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Ralph Alger Bagnold
Ralph Alger Bagnold
Born (1896-04-03)3 April 1896
Plymouth (Stoke-Devonport), England
Died 28 May 1990(1990-05-28) (aged 94)
Known for desert exploration,
aeolian research,
founding Long Range Desert Group
Home town Devonport
Spouse(s) Dorothy Alice Bagnold
Parents Col. Arthur Henry Bagnold, CB, CMG (1854-1944) and Ethel Alger (née Wills).
Military career
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Rank Brigadier (Honourary)
Unit Royal Engineers
Battles/wars World War I
World War II

Brigadier Ralph Alger Bagnold, FRS[1] OBE,[2] (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 1884 - 1885 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.[3]

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.[3] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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

Ralph 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.[5] In 1971 he received the Wollaston Medal, the highest award granted by the Geological Society of London [6] and in 1981 the David Linton Award of the British Geomorphological Research Group.[7] He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974.[8] 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.

Honours and awards[3]

Officer of the Order of the British Empire 8 July 1941
Mentioned in Despatches 2 January 1917, 1 September 1931, 30 December 1941
Knight, Order of Leopold with palm (Belgium), 5 April 1919, etc.

See also

  • Aeolian processes
  • Bagnold formula
  • Bagnold number


  1. 1.0 1.1 doi:10.1098/rsbm.1991.0003
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  2. Documents online: Ralph Alger Bagnold's OBE, awarded 8 July 1941. The National Archives. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Houterman, Hans; Koppes, Jeroen. "British Army Officers - 1939-1945: Babbage, C.A.E. to Bartlett, W.J.O.". World War II Unit Histories. Retrieved 12 December 2010. 
  4. Archäologie, Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR. Zentralinstitut für Alte Geschichte und (1977). The Archaeological Map of the Sudan. Akademie-Verlag. p. 26. 
  5. "G.K. Warren Prize". Awards. National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 2007-06-04. 
  6. "Wollaston Medal". Award winners since 1831. The Geological Society. Retrieved 2008-03-08. 
  7. Warren A. 1990. Obituary: Brigadier R. A. Bagnold 1896-1990. Geographical Journal 156(3):353-354.
  8. "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 5 May 2011. 

External reference

List of publications

  1. Bagnold, R.A. 1931. Journeys in the Libyan Desert, 1929 and 1930. The Geographical Journal 78(1):13-39; (6):524-533.
  2. Bagnold, R.A. 1933. A further journey through the Libyan Desert. The Geographical Journal 82(2):103-129; (3):211-213, 226-235.
  3. Bagnold, R.A. 1935. The movement of desert sand. The Geographical Journal 85(4):342-365.
  4. Bagnold, R.A. 1935. Libyan Sands. London: Travel Book Club, 351 pp.
  5. Bagnold, R.A. 1936. The movement of desert sand. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 157(892):594-620.
  6. Bagnold, R.A. 1937. The transport of sand by wind. The Geographical Journal 89(5):409-438.
  7. Bagnold, R.A. 1937. The size-grading of sand by wind. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 163(913):250-264.
  8. Bagnold, R.A. 1938. Grain structure of sand dunes in relation to water content. Nature 142(3591):403-404.
  9. Bagnold, R.A. 1938. The measurement of sand storms. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 167(929):282-290.
  10. Bagnold, R.A. 1939. A lost world refound. Scientific American 161(5, November):261-263.
  11. Bagnold, R.A. 1939. Committee on wave pressures: interim report on wave-pressure research. Journal of the Institute of Civil Engineers 12:201-226.
  12. Bagnold, R.A., Myers, O.H., Peel, R.F. and Winkler, H.A. 1939. An expedition to the Gilf Kebir and 'Uweinat, 1938. The Geographical Journal 93(4):281-313.
  13. Bagnold, R.A. 1940. Beach formation by waves: some model experiments in a wave tank. Journal of the Institute of Civil Engineers 15(5237):27-53.
  14. Bagnold, R.A. 1941. The physics of blown sand and desert dunes. London: Methuen, 265 pp.
  15. Bagnold, R.A. 1945. Early days of the Long Range Desert Group. The Geographical Journal 105(1-2):30-42.
  16. Bagnold, R.A. 1946. Motion of waves in shallow water. Interaction between waves and sand bottoms. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 187:1-18.
  17. Bagnold, R.A. 1947. Sand movement by waves: some small-scale experiments with sand of very low density. Journal of the Institute of Civil Engineers 27(5554):447-469.
  18. Bagnold, R.A. 1951. Measurement of very low velocities of water flow. Nature 167:1025-1027.
  19. Bagnold, R.A. 1951. The movement of a cohesionless granular bed by fluid flow over it. British Journal of Applied Physics 2(2):29-34.
  20. Bagnold, R.A. 1951. Some problems of desert physics. Bulletin de l'Institut Fouad premier du désert 1(2):27-34.
  21. Bagnold, R.A. 1951. The sand formations in southern Arabia. The Geographical Journal 117(1):78-86.
  22. Bagnold, R.A. 1953. Navigating ashore. Journal of the Institute of Navigation 6:184-193.
  23. Bagnold, R.A. 1953. Forme des dunes de sable et régime des vents. In: Actions éoliennes, phénomènes d'évaporation et d'hydrologie superficielle dans les régions arides, Centre national de la Recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris, Colloques internationaux 35, pp. 23–32.
  24. Bagnold, R.A. 1953. The surface movement of blown sand in relation to meteorology. In: Desert Research, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Jerusalem, 7–14 May 1952, Research Council of Israel, Special Publication 2, pp. 89–93.
  25. Bagnold, R.A. 1954. Physical aspects of dry deserts. In: Cloudsley-Thompson, J.L. (ed). Biology of Deserts, Proceedings of a symposium held in London, 1952, Institute of Biology, London, pp. 7–12.
  26. Bagnold, R.A. 1954. Experiments on a gravity-free dispersion of large solid spheres in a Newtonian fluid under shear. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 225(1160):49-63.
  27. Bagnold, R.A. 1955. Some flume experiments on large grains but little denser than the transporting fluid, and their implications. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 4(3):174-205.
  28. Bagnold, R.A. 1956. The flow of cohesionless grains in fluids. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A 249(964):235-297.
  29. Bagnold, R.A. 1960. The re-entrainment of settled dust. International Journal of Air Pollution 2(3):357-363.
  30. Bagnold, R.A. 1960. Some aspects of shape of river meanders. United States Geological Survey, Professional Paper 282-E, pp. 135–144.
  31. Bagnold, R.A. 1960. Sediment discharge and stream power; a preliminary announcement. U.S. geol. Surv. Circular 421.
  32. Leopold, L.B., Bagnold, R.A., Wollman, M.G. and Brush, L.M. 1960. Flow resistance in sinuous or irregular channels. United States Geological Survey, Professional Paper 282-D, pp. 111–134.
  33. Bagnold, R.A. 1962. Saltation (air and water). In: Thewlis, J. (ed), Encyclopaedic dictionary of physics, Volume 6, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 370–371.
  34. Bagnold, R.A. 1962. Transport of sand by wind. In: Thewlis, J. (ed), Encyclopaedic dictionary of physics, Volume 7, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 436–440.
  35. Bagnold, R.A. 1962. Auto-suspension of transported sediment; turbidity currents. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 265:315-319.
  36. Bagnold, R.A. 1963. Beach and nearshore processes - Part 1, Mechanics of marine sedimentation. In: Hill, M.N. (ed.), The sea - ideas and observations on progress in the study of the sea. New York and London: Interscience Wiley, vol. 3, pp. 507–528.
  37. Inman, D.L. and Bagnold, R.A. 1963. Beach and nearshore processes - Part 2, Littoral processes. In: Hill, M.N. (ed), The sea - ideas and observations on progress in the study of the sea. New York and London: Interscience Wiley, vol. 3, pp. 529–553.
  38. Bagnold, R.A. 1966. The shearing and dilation of dry sand and the "singing" mechanism. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 295(1442):219-232.
  39. Bagnold, R.A. 1966. An approach to the sediment transport problem from general physics. United States Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 422-I, 37 pp.
  40. Smith, W.O., Olsen, H.W., Bagnold, R.A. and Rice, J.C. 1966. Certain flows of air and water in sands during infiltrations. Soil Science 101(6):441-449.
  41. Bagnold, R.A. 1968. Deposition in the process of hydraulic transport. Sedimentology 10(1):45-56.
  42. Bagnold, R.A. 1971. Response to presentation of the 1970 Penrose Medal. Geological Society of America Bulletin 82:xiii-xvii.
  43. Bagnold, R.A. 1971. Singing sands. In: Thewlis, J. (ed), Encyclopaedic dictionary of physics, Volume 4, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 408–410.
  44. Bagnold, R.A. 1973. The nature of saltation and of "bed-load" transport in water. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 332(1591):473-504.
  45. Bagnold, R.A. 1974. Fluid forces on a body in shear-flow: Experimental use of 'stationary flow'. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 340(1621):147-171.
  46. Sagan, C. and Bagnold, R.A. 1975. Fluid transport on Earth and aeolian transport on Mars. Icarus 26(2):209-218.
  47. Bagnold, R.A. 1977. Bed load transport by natural rivers. Water Resources Research 13:303-312.
  48. Bagnold, R.A. 1979. Sediment transport by wind and water. Nordic Hydrology 10(5):309-322.
  49. Bagnold, R.A. 1980. An empirical correlation of bedload transport rates in flumes and natural rivers. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 372(1751):453-473.
  50. Bagnold, R.A. and Barndorff-Nielsen, O.E. 1980. The pattern of natural size distributions. Sedimentology 27(2):199-207.
  51. Bagnold, R.A. 1983. The nature and correlation of random distributions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 388(1795):273-291.
  52. Bagnold, R.A. 1985. Transport of granular solids by wind and water compared. In: Barndorff-Nielsen, O., Møller, J.-T., Rasmussen, K.R. and Willetts, B.B. (eds), Proceedings of the International Workshop on the Physics of Blown Sand, 28–31 May, University of Aarhus, Department of Theoretical Statistics, Institute of Mathematics, Memoir 8, pp. 1–8.
  53. Bagnold, R.A. 1986. Transport of solids by natural water flow: evidence for a worldwide correlation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 405(1829):369-374.
  54. Bagnold, R.A. 1988 Concluding remarks. In: Thorne, C.R., MacArthur R.C. and Bradley, J.B. (eds), The Physics of Sediment Transport, A Collection of Hallmark Papers by R. A. Bagnold. New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, Hydraulics Division, Book number 665, pp. 352–353.
  55. Bagnold, R.A. 1990. Sand, Wind, and War; Memoirs of a Desert Explorer. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, ISBN 0-8165-121-6, 202 pp.

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