Chapter 19: Pressing On : To Sidon, Merdjayoun and Jezzine
THREE days had passed and the Syrian expedition, instead of a fast-moving three-pronged thrust against a half-hearted enemy, had resolved itself into a hard campaign against resolute and skilful troops. On the right the Free French had been held but were now being reinforced from Lloyd’s Indian brigade which had been guarding their rear; in the centre the advance had bogged down within sight of the frontier; on the left progress had been faster but, to judge by the events of the previous days, a series of exacting fights lay ahead against an enemy who would put up a capable defence at well-chosen positions in the long defile between sea and mountain.
It will be recalled that in that sector, at nightfall on the 10th, the 2/27th Battalion, after a sleepless night and a long advance from the Litani, was astride the road just south of Adloun and Innsariye. The thrustful Brigadier Stevens had ordered Lieut-Colonel Moten, its commander, to attack the Innsariye position at midnight, giving the French no rest. The men of the 2/27th were hungry, and thirsty, and as they waited for the attack to open they sucked the juice of green tomatoes growing in the gardens. The guns fired for half an hour from midnight and then the two leading companies advanced, each with two platoons forward.
Captain McPhee’s1 was on the right of the road; Captain Woore’s2 astride the road and extended well to the left. Captain White’s3 was to follow McPhee’s, pass through it and advance to the final objective – a position beyond a row of Phoenician caves cut into the cliffs just west of Adloun. After having advanced about 500 yards the leading companies suddenly came under severe fire at close range. McPhee’s lost four men killed and six wounded, including the commander. On the left Woore, too, was wounded as he called his men forward. Fire was coming from French positions on either side of the road and particularly from round the cavalry carrier disabled the previous day. A grenade thrown into a building containing a store of petrol set fire to it and it illuminated the whole area brightly; the right company turned towards it “like moths to a candle”.
A patrol led by Captain Johnson4 moved forward on the western flank and returned with news that eight light tanks were warming up their engines. This disturbing report was telephoned to Stevens, who ordered
Major Rau,5 commanding the 2/4th Field Regiment, to have two of his 25-pounders and four 2-pounders ready by 3.15 a.m., and take them forward himself. At that time Stevens collected this reinforcement and led it to a point 1,000 yards behind the infantry, where the advanced headquarters of the 2/27th was, and after discussion with the adjutant (in Moten’s absence forward), Rau, hurrying forward in his pyjamas with a greatcoat over them, took one of the field guns along the road, and in the moonlight it opened fire at short range. The tanks made off, but the infantrymen pointed out a stone house only 200 yards away near the abandoned carrier whence an anti-tank gun and a machine-gun were firing. By arrangement Rau fired twelve rounds into the building, whereupon an infantry section which had crept near the house, having counted the rounds, charged. Inside the battered building were found four dead Frenchmen.
It has been mentioned that a third company (Captain White’s) was to advance over the heights on the right and pass through McPhee’s to the final objective. When the house caught fire White’s company (accompanied by Moten and his headquarters) swung right to keep outside the illuminated area, advanced silently round the eastern end of the first objective and, not finding McPhee’s company there, pushed on to its own objective without opposition. Thence small patrols were sent out in all directions to find the other companies. At length Moten learnt that they were held up and heavily engaged on either side of the road 1,200 yards behind him. It was then 3.30 a.m.-
Moten, seeing an opportunity of encircling the enemy force, ordered White to advance to high ground overlooking the side road to Es Sakiye, while, with the pioneer platoon and his headquarters, he took up a position above the coast road to block the escape of the French who were fighting his rearguard companies. At dawn these French troops surrendered; soon
afterwards Moten walked south along the coast road to visit the rear companies.
At daylight on the 11th the 2/14th Battalion, with the cavalry squadron, was ordered to continue the advance. At dawn the cavalrymen moved forward; they met no opposition until, just beyond the Es Sakiye road junction, they came under the fire of a group of enemy tanks supported by anti-tank guns. Lieutenant Mills placed three of his light tanks behind a ridge, in reserve, then led some carriers forward. Taking from the crews of these carriers Sergeant Cramp,6 Sergeant Edwards7 and Trooper Killen,8 between them carrying an anti-tank rifle, Bren gun, sub-machine-gun and rifle, he worked his way to the crest of a ridge overlooking the French position, which was round a road cutting at its foot. There a duel began between Edwards with the anti-tank rifle and the French tank and anti-tank gunners, and eventually the tanks withdrew out of sight. Mills and his men concentrated fire on an anti-tank gun sited above the cutting and killed or dispersed the crews.
Thinking he had disposed of the enemy Mills went forward down the ridge with Killen, but saw a party of Frenchmen dug in between him and the cutting. While climbing down the terraces , he suddenly found that he was standing over another trench full of Frenchmen. His sub-machine-gun jammed, but the French dared not fire for fear of hitting their own men and, at this critical moment, Cramp, who was following, attacked the other enemy group and both parties surrendered. Between them Mills, Cramp and Killen captured forty-five prisoners of the Foreign Legion, five machine-guns, two mortars, and the two anti-tank guns, which were undamaged and plentifully supplied with ammunition.
It was then mid-morning and the 2/14th was now close behind, advancing astride the road and on the slopes east of it. The cavalrymen having dealt with the French rearguard, there was little opposition, except on the right where the 2/14th killed nine and captured forty-five. By the middle of the afternoon the infantrymen had taken a total of nearly 100 prisoners and passed through Es Sakiye, Sarafend and Khan Saada. Beyond Khan
Saada the advancing infantry learnt from the cavalrymen scouting ahead that enemy machine-gun posts and five tanks had been seen about two miles beyond in the Wadi Zaharani. It was evident that he intended to fight for the junction of the coast road with the lateral road to Merdjayoun, which travelled along the southern slopes of the Zaharani gully.
Brigadier Stevens ordered Lieut-Colonel Cannon,9 the commander of the 2/14th Battalion, to continue the advance and cut this road. Cannon’s plan was to use his inland company, Captain Noonan’s, with another, Captain Silverman’s,10 to cut the side road while a third company, Captain Howden’s, made a diversionary attack astride the main road. Silverman’s company, however, was unable to reach the area in time. It was then decided that this company should attack west of the coast road – with Captain Howden’s on its right – a radical change of plan.
As soon as the troops began to move forward across the flat ground, on which young crops were growing, they came under severe machine-gun and mortar fire. This combination forced Howden’s company on the right into the partial protection of the rocky slopes east of the road. On the left Lieutenant Kyffin led his platoon wide to the west and thence to within 50 yards of the bridge over the Zaharani, while Ayton’s platoon, moving through banana fields, reached a point 100 yards from the bridge, where the men lay under sharp mortar fire. At 6.15 out of the smoke and dust ahead emerged six enemy tanks which formed up in a semi-circle round the leading infantry and bombarded them with shells and machine-gun bullets at short range. Cannon sent orders to Silverman to withdraw. But Silverman had been wounded; and Ayton and six of his men had already been hit. Both leading platoons withdrew, Corporal Staley11 leading out Ayton’s, in which the sergeant, Buxton,12 stayed behind to assist the wounded and was himself hit. Fire from anti-tank rifles halted the enemy tanks but did not appear to damage them.
Stevens ordered Moten’s 2/27th to take over the task of advance-guard from the 2/14th on the morning of the 12th. Moten went forward about 3.30 a.m. and at daylight, as he was setting out to reconnoitre the right flank, he met Captain Buckler,13 the adjutant of the 2/14th, who suggested that there was a likely approach to the flank of the enemy’s position to the east of Noonan’s company. Thus at 11 a.m. Major Isaachsen’s company struggled through the hills and across the river under sharp fire, while Johnson’s advanced through Adeisse, across the river (where Johnson was wounded), and on to Hassaniye and Maameriye taking about forty prisoners and a number of mortars and machine-guns.
Meanwhile, on the coastal flats, the French tanks had been driven back by artillery fire; and the carrier platoon of the 2/27th, after a long exchange of fire with the French posts north of the Zaharani, advanced along the beach, and from the flank attacked the French holding the bridge taking about sixty prisoners, and held it until Lieutenant Rudd’s platoon arrived over the hills from the north-east. In the afternoon the prisoners were increased to about 200.
Where the Victorians’ frontal attack across flat ground on the coastal plain had failed, the 2/27th’s, on the flank and thrown in immediately the first attack was held, had been completely successful, and another obstacle on the advance to Beirut was cleared. By dusk on the 12th the cavalry patrols and Lieutenant Fawcett’s14 carriers of the 2/27th had moved three miles forward through Rhaziye until they came under sharp artillery fire. Stevens, as at Adloun, thrust two field guns forward with the infantry to defeat French tanks if they appeared. They came under well-directed French artillery fire, and in a duel over open sights, the section commander15 and a gunner were killed and five men wounded, and one gun was disabled; the other gun was withdrawn.16
Wishing to spare Sidon with its ancient mosque and Crusaders’ castle, Brigadier Stevens was giving orders that an attempt be made to parley with its defenders when the French artillery opened fire. Stevens ordered his gunners to reply.17 Like Tyre and other Phoenician towns, Sidon was built on a little promontory which shields a small natural harbour. Into the town was crowded a population of about 12,000, and thus it was the largest town by far that the invading force had yet seen in Syria or the Lebanon. North and south of the town, for five miles in all, the coastal plain was about a mile in width and planted with orange, apricot and banana orchards which were often surrounded by stone walls about nine feet high. After crossing the Sataniq, two miles south of the town, the main road ran close to the sea for more than eight miles and was open to bombardment by the naval vessels that were now off shore asking the leading troops to give them targets. This was more attractive country than any this column had hitherto seen in Syria.
Fairy-like villages dotted the landscape (wrote the historian of the 2/4th Field Regiment). Tall cyprus trees, red roofs, yellowy walls, pale blue shutters, trees, orchards, shrubs and churches blended into a peaceful scene. ... A persistent wog, selling ‘eggasis’ and tomatoes, helped gleefully to manhandle the guns into the position. He could not be discouraged to leave us alone.18
Brigadier Stevens decided to give the task of taking Sidon to the 2/16th, which had been in reserve for four days. The West Australians were to move through the 2/27th on the morning of the 13th, advance past the town and occupy the line of the Wadi Abou Zare two miles beyond it. Two companies of the 2/27th which had advanced to Darb es Sim during the night of the 12th–13th were to picquet the approaches from the east but during the 13th were still unaware of their role because efforts to establish contact with them failed; the cavalry squadron was to protect the right flank of the 2/16th. The task of the 2/16th entailed an advance of about seven miles in daylight on a wide front and through open country. Lieut-Colonel MacDonald decided to attack with two companies forward and two following at about 1,000 yards to mop up. The troops were to advance in open formation.
The leading companies – Captain Horley’s on the right and Major Wain’s19 on the left – moved from the start-line at 10 a.m. behind a series of concentrations fired by the 2/4th Field Regiment. After advancing about two miles without serious opposition, Wain’s company encountered a series of machine-gun posts just south of the Wadi Sataniq, a dry creek half way between their start-line and Sidon. These were outflanked and the enemy withdrew. The company then re-formed and advanced through the gardens until they were about one mile from the town, where they again came under sharp fire. Wain himself led forward a patrol, including Sergeant McCullough and one section, and overcame a post, taking seven prisoners, while the remainder of the company, mopping up posts among the orchards, took 40. About 12.30 two French tanks appeared, but after firing without much effect, they withdrew and the advance was resumed until a point due east of the centre of the town had been reached. Enemy troops encountered here made off after a short fight, and by 3 p.m. the company was only a few hundred yards from the objective – the Wadi Abou Zare – but was out of touch with the company on its right. Wain now found that his company was out by itself with an open flank and decided to extricate it from an unhealthy position. The company withdrew to Sakhet ez Zeitoun, south of Sidon, where it got into touch with its supporting company (Major Caro) about 5.30.
The reason why Horley’s company on the right had been far out of touch when Wain reached the limit of his advance was that, as that company, with Captain Inkpen’s20 following, approached the outskirts of Sidon, several French tanks appeared and made a determined attack. Soon they were circling and firing on the West Australians who, seeking cover, split into small groups. Horley was killed and the company disorganised. The tanks advanced and attacked the supporting company, killing also its commander – Inkpen – and forcing some groups of men into the foothills on the east.
Captain Mackenzie, now commanding what remained of this company, led a fight in which efforts were made to drive the tanks off by throwing grenades and hitting them with anti-tank rifle fire, and with machine-gun fire aimed at the slits. All three methods of attack were ineffective. At this stage Mackenzie’s company comprised only a sergeant and 17 others. At length, about 6 p.m., he and his men broke away and reached the main road, on to which the tanks would not venture for fear of fire from the supporting field guns. Lieutenant Mills, of the cavalry, who was ordered to deal with the attacking tanks, led forward a field gun and two anti-tank guns. The anti-tank guns were fired at 800 yards, but at that range their hits had no apparent effect and one gun was knocked out. Mills then led the 25-pounder forward to engage the tanks in the open from about 1,300
yards, but the commander of the gun detachment – Lieutenant Marsden21 – was wounded, the tractor damaged by cannon fire, and at length the gun was withdrawn. Two trucks carrying sticky bombs (which when thrown stuck to the side of the target and then exploded) and the battalion’s reserve of ammunition were sent towards the infantry about 1.30 but a shell from a tank hit one and it exploded; the other was brought back. Mills then asked four of his carrier commanders whether they would go forward to draw the French tanks into the open where the guns could deal with them. Lieutenant Wray,22 Sergeant-Major Baldock23 and Sergeants Stewart and Edwards drove their carriers forward through the river bed to the first orange groves beyond, and urged the infantrymen there – of Caro’s company – to hurry back while the carriers covered their retreat. The infantrymen ran back. The carriers fired their Vickers guns furiously into the French positions until the French tanks appeared, when the carriers withdrew under fire from anti-tank guns, picking up infantrymen as they went.
Later in the afternoon Lieutenant Lucas24 was sent forward with two guns of the 2/4th Regiment to deal with the tanks which had trapped Horley’s company. One gun fired on five tanks at about 1,000 yards and drove them off, while the second was sited farther back to cover a withdrawal, if necessary. After this shoot Lucas’ forward gun detachment pulled their gun behind the crest of the ridge on which it was sited and man-handled it to another position from which it opened fire as soon as tanks reappeared. This manoeuvre was repeated during the remainder of the day. Throughout the day French aircraft made a series of attacks – the heaviest so far experienced in this sector – on the guns of the 2/4th Regiment and the headquarters of the attacking battalion.
As mentioned above, the two leading companies of the 2/27th, very weary because they had had little rest since crossing the frontier five days before, were on the south bank of the Sataniq where it cut through the hills well to the east of the road. (On the 12th Moten had reached the conclusion that it would be best to avoid a frontal attack and instead to advance through the hills to Miyeoumiye and descend on Sidon from the east.) Throughout the morning his leading companies had been out of touch and out of sight in the deep gullies, and it was not until the afternoon that a patrol from battalion headquarters found exactly where they were. Finally Stevens ordered that the rest of the battalion should move on to the steep ridge overlooking the Sataniq from Darb es Sim and thence attack on to the heights east of Sidon. At 4 p.m. the remainder of the battalion moved into the hills from Hassaniye and about 5 p.m. turned north towards Darb es Sim. It was a gruelling march in single file over rugged country, and in darkness until about midnight when the moon rose. Except
for an hour’s rest at 11 p.m. the column moved steadily on, pausing only when, on several occasions, enemy aircraft attempted to bomb it. The infantrymen reached Darb es Sim at 4 a.m. on the 14th, almost exhausted, but relieved the leading companies, which were withdrawn to prepare to attack across the Sataniq that morning.
The start-line for the attack – to open at 9.30 a.m. – was the ridge on the opposite side of the Sataniq from Darb es Sim. The objective was Miyeoumiye where a large building with a tiled roof was a conspicuous landmark.25 By the time Isaachsen’s company had clambered up to the start-line the men were limp with fatigue and one of the four officers collapsed and was left behind. After resting for twenty minutes the company, about 5 p.m., began to advance towards the objective, 1,500 yards away as the crow flies and across a steep-sided wadi 200 feet deep. The thin line of attackers came under fire from mortars and heavy machine-guns as soon as they moved. Lieutenant Crafter’s26 platoon on the left went to ground after losing men while climbing down the eight-foot terraces. Sergeant Macpherson’s27 platoon, however, jumped and ran fast down the terraces, reached the wadi without loss, and veering away from the heaviest of the fire, which was coming from a blockhouse forward of the “Monastery”, swung right along the shelter of the wadi, climbed the northern face and entered the village from the east.
The defenders were obviously surprised by the appearance of a party (Macpherson had only seventeen men) advancing upon them from the east, and twenty-four of them, all Europeans, promptly surrendered. Macpherson found about forty pack-mules among the terraces which suggested to him that the French had been preparing to withdraw. He quickly deployed his little party for the next move. He sent one section towards the “Monastery” to take up a defensive position and cover the Jebel Ababy, a high ridge to the north, dispatched a runner to his company headquarters, and sent a section under Private Morris,28 a noted marksman, into the village where they took the surrender of ten more prisoners.
After having left his third section on the east of the village to cover the lower ground on that side Macpherson took a patrol along the streets towards the “Monastery”. This patrol killed four foreign legionaries but, at the southern edge of the village, came under heavy fire from the south – in fact from the two companies of their own battalion which were, as they believed, giving supporting fire. Macpherson was now certain that the attack on his left had failed and that it was not known that he was in Miyeoumiye. His small party now held thirty-six prisoners. At 9 p.m. he sent off half of his platoon towards the Sataniq; he followed with the rest half an hour later. With a loss of one man wounded this skilful young tactician had gained the objective, killed or taken prisoner forty of the
enemy and returned. “We’ll have to keep together,” Sergeant MacDonald29 had said to him in the moment of triumph at Miyeoumiye towering over the diminutive Sergeant Macpherson, “with your brains and my brawn we’ll go a long way.”
On the left wing the attack by the weary troops of Isaachsen’s other two platoons had been quickly broken. The line walked straight into accurate machine-gun fire from the “Monastery” across the deep gully. Before the men had advanced 100 yards down the terraces Isaachsen and Lieutenant Crafter had been wounded and Lieutenant Rudd killed. Some of the remaining men advanced into the wadi and beyond, at which stage Lance-Sergeant H. V. Smith,30 their leader, was wounded. Others found what cover they could among the olive trees on the terraces. At dark all withdrew. In the course of the day the company lost twenty-three men.
The company next to the left had been unable to advance because of the heavy fire and the nature of the ground. During the night, however, a patrol under Corporal Jose31 reached the village. Meanwhile Captain Lee’s32 company still farther to the left reached Hill 127, where they found that the French were strongly holding high ground ahead. By moving well to the east, Lee reached his objective at 1 p.m. but attempts to move down the face of the hill drew heavy fire from mortars and machine-guns about 1,100 yards away, too far for effective reply by the Brens. The men were very tired and the company did not advance farther. While the companies on the right were making their attack the men of the left company crawled over the sky-line and, under mortar bombardment, fired at long range on the French positions on which the other companies were advancing.
During 14th June the 2/16th Battalion was still in the gardens south of Sidon. At 4.30 p.m. the French counter-attacked with about eight tanks and infantry, which advanced, as on the previous day, from behind the American College. Brigadier Stevens saw the opening of the attack from the artillery observation post; artillery fire was brought down immediately at about 4,000 yards, and two tanks were hit and the attack broken.
At first it seemed that nothing had been achieved by the hard fighting on the 13th and 14th but, during the morning of the 15th, acting on Macpherson’s information that the enemy had abandoned Miyeoumiye, Moten moved the 2/27th Battalion forward into that village and on to the “Monastery” (which had been French headquarters) without opposition. It was soon apparent that there had been a considerable French withdrawal. By 9 a.m. the left company of the 2/27th had sent a patrol to
Mar Elias and found it clear of the enemy. At 1.30 p.m. the American College was found to be empty of troops. Moten suspected that Sidon itself had been abandoned, and Sergeant Johns33 removed his steel helmet and equipment, mounted a captured motor-cycle, and rode into the town and up the main street. His cycle then broke down, but he forced two Syrians to guide him out. As soon as he returned Moten, at 11.15 a.m., entered the town with a few men of his headquarters, demanded and saw the mayor, who said that the French had withdrawn in the night, and appealed to him to stop the shelling – the naval ships were firing on the northern outskirts, the field guns on the southern. Thereupon Moten commandeered a taxi and drove back to Stevens’ headquarters to report. Stevens entered the town and at 4 p.m. formally took it over from the mayor and proclaimed martial law.
Other Australians on the left had already discovered the abandonment of the town. A cavalry patrol (of the fresh 9th Australian Cavalry Regiment34 which had replaced the 6th on this sector) was convinced of it at midday, and soon afterwards Lieutenant Harper35 of the 2/16th Battalion moved in. At 3 o’clock the 2/16th, weary and in torn and muddy clothing, marched through the streets, left a company in the town, and moved on to a position on the south side of the Wadi Abou Zare.
It soon became evident that the French had not only abandoned Sidon but made a long withdrawal. Cavalry patrols found the coast road clear as far north as Ras Nebi Younes, and the lateral roads north of Sidon
unoccupied as far as Salhiye, Jamliye and Sebline. That night the weary infantrymen washed, ate a hot meal and had their first genuine rest for several nights. Their advance was going relatively well, but events on each of the other sectors were to bring it to a prolonged halt.
It will be recalled that on 10th June orders were issued for a renewed attack in the Merdjayoun sector by the 2/25th against Ibeles Saki and by the 2/31st against Merdjayoun, the 2/31st to be supported by a barrage provided by the 2/5th and 2/6th Field Regiments, under Brigadier Berryman’s direction.
On the 10th the 2/25th had advanced along the narrow gorges until it was close to the steep-sided Ibeles Saki plateau. At dawn on the 11th its leading company began to move up the abrupt slopes towards the village but, finding this approach impossible, swung round to the north of the place, and it was eventually occupied by Lieutenant Butler’s36 platoon with but one casualty. Arms and ammunition and, more valuable still, twelve mules with pack-saddles were captured in the area; and from it the 2/25th dominated the roads leading north from Merdjayoun.
General Lavarack and General Allen (a close observer because he was soon to succeed to command of the division) came to Cox’s headquarters to watch the attack on Qleaa and Merdjayoun – the first attack in the campaign to be supported by so strong an assembly of guns. The plan of Lieut-Colonel Porter of the 2/31st was to attack astride the Khirbe ridge with two companies forward. When Khirbe had been reached the rear companies were to pass through and advance to Merdjayoun. The barrage covering the 2/31st opened at 2.30 a.m. on a front of 1,120 yards – one gun to 28 yards – and, because the country was rough and not reconnoitred, moved forward 100 yards at relatively long intervals of four minutes. The barrage travelled to a depth of more than two miles, each of forty guns firing in all about 130 rounds. The advancing infantry followed up so closely that, as a rule, the shells fell only some 30 yards in front, and often they had to halt and wait for the barrage to move on. Major Cruickshank,37 a fine young regular soldier leading the right-hand company, was killed at the French wire. Soon the leaders were among abandoned French positions and saw men moving off ahead of them, although some posts continued to fire after the advance had passed them. The leaders had passed through Qleaa and were at the cross-roads soon after 5 o’clock, with the supporting companies following closely to avoid French mortar bombs which were falling well behind the foremost platoons. These companies met the fire from enemy posts which the leaders had passed. by. In Khirbe, for example, at dawn there was a sharp fight with grenades and bayonets between one company and the French garrison. Fifty-six prisoners were taken.38
The second phase of the advance was to open at 1 p.m. and carry the battalion to Merdjayoun on which shells were then falling. However, Lieut-Colonel Daly39 of the 2/6th Field Regiment suggested that he should parley with the French, and about 12.35 set out in a carrier flying a white flag. At 12.55 he had not reached the fort and, knowing that the guns of his own and the 2/5th Regiment were to open fire at 1 p.m., he with-drew. In the meantime, Lieut-Colonel O’Brien40 of the 2/5th, after consulting Porter, cancelled the fire plan. Porter set off to warn his left company of the change of plan, but it had already begun to advance. He met Daly and they followed the infantry to the fort, which had in fact been abandoned. Out of hiding places in Merdjayoun appeared civilians waving white flags; they announced that the French had gone. The road to Merdjayoun was heavily mined; engineers led by Lieutenant Flint41 and Sergeant Giles42 advanced with the leading infantry, removing these mines.
The principal townspeople welcomed the new arrivals – Brigadier Berry-man closely followed by General Allen and Brigadier Cox had now over-taken Porter – and formally surrendered the town, a modern place most of whose people were Christians of the Orthodox Church. The leaders were showered with rose petals as they strode along the narrow streets. As they reached the centre of the town the flag of Lebanon broke at a mast-head. In the fort the troops found medical supplies (in a very unclean hospital), much food, officers’ baggage piled in a kit store and some obsolescent weapons, but no troops were seen.
On the evening of the 11th the 2/25th were in position north of Ibeles Saki, the 2/33rd north of Khiam, the 2/31st at Merdjayoun. Late in the afternoon a platoon of Flint’s engineers reached the bridge over the Litani south-west of Merdjayoun where it carried the lateral road to a point on the coast south of Sidon. Not only had the bridge been demolished but half a mile short of the river a crater 96 feet in width had been blown and a track had to be cut into it before the sappers’ vehicles could move forward. However in the middle of the Litani stood a huge boulder, and, using it as a central pier, the engineers began to build a bridge of two 32-foot sections joined at the boulder.
On the 12th General Lavarack decided that, because the Merdjayoun area offered such advantages to a determined defender and progress was slow, he would thrust his 25th Brigade swiftly northward along the winding track to Jezzine. From Jezzine ran a lateral road to Sidon, and thus the 25th Brigade could support Stevens’ advance on the coast. Only the 2/33rd Battalion, the cavalry and a battery of artillery would remain at
Merdjayoun, the infantry in a defensive role, the cavalry probing forward along the two routes, “A” and “B”, forking north-east of the town.
On the night of the 11th Lieut-Colonel Todd43 of the Scots Greys, the senior cavalry officer, had been ordered to pursue the enemy believed to be withdrawing towards Zahle. Todd’s force was to divide and move along Routes “A” and “B”, the force on “A”, under Major Morrison44 of the 6th Australian Cavalry, consisting of three light tanks, some carriers and two guns, the force on “B”, similarly constituted, under Major Macarthur-Onslow. The cavalrymen were excited at the prospect of a pursuit of the kind they had experienced in Libya. However, just after they divided, the columns were sharply attacked by six French aircraft,45 and later Morrison’s force was halted at a point in the road where a cliff face had been blown down on to it. It took four hours until midday to repair this gap, and then – to the surprise of the cavalrymen, engineers and others who had been working there all the morning – when a carrier began to cross, a hail of shells and bullets fell on the area, and blew the tracks off the advancing vehicle.
Meanwhile Onslow’s column, after moving without incident to the point where the road swings right at Balate Ridge, had also run into accurate artillery and mortar fire which hit a carrier. Efforts were made to shell the enemy but it soon was apparent that from the heights north of Bourqouz he dominated the area. Todd still cherished an intention to attack again next morning with the carriers forward, but Onslow was convinced that such a move would be impossible. The sharp resistance on the 12th and 13th north of Merdjayoun and the fact that on the 13th he began harassing Merdjayoun with occasional shell-fire showed that the enemy intended to hold his excellent positions on the roads leading north. On the 12th French aircraft made several strafing runs along the main road. That day, about 2.30 p.m., the bridge over the Litani was finished, and a carrier patrol travelled along the lateral road linking the 21st and 25th Brigades.
Only one road travelled from Merdjayoun to Jezzine, and the map showed that it wound round a series of steep-sided mountains from which an enemy might attempt delaying actions. A patrol of the Cheshire Yeomanry had travelled about 500 yards along the road and reported that it would carry traffic at its southern end. Cox’s plan was to send an advance-guard consisting of the 2/31st plus strong detachments of cavalry, artillery and engineers along the road with three successive objectives: the high ground south of Rihane, the Kafr Houn ridge, and finally, Jezzine itself. At the same time a squadron of the Cheshire was to move north
through Zhalta to the Jezzine-Sidon road and establish touch with the 21st Brigade. The main body of the brigade was to follow.46
At 9 p.m. on the 13th the 2/31st Battalion led by a troop of the 9th Australian Cavalry set off along the winding, narrow road to Jezzine. Three-ton trucks, drawn from a British transport company, carried the troops. The convoy drove all night without lights. At times the trucks had to back three times before they could get round the sharp corners and the guns had to be unlimbered and man-handled. Sometimes the trucks bogged in the mountain streams; one overturned. There was a delay of two hours at the turn from the Sidon road where no guide had been placed, and part of the convoy continued towards Sidon and had to be recalled. Just south of Jerme was a bend so sharp that the engineers had to work on it for two hours before heavy vehicles could pass; the tail of the advance-guard was still struggling round it when there arrived the head of the main column, which had set off at 1 a.m. It was unwise to attach an advance-guard of mechanised cavalry to a column advancing along a mountain track – in effect a defile. It lacked mobility and lengthened the convoy, blocking progress each time a tracked vehicle broke down. Once Porter ordered that a halted tank be pushed over the side of the road.
By daybreak on the 14th the column had reached Kafr Houn, where native women were standing in the street cheering the new arrivals. Here the head of the column was fired on by riflemen in the hills beyond and, after debussing, the companies marched forward towards Green Hill, dominating Jezzine, where the cavalrymen, who were scouting ahead, had reported strong enemy positions.
About 3 miles south of Jezzine, Porter was shot through the thigh but insisted that he was not seriously hurt and carried on. He sent a platoon to locate the enemy and, after hearing its report and discussing the situation with Berryman, commanding the artillery, decided to attack with two companies forward. A troop of field guns (Captain Thomas47) and the battalion’s mortars were in close support, the guns being deployed only 1,000 yards from the enemy’s position.
The attackers formed up under mortar and artillery fire on a rocky outcrop facing Green Hill. The hill below them and the face of Green Hill were terraced every ten yards or so, the terraces being up to three feet high. Vines and scattered trees covered the slopes. The attack began at 6 p.m. “As the guns opened up the men surged down the hill like ants.” They jumped down the terraces, so well dispersed, moving so fast, and making such skilful use of what cover offered that Captain Robson’s48 company reached the road without a casualty, though under rifle and machine-gun fire and completely exposed.
The success was aided by the fact that Porter had instructed Lieutenant Hammon,49 the enterprising commander of the machine-gun platoon attached to his battalion, to disregard conventional methods of fire control and let each gun fire independently on enemy posts as they revealed them-selves on the opposite slope. Almost as soon as each opposing machine-gun fired it was silenced by the Vickers guns. The French fought for the hill. Private Luff50 in Houston’s company saw a section in the platoon on his left held up by a machine-gun just in front. He stalked to the rear of the French position and killed the five Frenchmen in the post with rifle and bayonet. The attacking companies lost four men killed and eight wounded.
At the bottom of the hill was a flat area about 100 yards across, swept by the fire of machine-guns evidently firing on fixed lines. The men sprinted across it – casualties were heavier there – and climbed to the summit over-looking Jezzine itself. As the leading companies reached the top they saw eight to twelve French cavalrymen on the road below mounting their horses. The Australians fired at them with Brens and rifles, at about 800 yards’ range, as they cantered away.
Porter decided to follow up his success, though his men had been without food or sleep for twenty-four hours, and so ordered the two rear companies to pass through the forward ones and push on to the town. The final advance to Jezzine was down a cliff face so steep that the men had to scramble all the way, swinging down the terraces with the help of vines and the branches of trees, and often falling. There was no opposition now. When, about 8.30 p.m., the troops entered the town riderless French cavalry horses were roaming round the streets. The ever-active Berryman was with the leading Australian platoon (Sergeant Gardner51). The towns-people offered bread and drinks of water to the weary troops and at the police headquarters wine and more food was provided. That night the companies consolidated on the heights east of Jezzine and across the roads leading north and west, and patrols found the French rearguards astride the road. During the night a hot meal was sent forward to the weary and hungry infantrymen.52 Because of the congestion the 2/25th Battalion remained in bivouac at Jerme. The Cheshire reported that on the 13th they had gained Mazraat Koufra, but on the 14th that they had been unable to reach Zhalta.
Meanwhile, east of Mount Hermon, General Legentilhomme had continued his attacks on the Vichy positions at Kiswe. Some progress was made on the 12th but when reports arrived that Vichy tanks were moving
round the right flank Legentilhomme ordered his troops to stand firm on the Jebel Maani and Jebel Badrane; later in the day he was wounded. General Wilson, who was at Irbid that day conferring with General Wavell, doubted that a counter-attack was developing. He put the 5th Indian Brigade under Free French command to renew the attack, and made the little Transjordan Frontier Force53 responsible for protecting the lines of communication as far as the southern edge of Sheikh Meskine. Soon afterwards it was discovered that the alarm of the Free French was unfounded; the tanks seen to the east of them belonged to their own Colonel Collet. However, when Brigadier Lloyd went forward on the 13th he decided that the enemy’s positions at Kiswe were so strong that only a carefully-organised attack with artillery support would take them. He returned to the field ambulance at Deraa to discuss this proposal with the wounded Free French leader, who agreed that further attack, under Lloyd’s command, should be postponed until the 15th.
As a preliminary, on the 13th, the Indian brigade moved forward, though leaving its English battalion – the 1/Royal Fusiliers – at Kuneitra. One company of this battalion with two armoured cars pushed forward towards Sassa, half way between Kuneitra and Damascus. There they encountered a strong French force and fell back. This enemy force was well situated, since it might counter-attack either towards Kuneitra, or, moving east, cut the Deraa road behind the force approaching Kiswe.
In the first week of the campaign the R.A.F., though at the outset inferior in numbers to the French air force, had successfully carried out its tasks: close support of the forces on the ground; protection of the naval squadron; attacks on airfields, ports and oil tanks. On the first day No. 3 Squadron R.A.A.F. (now commanded by Squadron Leader Jeffrey54) had shot up six French aircraft on the ground at Rayak, and Blenheims had bombed oil tanks at Beirut. From the 9th onward No. 3 Squadron flew frequent patrols over the naval squadron, and, on the 14th, eight Tomahawks led by Jeffrey shot down three out of eight German Ju-88’s which were attacking it.55
The stubborn French resistance on each sector had been causing great concern in London, and General Dill proposed to General Wavell, first that mobile columns from Iraq be sent into Syria – a project Wavell had already decided on – and that bombers from Egypt be used to add weight to the attack. On the 12th Wavell had informed Dill that although progress was slow “as I warned you it would be if the French resisted”, it might be considered satisfactory in view of the difficult terrain and inadequate force.
To strengthen that force he ordered the 16th British Brigade Group from Egypt to Syria. The units of this brigade had already been in action in the Western Desert and some of them in Crete. The addition of the 16th Brigade would bring the Allied force to a strength approximately equal to the one which the defenders possessed.