Key point: London wanted Rommel, dead or alive. Unfortunately, the Desert Fox outfoxed Britain's special forces.
One night in mid-October 1941, a British Army intelligence officer disguised as a Senussi Arab was dropped by parachute behind the German lines in the Italian colony of Libya.
He was Captain John E. “Jock” Haselden of the famed Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG), a specialized British force led by Lt. Col. David Stirling that conducted reconnaissance patrols and hit-and-run raids against enemy installations in North Africa. Bearded and weather beaten, Haselden wore tattered Arab robes and carried a staff while venturing out alone on his intelligence-gathering forays. Born and raised in Egypt and a former Cairo cotton broker, he was fluent in Arabic.
His mission on this particular night was a hazardous one—to locate the headquarters of the commander of the German forces in North Africa, the legendary General Erwin Rommel. Haselden was to lay the groundwork for a bold attempt—tied to a major offensive by the British Eighth Army—to either capture or kill Rommel and his cantankerous Italian field commander, General Ettore Bastico. For several months, Rommel had proved to be a skillful and formidable foe by outwitting and outmaneuvering the British during the seesawing Western Desert campaigns.
Based on radio intercepts of German message traffic, “Sigint” (Signals Intelligence) at the British Middle Eastern Command headquarters in Cairo had come to the conclusion that a remote village named Beda Littoria in the northern Libyan hump was the probable site of Rommel’s headquarters.
After burying his parachute in the sand, Captain Haselden trudged to the outskirts of the dusty village a dozen miles south of the Mediterranean coast, west of Derna and not far from the site of the ancient city of Cyrene, the birthplace of Hannibal, to verify the Sigint information. Stealthily, he trained his field glasses on stuccoed Italian colonial buildings clustered in olive and cypress groves and groups of German troops.
Off to one side, Haselden could see a villa and an official building that the Italians called the Prefettura. Parked around it were about 20 Afrika Korps communications trucks, while a steady stream of vehicles disgorged and retrieved officers and dispatch riders. The British officer gasped when he spotted General Rommel striding out of the Prefettura and driving off in a command car. Haselden had hit the jackpot; apparently Beda Littoria was indeed the headquarters of the “Desert Fox.”
Haselden hastily stole away into the desert and linked up with a LRDG patrol two days later. He was whisked back to Cairo with his information, and plans and preparations were drawn up. By mounting a raid on Rommel’s headquarters, the British hoped to wreak chaos in the command system of the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies. The operation was likely to prove one of the most daring special force missions of World War II.
The British Commandos assigned to carry out the mission had come to the Mediterranean theater as part of the “Layforce” contingent led by Lt. Col. Robert E. “Lucky” Laycock, commander of Commando operations and the elite Special Boat Section there. One of his units was the 11th (Scottish) Commando, which had practiced night landings from submarines using rubber dinghies and lightweight canvas canoes called folbots.
The idea for the raid on Rommel’s headquarters 250 miles behind enemy lines had been formulated in the autumn of 1941 by temporary Lt. Col. Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes of the 11th Commando, the 24-year-old son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes. A decorated hero of the Boxer Rebellion and the Zeebrugge and Dover naval actions in World War I, Sir Roger had been chosen by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to direct all Commando operations from Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations headquarters.
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A brave, competent officer and the youngest lieutenant colonel in the British Army, Keyes led the planning for the upcoming raid—code named Operation Flipper—and insisted on leading it personally. Simultaneous actions to support the November 16-17 British offensive codenamed Operation Crusader were to be undertaken by the LRDG and the Special Air Service. The initial objectives of the Laycock-Keyes force were to attack the Italian forces’ headquarters at Cyrene and destroy telephone and telegraph services; hit the Italian intelligence center at Appollonia; cut communication lines around El Faida, and assault the Afrika Korps headquarters at Beda Littoria and Rommel’s villa west of the village.
Colonel Laycock, himself a gallant veteran of special operations in Libya, Rhodes, and Crete who would later win the Distinguished Service Order and lead Commandos and U.S. Rangers in the invasion of Salerno, voiced reservations about the planned mission. A London-born former subaltern in the Royal Horse Guards, he reported, “I gave it my considered opinion that the chances of being evacuated after the operation were very slender, and that the attack on General Rommel’s house in particular appeared to be desperate in the extreme. This attack, even if initially successful, meant almost certain death for those who took part in it. I made these comments in the presence of Colonel Keyes, who begged me not to repeat them lest the operation be canceled.”
Laycock tried several times to persuade Keyes to detail a more junior officer to lead the raid, but he refused. “On each occasion,” said Laycock, “he flatly declined to consider these suggestions, saying that, as commander of his detachment, it was his privilege to lead his men into any danger that might be encountered—an answer which I consider [was] inspired by the highest traditions of the British Army…. Colonel Keyes’s outstanding bravery was not that of the unimaginative bravado who may be capable of spectacular action in moments of excitement, but that far more admirable calculated daring of one who knew only too well the odds against him.” Despite his misgivings, Laycock agreed to accompany the raiding force as an observer.
On the night of Thursday-Friday, November 13-14, 1941, after a three-day voyage from Alexandria, two 1,575-ton Royal Navy submarines, HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman, carrying 60 Commandos, stood off the coast of Djebel Akhdar, 20 miles west of Appollonia, Libya. Periscope observations were made of the planned landing area. From a small cove on the shore, Captain Haselden, who had been designated to guide the raiders to Rommel’s headquarters, sent a prearranged signal out to the submarines. As soon as his blinking lights were spotted, the vessels flashed back a recognition signal.
But things began to go wrong from the start. The Commandos had been trained to disembark from submarines in calm waters, but a gale was howling on the Libyan coast that night. Rough seas hampered the operation. Instead of the estimated 90 minutes, it took seven hours to get 28 men and Colonel Keyes, the operational commander, ashore from the slippery deck of the first submarine, the Torbay.
When the Talisman neared the shore to disembark her Commandos, she touched bottom. In the resulting turmoil, seven landing boats with 11 men were swept overboard. Several were never seen again. A few men managed to scramble ashore, but the Talisman withdrew with many members of the raiding force still aboard.
Early in the morning of November 14, Keyes assembled his men in Haselden’s cove, a dozen miles from Beda Littoria. All were wet, chilled to the bone, and critically short of vital weapons and equipment. The little force was considerably understrength for its mission. Keyes was furnished with directions and an Arab shepherd as his guide, while Haselden slipped away to get ready for the second part of his assignment—to blow up a German communications outpost on the same night that Keyes’s team hit Rommel’s headquarters.
Colonel Laycock, meanwhile, decreed that under the circumstances the Commandos’ objectives must be curtailed. It was agreed that only two of the four planned attacks would be undertaken—on the communications systems at Cyrene and the German headquarters at Beda Littoria. The plan to hit Rommel’s villa was dropped.
Laycock stayed at the landing site to coordinate operations while Keyes, Captain Robin Campbell, his second in command, and the 28 Commandos set off at nightfall on November 15 for a grueling trek to their objectives. Rain poured for 48 hours, and the raiders were soaked as they splashed through ankle-deep mud, slipped on greasy rocks, and picked their way over rock-strewn sheep tracks and a 1,800-foot ridge in the darkness. Their Arab guide refused to go farther as the weather deteriorated, and morale began to flag. But Keyes’s stolid resolve kept his men moving forward. By the night of November 16, the column had reached a small cave about five miles from Beda Littoria.
The Commandos spent the rest of the night and most of the following day there. Keyes stayed on the beach through the night to meet any men who might have managed to get ashore from the second submarine. The hideout was odorous and uncomfortable, but the raiders found shelter from the torrential rain and cold that had plagued them almost continually since coming ashore. They lit a fire to warm themselves and dry their clothing, cleaned their Sten submachine guns and .38-caliber pistols, and groused about the absence of the blazing sunshine that reputedly bathed the southern Mediterranean shore.