17 March 1916 – Rat Patrol

Western Egypt is mostly hard-packed dirt under a layer of dust, which is decent terrain for motorcars, though they still do get stuck sometimes in the softer spots. During the recent battle at Agagia, when the scratch Western Frontier Force defeated an incursion of Senussi militants that Turkish officers have instigated in eastern Libya, three of the four Royal Naval Air Service armored cars got stuck by the end of the day, but their contribution as mobile machine gun platforms had been invaluable. Unlike actual horses, the horsepower of engines does not diminish with use; fed cans of fuel instead of bulky provender, motors will keep motoring until they break; even then, motors are generally easier to fix than horses. Horses are still vital to armies in 1916, but the process of supplanting them with machinery has begun.

Led by Major Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, and consisting of nine armored Rolls Royce cars and one open-top Ford manned by 32 sailors, the Light Armoured Car Brigade scored a real coup three days ago by making an unsupported raid at Bir Asiso. Twenty-three miles from the nearest friendly troops, they surrounded and circled the camp, pouring machine gun fire into it and exploding several camels laden with fuel and ammunition. The surviving insurgents surrendered immediately, along with their Turkish officers and modern arms.


Stripped of inessential parts, this Ford Model T has been lightened for desert patrol duties. Via Light Car Patrols

The operation has effectively snuffed out further Senussi resistance. As the infantry of the WFF takes the rocky passes above the coastal frontier town of Sollum today without opposition, the Duke of Westminster seizes another opportunity to make best use of his unique mobility. Examining a derelict car at Bir Asiso, he has found a letter from Captain Gwatkin-Williams, a British merchant captain who is being held at Bir Hakeim in Libya, addressed to a Turkish officer. Taken prisoner along with his crew when the German submarine U-35 sank their steamer Tara off the Egyptian coast, and held at the Bir Hakeim oasis with the crew of the sunken horse transport Moorina, Gwatkin-Williams has already attempted to escape once in hopes of finding help. His letter mentions the threat of starvation and dehydration for his men, who are forced to labor in the desert heat.

The Duke

The 2nd Duke of Westminster in 1914

Finding a guide among the Bir Asiso prisoners who once visited Bir Hakeim three decades ago as a boy, the Duke leaves today with nine armored cars, three armed but unarmored Fords, and 28 more vehicles to serve as trucks and ambulances. Reaching the 75-mile mark where he expected to find the oasis, the Duke keeps going even as his fuel runs low. Finally reaching Bir Hakeim after nearly 120 miles of off-road travel, their sudden appearance shocks the Senussi, who break and run away, leaving their leader, a Muslim cleric known as ‘Holy Joe,’ behind to be captured. Rushing out to thank their rescuers, the British mariners are malnourished because ‘Holy Joe’ has fed them nothing but the abundant local snails. Charged with abusing prisoners of war, the Senussi warden is hanged before the war band roars away.

The Duke of Westminster receives the Distinguished Service Order and is promoted to Colonel of the Regiment in 1917. Largely withdrawn from the battlefield as a national hero, his ‘light car patrols’ will continue to be a key security tactic in Western Egypt for the remainder of the war. While the Second World War gets all the press as an innovative North African battlefield, a recognizable pattern of warfare in the region is already set for the new century. Reactionary in his politics, Hugh Grosvenor also figures at the margins of World War II. Meeting the French fashion mogul Coco Chanel in postwar Monaco, he becomes her lover for a time. Coco, who defiantly set up shop in Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay on the first day of 1915, is already a roaring success and woman of means; she will only agree to be his mistress. Years after their torrid romance ends, when Chanel has taken a Nazi spy lover, they conceive of a plan to interest Winston Churchill in a separate peace with Germany. Churchill is unresponsive to ‘Operation Modellhut,’ however, and the inventor of modern female fashion will repent her collaboration by spending fifteen years away from postwar Paris, returning to a cold reception in the press.


The 2nd Duke of Westminster and his girlfriend Coco Chanel: perhaps not the best of couples