On the afternoon of November 17, Colonel Keyes made a short reconnaissance foray then briefed his men at 6 pm. He divided his small force in two, sending one half off to detonate a communications pylon near Cyrene while the rest listened to his detailed plan for the assault on Rommel’s headquarters. Then, with blackened faces and wearing plimsolls (sneakers), they set off on the final stage of their mission.
The raiders bided their time during the waning daylight hours and moved forward in darkness to a ridge just above Beda Littoria. Pushing on, they reached the outskirts of the village around midnight and crept forward stealthily toward the German headquarters in the Preffetura, an austere, two-story building standing away from the main village. Keyes and Sergeant Terry were in the lead, about 50 yards ahead.
Suddenly, one of the Commandos tripped over a tin can, setting off frenzied barking from neighborhood dogs and a scream from an Arab villager. When two Italian soldiers emerged from a hut to investigate, the quick-thinking Captain Campbell shouted to them in fluent German that they were an Afrika Korps patrol. The disgruntled Italians went back into their hut.
By this time, Colonel Keyes had cut through the wire surrounding the headquarters building. The rain that had hampered his men now yielded a dividend, confining the enemy sentries to their tents, except one. Keyes dispatched him quietly with his fighting knife, and the rest of the force joined him, carrying enough explosives to wreck both the Prefettura and a nearby power plant.
With a covering party blocking the approaches to the building and guarding the exits from neighboring structures, Keyes, Campbell, Sergeant Terry, and three other ranks crept forward through the security fence. But the mission was about to turn into a fiasco. Keyes, Campbell, and Terry planned to sneak into the Nazi headquarters. Keyes hoped to climb through a window or find a back door but a quick investigation revealed no easy access. So the raiders took the bull by the horns.
Captain Campbell pounded on the front door and demanded entry in his fluent German. When a sentry eventually opened the door, Keyes jammed his revolver in the startled soldier’s ribs. But the brave, well-trained German grabbed the muzzle and backed Keyes against a wall. The colonel struggled to draw his knife while the enemy soldier shouted an alarm. The element of surprise was lost. Campbell shot the struggling German over Keyes’s shoulder, and the colonel flung the door open.
The six British raiders dashed inside, and the next few minutes brought a chaos of Sten-gun and pistol fire, shouts of anguish and alarm, slamming doors, and running feet on stone steps. A duty officer had aroused sleeping Germans. A man came clattering down the stairs, but Sergeant Terry chased him off with a burst from his Sten gun.
The raiders checked one of many rooms off the main hall and found it empty. Then a door on the left side of the hall started to open. A light shone inside, and the Commandos could hear the occupants moving about. Keyes kicked the door open wide to see about 10 Germans in helmets frozen in shock. After the colonel emptied his Colt .45 automatic pistol into the room, Campbell appeared at his elbow and said he would toss a hand grenade in. Keyes shut the door while Campbell pulled the pin, reopened it, and the grenade and a burst of Sten-gun fire went in.
The grenade exploded with a loud crash, but some of the surviving Germans fired back at the raiders. A single shot hit Keyes just above the heart. Campbell and Terry quickly carried him outside, and he died within a few minutes. An eerie silence then fell upon the Prefettura and every light went out.
Captain Campbell stole back into the house to check for further signs of enemy activity and then ran around to the rear of the building where the covering party had been left. The Commandos were there, crouching in the darkness, but they heard no password and thought that Campbell was a German. A Sten gun round smashed his shin bone. He ordered his men to withdraw and leave him behind. The raiding party was left without an officer.
Sergeant Terry took over. He brought up enough explosives to demolish the Prefettura but discovered that the fuses were rain-soaked and unusable. The only damage that the raiders could inflict now was by dropping a grenade down the breather pipe and blowing up the main generator and by destroying some Afrika Korps vehicles. Terry and the other survivors then withdrew, hoping that the enemy would tend their wounded. Several Commandos had been captured by Germans alerted to their assault.
By the following evening of November 18, the 22 survivors reached Colonel Laycock at the shore. Then followed several frustrating hours while their signals to HMS Torbay—surfaced 400 yards out—were unacknowledged. Belated return signals to the exhausted Commandos were incomprehensible, and no boats came in to fetch them. So, just before dawn the following morning, Laycock and the survivors filed into a wadi to lay low for the day and plan how to get to the British lines. But hostile Arabs and then Italian troops attacked them. Laycock ordered the men to split into small groups and disperse before an inevitable and more serious assault came from the Germans.
All of the Commandos except two were eventually seized by the Germans or shot by Arabs. Colonel Campbell was carried off to a German prison camp, where he was well treated but had to have his shattered leg amputated.
Colonel Laycock and Sergeant Terry managed to get clear of the wadi and spent 41 wearying days trekking across the desert toward the Eighth Army lines. They were given food by friendly Senussi tribesmen, and water was not a problem because it rained almost every day. They reached the British lines on Christmas Day. Captain Haselden also managed to get away from the wadi and linked up with an LRDG patrol. After a rest, Laycock was flown back to England to take command of the Special Service Brigade. The intrepid Haselden, who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, was killed in a raid on Tobruk in September 1942.
Operation Crusader, the big offensive by Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham’s Eighth Army for which the Keyes raid was a diversion, had meanwhile got underway. One hundred thousand men, more than 700 Cruiser and Matilda tanks, and 5,000 artillery units, armored cars, trucks, and personnel carriers rolled forward during the weekend of November 16-17.
A masterpiece of deception, Crusader was a wide-scale armored sweep toward besieged Tobruk from the south while British Commonwealth infantry forces pinned down Axis positions on the Libya-Egypt frontier. The Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were driven back to Benghazi with severe losses, and the British kept up the pressure through December.
Rommel was forced to abandon Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, and fall back to defensive positions at El Agheila. But the Desert Fox quickly recovered. The gallant General Cunningham, who had defeated the Italians in Ethiopia but who lacked a grasp of armored warfare, suffered a nervous breakdown. He was soon replaced by the vigorous, self-confident Lt. Gen. Sir Neil Ritchie. From Operation Crusader until the climactic Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the desert war continued to rage back and forth.
While it was a daring operation carried out with heroism, the raid on Rommel’s headquarters had turned into a costly and unnecessary disaster. British intelligence was correct that the Prefettura in Beda Littoria had been used by the general, but only briefly. It was only by chance that Captain Haselden had spotted him there; Rommel was making a routine visit to the Afrika Korps quartermaster general’s staff, which had taken over the building.
The Desert Fox had long since shifted his lair to a location much closer to the front lines. In fact, and unknown at the British intelligence offices in Cairo, Rommel was not even in North Africa at the time of the raid. He had been flown to Rome two weeks before to rest and celebrate his 50th birthday.
Toward the British raiders who had sought to capture or kill him, Rommel reacted with characteristic chivalry. He defied Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s newly issued directive ordering the immediate execution of captured Commandos and arranged for Colonel Keyes to be buried with full honors. The German general’s chaplain conducted the ceremony as Keyes was laid to rest beside four Afrika Korps soldiers killed in the raid. Rommel gave a funeral oration and, in an unprecedented soldierly gesture, pinned his own Iron Cross on the Briton’s body.
The young colonel was subsequently gazetted on June 19, 1942, and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. A memorial service in London’s Westminster Abbey was attended by some of the Commandos who had survived the doomed raid. Colonel Keyes’s remains were later reburied at the Eighth Army cemetery in Benghazi.