Operation Flipper (also called the Rommel Raid) was a British commando raid, during the Second World War, carried out mainly by men from No. 11 (Scottish) Commando. The operation included among its objectives an attack on the headquarters of Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Afrika Korps in North Africa. It was timed to strike on the night of 17/18 November 1941, just before the start of Operation Crusader, a British offensive. The operation was a failure, Rommel had left the target house weeks earlier and all but two of the commandos who got ashore were killed or captured. One of the SBS team who had secured the beach for the commando party also escaped.
From October–November 1941, a plan was formulated at Eighth Army headquarters to attack four objectives behind Axis lines:
- Rommel′s presumed headquarters near Beda Littoria, some 18 miles (29 km) inland from Apollonia, Libya
- a wireless station and intelligence centre at Apollonia
- an Italian headquarters and communications cable mast at Cyrene
- the headquarters of the Italian Trieste Division near Slonta
Although not specified in the orders, the goal of the raid was to kill or capture Rommel, to disrupt German organisation before the start of Crusader. Rommel's headquarters was believed to be at Beda Littoria, because of the reports of Captain John Haselden, who had reconnoitred the area disguised as an Arab and reported that Rommel's staff car came and went from the former Prefecture building. The operation was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock and Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, present throughout the planning stage, selected the most hazardous task, the attack on Rommel′s headquarters for himself. Beda Littoria had only briefly been Rommel's headquarters and had been taken over by the chief quartermaster of Panzergruppe Afrika, General Schleusener. Some weeks earlier, Rommel had moved his headquarters nearer to Tobruk, since he believed commanders needed to be close to the action. Rommel was not even in North Africa during Operation Flipper, having gone to Rome to request replacements for supply ships sunk by the British.
On 10 November, two submarines left Alexandria. HMS Torbay carried Keyes, Captain Robin Campbell, Lieutenant Roy Cooke and 25 men and HMS Talisman transported Laycock, Captain Glennie, Lieutenant Sutherland and 25 men. On the night of 14/15 November 1941, Keyes′ detachment landed on the beach of Khashm al-Kalb (The Dog's Nose), guided by a couple of two-man Special Boat Section (SBS) teams, in folbots (folding canoes). The beach lay near a place known as Hamama, some 250 mi (400 km) behind Axis lines. Once ashore, they made contact with Captain John Haselden, delivered earlier by the Long Range Desert Group for reconnaissance. The weather deteriorated and Laycock's group had a much more difficult time getting ashore, Laycock and seven men landed but the rest were stranded on Talisman. With only 34 of the 59 men available, instead of four detachments attacking separate targets, there were only be three. Laycock remained at the rendezvous with three men to secure the beach. Keyes led his detachment of 25 men for the attack on Rommel′s supposed headquarters, while Lieutenant Cooke took six men to destroy the communications facilities near Cyrene. Haselden's detachment completed its mission and was picked up by the LRDG.
Shortly before first light, Keyes′ men moved to a wadi, where they sheltered until dark on the second night, then moved off but their Arab guide refused to accompany the party in the deteriorating weather. Keyes then led his men on a 1,800 ft (550 m) climb, followed by an approach march of 18 mi (29 km) in pitch dark and torrential rain. Hiding in a cave during the day, 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. They set upon the sentry who opened the door, Campbell shot him and Keyes might have been wounded in this scuffle. The official version is that Keyes opened the door to a nearby room, found Germans inside, closed it again abruptly, reopened it to hurl in a grenade and was shot by one of the Germans. Only one round was fired by the Germans during the raid on the HQ.
Keyes was taken outside but quickly died; shortly afterwards, Campbell, having forgotten his orders to shoot on sight, was shot in the leg by one of his men. With no other option, he passed command to Sergeant Jack Terry and remained behind. Terry gathered the raiding team together and retreated with 17 men to rejoin Laycock at the beach; Cooke′s detachment did not return. It proved impossible to re-embark on the submarines, so the party waited for the weather to improve. They were discovered and exchanged fire with local Italian gendarmes and by some accounts, German troops.
Aware that they could not hope to stand off the large force that was surely being organized, Laycock ordered the men to scatter. Laycock and Terry made it to safety after 37 days in the desert and Bombardier John Brittlebank, one of the SBS team who had guided the commandos in folbots, escaped and survived alone in the desert for forty days, until picked up by Allied troops. The rest of the raiding force was captured, some of them wounded. Contrary to some reports, only Keyes was killed by the Germans; one man drowned during the landing.
(The roll has been reconstructed by Michael Asher, based on a list by Hans Edelmaier and amended from documentary and witness evidence. It might contain errors.)
- Captured, unless otherwise noted.
- Beach party (8):
- Lt. Col. Robert Laycock, Royal Horse Guards (escaped)
- Sgt. John Nicholl, Parent unit unknown
- Bdr. George Dunn, Royal Artillery
- L/Cpl. Larry Codd, Royal Signals
- Pte. E.C. Atkins, Beds & Harts Regt
- Lt. John Pryor, Beds & Harts Regt & SBS (wounded and captured)
- Bdr. John Brittlebank, Royal Artillery & SBS (escaped)
- Pte. Robert Fowler, Cameron Higlanders
- Assault party - German HQ (6):
- Lt. Col Geoffrey Keyes, Royal Scots Greys (killed)
- Capt. Robin Campbell, General List (wounded and captured)
- Sgt. Jack Terry, Royal Artillery (escaped)
- L/Cpl. Dennis Coulthread, Royal Scots
- L/Bdr. A. Brodie, Royal Artillery
- Cpl/Interpreter Avishalom Drori (Palestine), 51 ME Commando
- Covering party - German HQ (7):
- L/Cpl. William Pryde, Cameron Highlanders
- Cpl. A.E. Radcliffe, RASC, (wounded and captured)
- Pte. John Phiminster, Cameron Highlanders
- L/Cpl. Frank Varney, Sherwood Foresters
- Bdr. Joseph Kearney (Newfoundland), Royal Artillery
- L/Cpl. Malcolm Hughes, Manchester Regt
- Cpl. Stephen Heavysides, Yorks & Lancs Regt
- Outside covering party - German HQ (4):
- Sgt. Charles Bruce, Black Watch [Royal Highland Regt]
- Cpl. Charles Lock, London Scottish [Gordon Highlanders]
- Pte. James Bogle, Gordon Highlanders
- Pte. Robert Murray, Gordon Highlanders(captured)
- Cyrene crossroads party (7):
- Lt. Roy Cooke, Royal W. Kent Regt
- Sgt. Frederick Birch, Liverpool Scottish [Cameron Highlanders]
- Cpl. John Kerr, Cameron Highlanders
- Gnr. James Gornall, Royal Artillery
- L/Bdr. Terence O'Hagen, Royal Artillery
- Gnr. P. Macrae, 'Royal Artillery
- Pte. Charles Paxton, Cameron Highlanders
Aftermath and legacy
On 17 November 1941, the day of the raid, Rommel was not in North Africa, having left for Rome on 1 November, which was known to British military intelligence via an Enigma intercept. He spent his 50th birthday in Rome with his wife, Lucie and was back in the field on 18 November, the day after the raid. This intelligence may have been withheld from the commando group to protect the Enigma secret.
Since Rommel was known to be away from Beda Littoria, the German historian, Hans Edelmaier suggested that Rommel was not the objective of the raid and his name not featuring in the plan supports this. There is no proof that Hasleden reported Rommel's presence at the house in Beda and it has never been explained how Rommel was to be found or recognized by the commando unit. The only extant evidence that Rommel was the object of the raid came from a witness, Gunner Jim Gornall, who related that Keyes briefed the men on board Torbay, that their objective was to get Rommel. When news of the raid reached him, Rommel was said to be indignant that the British should believe his headquarters was 250 miles (400 km) behind the front. Rommel was certainly courageous and was always close to the front, often visiting the front line, sometimes unwisely close, which led to his being wounded on several occasions.
Keyes received a burial with full military honours in a local Catholic cemetery on Rommel′s orders. For his actions, Keyes was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation for the award was written by Robert Laycock, who contrary to military custom, was not a witness of the raid. Almost none of the statements in the citation are verifiable. Sergeant Jack Terry was awarded the DCM and Bombardier John Brittlebank (SBS) later received the DCM for actions including the Rommel Raid. Gunner Jim Gornall was awarded the MM.
A fictional version of the raid was depicted in the 1951 film, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel and a documentary, on Operation Flipper, Stalking Hitler's Generals was shown on NatGeo TV in 2011. The film was presented by Michael Asher, who visited the beach at Khashm al-Kalb ('The Dog's Nose') where the commandos landed and the house at Bayda, where the raid took place. Asher talked in Arabic to a witness, a 90-year-old Libyan cook who saw Keyes' body and examined the minefields at Tobruk and Bir Hakeim, where there are still a million Allied and German mines, many of them live.
Another attempt to get Rommel was made in France, by men of the 2nd SAS Regiment in July 1944 in Operation Gaff which was abandoned, when it was discovered that Rommel had been badly injured in a Spitfire attack 11 days earlier.
- History of the Second World War Magazine Vol 24. p. 655
- 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.
- Asher, Michael 'Get Rommel' 2004
- Jones, Tim (2006). SAS Zero Hour: The Secret Origins of the Special Air Service. London: Greenhill Books. p. 198. ISBN 1-85367-669-1.
- Edelmeier, Hans. Das Rommel-Unternehmen. Osterreichischer Milizverlag (2000) ISBN 3-901-185-19-4
- Asher, Michael. (2005) Get Rommel
- Asher, Get Rommel, "Bob Laycock's report and his citation for Keyes' VC were almost entirely specious from beginning to end."
- Asher, Michael (2004). Get Rommel: The Secret British Mission to Kill Hitler's Greatest General. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-84685-7.
- Edelmaier, Hans (2000). Das Rommel-Unternehmen: der Überfall britischer Commandos auf den vermuteten Gefechtsstand General Rommels bei Beda Littoria in der Nacht vom 17. zum 18. November 1941 [The Raid on Rommel: The British Commando Raid on the Suspected Headquarters General Rommel at Beda Littoria on the Night of 17/18 November 1941] (in German). Salzburg: Osterreichischer Miliz-Verlag. ISBN 3-901185-19-4.