Chapter 15: Political Decisions
THE failures and reverses of April and May had reduced the number of effective fighting formations at General Wavell’s disposal almost by half. In March he could deploy ten divisions – the 2nd Armoured; 1st Cavalry; 6th (British); 6th, 7th and 9th Australian; 4th and 5th Indian; New Zealand; 1st South African. Five of these had now either been broken up into small groups (as the 6th British and the Cavalry) or had lost their heavy weapons and were in need of rest and reinforcement (as the 6th Australian and the New Zealand). Of the divisions which remained, the 9th Australian was now besieged in Tobruk, the rearmed 7th Armoured (not included above), the 1st South African, and the 4th Indian were in process of concentrating on the Western Desert front, and the 5th Indian and the small British-African divisions were engaged in mopping-up in Abyssinia. The only substantial and ready reserve was the 7th Australian Division, in position about Mersa Matruh.
Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced even more calamitously than Wavell’s army by its losses off Greece and Crete. He now had only two battleships, three cruisers, and 17 destroyers fit for action. With this force he had to run supplies into Tobruk and Malta in the face of a great enemy superiority in the air, and do what he could to interrupt the shipping of Axis supplies and reinforcements to North Africa. Late in May he sent a strong appeal to London for air reinforcements on a large scale, so that the R.A.F. and the Fleet Air Arm could sink enemy ships in substantial numbers, and also give the army enough support to enable it to advance in North Africa.
After its losses in Greece the British air force in the Middle East possessed only about 200 serviceable aircraft, excluding obsolescent types, with which to carry out tasks over Malta and the eastern Mediterranean, Crete, North Africa, Italian East Africa, Aden and the Red Sea, Palestine, and perhaps Syria and Iraq. Against these the Germans had more than 1,200, the Italians more than 600; if only half of the enemy aircraft were always ready for immediate action, 900 were pitted against 250 British, of which about 50 were obsolescent machines.1 The enemy could reinforce his squadrons quickly from stations a day or two away, whereas British replacements had to be flown either through the dangers of the Mediterranean, refuelling by night at Malta, or over the sea to West Africa and thence some 3,700 miles to Cairo.
There was thus an urgent need for heavy equipment to rearm veteran divisions and for air force squadrons, and for the rapid repair or reinforcement of the damaged naval vessels with which Alexandria was crowded. If these were provided and no new commitments added, it should be
possible to concentrate a force of formidable strength for a renewed thrust towards Tripoli. In May, however, even before the German attack on Crete opened, it had been made evident to the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East that a new task would soon be added – a march into Vichy-French Syria.
In the early months of 1941 the political background of General Wavell’s command had become so complex that, in April, he reached the conclusion that British political policy in the Middle East could no longer be efficiently directed from London and asked, through the Chiefs of Staff there, for “the appointment of an authority in the Middle East who could decide upon political policy in relation to strategy without the delay in referring home”. No doubt this opinion had been influenced by the speed with which decisions had been obtained during Mr Eden’s visits. One political complication embarrassing Wavell was the activity of General de Gaulle who, in April, had communicated direct to Mr Churchill a proposal that Free French forces should take military action against Syria – a frivolous suggestion since the Free French forces in Palestine early in May consisted of only five battalions and a section of artillery, whereas General Henri Dentz, the Vichy Government’s Commander-in-Chief in Syria, was believed to command some 28,000 well-trained and well-armed men. Nevertheless such a proposal was likely to be listened to sympathetically by Churchill, who had great hopes of the de Gaullist movement;2 and de Gaulle had the support of General Catroux (his deputy in the Middle East), Sir Miles Lampson, and General Spears,3 the influential British liaison officer at Free French headquarters.
About the end of April General Dill had informed Wavell that, in view of the danger of German airborne attack on Syria, the Foreign Office was about to warn Dentz of such a possibility and ask him what preparations he was making for defence. He asked Wavell what troops he could spare to assist Dentz against the Germans, adding that it was inadvisable to use the Free French unless requested. In reply to the British inquiry Dentz said that he would resist German encroachment, but that he must obey whatever instructions he received from his Government. Wavell, for his part, informed Dill, on 28th April (the embarkation from Greece was then in progress), that he had only one cavalry brigade group available.4
Wavell was instructed that, if Dentz resisted German invasion, all available help should be given to him; if he failed to resist, Wavell and his colleagues should take “any military action deemed practicable”; in the event of a German invasion the air force should strike at once. General de Gaulle was being kept informed, but Wavell should decide whether Free French troops were to be employed.
At the request of General Catroux, de Gaulle’s deputy in the Levant, a conference was held in Cairo on 5th May to discuss the situation in Syria. Catroux said that he did not believe that Dentz’s troops would resist a German attack and urged that, if the Germans landed, he should move into Syria with a force of six Free French battalions which would soon be ready. The Chiefs of Staff approved this proposal. The British leaders now knew from their representatives and agents that Dentz had been instructed to allow German and Italian aircraft to fly over Syria, but to fire on British aircraft. On 9th May Churchill sent a cable to Wavell in the course of which he said:
In face of your evident feeling of lack of resources we can see no other course open than to furnish General Catroux with the necessary transport and let him and his Free French do their best at the moment they deem suitable, the R.A.F. acting against German landings.5
On 12th May it was reported from Damascus that German aircraft were alighting in Syria. The Middle East Air Force, now commanded by Air Marshal Tedder, who had replaced Air Chief Marshal Longmore, was authorised to act against these aircraft, and on the 14th and 15th May British aircraft bombed the Damascus airfield. The Rayak and Palmyra fields were bombed on the 18th and 19th.
A tangle of political complications was likely to result from the outbreak of fighting between Britain and Vichy France and it was largely in anticipation of such crises that Wavell had asked for the appointment to Cairo of a leader empowered to make political decisions.
From the 16th century onwards France had obtained a cultural and commercial ascendancy over the Ottoman Empire. This gained steadily in strength as that Empire sickened and its outlying provinces acquired partial or complete independence. French became the second language of the nearer Arab lands; so far as the Near East adopted European customs they were derived chiefly from France; the cultivated Egyptian or Levantine regarded Paris as the centre of European culture and commerce. Despite the growth of British influence since the middle of the 19th century, France and the French retained very considerable financial and industrial concessions, and gained new ones, and French schools and missions grew and multiplied. After the war of 1914–1918, however, and the negotiations which followed, Britain, partly by force of arms, partly
as a result of her strong support for Arab nationalism, partly by diplomacy, emerged as the dominant European Power in the Middle East, and French power and prestige declined. The settlement with the new Turkey at the Treaty of Lausanne was a bitter disappointment to Frenchmen of most parties; and, after 1924, French and British policy took radically different directions. Britain made fairly rapid steps towards the emancipation of the Arab countries she dominated whereas (in the words of a Frenchman) “anxious to educate the people (much more than Great Britain), to create an elite, a highly-educated class, in order to ensure a good administration, French progress was undoubtedly very slow, too slow”.6
In Syria and Lebanon, where France ruled some 3,300,000 people under a mandate from the League of Nations, there was a patchwork of religious and cultural communities, Islamic, Christian and Jew. Under French rule the mandate was divided into four zones: Syria, predominantly of the Sunni sect of Islam; Lebanon, where there was a Christian majority; Latakia with a majority of Alawis whose religion is an amalgam of Islamic, Christian and pagan; and the Jebel Druse peopled by a semi-Islamic warlike sect from which their mountain stronghold takes its name. In Syria and the Jebel Druse there was, from the beginning of the French mandate, much discontent based on nationalistic feeling and fed by a conviction that the French officials were often corrupt, arbitrary and oppressive. Discontent flared into civil war in 1925 and involved the French and the insurgents in military operations which lasted until 1927. In the succeeding eleven years Syrian and Lebanese political awareness increased and disagreements with the French Government multiplied until, in July 1939, the High Commissioner dissolved the infant Syrian Chamber of Deputies and replaced it by an appointed Council of Directors. At the outbreak of war in Europe the relatively placid Lebanese Chamber was also dissolved, and certain extreme nationalist parties were suppressed and their leaders imprisoned. The strategical importance which the French Government attached to Syria was indicated by the appointment of General Weygand, after Marshal Main the most highly esteemed of French commanders, as Commander-in-Chief in the Levant.
Most Syrian and Lebanese leaders expressed their willingness to support France and her allies in the war, but the people appear to have been apathetic and cynical.
Except among the Francophile elements, people tended to think that, although the belligerents might invoke the noblest of principles to justify their taking up arms, in reality all were equally moved by self-interest, and that from the point of view of the exploited nations of the East there was nothing to choose between the oppression exercised in the name of democracy and that exercised in the name of Fascism. This tendency was encouraged by the efforts of the competing propaganda services, each of which purported to unmask the true face of the other party.7
When, in June 1940, General Mittelhauser declared that the terms of the armistice with Germany would be observed in Syria, the British
Government announced that it would not allow Syria to be occupied by a hostile Power. A minority among the civil and military officers wished to continue the fight against Germany, and some of these made their way to Palestine. Gradually, those officials believed to have pro-British sympathies were replaced; in November 1940 the post of High Commissioner was given to General Dentz who, as a junior officer, had served in Syria in the ‘twenties on the staff of Weygand, and of General Sarrail when that commander took the repressive steps which led to the rebellion of 1925.8 He had been Deputy Chief of the General Staff from 1934 to 1939 and Military Governor of Paris when it was surrendered in June 1940.
The majority of politically-conscious Syrians, already apathetic about the European war, felt humiliated to be subject to a defeated nation; and after the withdrawal of France from the League of Nations they considered the legal basis of the mandate to have disappeared. Early in 1941 there were strikes and demonstrations in Syrian towns in protest against the shortage of food and consequent profiteering. Nationalist leaders took over the direction of this unrest. In April Dentz broadcast a conciliatory statement forecasting the formation of an Advisory Assembly and economic reforms; he then appointed “Ministries” in both Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, in anticipation of possible military operations in Syria, British agents were wooing the Syrian Arabs; since February, on instructions from London, Mr Kirkbride,9 the British Resident in Transjordan, had been secretly in touch with the Jebel Druses, and Major Glubb,10 of the Arab Legion, with the Syrian tribes.11
Henceforward, General Dentz’s actions can be understood only if seen against the background of the changing moods and policies of his own government at Vichy and of Hitler and his staff. The leading figures in the Vichy Government were bitterly antagonistic to Britain, and likely to remain under German influence, not only because they considered that they would gain by a German victory but because, in common with strong forces in the French upper classes and the army, they believed that France’s salvation lay in the establishment of a totalitarian state on the German model. This did not mean, however, that their nationalism was dead or that all of them wished France to be completely subordinated to Germany; and, in the late summer of 1940, when it began to appear that Britain would not immediately be defeated, Main and some of his Ministers gave evidence
of a determination to resist further German encroachments. In October Weygand was sent to North Africa to organise resistance with the object of robbing both Germany and Britain of the excuse of having to occupy French North Africa to prevent the other from doing so. British efforts (through United States channels) to persuade the Vichy Government to go to North Africa and continue the struggle against Germany won no success. Indeed, while these negotiations were in progress, Main, determined to keep a foot in each camp, met Hitler at Montoire on 24th October and was persuaded into an agreement to give help to the German arms. This agreement stated that “the Axis Powers and France have an identical interest in seeing the defeat of England accomplished as soon as possible. Consequently, the French Government will support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to this end ...”
During the winter of 1940-41, however, Main became less enthusiastic about a German victory. In December, M. Laval, the most pro-German of his leading Ministers, was arrested, and the efforts of United States envoys to detach Vichy from German dominance won some success. In May United States policy was to humour the Vichy Government to the utmost. The British leaders, tied as they were to the support of de Gaulle, disappointed at the failure of earlier efforts to win Vichy over, and anxious about the growth of German infiltration in North Africa, disagreed with the United States policy, being convinced that they had little to hope for from Main, from his lieutenant, Admiral Darlan, or from Weygand in North Africa. Nevertheless, as a concession, they allowed a limited number of ships bearing American wheat to go through the blockade to Marseilles.
The British policy of taking firm action against the Vichy Government was acceptable to a variety of influential leaders in the Middle East. For their information about Syrian conditions the British political and military staffs depended on officials with long service in the area and on the de Gaullists. It was not surprising that, as a rule, these British officials had been influenced by the keen rivalry between Britain and France in the Arab world. There was much in the French record (as in the British) that could be criticised; and this could be put forward as an indication of weakness and a reason why the conquest of Syria was not only a necessity, but would be relatively easy. The French officers, it was declared, were ill-paid and often corrupt, and their rule had been harsh; the population would not be sorry to see them go. The de Gaullists, adding their counsel, insisted that the French military leaders needed only to be provided with a pretext for surrendering. Both these groups of advisers were not unbiased.
On the other hand Wavell’s Intelligence staff estimated the French army of Syria at about 28,000 metropolitan and colonial troops – highly trained and well-equipped regulars, mostly Negroes and Arabs – plus 25,000 Lebanese and Syrian troops, and a considerable force of gendarmeries who included a leavening of French officers and NCOs. Estimates of the number of German troops and agents in Syria ranged from an innocuous 200 to an ominous 3,000. General Wilson’s staff considered that, at this stage, there were probably about 300.
The existence of this considerable army of regulars in Syria was the hard military fact which confronted Wavell, yet he was beset by political authorities who seemed convinced that he had only to throw his cap into Syria and walk in after it unharmed. Churchill had told him on the 9th May that he could see no other course open than to send in General Catroux. In military terms “General Catroux” connoted perhaps six battalions, including four of Senegalese mercenaries, and two batteries of 75-mm guns. On the 10th May General de Gaulle had complained to Wavell, by telegram, of delay in concentrating Free French forces for action in Syria. On the 18th, Catroux, keen to march into Syria, informed Wavell that the Vichy forces were withdrawing into the Lebanon preparatory to handing Syria over to the Germans; if this was so, it would leave the road to Damascus open, and Catroux asked leave to advance on that city. Wavell doubted Catroux’s information and deferred a decision. Within a few hours Catroux’s report was shown to be erroneous, when General Dentz made a broadcast stating that the British Government had accused France of “not having forcibly repelled German aircraft flying over Syria, some of which were forced to make landings”, and declaring that his army was “ready to reply to force with force”.
The Chiefs of Staff in London decided that Catroux should be allowed to move his troops to the frontier opposite Deraa and to advance into Syria if the reactions of Arabs and Vichy French were favourable. Consequently, on the 20th (the German attack on Crete opened that day), Wavell bowed to what seemed the inevitable. He instructed General Maitland Wilson, now commanding in Palestine and Transjordan, to prepare a plan for a combined British-Free French advance to Damascus, Rayak and Beirut, and warned the 7th Australian Division (General Lavarack) to make ready to move to Palestine.
Wavell plainly told the Chiefs of Staff in London, however, that at that stage a Free French entry into Syria, which they had approved, was bound to fail. He added that, if military policy in the Middle East was to be dictated by de Gaulle and Catroux, it were better to relieve him of his command.
The situation that had arisen in the month since Wavell had proposed that a political authority be appointed in the Middle East had underlined the wisdom of his suggestion. The ill-equipped garrison of Crete was under attack, Tobruk besieged, the force in the Western Desert dangerously weak, the revolt in Iraq still simmering. Yet, against Wavell’s advice, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff in London had approved in principle an invasion of Syria by a Free French force almost wholly lacking in artillery and transport and only one-fifth as strong numerically as the well-armed regulars commanded by Dentz.
Churchill himself replied to Wavell’s protest. In a cable sent on the 21st he told Wavell that he was
wrong in supposing that policy ... arose out of any representations made by the Free French leaders. It arises entirely from the view taken here by those who have the supreme direction of war and policy in all theatres. Our view is that if the
Germans can pick up Syria and Iraq with petty air forces, tourists, and local revolts we must not shrink from running equal small-scale military risks. ... For this decision we of course take full responsibility, and should you find yourself unwilling to give effect to it arrangements will be made to meet any wish you may express to be relieved of your command.12
Meanwhile, no sooner had the Chiefs of Staff agreed to Catroux’s request that he be allowed to assemble his force for what he declared would be an easy advance to Damascus, than Catroux received information that caused him to alter his mind.
On 21st May (wrote Wavell) General Catroux, who had gone to Palestine to meet a French officer from Syria, cabled admitting that his information was entirely incorrect; that, far from withdrawing into the Lebanon, the French were moving troops south of Damascus and taking up positions to defend the routes to that city. He said that nothing but a large force could attempt the occupation of Syria. Mean-while I had been receiving telegrams from General de Gaulle in West Africa, couched in imperative language, enquiring why the Free French troops were not already on the march to Damascus. This incident illustrates the difficulties there sometimes were in dealing with the Free French.13
The officer from Syria was Colonel Collet, commanding the Vichy forces in the Hauran province west of the Jebel Druse, who, also on the 21st, crossed into Palestine with seven of his ten squadrons of Circassian cavalry. (Of these, however, only some 350 men elected to remain in Palestine, the others returning to Syria.) Collet immediately convinced Catroux that Dentz was preparing to defend Syria, and that action by the Free French alone would be futile. On the 22nd Wavell again explained to General Dill that he did not wish to move into Syria until he could do so effectively, and declared his dislike of “political adventures” and “Jameson raids”. He added, however, that, after having consulted Cunningham, Tedder and Blamey, he was moving reinforcements to Palestine.
Three days later, after a visit to Basra to confer with the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Auchinleck, Wavell reported to the War Office that he was preparing a plan for a combined advance into Syria with the 7th Australian Division (only two brigades), the Free French contingent, and units of the 1st Cavalry Division – a total force of about a division and a half, but with practically no armour. The objective was a line Damascus-Rayak-Beirut. He said that he considered this force was too small, and that two infantry divisions and an armoured division, or at least an armoured brigade, were needed for the operation.
The Defence Committee in London considered Wavell’s proposal on the 27th. Next day Wavell was instructed that defeat in Crete must be accepted, that the first objective must be success in the Western Desert, but Syria must be occupied before the German Air Force had recovered from its losses in Crete. The Turks would be invited to occupy Aleppo.14 It was left to Wavell to fix the date of the invasion, but it was to be as
soon as he was “reasonably prepared”. Wavell replied that 7th June was the earliest possible date.
General de Gaulle arrived in Jerusalem on the 29th May accompanied by Major-General Spears.
Spears ... came to see me first (wrote General Wilson15) and impressed on me the importance with which H.M. Government regarded de Gaulle and that one should defer to his wishes as much as possible. He explained to me his mission and the role of his political officers which was to ensure British control as a military necessity; his advice as to the treatment of the French in Syria was that the senior officers, junior officers and other ranks should all be segregated from each other and that the latter should be well fed and given wine and coffee; while we were advancing the French should be shouted at to get out of the way and let us get at the Germans! That evening de Gaulle came and saw me in my office; he stressed the psychological aspect of the operation; there were a vast number of French soldiers who disliked the idea of fighting the British or the Free French; with the Syrian professional army it was a question of honour, if instructed to hold a position they would have to defend it; it would be better to give it a pretext not to fight or to fight as little as possible – the best pretext would be to be extremely strong; the taking of Beirut would have a lot of influence to discontinue resistance as everyone was accustomed to receive orders from there; that aviation attack was preferable to artillery bombardment and would probably offer a better pretext. All these opinions could have little influence on the strength of the force as Wavell was stretched to the utmost to provide what we had.
To what extent had the Australian Government been consulted about the new project, in which a largely Australian force was to be employed? On the 18th May Blamey cabled to the Australian Government that it might become necessary to send the 7th Division to Palestine because of developments in Syria. It will be recalled that Wavell warned Lavarack on 20th May to be ready to move the 7th Division to Palestine, and on the 25th he informed the War Office that he was planning an advance into Syria using the 7th Division and other troops.
On the 24th May the Australian High Commissioner in London, Mr Bruce, had sent a cable to Mr Menzies emphasising the need to prevent the Germans from establishing themselves in Syria and suggesting that Menzies might wish to send a cable to Mr Churchill supporting this view. Before the Australian War Cabinet had considered this suggestion, Bruce, on the 27th, sent a second message stating that he understood that, the Defence Committee was considering a plan for the immediate entry into Syria. In fact, on that day, the Defence Committee decided to give Wavell definite orders to invade Syria. On the 29th the Australian War Cabinet decided to ask General Blamey to give an appreciation of the position in the Middle East, including “the possibility of denying the use of Syria to the Germans”, and on the same day, in a message to Churchill, Menzies said:
Is it not possible to make some attempt at occupation of Syria by British forces? No doubt there has been some reluctance to do this because of the possible effect upon American public opinion. But I am assured by Casey on good authority in
Washington that American opinion would applaud aggressive British action. Anything would appear to be better than allowing Germany to make her foothold in Syria sufficiently strong to enable a jump forward to be accomplished.
For nine days before this cable was sent the planning of such an operation, to be undertaken largely by Australian troops, had been in progress. On the 30th Blamey’s appreciation arrived in Australia. In it he said that it had become necessary to attempt to secure control of the Syrian air bases as soon as possible, and outlined the plan of attack. He said that the force available comprised two cavalry brigades, the 7th Australian Division less one brigade, one Indian brigade, and the Free French Division. (As will be seen below, the cavalry brigades were not ready for action, and the Free French contingent was not a division in the sense in which the word would be understood in Australia.)
On 31st May Churchill informed Menzies that Syria would be occupied as early as possible. On 4th June the Australian Ministers had not been informed of the proposed date of the invasion and, in a cable to Churchill, Menzies said that they were concerned about the delay in the movement into Syria. Late on the 7th Menzies learnt both from Churchill and Blamey that the attack would begin next morning. On the same day Churchill gave this information also to President Roosevelt.
Thus the Australian Government was not directly consulted about the invasion of Syria and was not informed about the planning until several days after the invasion had been ordered. On the other hand, in his message of the 29th May, Menzies had made it clear that his government favoured an attempt to occupy Syria. Anxiety about the fate of Australian troops included in the small garrison of Cyprus may have influenced the Australian Ministers in urging an invasion of Syria.
Was there in fact a danger that German forces might establish themselves in Syria, and had an advance-guard already arrived? The terms of the armistices between France on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other provided that Italy was to determine the extent of, and supervise the partial demobilisation of French Colonial forces. An Italian Armistice Commission had arrived in Syria in August 1940, and by November the French regular forces there had been reduced to some 28,000.
After his talks with Main at Montoire Hitler decided that the best way to ensure that Britain or the de Gaullists did not occupy any more French colonies would be to enable Vichy France to defend them. The German and Italian staffs considered that the French army in Syria should be increased to three divisions by reinforcing it with some 10,000 Moroccan troops; but the problem of getting them there remained unsolved.
Darlan, the French Foreign Minister, went to Paris on 3rd May at the invitation of Abetz, the German representative there, and it was then that it was agreed to make munitions stored in Syria available to the Iraqi forces and to allow German and Italian aircraft to refuel in Syria.
Five days later Darlan ordered Dentz to allow the Germans to use what facilities Syria offered and to resist any attempt by the British to retaliate, and, as mentioned above, a German Foreign Office official, Rudolph Rahn, arrived in Syria on the 9th to organise supplies to Iraq. The German leaders were so pleased by the agreement with Vichy that on the 1lth and 12th May Darlan was allowed to see Hitler at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler told him that if France defended her colonies she would be allowed to retain them after the war, but if Germany had to defend them for her she would take them away. The general agreement that Darlan had made at Paris was expressed in an undertaking which Darlan signed containing a detailed statement of the help to be given to Germany in Syria and North Africa. He agreed to sell to Iraq three-quarters of the military gear kept in store in Syria under the terms of the Armistice of July 1940; to refuel German and Italian aircraft in Syria; to allow the German forces to use the Aleppo airfield, and the Syrian ports and railways; and to transmit all intelligence about British forces and plans in the Near East to the German High Command. The Germans agreed to allow the transfer from France to Syria of eighty-four field, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and three batteries of heavy anti-aircraft guns, and some troops from North Africa. The agreement provided also that, in North Africa, France would allow the German forces to use the port of Bizerta, would sell trucks and guns to Germany and allow German ships and aircraft to use Dakar as a base.
When Main was warned by his colleagues that the concession regarding Bizerta and Dakar would probably provoke the strong disapproval of the United States, and perhaps war with Britain, he summoned Weygand, who protested strongly against the Darlan agreement; and on 6th June it was agreed that there should be a complete re-examination of Franco-German relations.16 (The French Government was, of course, unaware that the North African undertakings had been robbed of military importance by the fact that the German Army was no longer free to undertake a large-scale African campaign. The German attack on Russia was being prepared, and on 6th June Hitler was finally to fix the 22nd as the day on which his armies would march across the Russian frontiers.)
On 25th May Hitler informed his staff that arms and aircraft should be sent to Iraq but whether it would be possible afterwards “to launch an offensive against the Suez Canal and eventually oust the British finally from their position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf” could not be decided until the operations against Russia were complete.
At his trial in 1945 Dentz declared that late in April he had assured the British Consul-General at Beirut that there need be no anxiety lest he allow Germans to use Syrian airfields; they were well guarded. On the 6th May, however, Dentz received the order from Darlan to allow German aircraft to land and refuel; and on the 9th and the 11th a total of four
German machines wearing Iraqi colours landed at Syrian airfields. A few days later thirty-three German mechanics reached Aleppo, and in the course of the Iraq campaign 120 German aircraft passed through, coming and going. As for sending arms to the Iraqi, Dentz said afterwards that he dispatched not 24 guns, 800 machine-guns and from 30,000 to 40,000 rifles as he had been instructed to do, but eight guns without sights and 354 old machine-guns.17 Late in May, when it was evident that the Iraq rebellion had failed, Dentz appealed to Darlan to order the withdrawal of the German missions, and by 6th June the last German aircraft and the last German officers and mechanics – the thirty-three men had not been increased – departed from Syria, and General Jennequin, who commanded the French air force in Syria, informed the United States Consul-General that this had been done.
The withdrawal of the German party had been ordered by the German High Command lest it provide a pretext for a British invasion of Syria. Hitler’s Chief of Staff, General Keitel, had reported to General Cavallero, the Italian Chief of the General Staff, on 2nd June that these orders had been given. “The only people to stay were Intelligence officers whose presence would be camouflaged,” he added. The policy given to Rahn was to do all he could to deprive the British of a pretext for invading Syria and to increase antagonism between the British and the French. Major Hansen, a Germany army officer who had gone to Syria with Rahn, reported early in June that a German operation based on Syria would need long preparation and could not begin before the middle of October; until then everything possible should be done politically to prevent British forces from entering.
Dentz had received definite instructions from Vichy that he was to oppose any British attempt to enter Syria – British but not German forces were to be treated as hostile. At his trial, where it was soon made plain that any plea that he was a soldier acting under orders would be ineffective, Dentz defended the policy of resistance. He claimed that only if he resisted, and threw some vigour into the fight, would the Germans be persuaded not to overrun unoccupied France and the North African colonies on the ground that the French could not defend them. “It has been said that I defended Syria for Hitler,” he declared. “It is not true. I defended, in Syria, France and North Africa against seizure by Germany. ... It was that which guided my conduct. That was the reason for the attitude I adopted from the outset.”
It was a strange situation. The British Government had insisted that its local commanders must invade Syria before the Germans gained control of it, but (although they did not know it) they had done so at a time when very few Germans remained in Syria and the main line of German policy in the Levant was to avoid providing Britain with any pretext for invasion.
Before this stage was reached, Axis policy in this zone had been marked by procrastination and misfortune. At the outset the German leaders had set about disarming the French forces in the colonies. When this had been half done, they decided that they had made a mistake and that the best way to keep those colonies out of British hands was to enable the Vichy French themselves to defend them. It was then too late, however, to rebuild the French Colonial armies they had half dispersed. When, in September, the principal Arab Nationalist leader had approached the German Government for arms and gold, it cold-shouldered him; but in January, after valuable months had been lost, it changed its mind When the coup d’etat in Iraq occurred the German leaders had no plan for intervention and the operations in Iraq were well under way and Iraq’s hopes were fading before their agents got to work. The commander of the little air force they sent to Iraq was shot down by Iraqi gunners when his machine appeared over Baghdad and, within a few days, all but two of the German aircraft flown in were unserviceable. Meanwhile several trainloads of French arms were sent into Iraq. They arrived too late to be of use to the Iraqis, and it seems probable that the French, who loved the Arabs even less than they loved the Germans, saw to it that the arms sent were of little value to the Iraqis. Nevertheless these trainloads of arms did not return to Syria, where the French would have been able to make use of them.
Dentz and his followers in Syria were under the supervision of an Italian Commission which they despised. Their government had commanded them to cooperate discreetly with the Germans whom they detested and who had laid their country low. They were threatened with possible attack by the forces of Britain, the ally who (so they believed) had failed them in Europe in 1940 and for a generation had intrigued against them in the Levant; and by the forces of de Gaulle whom the followers of Petain regarded as a rebel against the Government of France.