In the next part of Jim Henderson’s series, we hear about the 11th Commando’s first engagement at Litani after their period of training on Arran. The featured image shows the Qasmiye Bridge where the 11th Commando were sent.
The Litani River engagement and Rommel Raid
The first active engagement by the 11th Commando was the landing on the beaches of Aileniye to capture the Qasmiye Bridge on the Litani River 9th and 10th June 1941. It was understood that the bridge had been mined on the 8th and it was imperative to capture the bridge area to support the advance of the Australian 21st Infantry, who were going to build a pontoon bridge.
(Authors note: There is already much writing and records of the 11th (Scottish) Commando engagements. This account relates the main points in brief)
The invasion of Syria had several objectives: the 7th Australian Division advancing to Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, the 5th Indian Brigade and the 1st Free French Division moving from Iraq to Palmyra and the river Euphrates. To establish this objective there was one obstacle, the river Litani and at short notice the 11th (Scottish) Commando was assigned to defend the bridge area over the Litani river, which was north of Tyre. The forces required to defend and save the bridge to assist with the advance of the Australian 21st Infantry Brigade, which was part of the 7th Australian Division, who were arriving from the South.
Unfortunately, on the day of the attack weather conditions aborted the mission, as it was impossible to launch the landing craft and the ships were returned to base in Port Said. Almost immediately, within hours of returning the call went out that conditions had abated and the mission was back-on. However, the delay by 24 hours ruined the surprise attack and the Vichy French blew up the bridge, which was not known until they landed.
The supporting fleet of the Royal Navy were the Cruisers – Ajax, Phobe, Coventry and Perth, together with the Destroyers – Hotspur, Iris, Kandahar, Janus and Jackal. The 11th (Scottish) Commando were involved in the Litani and North Africa assault on Rommel.
On the Aileniye beach, North to South Z force, no. 4 and 10 troops commanded by Captain George More, landed due west of the Kafr Badda Bridge. Their instruction was to capture and hold the bridge to stop any reinforcements and supplies reaching the battle front. To make matters worse contact with the main groups was lost due to failure of the radio equipment. Their night action overcame the Vichy French who surrendered to Captain More at daybreak. They also joined up with Keyes’ command. The battalion acquitted themselves by achieving their objective, but the last-minute change of plans became a factor in the number of casualties.
Y force commanded by Lt Colonel Dick Pedder, consisted of 1, 7 and 8 troops successfully landed on the beach mid-way between the Qasmiye and Kafr Badda bridge. Their mission was to act as a reserve party in support of the X force. Headed inland over the sand dunes cross the Tyre- Sidon road. On reaching higher ground they met stiff resistance from the Vichy French but captured the French barracks to establish headquarters of the mission. However, the French rallied and their snipers began felling a number of the 11th Commando including Pedder who was fatally wounded in their counter attack. RSM Tevendale regrouped Pedder’s party, abandoned the barracks and headed for the river to meet up with Keyes. However, after engaging in further action by the superior French forces, they were overcome and had to surrender.
X force commanded by Major Keyes, consisted of 2, 3 and 9 troops landed on a beach South of the Litani river. These troops headed North to the South bank of the river and borrowed boats to gain access to the North side and silenced some of the gun positions, which had been shelling the Australian advance. It took the X force all night to arrive at the location of the original plan and meet up with Captain More’s group.
The wider action of the operation was described as a ‘Commando spirited’ action that materially helped the subsequent action of the main body. However, a number of 11th Commando was lost in the three raids, including five officers and 40 of the ranks, with another nine missing presumed dead. The majority of the deceased were aged between 20 and 25, a further three officers and 47 ranks were wounded, which amounted to 25% of the 395 men who began the action.
Operation ‘Flipper’ the raid on Rommel’s headquarters
Early in September, one year after the 11th arrived in Lamlash orders came through that Commando units were to be disbanded. These orders were subsequently rescinded by Churchill, as far as the Commandos in the Middle East were concerned. However, some men had already left to form the SAS (Special Air Service) or join the SBS (Special Boat Service) LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) as mentioned in Part 1 https://voiceforarran.com/issue-114/a-history-of-the-11th-commando-black-hackle-in-arran/, or returned to their own regiments. By this time there were just 110 men left in the 11th (Scottish) Commando, as a unit they were not disbanded until the end of 1941.
The planning for Operation Flipper began in early October and the remains of the 11th insisted on retaining the name ‘Commando’ and targeting Rommel on the 18th November. Lt Col Keyes and 25 other ranks boarded a submarine HMS Torbay and Col Laycock with another 25 ranks boarded the HMS Talisman to carry out a reconnaissance mission near Bardia, landing by using rubber boats.
The plan was to attack the villa where General Erwin Rommel had set up headquarters in Cyrnia. Even before they landed on terra-firma, the sea conditions caused some of the rubber craft to capsize when transferring from the submarines, destroying some of the equipment. Two days later, on the 19th November, they arrived at the location of Rommel’s Villa. Making use of one of the men who was fluent in German, they ordered the occupants to open the door and killed the German guards, but no Rommel. During the brief battle, just minutes before the hand grenades went off, Keyes was fatally wounded and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
It transpired that the information about Rommel had been correct, he had been at HQ Beda Littoria, Libya but at the time of the raid he was in Rome. Although ‘operation flipper’ failed to capture Rommel, the raid captured the service’s imagination and boosted morale and proved that such raids in the desert conditions could be carried out.
The final part of the series next month will cover battle honours and personalities of the 11th Commando.