Commando Raid to Capture Rommel - 14/18 Nov 1941
The Commando raid to capture Rommel at his Libyan HQ was called Operation Flipper. The small raiding party achieved total surprise but due to poor intelligence there never was a chance of killing or capturing the General - he was in Rome at the time. Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the Commandos first VC for his role in the action.
Rommel had Tobruk under siege and Cyrenaica under occupation. Churchill had placed Auchinleck under increasing pressure to counter attack and by October 1941 a plan of action code named Crusader was in place.
In advance of the main thrust, Middle East Commando was given two tasks. L Detachment was to raid landing grounds in the Gazala-Tmini area while No 11 Commando was to target various HQ buildings in the Cyrene area including Rommel's HQ. In addition telephone and telegraph communications were to be sabotaged. The raids were to take place on the night of 17/18th November - the eve of the launch of Crusader. Click on maps to enlarge.
A small party left Alexandria on the evening of the 10th of November 1941 in the submarines Torbay and Talisman. On board the former were Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, two officers and 22 men and on the latter were Laycock, two officers and 24 men. They arrived off the landing beaches on the 14th with Keyes in command of the raid on Rommel's HQ with Laycock responsible for the wider Flipper operation.
Waiting on the beach were Captain Jock Haselden and an Arab soldier from G(R) Branch to guide the folbots and dinghies to the beach and to assist in bringing the vessels ashore. The remainder of Haselden's men, comprising two British officers, a Free Belgian Captain and an Arab soldier, were laid up inland. All had been dropped in the area earlier in the day by the Long Range Desert Group. Haselden and his men had some knowledge of the area and would later play a part in sabotaging communication links.
At 6.30 p.m. Haselden flashed his torch out to sea and by 6.50 p.m. the first of the folbots arrived out of the darkness. However, before all the men could disembark from the submarines, heavy seas intervened and of Laycock's party only 7 men and Laycock himself made it ashore. There was now an immediate need to review the plans taking into account the reduced resources and the overriding need to co-ordinate the raids with Crusader on the night of the 18th. Amended plans were drawn up as follows; an attack on Rommel's house & HQ by Keyes and 18 other ranks (ORs), the sabotage of telephone and telegraph communications at the cross-road south of Cyrene by Lieutenant Cook and 6 ORs and on the El Fridia to Slonta road by Haselden and his 5 ORs. Under cover of darkness on the 15th they set off on their 15/20 mile trek inland in heavy rain. (Photo; Italian radio station at Appollonia, which was an original target (1 of 3) during the raid on Rommel's HQ. Courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours.)
Laycock decided to remain at the rendezvous (RV) with the reserve ammunition in the hope that the rest of his men would arrive. He was the only person, other than Keyes, who understood the plan in its entirety and he would be needed to lead his men should they succeed in coming ashore.
As Keyes approached his objective at Beda Littoria on the 17th November friendly Arabs indicated that Rommel's HQ was located at Sidi-Rafa. This was a view also held by Haselden and so Sidi-Rafa became the new target. The plan was for Keyes, Captain Campbell and Sergeant Terry to enter the building. Other ranks were to take up positions to prevent enemy interference. These deployments were to; disable the electric light plant (3 men), watch the exits from the guard tent and car park (5), prevent anyone from leaving a nearby hotel (2), guard the road either side of the building (2) and guard whatever entrance Keyes and his men used to gain access to the building (2).
All parties took up position just before midnight. Having found no entry at the rear of the building Keyes, Campbell and Terry walked up to the front door and beat upon it. Campbell demanded entry in German. The door was opened eventually and on realising he had been duped the sentry put up resistance. Unable to overpower him silently Campbell shot him. The cat was out of the bag!
A burst of fire from Terry's Tommy gun persuaded two Germans, who deemed to investigate the commotion, to return upstairs. Outside sentries gunned down two others who were seen running towards the building. Lights were switched on in many rooms. Keyes and Campbell started a systematic search of the ground floor. The occupants of the second room decided to resist and a burst of fire hit Keyes as he opened the door... see photo opposite provided courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours. He fell back into the corridor mortally wounded. Terry emptied two magazines into the room and Campbell finished the job by lobbing in a grenade and closing the door. They took Keyes outside where he died almost immediately. While attending to him Campbell's lower leg was broken by a stray bullet. He ordered Terry to regroup the men and to have them dispose of their remaining grenades through any available windows. He then ordered himself to be abandoned as the men made their way to their operational RV. He realised that to be carried some 18 miles to the beach over precipitous terrain and 2000 feet of decent would be an intolerable burden on his men and might jeopardise their safe return. Campbell would later have his leg amputated in an Italian prison camp.
Jack Terry and his seventeen men met up with Laycock and his base party of three at the RV but nothing more was heard of Cook and his group of six. On the night of the 18th Torbay made contact with Laycock by Aldis lamp. Once more the seas were too rough to launch the dinghies but the submarine managed to get food and water ashore. The next day it became clear that the enemy was aware of Laycock's position on the beach. First Arab Carabinieri, then small groups of Germans and then Italians were seen in the area. Fire was opened on Laycock and his men and he was forced to abandon his position and move inland. He ordered his men to form small units of no more than three men and to make their escape from the area. Optional destinations included an alternative beach where Talisman would be waiting, the Slonta area where it was known that the Long Range Desert Group was operating or wadis to the north of Cyrene where they could lay up until definite news of the progress of Crusader was received. Later friendly Arabs told Haselden that a map of the landing beach had been found on one of the British prisoners. This accounted for the early discovery of the well concealed beach party.
Of the entire force Laycock and Terry made it back to British lines after 37 days in the desert and Bombardier John Brittlebank, DCM, 930882 RA, 3 & 8 Cdo & 1 SBS, managed to get back to Allied lines alone. His DCM citation runs, "This NCO had previously taken part in the raid on Rommel's HQ and had succeeded in finding his way back to his unit after being 40 days in the desert behind enemy lines" (Cdo Gallantry Awards P65). The remainder of the force were either taken prisoner or killed by hostile Arabs.
It later transpired that Rommel had used the HQ at Beda Littoria as confirmed in the Rommel Diaries and he had also used the original building at Sidi-Rafa but only as a logistics HQ. In any event he had been in Rome at the time of the raid and did not return to North Africa until the 18th. Jock Haselden and his men completed their demolition tasks and successfully returned to Allied lines courtesy of the Long Range Desert Group. The raid was largely unsuccessful since few of its objectives were achieved and virtually all the men involved from Middle East Commando were lost in action or taken prisoner.
When Laycock and Terry arrived at 8th Army HQ on December 25 a signal was sent to Oliver Lyttleton the Minister in Cairo stating "Feel it would interest C-in-C and Minister to know that Laycock arrived today at 9.20 p.m. for his Christmas dinner." The reply was "Please state why Laycock was one hour 20 minutes late for his Christmas Dinner."
For his part in the raid Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the first Commando Victoria Cross. On Rommel's instructions, Keyes was buried with full military honours with Rommel's personal chaplain, priest Rudolf Dalmrath, officiating. Cypress crosses and wreaths were made for the British and German dead. Photos of the ceremony were sent to Keyes' parents; a chivalrous wartime act on the part of Rommel. [Photo, left, courtesy of John Williamson who wrote; the photo was taken on 20th March 1948 whilst I was serving with the Royal Signals in Benghazi. The wooden crosses were, apparently, subsequently replaced.]
BENGHAZI WAR CEMETERY (Libya) KEYES, Lieutenant Colonel, Geoffrey Charles Tasker, VC, MC, 71081. Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons), R.A.C. 18th November 1941. Age 24. Awarded Croix de Guerre. FRASER, Private T C, The Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, No 11 Commando. 20 - 24 June 1941, age 23. MACQUARRIE Lance Corporal D MacL, 3319006 Gordon Highlanders, No 11 Commando, 31/12/41 aged 24.
ENFIDAVILLE WAR CEMETERY (Tunisia) BROWN, Corporal. Leslie Jock, 5437777. Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 26. NIXON, Private, Malvern, 3056939. Royal Scots. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 23.
KNIGHTSBRIDGE WAR CEMETERY, Acroma (Lybia). WOOD A J, Sgt 3054128, Royal Scots. 04/12/1941. Age 28. (Photos courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours).
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.
Black Hackle (on this website) by Graham Lappin - an historical account of No.11 (Scottish) Commando which includes a section on Operation Flipper.
Get Rommel: The Secret British Mission to Kill Hitler's Greatest General by Michael Asher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004, 303pp 029784685X
Rommel in North Africa - more information on the 'desert fox'.
Geoffrey Keyes, VC of the Rommel Raid by Elizabeth Keyes. Pub 1956 by George Newnes Ltd, London, WC2.
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
My father, Dennis Birch, ex 11 Commando, died in 2011. Whilst clearing out his house I found some interesting material including the attached 1948 letter from the Rt. Hon. Elizabeth Keyes, sister of Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes. (Cick here to open). My father often mentioned the raid on Rommel’s HQ and his involvement but otherwise spoke little of his time in North Africa other than to say that they were constantly moving backwards and forwards ‘up the desert’. Also in his belongings I found a copy of the Trobuk Truth from 1942, a newsletter distributed to the troops and a printed copy of Montgomery’s rallying speech. He kept these without really telling anyone.
I'm not sure if he replied to Elizabeth Keyes but I've requested a copy of her book that was published in 1956 to see if my dad gets a mention.
You may be interested in the picture of my dad, Frank Varney of 11th Commando (3rd from the left in photo). He was part of the raiding party who tried to capture Rommel in 1941. I wonder if anyone has information about him or his war service. Regards, Andrew Varney.
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