Ralph Alger Bagnold, FRS OBE

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Ralph Alger Bagnold

Birthdate: (94)
Death: May 28, 1990 (94)
Immediate Family:

Son of Colonel Arthur Henry Bagnold and Ethel Bagnold
Brother of Enid Bagnold, Lady Jones, CBE

Managed by: Robert Meikle
Last Updated:

About Ralph Alger Bagnold, FRS OBE


Brigadier Ralph Alger Bagnold, FRS OBE, (3 April 1896 – 28 May 1990) was the founder and first commander of the British Army's Long Range Desert Group during World War II. 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 laid the foundations for the research on sand transport by wind in his influential book The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (first published 1941; reprinted by Dover in 2005), which is still a main reference in the field. It has, for instance, been used by NASA in studying sand dunes on Mars.

Early life

Bagnold was born in Devonport, England. His father, Colonel Arthur Henry Bagnold (1854–1943) (Royal Engineers), participated in the rescue expedition of 1884–85 to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum. His sister was the novelist and playwright Enid Bagnold, who wrote the 1935 novel National Velvet.

After Malvern College, he attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In 1915, Ralph Bagnold followed in his father's footsteps and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He spent three years in the trenches in France, being Mentioned in Despatches in 1917 and receiving the Belgian Order of Leopold in 1919.

After the war Bagnold studied engineering at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, obtaining an MA before returning to active duty in 1921. He served in Cairo and the North West Frontier, India, where he was again mentioned in despatches. In both of these locations he spent much of his leave exploring the local deserts. After having read Hussein Bey's "Lost Oasis" he spent one such expedition in 1929 using a Ford Model A automobile and two Ford lorries exploring the vast swathe of desert from Cairo to Ain Dalla which was an area reputed to contain the mythical city of Zerzura. After a brief period of half-pay, he left the Army in 1935 but rejoined upon the outbreak of World War II.

Desert innovation

Bagnold and his travelling companions were early pioneers in the use of motor vehicles to explore the desert. In 1932, Bagnold explored the Mourdi Depression, now in Chad, and found implements dated to the Palaeolithic period in the valley. Bagnold wrote of his travels in the book Libyan Sands: Travels in a Dead World (1935). He is credited with developing a sun compass, which is not affected by the large iron ore deposits found in the desert areas or by metal vehicles as a magnetic compass might be. During the 1930s his group also began the practice of reducing tyre 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 off 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."

When Italy declared war on Britain, Bagnold was in Cairo by the pure accident of a troopship collision. He 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 "should be met instantly and without question." This unit would become the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In 1941, Bagnold was promoted and oversaw the successes of the LRDG from a more senior position eventually achieving the temporary rank of brigadier.

Scientific research and later life

alph Bagnold became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1944[1] and, on 7 June 1944 he retired from the army permanently with the honorary rank of brigadier[3] and returned to his scientific interests.

On 8 May 1946, Bagnold married Dorothy Alice Plank at Rottingdean, Sussex (daughter of A.E. Plank). The couple had a son and a daughter.[3]

Bagnold's passion for science never left him and he continued to publish scientific papers into his nineties. Bagnold's scientific career was no less spectacular than his military one or his desert explorations. He made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of desert structures such as sand dunes, ripples and sheets. He developed the dimensionless Bagnold number and Bagnold formula for characterising sand flow. He also proposed a model for singing sands and made contributions to the science of sedimentology. His efforts were rewarded by a large number of awards, prizes and honorary degrees. He was the 1969 recipient of the G. K. Warren Prize from the National Academy of Sciences. In 1971 he received the Wollaston Medal, the highest award granted by the Geological Society of London and in 1981 the David Linton Award of the British Geomorphological Research Group. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974. Other awards included the 1970 Penrose Medal by the Geological Society of America; and the Sorby Medal from the International Association of Sedimentologists. He also received honorary D.Sc. degrees from both the University of East Anglia and the Danish University of Aarhus.

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Ralph Alger Bagnold, FRS OBE's Timeline

April 3, 1896
May 28, 1990
Age 94