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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
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
While attending to
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
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
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 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
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
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
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,
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,
See Correspondence section below for more information on Cpl Beattie. [Oct
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
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.
CEMETERY, Acroma (Lybia).
WOOD A J, Sgt 3054128, Royal Scots.
04/12/1941. Age 28.
[Photo courtesy of
Western Desert Battlefield Tours].
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'.
SAS & LRDG
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.