On the eve of the new British offensive in North Africa a Commando unit landed far behind enemy lines in Libya in a daring raid to capture the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
Rough seas meant that only a small part of the intended force was able to land from the submarines that took them to a secret rendezvous on the coast. They then spent two nights moving inland, hiding in caves by day, travelling to the Germans base where it was believed that Rommel resided. Unfortunately the intelligence was wrong and Rommel was actually in Italy at the time – a fact not discovered until after the raid.
This was a pioneering operation by the Commando’s, even though unsuccessful it helped establish their reputation for audacious, behind the lines attacks.
Geoffrey Keyes, at 24 the youngest Lieutenant-Colonel (albeit Temporary) in the British Army at the time, won the Victoria Cross for his leading role in the raid:
Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes commanded a detachment of a force which landed some 250 miles behind the enemy lines to attack Headquarters, Base Installations and Communications.
From the outset Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes deliberately selected for himself the command of the detachment detailed to attack what was undoubtedly the most hazardous of these objectives—the residence and Headquarters of the General Officer Commanding the German forces in North Africa. This attack, even if initially successful, meant almost certain death for those who took part in it.
He led his detachment without guides, in dangerous and precipitous country and in pitch darkness, and maintained by his stolid determination and powers of leadership the morale of the detachment.
He then found himself forced to modify his original plans in the light of fresh information elicited from neighbouring Arabs, and was left with only one officer and an N.C.O. with whom to break into General Rommel’s residence and deal with the guards and Headquarters Staff.
At zero hour on the night of 17th-18th November, 1941, having despatched the covering party to block the approaches to the house, he himself with the two others crawled forward past the guards, through the surrounding fence and so up to the house itself.
Without hesitation, he boldly led his party up to the front door, beat on the door and demanded entrance.
Unfortunately, when the door was opened, it was found impossible to overcome the sentry silently, and it was necessary to shoot him. The noise of the shot naturally aroused the inmates of the house and Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes, appreciating that speed was now of the utmost importance, posted the N.C.O. at the foot of the stairs to prevent interference from the floor above.
Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes, who instinctively took the lead, emptied his revolver with great success into the first room and was followed by the other officer who threw a grenade.
Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes with great daring then entered the second room on the ground floor but was shot almost immediately on flinging open the door and fell back into the passage mortally wounded. On being carried outside by his companions he died within a few minutes.
By his fearless disregard of the great dangers which he ran and of which he was fully aware, and by his magnificent leadership and outstanding gallantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes set an example of supreme self sacrifice and devotion to duty.