Operation Flipper: “The Rommel Raid”

LieutCol Geoffrey Keyes

In preparation for Operation Crusader, No 11 (Scottish) Commando landed on the Libyan coast from two British submarines on the night 14/15 Nov 1941. Due to heavy seas only 37 of the 59 actually made it to shore. Led by Brig Robert Laycock (the eccentric and colourful former commander of Layforce, the British rearguard on Crete) and LieutCol Geoffrey Keyes, the 37 men made a grueling 18 mile infiltration to their objectives – Rommel’s supposed headquarters at Beda Littoria, and an Italian Communications Retrans site at Cyrene. Laycock sent six men off with a LT to Cyrene where they successfully destroyed the site. The men sent to assassinate Rommel at the headquarters did not fare so well.

Keyes managed to infiltrate his entire team into Beda Littoria but they were stymied at the headquarters building. The windows and doors were locked. One of his soldiers spoke good German so Keyes banged on the front door, and they called out to open up. The sleepy sentry opened the door and the team pounced on him. But in the scuffle in the doorway they ended up shooting the guard which alerted the garrison. More immediately the Germans in the next room burst out and shot Keyes, killing him. In the confusion, Keyes’ second was shot by his own men, and the senior NCO took command. With the surprise lost, the commandos retreated.

But Rommel wasn’t there, in fact Rommel was actually in Rome arguing with his Italian superiors about resending critical parts and supplies that were on freighters sunk by Force K the week before. Also, it wasn’t even his headquarters, it was his rear logistics coordination center. When he heard about the raid, Rommel was indignant and furious that the British thought so little of him – he would never have his HQ 150 miles behind the front.

As for the Laycock and his commandos, they couldn’t reembark on the submarines, so they dispersed to made their way back to British lines in small teams. They were all eventually killed or captured except Laycock and the senior NCO who both spent 37 days wandering the desert, and one other who spent forty days surviving in the desert before being picked up. The six retrains attackers also survived and hitched a ride with a passing LRDG patrol.

Rommel had Keyes buried with full military honors in a Catholic cemetery outside of Beda Littori

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