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|Part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War|
|United Kingdom||Nazi Germany|
|Commanders and leaders|
Geoffrey Keyes †
|Casualties and losses|
|29 killed or captured
Operation Flipper was a British commando raid, during the Second World War, that included among its objectives an attack on the headquarters of Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Axis forces in North Africa. It was timed to strike on the night of 17/18 November 1941, just before the start of Operation Crusader, a major British offensive. The mission was a total failure. Rommel had left the targeted house two weeks earlier, and all but two of the commandos who managed to get ashore were killed or captured.
- Rommel′s presumed headquarters near Beda Littoria, some 18 miles inland from Apollonia, Libya
- a wireless station and intelligence centre at Apollonia
- Italian headquarters and communications cable mast at Cyrene
- headquarters of the Italian Trieste Division near Slonta
One of the main goals was to kill Rommel himself. This was intended to disrupt enemy organisation before the start of Crusader. Rommel's headquarters was believed to be at Beda Littoria because of the reports of Captain John Haselden, inserted earlier, disguised as an Arab, with a reconnaissance team. Haselden had reported Rommel's staff car coming and going from the former Prefecture building. In fact, it had only briefly been Rommel's headquarters and was now the headquarters of the chief quartermaster of Panzergruppe Afrika, General Schleusener. Rommel had moved his headquarters nearer to Tobruk some weeks earlier, since he believed commanders needed headquarters close to the battlefront itself to produce decisive results. In any case, Rommel was not even in North Africa at the launch of Operation Flipper. He had gone to Rome to request replacements for supply ships sunk by the enemy.
The overall operation was led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Laycock. Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes—who had been present throughout the planning stage—selected the most hazardous task for himself: the assault on Rommel′s headquarters.
On 10 November, two submarines left Alexandria. HMS Torbay carried Keyes, Captain Robin Campbell, Lieutenant Roy Cooke, and 25 men, while HMS Talisman transported Laycock, Capt. Glennie, Lt. Sutherland, and 25 men. On the night of 14/15 November 1941, Keyes′ detachment landed on the beach of Hamama (in some sources Hamma), some 250 mi (400 km) behind enemy lines. There, they made contact with Capt. John Haselden, Lt. Ingles, and Corporal Severn, inserted earlier by the Long Range Desert Group for reconnaissance. The weather deteriorated and Laycock's group had a much more difficult time getting ashore. Only Laycock and seven men made it; the rest were stranded on Talisman. Thus, with only 36 of the 59 men available, a change of plan was required. Instead of four detachments attacking separate targets, there would only be three. Laycock remained at the rendezvous point with three men to secure the beach. Keyes led his detachment, totalling 17 men, for the attack on Rommel′s supposed headquarters, while Lt. Cooke took six men to destroy the communications facilities near Cyrene. Haselden's detachment successfully completed its mission and were picked up by LRDG.
Shortly before first light, Keyes′ men moved to a wadi, where they sheltered during daylight. After dark on the second night, the detachment moved off, but their Arab guide refused to accompany the party in the deteriorating weather. Keyes then led his men up a 1,800 ft (550 m) climb followed by an approach march of 18 mi (29 km) in pitch darkness and torrential rain. Hiding in a cave during daylight, the detachment advanced to within a few hundred yards of the objective by 22:00 on the third night.
At 23:59, Keyes led his party past sentries and other defences up to the house. Unable to find an open window or door, Keyes took advantage of Campbell′s excellent German by having him pound on the front door and demand entrance. The soldier who opened the door was set upon by Keyes and Campbell, but Campbell had to shoot him. The noise alerted the other German occupants to their presence, fighting broke out, and Keyes was shot. He was taken outside and attended to, but quickly died. Capt. Campbell was then shot in the leg by one of his own men when he ventured around a corner, having previously given his private orders to shoot on sight. With no other option, he passed command to Sergeant Jack Terry and remained behind. Terry gathered the raiding team together and retreated.
Terry and 17 men rejoined Laycock at the beach. Cooke′s detachment did not return. It proved impossible to re-embark on the submarines, so they waited for the weather to improve. However, they were discovered and the enemy began gathering and firing on them. Aware that they could not hope to stand off the large force that was surely being organized, Laycock ordered the men to scatter in small groups. However, only Laycock and Terry made it to safety after 37 days in the desert. The rest were either killed or captured.
Aftermath and legacy
When news of the raid reached him, Rommel was said to be indignant that the British should believe his headquarters were 250 miles behind the front. Rommel was certainly courageous, and was always close to the front, often visiting the front line, sometimes unwisely close.
A fictionalized version of the raid was depicted in the 1951 film, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel.
A further attempt to kill or capture Rommel was made in July 1944 in Operation Gaff in France.
- Jones, Tim (2006). SAS Zero Hour: the Secret Origins of the Special Air Service. London: Greenhill Books. p. 197. ISBN 1-85367-669-1.
- Terry Brighton, Masters of Battle: Monty, Patton and Rommel at War, Penguin UK, 2009 ISBN 0141029854.
- Jones, Tim (2006). SAS Zero Hour: the Secret Origins of the Special Air Service. London: Greenhill Books. p. 198. ISBN 1-85367-669-1.
- Asher, Michael (2004). Get Rommel: The Secret British Mission to Kill Hitler's Greatest General. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-84685-7.
- Slee, Geoff. "Operation Flipper - Rommel's HQ - 14/18 NOV 1941". (combinedops.com)
- "Operation Flipper - the Raid on Rommel's HQ". (combinedops.com)