Operation Flipper (i)

'Flipper' (i) was a British special forces raid launched as one of the two initial undertakings of Lieutenant Colonel A. D. Stirling’s 'L' Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, as an attempt to kill General Erwin Rommel, commanding the Panzergruppe 'Afrika' in North Africa, with an assault on the house he was thought to be occupying at Beda Fomm (10/18 November 1941).

This was one of a series of linked operations, in support of 'Crusader' (i), devised by Lieutenant Colonel R. E. Laycock at the headquarters of Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham’s 8th Army during October and November. Intelligence reports had indicated that Rommel was using a large building at Beda Littoria, some 200 miles (320 km) behind the current front line.

In October and November 1941, a plan was formulated at the 8th Army’s headquarters to attack Rommel’s presumed headquarters near Beda Littoria, some 18 miles (29 km) inland of Apollonia in Libya; to attack and destroy a wireless station and intelligence centre at Apollonia; to destroy an Italian headquarters and communications cable mast at Cyrene; and to attack the headquarters of the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' near Slonta.

Although not specified in the orders, the raid’s goal was to kill or capture Rommel in order to disrupt German organisation before the start of 'Crusader' (i). Rommel’s headquarters was believed to be at Beda Littoria as Captain John Haselden had reconnoitred the area disguised as an Arab and reported that Rommel’s staff car came and went from this building. Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, commander of No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, was present throughout the planning stage and chose the most hazardous task of the attack on Rommel’s headquarters for himself. Unknown to the planners, however, Beda Littoria had been Rommel’s headquarters only briefly and had since been used by Generalmajor Schleusener, the chief quartermaster of the Panzergruppe 'Afrika'. Some weeks earlier, Rommel had moved his headquarters nearer to Tobruk in order to be closer to the action. In fact Rommel was not even in North Africa during 'Flipper' (i) as he had travelled to Rome to request replacements for supply ships sunk by the British.

The attack force departed Alexandria on the evening of 10 November 1941 in the submarines Torbay and Talisman. On board the former were Keyes, two other officers and 22 men, and on the latter Laycock, two other officers and 24 men. The two submarines arrived off the landing beach on 14 November, and the operation was set in motion with Keyes in command of the raid on Rommel’s headquarters and Laycock responsible for the supervision of the wider 'Flipper' (i) operation.

Waiting on the beach were Captain 'Jock' Haselden and an Arab soldier to guide the Folbots and dinghies to the beach and to assist in bringing the craft shore. The remainder of Haselden’s men, comprising two British officers, a Free Belgian captain and an Arab soldier, were laid up inland. All had been delivered into the area earlier in the same day by a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group. Haselden and his men had some knowledge of the area and would later play a part in sabotaging communication links.

At 18.30 Haselden flashed his torch out to sea and by 17.50 the first of the Folbots arrived. Before all the men could disembark from the submarines, however, heavy seas intervened and of Laycock’s party only seven men and Laycock himself managed to land. There was now an immediate need to review the plans taking into account the reduced resources and the overriding need to co-ordinate the raids with 'Crusader' (i) on the night of 18 November. The amended plan comprised the attack on Rommel’s house and headquarters by Keyes and 18 other ranks, and the sabotage of telephone and telegraph communications at the crossroads south of Cyrene by Lieutenant Cook and six other ranks and on the El Fridia to Slonta road by Haselden and his five other ranks.

Under cover of darkness on 15/16 November, and in heavy rain, the parties started to move inland some 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km). Laycock had decided to remain at the rendezvous with the reserve ammunition in the hope that the rest of his men would arrive. He was the only person, other than Keyes, who understood the plan in its entirety and he would be needed to lead his men should they succeed in coming ashore.

Approaching its target area in the veiled blackness, Keyes’s attacking party was challenged by a German sentry, and replied in fluent German. Believing that the men were simply German soldiers who had lost their way and wandered into the complex, the sentry did not raise the alarm. One of the Special Air Service troopers approached the guard and killed him with a single shot from a silenced pistol. The party then stormed through the building, its troopers kicking open doors, firing their sub-machine guns, and tossing grenades as they went. Reaching the second floor of the building, they were met at the top of the steps with a volley of German automatic fire. Keyes was killed, and the surviving SAS troopers then made a quick retreat and vanished into the darkness. Four German soldiers, two of them important officers, were killed in the raid.

Rommel was not there, however, for only recently he had moved his headquarters to another location and left the building to officers and men of the quartermaster department of the Panzergruppe 'Afrika'.