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~ OPERATION FLIPPER ~

Commando Raid to Capture Rommel - 14/18 Nov 1941

The Commando raid to capture Rommel at his Libyan HQ was codenamed Operation Flipper. The small raiding party achieved total surprise but, due to poor intelligence, the mission was impossible since Rommel was in Rome at the time. Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the Commandos first VC for his role in the action.

Background

Rommel had Tobruk under siege and Cyrenaica under occupation. Churchill 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 this 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 Operation Crusader.

The Action

A small party left Alexandria on the evening of the 10th of November 1941 in 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 November, with Keyes in command of the raid on Rommel's HQ and Laycock in command of the wider Flipper operation.

Waiting for them on the landing beach, were Captain Jock Haselden and an Arab soldier from G(R) Branch. They would guide the folbots (collapsible canoes) 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 (LRDG). Haselden's team had some local knowledge, which would be useful in the operation. As the operation developed, they became involved in sabotaging the enemies communication wires and masts.

At 6.30 pm, Haselden signalled the submarines by flashing his torch out to sea and by 6.50 pm, the first of the folbots from Torbay arrived out of the darkness carrying Keyes and his men. However, only 7 men and Laycock himself made it ashore from Tulisman before rough weather brought the landing to a halt. With reduced numbers now available, the plans for Operation Flipper were quickly reviewed, including the arrangements to co-ordinate their activities with Operation Crusader on the night of the 18th.

[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].

The amended plans provided for 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 in heavy rain on their 15/20 mile trek inland.

Laycock decided to remain at the beach rendezvous (RV) with the reserve ammunition, in the hope that the remainder of his men would join him. For security reasons, only he and Keyes understood the plan in its entirety and Haselden was, therefore, 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, a view also held by Haselden. With Sidi-Rafa as 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 from the outside. These deployments were; 3 men to disable the electric light plant, 5 men to watch the exits from the guard tent and car park, 2 men to prevent anyone from leaving a nearby hotel, 2 men to guard the road either side of the building and 2 men to guard whatever entrance Keyes and his men used to gain access to the building.

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 heavily 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, alerting any enemy within hearing distance.

A burst of fire from Terry's Tommy gun persuaded two Germans, who came to investigate the commotion, to promptly return upstairs. Outside, sentries gunned down two others who were seen running towards the building. Lights were switched on in many of the 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. He fell back into the corridor mortally wounded. Terry emptied two magazines into the room and Campbell finished the job by lobbing in a hand grenade and closing the door. They took Keyes outside, where he died almost immediately.

 [Photo of where Keyes was killed provided courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours].

While attending to Keyes, Campbell's lower leg was broken by a stray bullet. He ordered Terry to regroup the men and to throw their remaining grenades through any available windows. He then ordered himself to be abandoned, so his men could more easily return to their operational RV over 18 miles and 2000 ft of decent over precipitous terrain. Campbell's leg was amputated later in an Italian prison camp.

Jack Terry and his then 17 men, met up with Laycock and his base party of 3 at the RV but there was no further contact from Cook and his group of 6. On the night of the 18th, Torbay made contact with Laycock by Aldis lamp. However, 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, forcing them to abandon their position and move inland. He ordered his men to form small units of no more than 3 and to make their escape from the area to destinations which included; an alternative beach where Talisman would be waiting, the Slonta area where the Long Range Desert Group was operating or wadis to the north of Cyrene, where they could lay up until the progress of Crusader became known. 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.

Outcome

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 reads, "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.

[Photo left: Portrait of Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes, son of Roger Keyes, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.© IWM (E 4732); right Keyes' initial grave marked with wooden cross].

Ironically, Rommel's diaries confirmed that he had indeed used the HQ at Beda Littoria with the original building at Sidi-Rafa used only as a logistics HQ. In any event, he was 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 LRDG. 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 the 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, the ceremony conducted by Rommel's personal chaplain, priest Rudolf Dalmrath. 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, 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].

War Graves

We are grateful to L/Cpl MacQuarrie's great nephew, John Pattinson, for the two photos above. The first is a group photo about which little is known, other than the rather obvious desert background. In the photo, L/Cpl MacQuarrie is identified with a cross. The gentleman, seated to his left, is Cpl Alex Beattie. He was captured and ended up in Stalag 344, Lamsdorf, Poland. See Correspondence section below for more information on Cpl Beattie. [Oct 2016] If anyone recognises any of the others, please contact us.
 

                      This photo is of L/Cpl Mcquarrie's grave when it was marked by a wooden cross.

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, 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.

[Photo courtesy of Western Desert Battlefield Tours].

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just 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.

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'.

The SAS & LRDG by Ex L/Cpl X, QGM. A seminal project comprising moving stories of every Special Air Service and Long Range Desert Group casualty in WW2. All proceeds go to charities.

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.

Correspondence

Dear Geoff,

I read your website with great interest and would like to add to your content. I noted the information you acquire on L/Cpl MacQuarrie. The gentleman sitting on his right is my great grandfather Cpl Alex Beattie. He signed up with the Gordons and then the Commandos. He was captured during the raid on Rommel's HQ but his name appears to be omitted from all histories of the raid.

I have another image (digitised newspaper) of my great grandfather with Robert Murray, a Commando and former Gordon who was captured during Operation Flipper. Cpl Beattie was first sent to Italy and then on to Stalag 344. He escaped with an airman during the forced march from the camps when the Russians came on.

Hope this is of some interest to you.

Kind Regards,

Michael Strachan
(3/17)


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.

 Best regards

 Tony Birch

Note: The book, called Geoffrey Keyes V.C. Of The Rommel Raid, is available for a few pounds through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Visit this website's "Books page" and click on the ABE icon.


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.

News & Information

 

Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

Remember a Veteran

You can pay a personal tribute to veterans who served in, or alongside, the Combined Operations Command in WW2 by adding their details and optional photo to our Roll of Honour and They Also Served pages on this website.

Read the Combined Operations prayer.

Forthcoming Events

To organisers: Reach the people who will be interested to know about your Combined Operations or war related event by adding it to our forthcoming events page free of charge.

To everyone else; Visit our forthcoming events page for things to see and places to visit. If you know of an event of possible interest, that is not listed, please let us know.

To notify an event click here.

To visit the webpage click here.

Facebook

Why not join the thousands who visit our Facebook page about the Combined Operations Command in appreciation of our WW2 veterans.

See the 'slide shows' of the dedication ceremony and the construction of the memorial plus the 'On this day in 194?' feature where major Combined Ops events are highlighted on their anniversary dates with links to additional information.

You are welcome to add information, photos and comment or reply to messages posted by others.

Find Books of Interest 

Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). 5% commission goes into the memorial fund.

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Restoration of Geoffrey Appleyard's  Memorial 

Click on the image if you'd like to contribute to the improvement of the memorial to Geoffrey Appleyard, DSO, MC and Bar, through the purchase of a limited edition print of a book about him. Geoffrey achieved so much in service with No 7 Commando, No 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the Second SAS Regiment. He was posted Missing in Action in July 1943, aged 26.

www.bramleywarmemorial.com/major-geoffrey-appleyard-book-now-available-for-purchase/

The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team

The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.

Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee is looking for veterans from any conflict who would like to have their stories filmed for posterity. Films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

New to Combined Ops?

Visit Combined Operations Explained for an easy introduction to the subject.

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Background to the website and memorial project, and a look to the future; plus other small print stuff and website accounts etc. Click here for information.

 

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