b. 18/05/1917 Aberdour, Fife, Scotland. d. 18/11/1941 Beda Littoria, Libya.
Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes (1917-1941) was born in Aberdour, Fife, Scotland on 18th May 1917, the oldest son of Lord Roger John Brownlow Keyes, a veteran of the Zeebrugge and Dover Raids, and an Admiral of the Fleet. Geoffrey, as a young man, hoped to follow his father into the Royal Navy, but failed the eyesight test. Geoffrey’s education began at Kingsmead School in Seaford, Sussex, before attending Eton. From Eton, Geoffrey entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where he joined his uncle’s regiment, the Royal Scots Greys, as a Second Lieutenant.
From October 1937, he served in Palestine but, while on leave in February 1940, he volunteered for special service. As an accomplished skier, he was picked for the Narvik Expeditionary Force two months later, but when the Allies had to retreat from Norway he was evacuated back to England and rejoined the Royal Scots Greys. He then briefly served as liaison officer to the Chasseurs Alpins, and for his work in that role he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
After his return from Norway, he volunteered to join the newly formed Commando organisation. On 25th July, 1940 he received a letter from his father saying: “I am so pleased you applied for that service – because I was going to apply for you. I am Director of Combined Operations, all Commandos and Independent Companies come under my influence….Your Loving Daddy.” Keyes was posted to the 11th Scottish Commandos and, after a rigorous training programme, embarked for the Middle East in January 1941.
By the autumn, Keyes had formulated a daring plan and, after much persuasion, won over General HQ Cairo to sanction an attempt to destroy the German HQ, 250 miles behind enemy lines at Beda Littoria, Libya. Furthermore, the intention was to capture General Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps. The “Rommel Raid” was timed to coincide with a British offensive on 17th-18th November 1941. Colonel Robert Laycock, the officer commanding Middle East Commando operations, had reservations about the mission but decided to accompany the force as an observer. He remained at the landing place throughout.
In the operation, Colonel Keyes led his detachment ashore. The majority of the boats, including his own, were swamped on the passage into the beach but, whereas his officers and men were able to take advantage in the shelter of a cave in which they lit a fire, warmed themselves and dried off. Colonel Keyes remained on the beach to meet men who managed to get ashore.
Shortly before dawn, the detachment moved to a Wadi (dry riverbed) in which they remained hidden during the hours of daylight. After dark on the second night, Colonel Keyes set off with his detachment towards an objective, but was deterred by his Arab guide, who refused to accompany the party as soon as the weather deteriorated. Without guides, and faced with a climb of over 1,800 feet in pitch darkness and an approach march of 18 miles which they knew would end in an attack on German HQ. By 2200 on the fourth night, they had reached their objective. Due to several issues, his men were depleted in number. Having detailed most of his men to take up positions so as to prevent enemy interference with his attack on General Rommel’s residence, Colonel Keyes was left with only one Officer (Captain Campbell) and one other rank (Sergeant Terry) with whom to break into the house and deal with the Guards and HQ Staff.
At midnight, the three men crawled past the guards, through the fence and so up to the house itself. Keyes led his men up to the front door, and beat on the door and demanded entrance using Campbell’s excellent German. As the sentry opened the door, they jumped on him, but struggling to overpower, Terry shot him with his revolver, which caused alarm in the rest of the house. Colonel Keyes then posted Terry at the foot of the stairs with a Tommy gun to stop anyone getting to the landing. Keyes and Campbell would then have to take each room which were now in pitch darkness. Keyes emptied his revolver into the first room with success, and Campbell threw in a grenade. On the approach to the second room, they must have realised the room was occupied, and Keyes was shot and mortally wounded on entering the room. He was carried out by Campbell and Terry and died a few minutes later.
Of the entire force, only Laycock and Terry made it back to British lines after 37 days in the desert. The remainder were either killed or taken prisoner. It later transpired that Rommel never used the building raided by Keyes, and was in Rome at the time of the raid. Nevertheless, he heard of the raid and clearly respected Keyes’ bravery because he sent his personal chaplain to Libya to conduct the funeral of Keyes in a local Catholic cemetery. He was later moved to Benghazi War Cemetery, Libya. Sir Winston Churchill, who comforted Admiral Keyes on the loss of his son, said: “I would far rather have Geoffrey alive than Rommel dead.” His medals were purchased by Michael Ashcroft at an auction at Spink’s in 1995 and are now on display in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: BENGHAZI WAR CEMETERY, BENGHAZI, LIBYA.
PLOT VII, ROW D, GRAVE 5
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Plan.
Thomas Stewart – The Memorial Board in the House of Lords to Keyes VC MC, and the memorial to Keyes and his father in St Paul’s Cathedral.