Within days of No.11 (Scottish) Commando returning from the Litani River raid it became clear that it was likely to be disbanded, a fate that had already befallen both No. 7 and No. 8 Commando. However, the unit’s fate was delayed as it was tasked to take part in a daring attack on General Rommel’s Headquarters in Cyrenaica, 250 miles behind enemy lines.
A force of six officers and fifty-three other ranks, led by acting Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes and Colonel Bob Laycock, embarked on H.M. Submarines Torbay and Talisman on 10 November 1941.
However, during disembarkation at the landing site on 14 November, the submarines crew experienced difficulty in getting all the raiding force on to the beach, a combination of bad weather and misfortune resulted in only thirty-six men getting ashore.
With no choice but to change the plan it was decided that Laycock would stay at the landing site, and that Keyes would take No.1 detachment to attack Rommel’s house and HQ at Beda Littoria. While Lieutenant Roy
Cooke would take No.2 detachment and sabotage communications at the cross roads south of Cyrene.
The detachments set off at 1900 hrs on 15 November and after nearly two days of inhospitable terrain and weather they reached the objective. At midnight on 17 November the attack was launched.
Geoffrey Keyes, Captain Robin Campbell and Sergeant Jack Terry, walked up to the front door of the house and beat upon it, with Campbell demanding access in German. The door was opened by a sentry who was set upon and shot by Campbell, resulting in the occupants being alerted of the raiders, who had started to search the ground floor.
As they entered the second room the occupants were waiting for them and Geoffrey Keyes was met by a burst of fire which mortally wounded him. Terry emptied two magazines of his machine gun and Campbell threw a grenade before slamming the door shut. Between them they carried Keyes outside where he died almost immediately.
In the process Campbell was hit by a stray bullet which broke his leg. Realising that he couldn’t continue Campbell instructed Terry to round up the party and withdraw back to the beach, throwing grenades and causing as much damage as they could in the process.
Terry and his party marched through the night and during the next day before reporting to Laycock at the original rendezvous. Later in the evening, after being observed by an unfriendly Arab, Laycock ordered the party to move to the caves surrounding the beach where the re-embarkation on to the submarine Torbay was to take place. Soon after dark Laycock spotted the submarine and started signalling immediately, but the sea was too rough and re-embarkation didn’t take place.
The next morning Laycock put the party in all-round defence, and with the weather clearing he was confident that re-embarkation would be possible that night, however his optimism was short lived when enemy troops were observed approaching their position.
With the enemy closing in, and with superior numbers, Laycock ordered the party to split into groups and retreat into the Jebel-el-Akhdar hills. As Laycock made his escape he joined up with Jack Terry, and the pair avoiding capture for 41 days – eventually re-joining British Forces at Cyrene on Christmas Day 1941.
The remainder of the party weren’t so lucky having either been killed or captured. Although three German officers and four other ranks were killed in the raid, the mission failed to capture Rommel, who as it turned out, had not been at Beda Littoria at that time. For No.11 (Scottish) Commando the ill-fated raid was its final operation, and the Commando was disbanded. For his actions Geoffrey Keyes was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.