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World War II
A Narrative History


"The Plot to Kill Rommel"
(1941)
Anthony Cave Brown
Bodyguard of Lies, Vol. 1 (1975)


Rommel
[Rommel's] iniitial drive for the Valley of the Nile sent the British into full retreat, and all during the summer of 1941, [he] stood at the Egyptian frontier, awaiting permission from the Fuehrer to march on Cairo. But the order never came and the summer passed quietly. The British, meanwhile, were planning "Crusader," a counteroffensive against Rommel to begin November 18, 1941, which Churchill hoped would become a victory comparable to both Blenheim and Waterloo. Crusader was to open with a murder -- Rommel's murder. The British intention was to destroy Rommels' main force of panzers, relieve Tobruk -- the cluster of white houses and sheds that had become a British fortress at Rommel's rear -- and wrest Libya and Tripolitania from the Italian empire. Then, the Army of the Nile, having ejected the Axis from Africa, was to march east and north to guard the Levant against a German drive upon Arabia through the mountain passes of Russia and Persian Caucasia. The forces on both sides were more or less evenly matched, with armored superiority lying with Rommel and air superiority with Auchinleck. Auchinleck's only hope of achieving this new Waterloo was surprise; if he could assassinate Rommel, the chaos in the Axis command would give the British that surprise. It was the first of the British attempts to murder Rommel; it would not be the last.
One night that October, a Wellington bomber flew out across the silvered Mediterranean, and then turned toward Cyrene, the old city of Hannibal. Once overland, the captain let his undercarriage down to slow his airspeed and into the night leaped a British intelligence agent, J.E. Haselden, an Arabist in the mold of Lawrence. Haselden, who could speak the dialects of the Senussi as well as he could speak English, buried his parachute in the camel-shrub desert and put on the galabieh, the Senussi's robes. He dyed his skin but-brown, and then, after daybreak when the camel trains were on the move again, walked into Beda Littoria. It was here that Rommel was reported to have his headquarters. Posing as a trader in ostrich feathers, Haselden spent several weeks in the vicinity of a large, white-walled villa which was obviously a German command post. He watched Rommel go in and out in his armored cabriolet. There was a large signals detachment in the grounds beneath the cypresses and a heavy guard around the villa. The activity, the comings and goings of officers and despatch riders -- all suggested that this was Rommel's headquarters. Haselden wirelessed his reports to Cairo.
There, on the basis of Haselden's reports, the Director of Military Intelligence, General Francis W. de Guingand, planned a raid on the villa with Colonel R.E. Laycock, the Commando chief in the Middle East. Their plan was for six officers and fifty-three Commandos to land near Beda Littoria from two submarines, the Torbay and the Talisman. They had four missions: to kill or capture Rommel; to attack and destroy the Italian headquarters at Cyrene; to attack and seize the papers and ciphers of Italian intelligence headquarters at Appollonia and kill the staff; and to cut all telephone and telegraph communications with these targets and seize all Enigma-related material.
The submarines surfaced off Beda Littoria in driving rain and rough seas after dark on November 17. On the beach Haselden made light signals in the darkness to guide the Commandos' rubber boats to the shore. They formed up on the beach, sodden with rain and spray, and moved up to a ridge overlooking the villa. There, at half-past ten that night, they rested while a sapper destroyed telephone lines leading down to the villa. Then, led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, a three-man assault team pushed through a hedge at the back of the villa into the garden. Moving silently and quickly -- the rain muffling their sounds -- they went to the front of the villa, ran up the steps and pushed open the door. Almost immediately they were confronted by a German officer in a steel helmet and overcoat. Keyes menaced him with his tommy gun but the German seized the muzzle and tried to wrest it away. Keyes drew his knife to kill the German silently but one of his men shot him with a revolver as they wrestled between the first and second doors of the entrance. The three men then rushed into the hall, which was dimly lit, and saw another German running down the stone staircase. One of the Commandos directed a burst of fire at him, which missed, and the German ran back up the stairs. Then Keyes noticed a light beneath a door. He flung it open, saw some ten Germans putting on steel helmets, fired two or three shots from his pistol into them, and a Commando threw a grenade. But at that moment, one of the Germans fired and a bullet struck Keyes just over the heart. He fell and died as he was carried out through the front door and laid in the wet grass. One of the other would-be-assassins was shot in the leg by a Commando in the shadows who was playing covering fire on the door.
Both this and the other connected raids were failures. The only casualties inflicted upon the Germans were three supply colonels and a soldier killed at the villa. The targets at Cyrene and Appollonia were not attacked, and the only damage done was to a petrol supply point, which was blown up. The entire British party was lost, except for Colonel Laycock and a sergeant, who lay up in a wadi until they were rescued by the spearheads of Crusader. As for Rommel, the gloomy villa among the cypresses had only been his temporary headquarters and he had moved some weeks before to another headquarters at Gambut, about 100 miles away down the coast. The Commandos could not have caught the Desert Fox even there; he was celebrating his birthday with his wife and some friends at Rome when the Crusader counteroffensive began -- the first of three curious absences from his command posts on each of three major British attacks during the course of the war. When he returned to meet Crusader, despite his anger at discovering that none of his would-be assassins wore any insignia that identified them as enemies, he directed that Keyes be given a Christian burial with full military honors and ordered his chaplain to make a thirty-six hour journey for the ceremonial. He had one of his carpenters make crosses of cypress to place on the graves of the British and German dead and also ordered some young cypresses planted as memorials. As a last gesture, he instructed that photographs be taken of the ceremony and of Keyes's grave and sent to the young Commando's parents. This chivalrous act marked Rommel's entire conduct of the war in the desert, and did not go unnoticed by his adversaries.
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 Commandos
Name given to British units, formed in June 1940 to apply irregular tactics to conventional warfare. Commandos offered a way of striking at Axis-held targets at a time when the British were in no position to mount large-scale European operations. After limited training in Scotland as guerrilla fighters, the first Commandos went into action on the night of 23-4 June 1940, carrying out a small and only partly successful raid on the French coast near Bologne.
Attacks on the Channel Island of Guernsey, the Lofoten Islands, and Vaagso in Norway followed during 1940-1, and a force of three Commando units -- known as Layforce after its commander, Colonel Laycock -- was sent to the Middle East in February 1941. Here they combined with Middle East Commandos also formed in 1940. Layforce saw action in the Desert War, Crete and Syria, its most famous operation being a raid on Rommel's suspected Libyan headquarters in November 1941, which failed to kill the German general and from which only two men (including Laycock) returned. Throughout 1942, Commandos performed a number of small raids, and units took part in larger attacks on St. Nazaire and Dieppe. After the Allied Torch landings in November 1942, they were generally used to spearhead amphibious operations including those in Sicily, Italy, Burma and Normandy.
Commando units consisted of some 460 men (all volunteers) divided into six troops and grouped into Special Service (later Commando) Brigades. They came under the overall control of Combined Operations Command, which was directed by Admiral Sir Roger Keyes from July 1940 to October 1941, when he was succeeded by Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1943 Laycock, now a major-general, became Chief of Combined Operations, a position he held until 1947.
The Macmillan Dictionary of the Second World War, Wheal and Pope, eds. (1989)
 Wellington bomber

Employing the efficient geodetic lattice structure, the twin-engine Vickers Wellington continued in service with Bomber Command until 1943, far longer than its contemporaries, the Handley Page Hampden and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. Designed to meet a 1932 requirement, the Wellington first flew on 15 June 1936 and in its Wellington Mk I form with Pegasus radials joined the RAF (No. 9 Squadron) in October 1938. The Wellington Mk IA (with Nash and Thompson nose and tail gun turrets) and the Wellington Mk IC (with lateral guns in place of the ventral turret) followed, together with the Merlin-powered Wellington Mk II and Hercules III- or XI-powered Wellington Mk III and at the beginning of the war six squadrons were flying the Wellington. Early daylight raids resulted in heavy losses owing to the Wellington's large defenceless arcs and in 1940 the aircraft joined the night bombing force. On 1 April 1941 a Wellington dropped the RAF's first 1814-kg (4,000 lb) bomb. Subsequent bomber versions included the Twin Wasp-powered Wellington Mk IV, and Wellington Mk V and Mk VI high-altitude aircraft with pressure cabins and Hercules or Merlin engines respectively; these latter versions did not see combat service. The Wellington Mk X with Hercules XVIIIs was the final bomber version, and the last raid by Bomber Command Wellingtons took place of 8-9 October 1943. In the meantime Wellingtons had been flying on maritime duties, the Wellington DW.Mk I with large mine-exploding hoops having operated in 1940 and Wellington Mk IC minelayers soon after this. Coastal Command versions included the Wellington GR.Mk VIII with Pegasus engines and ASV radar, the Wellington GR.Mk XI, XII and XIV with Hercules, Leigh Light and provision for two torpedoes; the Wellington T.Mks XVII and XVIII were trainers, and many MK Xs were converted to flying 'classrooms'. Wellingtons were also used as test-beds for early jet engines. The Wellington C.Mk XV and XVI were transport conversions of the Mk IC. A total of 11,461 aircraft were produced.
Wellington Mk III
Type: six-crew night medium bomber
Powerplant: two 1119-kW (1,500 hp) Bristol Hercules XI radial piston engines
Performance: maximum speed 411 km/h (255 mph) at 3810 m (12,500 ft); service ceiling 5790 m (19,000 ft)l range with 2041-kg (4,500 lb) bombload 2478 km (1,540 miles).
Weights: empty 8605 kg (18,970 lb); maximum takeoff 15422 kg (34,000 lb)
Dimensions: span 26.26 m (86 ft 2 in); length 19.68 m (64 ft 7 in); height 5 m (17 ft 5 in).
Armament: two 7.7-mm (0.303-in) machine-guns in nose turret, four 7.7-mm guns in tail turret, and two 7.7-mm machine-guns in beam positions, plus a maximum bombload of 2041 kg (4,500 lb).
The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II, Bishop, ed. (1998)