By early April 1941, Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel’s German Afrika Korps, combined with Italian units, had cleared the British from Libya except for the seaport of Tobruk. The Australian 9th Division had fallen back on Tobruk, and General Archibald Wavell, commander of Commonwealth forces in North Africa, asked that Tobruk be held for two months, until he could reorganize and, with reinforcements, go back on the attack.
The Tobruk garrison, commanded by Australian Maj. Gen. Leslie Morshead, comprised Morshead’s Australian 9th Division of three brigades of infantry plus the 18th Brigade of the Australian 7th Division, together with the British 3rd Armored Brigade and four regiments of British gunners—field artillery, antitank, and antiaircraft. There were also several thousand base troops—British, Australian, Indian, and others—31,000 men in all, 24,000 of them combat troops.
On April 12, Rommel mounted his first attack on Tobruk. It was driven back. From then on he attacked again and again, but Tobruk held, not for two months but for eight months.
A year earlier, from May 28 to June 4, 1940, a crippled British Expeditionary Force landed back in England from the beaches of Dunkirk. A week later Prime Minister Winston Churchill, determined that the British Army would not lapse into the defensive mentality that had led to the collapse of France, sanctioned the raising of a dozen self-contained, specially trained, and well-equipped raiding units of up to 1,000 men each to harry the Germans along the Channel coast. At that stage, it was the only way the British Army could fight.
The task of organizing these units was given to Lt. Col. Dudley Clarke, a Royal Artillery officer gifted with unusual imagination. Imagination was in short supply at the beginning of World War II, when the officer corps was described as the most hidebound and orthodox in the Empire’s history. Military historian Correlli Barnett noted that the British Army “was an anachronism, peasant levies led by the gentry and aristocracy.”
Clarke realized this. He had grown up in South Africa and served in Palestine in the 1930s during the Arab rebellion where he had seen guerrilla warfare in action. He called his units “Commandos” after the fast-moving Boer guerrilla Kommandos of the South African war and laid down that they must be volunteers, as physically fit as the finest athletes, trained to the highest standards in the use of infantry weapons, and capable of killing or capturing the enemy quickly and silently. They would operate in darkness more than daylight, be able to work in small groups and individually, think independently, and use their initiative. “The commando,” he declared, “should think of warfare solely in terms of attack.”
Several commando units were raised in England and one in Scotland, the 11 (Scottish) Commando. Its commander was Lt. Col. Dick Pedder, a 35-year-old martinet from the Highland Light Infantry. Its establishment included 10 troops of 50 men, each with a commander and one or two other officers. One of the troop commanders was Captain Geoffrey Keyes of the Royal Scots Greys. Keyes was not obvious commando material, but he had a valuable asset. His father was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger John Brownlow Keyes, a lifelong friend of Prime Minister Churchill.
Geoffrey Keyes had never been physically robust, and his poor eyesight had precluded his entry into the Royal Navy, to which he had aspired. His hearing was also deficient, and he had been forced to give up boxing and rowing during college at Eton due to potential damage to his ears and curvature of the spine. Already disappointed that his son had failed to follow him in the Navy, Admiral Keyes was further dismayed with Geoffrey’s commission in the Royal Scots Greys, whose officers were typically the sons of businessmen, instead of the elitist Life Guards.
Winston Churchill had brought Sir Roger Keyes out of retirement to become director of combined operations, with responsibility for the recruitment and deployment of commandos. One of his first acts as DCO had been to wire Scottish Command to request that his son, acting Captain Geoffrey Keyes, be transferred from the Greys to the new commando force. Geoffrey was quickly inducted into 11 Commando.
First Actions For the Commandos
Training was ruthless. Many volunteers, officers and other ranks, could not make it and were returned to the units from which they came. Geoffrey Keyes was one casualty. He fell out on a 100-mile forced march in full battle kit but was saved by virtue of his social position. He went on to commando training in earnest: advanced field craft, infiltration behind enemy lines, street fighting, silent killing, navigation and route selection, and training in night sense and night confidence—revolutionary stuff for soldiers of the British Army of 1940.
Toward the end of January 1941, 11 Commando was combined with 7 and 8 Commandos and part of 3 Commando into a brigade, 1,500 men in all; the commander of 8 Commando, Lt. Col. Robert (Bob) Laycock, was appointed acting brigadier. Laycock belonged to the old school of officer privilege. His officers in 8 Commando were all from the right schools and belonged to the right London clubs. They included Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph. The brigade sailed for Egypt at the end of January and arrived at Suez on March 7.
In April, 11 Commando was deployed on Cyprus while the rest of the brigade was sent to Crete to try to contain the German assault on the island. By the end of that battle, more than 600 of the 800 commandos under Laycock’s command were killed or captured. Of the 156 who escaped, 23 were officers, including Laycock.
In early June, the 485 men of 11 Commando left Cyprus by ship to take part in the invasion of Vichy French-held Syria. Keyes was now second in command.
The commandos’ task was to capture French positions on the Litani River and hold them long enough for the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade, advancing from Palestine to the south, to reach the river and build a pontoon bridge over it. The landing on the beaches just north of the mouth of the Litani River was delayed, and instead of landing in the dark it was made after dawn in full view of the French and under fire from their guns. It was 11 Commando’s baptism of fire.
The commandos captured all the French positions and linked up with the Australians, but the price was heavy. Of the 379 men who actually landed, 130 were casualties, including the commander, Lt. Col. Richard Pedder, who was shot dead. Throughout the action, Keyes performed well. He was awarded a Military Cross. The commandos returned to Cyprus, which was still under threat of invasion, with Keyes promoted to acting lieutenant colonel and commanding in place of Pedder.
Rommel’s Obsession With Tobruk
Throughout the summer of 1941, Rommel built up his forces and supplies and continued his attacks on Tobruk while the British, commanded now by Lt. Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck, who had replaced Wavell, were building up the Eighth Army with the intention of invading Libya and relieving Tobruk in November.
By now Rommel’s name had made headlines. He was becoming legendary, not only among his own forces but also among the British where, as one soldier commented, “We all thought he was a bloody good bloke.”
This “Rommel cult” among his own troops worried Auchinleck; not only did they think more highly of the German general than of their own generals, they also regarded his ability to run rings around them as humorous. Auchinleck, therefore, sent out a directive to all his commanders: “I wish you to dispel by all possible means the idea that Rommel represents anything more than an ordinary German general. The important thing now is to see to it that we do not always talk of Rommel when we mean the enemy in Libya. We must refer to ‘the Germans’ or ‘the Axis powers’ or ‘the enemy’ and not always keep harping on Rommel.”
What Auchinleck feared most was that Rommel would take Tobruk. With Tobruk behind him as a supply base, the German general could push directly into Egypt, seize Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal, and battle into Palestine, Syria, and the oilfields of the Gulf. Rommel was, in fact, planning just that.
Rommel flew to Germany at the end of July to present his plan to Hitler and his top commanders. The plan was rejected. Hitler was preoccupied with the war in Russia and considered the campaign in North Africa of minor importance. He believed the British would begin an offensive in Libya in the latter part of the year, and Rommel’s priority must be to repulse such an offensive. When that was done, he could safely take out Tobruk.
But Rommel was obsessed with Tobruk. He was convinced that Auchinleck would not mount an offensive in Libya until the outcome of the Russian campaign was decided. However, Hitler was right. Auchinleck was planning a major offensive in Libya for November. The British commander knew through Ultra intercepts of German coded messages that Rommel was planning a major attack on Tobruk. He must have wondered how he could get rid of his German opponent but was too much of an officer and gentleman to think of direct action.