoners, the strike force sped away, disappearing into the Sahara.

You can’t blame the Italians for having let down their guard. The attack seemed impossible. How could nearly two dozen enemy vehicles have traveled, undetected, across all those miles of rock and sand?

That night, from a remote desert camp, the Allied soldiers—members of an elite squad known as the Long Range Desert Group—related news of the assault via a wireless transceiver to British headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. There, Ralph Alger Bagnold, a tall, sinewy British army lieutenant colonel, received the report with satisfaction.

Bagnold had founded the Long Range Desert Group the previous year, and had

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