This “every third day” thing is getting to be something of a rut. It’s not a goal to do that, but it’s the way things have gone for a bit here. But I’ve got a couple things that might interest you history buffs on today’s list, so we’ll see if I can get both in. First for this morning…
Today’s History Lesson has made no secret of the fact that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was a most capable tactician, one of Germany’s finest. And rightly so…history has pretty well established it. It’s no surprise that he was revered by the German people. He had his detractors in the circle that was the German military, but most military authorities knew he was a gifted leader. And it’s no shock that Allied leaders, all the way up the chain, respected both his conduct of war and his conduct in war. He was tough but chivalrous…a brutal opponent on the battlefield and one who detested brutality when the battle was done.
But of course, in war, the opponent you respect the most is the guy on which you place the biggest target.
A year ago, we talked about Operation Crusader. This British-led offensive had as its goal the relief of Tobruk. Located in Libya (just west of the Egyptian border), it had been under siege by Rommel’s forces since April of 1941. It was hoped that General Claude Auckinleck’s forces would come in and break the siege…just before Rommel could strike (what he thought would be) the victory blow.
So, if you’re going to attack Rommel’s forces, wouldn’t it be great if the head guy could be taken out of the picture? The British thought so, and launched Operation Flipper. It sounds all nice like that friendly dolphin that was on TV years ago with Annette Funicello or Gidget or whoever, but don’t kid yourself. Operation Flipper had as its main objective the death or capture of Erwin Rommel.
The mission began on the evening of November 14th. A pair of British subs arrived to drop off the assualt team, but horrible weather conditions and strong surf meant that only about half of them made it to shore, the others remaining on-ship. The target was Beda Littoria, roughly 20 miles from the drop-zone and more than 100 miles further west of Torbruk. It was there that Rommel was reportedly headquartered and had a villa. Over the next couple days, the commandos, led by Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, made their way to Beda Littoria, fighting rains, cold, and lots of mud. And if things were bad leading up to the raid, they only got worse when the bullets started flying.
The raid began just before midnight on November 17, 1941. Keyes was shot and killed almost immediately, and things just went downhill. Rommel wasn’t in the villa, and he wasn’t in the HQ. In fact, he wasn’t anywhere on the African continent. He was in Rome, and not due back until the following day. The British had missed their opportunity by 24 hours.
It gets worse. The surviving commandos were forced to make their way back to the beach. When they arrived, the weather was still so bad that they couldn’t get to the subs. And then they were discovered by the enemy and forced to scatter. In the end, only 2 men reached safety of the 37 that made it to shore on the 14th. The rest were killed or captured.
Operation Flipper was a major Flopper.
And Field Marshal Rommel, even as the main target, responded with the class and dignity many of his German peers sorely lacked. He ordered that Lt. Col. Keyes be buried in a Catholic cemetery…with full military honors.
Recommended Reading: The Story of the No. 11 Commandos – All of their exploits, with a detailed look at Operation Flipper.