Chapter 24: Preparing a Final Blow
SINCE the fall of Damascus on the 21st June there had been little progress in the three western sectors. Merdjayoun had been captured but the enemy had halted the attackers at a strong position just north of it. The heights beyond Jezzine had been abandoned by the French, but Beit ed Dine, the junction which Jezzine protected, still lay far ahead of the Australians. On the coast the depleted 21st Australian Brigade had thrust back one enemy outpost after another and cleared the lateral roads, but was still under orders not to undertake a major project.
Each day, however, the relative strength of the invading force, both material and moral, had increased. The French units were being whittled away by casualties and desertions; the Allied force was not only supported by a pool of replacements, but it now contained about twice as many units as it had when the invasion opened, if the formations advancing from Iraq be included. It was now able, while adequately securing the Jebel Mazar and Merdjayoun sectors, to concentrate more than a full division on the coast and in the Lebanons for a final blow at Beirut.
On 28th June, in accordance with General Wilson’s orders, General Lavarack issued an instruction that the 7th Division, brought to near full strength by adding the 17th Brigade, should concentrate in the Jezzine and coastal sectors. The 17th Brigade was to consist of Brigadier Savige’s headquarters, and the 2/3rd and 2/5th Infantry and 2/2nd Pioneer Battalions, but all three were far below full strength. Major-General Evetts, of the 6th British Division, would control the Merdjayoun and Damascus sectors, and at Merdjayoun his 23rd Brigade would relieve units of the 7th Division so that they could move west. His role would be to mislead the enemy into expecting attacks in the eastern sectors, and to protect Damascus and the road from Kuneitra to Sidon.1
This was the third occasion on which a policy had been adopted of concentrating on a drive towards Beirut and treating the inland sectors as of secondary importance. When the invasion began it was made by three widely-separated columns of almost equal strength. The French counterattack had had the effect – highly satisfactory to the French – of drawing troops away from the coastal sector where promising progress had been made, and from the reserves, to reinforce Damascus, Merdjayoun, and, finally, Jezzine. At Damascus and Merdjayoun a series of costly counterattacks had followed. One of these – Lloyd’s at Damascus – had provided a situation at once so promising and so precarious that, although General Wilson had decided on 18th June to concentrate against Beirut, General Lavarack next day persuaded Wilson to vary this decision by sending the 16th British Brigade to the eastern sector and thus enable him temporarily to concentrate on the Damascus operation. It was not until a week later that Lavarack reverted to the original policy, and for the reasons that had applied from the outset; namely, that operations on the coastal plain could be fully supported by the navy and R.A.F., that Beirut was the main French base and seat of Government, and that operations from Damascus and Merdjayoun, if successful, “would only clear up the situation in the Anti-Lebanon and would leave the problem of crossing the Lebanon still to be faced”.
One British “principle of war” is that victory can be won only by offensive action, but to take the offensive at all times and in all places, the French theory of 1914, can be as disastrous as the opposite principle – the French theory in 1940. Lloyd’s counter-attack at Mezze had virtually destroyed a brigade (his commander then possessed but four) and had failed to reach its objective. The attacks at Merdjayoun had cost the Australian division almost one-third of the casualties it suffered in the whole campaign. It is arguable that, in the light of knowledge then possessed, the return to the original plan of concentrating on a thrust towards Beirut should have come earlier; indeed the reasons eventually given for transferring the main effort to the coast were reasons which had been valid since before the invasion began. In his report Lavarack said that the recapture of Merdjayoun and its retention by adequate forces enabled consideration to be given to a resumption of the advance in the coastal sector; and it is true that as long as there was any doubt of his ability to hold the Merdjayoun area it was not advisable to advance the left flank farther along the coast road. In addition possession of Merdjayoun gave the invaders a short lateral road from the coast to the central sector.
Now Lavarack was determined that there would be no more diversions from the main objective, and took special steps to curb the ambitions of the only subordinate from whom such a diversion was likely to come – General Legentilhomme. Legentilhomme’s task was to secure Damascus against possible counter-attack, but his desire might have been to make a spectacular and politically-advantageous advance into northern Syria.
On 2nd July Lavarack sent him a tactfully-worded instruction in which he said that
while the Corps Commander does not desire unnecessarily to restrict your liberty of action in your interpretation of [your] task, he wishes to make it clear that, for the present, he does not approve of any advance in force beyond Nebek.
On the same day Lavarack wrote to Legentilhomme suggesting that the senior Australian liaison officer, Lieut-Colonel Rogers, should join Legentilhomme’s staff, and that the other British liaison officers there should work under Rogers’ instructions.
The enemy’s positions on the Damour River, which now formed the greatest obstacle to an advance to Beirut, possessed far greater natural strength than any yet encountered on the coastal sector. North from the line of posts which the 21st Brigade occupied, the coast road travelled along a narrow shelf between the sea and a series of precipitous east-west ridges intersected by wadis until it reached the Damour River. This stream wound through a wide cleft in the coastal range. South of it the main road curved along the coastal ledge and then bent inland to a point about a mile from the sea where it crossed the Damour River on a stone bridge. Immediately north of the bridge a road branched off eastward along the bottom of the ravine, crossed to the south bank of the river about two miles inland, and then began to zigzag up the face of the range towards Beit ed Dine, climbing 3,000 feet in a bee-line distance of about six miles. North of the river the coastal plain, about half a mile wide, was thickly planted with orchards and banana groves. A stonewalled water channel about 20 yards wide ran east and west through the groves about a mile north of the river. Just beyond it lay Damour, a town of some 5,000 people. From the inland edge of this cultivated area the ridges rose steeply, sometimes climbing 600 feet within a little more than a mile from the orchards, but these ridges were lower than the heights overlooking the ravine from the south. For some two miles from the plantations the mountain ridges were almost bare, but from about the 1,000-foot contour upwards trees and scrub were thicker.
If Damour was taken Beirut would be comparatively easy to approach. General Dentz had announced that he would fight in the streets of Beirut, but it was a reasonable assumption that if that city fell the French would capitulate.
Restless under the restraint imposed by events on another front than his own, Brigadier Stevens, of the 21st Brigade, on 22nd June, had drafted a “note on future operations” which was to become the basis of the planning of the final battle, though it was radically amended when additional forces became available. In it he said that the first essential for an attack on Damour was to secure a line from which artillery fire could be directed against the French positions north of the Damour gorge – namely, the line of the ridge from Es Saadiyate to Es Seyar, then three miles ahead of his outpost line. He proposed, therefore, that one of his battalions should secure Barja, and that the other should move up the
road past Es Saadiyate and seize the “143 feature” from which they could look down into the western end of the Damour Valley. When this had been achieved he considered that a battalion should be moved up the coast road and advance across the mountains through El Haram to El Labiye, whence it could look down into the Damour ravine from a ridge more than 800 feet high. He considered that, forty-eight hours after the El Labiye ridge had been occupied, a successful attack on the Damour line could be launched by his two battalions, one to obtain a bridgehead across the river on the coast road and the other to seize the El Hamra ridge immediately north of the river and the narrower ridge beyond it. He emphasised that the battalion on the left should not be committed to a fight in the orange and banana groves (as had happened at Sidon).
Such an operation could not be carried out, he decided, with his present resources, but he would need a third battalion to enable his 2/16th to be rested after it had gained the heights overlooking the Damour orchards. He would also need naval protection, protection from air attack, and certain equipment for mountain warfare, notably mules – at least sixty – and machine-guns and wireless sets that could be packed on their backs. In addition, it would be essential to guard the attacking force against a French move down the Beit ed Dine road, for the move forward would entail crossing a fourth lateral road leading into the rear of his positions from the towns the French still held in the southern Lebanons.
At that time there was little immediate prospect of obtaining these requirements. Indeed Stevens’ brigade of two depleted battalions lacked even what was necessary comfortably to maintain its present positions. The waning spirits of the Foreign Legion helped to provide one need, when, on the 23rd June, twelve Spanish soldiers of the Foreign Legion deserted bringing a small mule train with them. The same day, when on a visit to Berryforce headquarters, Stevens saw General Wavell and told him that, despite repeated requests, he could get no bombs for his 3-inch mortars, although United Kingdom units were being supplied with them. Next day 320 bombs arrived for each Australian battalion. Batches of reinforcements arrived from Palestine in the next few days but not enough to build the battalions up to full strength. The 2/27th Battalion, for example, received 10 officers and 119 men. (At this time all but 7 of the 27 Australian infantry battalions in the Middle East were serving and suffering casualties, either in Syria or Tobruk; and of the seven, 3 (2/1st, 2/7th and 2/11th) had been captured in Crete and were then being re-created, and the remaining 4 (2/2nd, 2/4th, 2/6th and 2/8th) had had heavy losses in Greece and Crete, and were being gradually restored.)
The 21st Brigade continued to thrust forward, and by 28th June the forward posts were on a line through or ahead of Es Saadiyate-Es SeyarEl Festecianiye-Er Rezaniye and patrols probing out from this line had met enemy troops only at one point-L-the 394-metre feature on the right, which commanded a view into the Damour gorge and beyond it across the river as far as Daraya. On 27th June a patrol of the 2/27th
was met by fire from three machine-guns on Hill 394, and one man failed to return.
In the new positions the infantry were now inviting fire from the French artillery beyond the Damour River and each day any movements seen by the French observers provoked sharp bursts of shell-fire. Brigadier Stevens told his battalion commanders that he had decided to “sit back from the river to avoid casualties” but to patrol vigorously. On 29th June, Lieut-Colonel Moten of the 2/27th, with his Intelligence sergeant, Burr,2 reconnoitred the right flank, passing through Baasir, Baaqoun, Aaqliye and Er Rezaniye, where Captain Nicholls,3 commanding an outlying company in that direction, reported that there was still enemy movement on Hill 394. Moten and Nicholls went forward and examined this valuable feature, commanding the Damour ravine, and as a result, Moten ordered Nicholls to send a strong fighting patrol out that night to seize the hill and hold it. Accordingly Nicholls set out from Er Rezaniye that evening with two platoons and, after an arduous march, arrived on the slopes of Hill 394 at midnight. One platoon under Lieutenant Mullighan4 crept round to the eastern side of the hill and attacked up the steep escarpment. Five enemy soldiers (of the II/6th Foreign Legion) were taken completely by surprise and surrendered after having thrown a few grenades. Mullighan’s platoon then dug in on the sheltered side of the hill, established an observation post on the summit and was shelled by the French from 5 a.m. to 9.15, while the other platoon marched back to Er Rezaniye. Moten told Stevens what had been done, and it was agreed that the men on 394 should keep out of sight on the south side by day and sit on top by night.
It now remained to reconnoitre river crossings, particularly on the right, because Stevens was determined to avoid a frontal attack and instead to gain the heights to the east of the Damour orchards. The French map showed a path winding down the escarpment from El Batal to the Beit ed Dine road. Four hundred yards to the west the road crossed the river and, just north of the crossing, a better-defined track zigzagged northward up to the village of El Boum. The only other track down the escarpment was one leading due east from Hill 394 down to a tributary wadi and along it to the Beit ed Dine road north-east of the observation post.
The night after the capture of Hill 394, Lieutenant R. G. Geddes5 led a patrol of four by night down the track from El Labiye to the Damour River where they managed to approach to within 40 yards of French sentries who were guarding the concrete bridge there. The sentries were restless and appeared to suspect that there was a patrol near by, but
Geddes and his party made their way back to El Labiye without being discovered.
The task of finding a crossing over the Damour below El Batal was then given to Lieutenant Sims,6 a cool and determined young platoon commander of the 2/27th. He led his platoon out of El Haram at 8 p.m. on 1st July and reached El Batal after a three hours’ march along the mule tracks. There he gave orders to each of his sections to fan out and search for the track marked on the map and to reassemble at El Batal four hours later. At least one French patrol was also out, because at 1.45 in the morning one of Sims’ sections was ambushed north-east of El Batal; one of its men was killed and, when the platoon reassembled, the track had not been found. Thereupon Sims sent back all but a sergeant and a sapper and waited for dawn. After climbing round the side of the hill in the daylight for two hours these found a well-marked mule track. There, all day, they waited for darkness, but meanwhile they sketched the French positions on the El Atiqa ridge, 1,000 yards away across the ravine, where they could see individual men moving about. They had no rations left, and only half a bottle of water, and were hungry and weary when, at 9 p.m., darkness having fallen, they began cautiously to feel their way down hill. At 11 o’clock they reached the main road and dashed across it to the river, where they filled their water-bottles and ate leeks growing there – their first food for a day. As they moved along the banana-fringed river they saw several French soldiers at the north end of the bridge, but were able to creep close enough to it to see that it was not mined and wired ready for demolition. Near the bridge they found a good ford, silently crossed it, returned, and climbed quietly back up the track again, arriving home at 6 a.m. on 3rd July. Sims reported that the escarpment to the north was too steep to negotiate except along the El Boum track and that the track down to the river from Batal could be travelled by mules.
These were only two of a series of arduous night patrols down the steep, rock-strewn escarpment to the banks of the Damour. On the extreme right, for example, Lieutenant Skipper7 led a patrol to the southern tributary of the river, and along it towards what appeared on the map to be a crossing about 500 yards east of the bridge, but he came to a point where the creek was pinched between cliffs so steep that he could go no farther. A patrol led by Lieutenant Katekar8 explored the tangled country each side of the creek north-east of Aaqliye. As a result of patrols on this flank (in which Sergeant Jamieson9 of the engineers played a leading part) it was decided that the best route to the El Mourhira hill up which the Beit ed Dine road climbed could be travelled by a company in four hours.
On the left the patrols of the 2/16th met more opposition, an indication that the French considered that the vital sector. On four nights from 30th June-1st July to 3rd-4th July patrols of the 2/16th, each accompanied by an NCO of the engineers, Corporal Buderis,10 explored routes leading down to the river, and at length Buderis found two points where the river could be forded. On the night of 3rd July, after an attempt to drive a French standing patrol out of an ancient two-storeyed blockhouse named Yerate had failed, Colonel MacDonald ordered a fighting patrol of two platoons with artillery support for the next night. This patrol, following the artillery fire, found the post empty, but next morning seven enemy soldiers walked up to Yerate and six of them were captured. On the night of the 4th–5th, also in the wake of concentrated fire from the guns of the 2/4th Field Regiment, Captain Hearman organised patrols from three companies (to make men in each company familiar with the ground) down the almost bare, terraced face of the 500-foot hill to the river, where they found a ford and saw a track leading from the river to the main road. A patrol under Corporal Harley11 crossed the river and crept up to the banana plantation beyond. From prisoners MacDonald gained a fairly clear picture of the French defences. There were two main defended areas, one including the bridge and the delta and another behind the watercourse about half a mile to the north. The El Atiqa hill was also defended with posts which were placed so that they could fire to the front or could enfilade a force attacking through the plantations. Daily, from the 26th onwards, the naval squadron shelled this and other targets round Damour, including a battery at Abey, five miles inland.
Despite his limited resources Brigadier Stevens had achieved his objectives. He had gained the heights overlooking the French defences, but, to avoid casualties in his depleted battalions and to rest the men as much as possible, had kept most of his troops well back from the zone that was subject to French artillery fire. Although the French shelling was intermittent it was often heavy, up to 200 shells being fired in a single concentration, yet casualties had been very few. Stevens formed the opinion that the defenders were concentrated along a front of about a mile and a half of strongly-wired and well-dug-in defences astride the main road, and were holding the rugged heights to the east only lightly, depending on the extraordinary difficulty of the country and possibly also on the fact that an attack on the inland flank, necessarily slow-moving, would be open to a counter-attack from Beit ed Dine.
The plan which Brigadier Stevens now proposed to General Allen was to attack the enemy’s left flank with one of his battalions, to attack the El Atiqa positions with another battalion, but in such a direction as to defilade it from the French posts in the orchards and banana groves west of the coast road, and to use two companies of his third battalion to
guard his flank against counter-attack down the Beit ed Dine road, while the remainder exploited through the right-hand battalion to the north-west outskirts of Damour. He was confident that his infantry had been well enough trained during exercises in the Judaean Hills to attack by night over even such rugged mountain country as this.
This plan had been maturing while Stevens had only two battalions under command. On 27th June he had discussed it with his unit commanders, and on the 29th Allen had discussed it with him. Now Stevens had three battalions, and a second brigade was to join in the battle. Stevens proposed to Allen that they should box Damour in, the 21st Brigade forming two sides, the sea a third, and the 17th Brigade putting the lid on. Thus the role of the 17th Brigade would be to circle round through the hills on the right and cut the road leading northward out of Damour. Savige reconnoitred the area on the 30th June and 1st July and reached conclusions similar to Stevens’ – a movement of his brigade round the right flank to block the road north of Damour.
At a conference at Allen’s headquarters on 2nd July these plans had been approved in principle and it was decided that the attack would open on 5th or 6th July. To cover the left flank of the 21st Brigade when the 2/16th Battalion attacked El Atiqa, Allen decided to give Monaghan’s 2/2nd Pioneers (less two companies) to the 21st Brigade. He also placed Stevens in control of an advance by the 2/25th Battalion and the rest of the 2/2nd Pioneers against Rharife in the Lebanons before the Damour battle opened. The object of this move was to assist the 25th Brigade to move forward from Jezzine toward Beit ed Dine, but at the outset control was given to Stevens because he was in a better position geographically to exercise it. It was learnt that sixteen medium and forty-four field guns would be available to support the attack on Damour along a front which, in the opening stages, would be about two miles in width.
Whereas three battalions had been deployed between Jezzine and the coast on 23rd June, nine battalions were in that area on 2nd July. The force then assembling was, however, considerably weaker than a listing of the units suggests. Each battalion of the 21st Brigade was below strength; in the 2/16th, for example, the strongest rifle company had ninety-nine officers and men, the weakest seventy-five. The 2/2nd Pioneers lacked the two companies which were under Colonel Withy’s command in the Rharife sector. Savige’s brigade was to carry out its attack with two battalions each about 300 strong; one of these, the 2/3rd, had just come from a series of strenuous fights at Damascus and Jebel Mazar, and contained men who in the previous six months had fought and marched in Libya, Greece and Crete and were suffering the effects of exposure and malnutrition. The Australian commanders knew, however, from the steady trickle of deserters from the French army that the enemy’s troops were in a worse way.
North and east of Jezzine the main body of the 25th Brigade on 1st July was holding a line of posts covering Toumat, Kharat, and the road
leading north from Jezzine. East of the gorge the 2/25th Battalion held Aanout. That day patrols of the 2/25th found that the enemy was holding Hasrout on the lateral road to Beit ed Dine, but had evidently abandoned the track leading through Jleiliye. On the night of 2nd July the enemy abandoned their positions in the Wadi Nagrat and moved back towards Beit ed Dine.
Stevens ordered that the advance on Rharife should be made by two columns, one comprisip,s the 2/25th with artillery and engineers, and the other the 2/2nd Pioneers (less two companies) with cavalry, artillery, and other detachments. The first was to move along the Chehim road, the second along the Mazraat ed Dahr-El Mtoulle road. Both were to join round Hasrout and Hill 832 and advance together to Rharife.
Advancing from Mazraat ed Dahr to Jleiliye on 3rd July the leading company of the Pioneers was shelled; two section leaders were killed and several men wounded, but after the enemy had been bombarded by artillery – Monaghan had a troop of howitzers firing from the coastal plain under his command – and by the mortars of the Pioneers and the machine-guns of a detachment of 6th Cavalry, a company attack was launched at 4 p.m. Advancing near the village Captain Mitchell,12 the company commander, was wounded. This caused delay and it was dusk before the village was occupied. Monaghan sent the other company on to take Mtoulle but it could reach only the southern edge of Mtoulle before dark.
On the 2/25th Battalion’s front the attack on Rharife was to be made by Captain Marson’s company, which was to cut the road north of Rharife, and Captain Kerr’s,13 which was to capture the dominating plateau above Hasrout and occupy the town. A reconnaissance revealed that the enemy held the plateau, and after the plan of attack was outlined to all company officers from an observation post at Aanout, which overlooked the valley, and the steep 1,000-foot plateau beyond, Kerr’s company left Daraya on the night of the 3rd–4th in strong moonlight. After very difficult going over intervening ridges, which made it a problem to keep direction, a halt was called at midnight in a copse at the foot of the plateau. The
going had been too difficult for the mules carrying the mortars, and these were sent back to battalion headquarters.
The advance continued in single file at 1 a.m., but the leading platoon lost direction and had to be halted and reoriented. Fortunately, during this complication, the moon was blotted out by heavy clouds. The advance continued, but when moving up a defile almost at the crest the leading scout was set upon. He bayonetted his assailant, who gave out a bloodcurdling cry which awoke the defenders.
The French were occupying the crest in a semi-circle round the Australians, and for nearly an hour poured fire from four machine-guns and small mortars on to the attackers. Under telephoned orders from Lieut-Colonel Withy, Lieutenant Robertson was instructed to coordinate the attack of the leading platoons. Lieutenant Crombie’s took up a position on the right flank and Lieutenant Miles on the left. As dawn approached Robertson ordered a bayonet attack. The fixing of bayonets evidently unnerved the French and, as the attackers advanced, they fled. By 5 a.m. Crombie had occupied all Hill 814 after brief engagements, and Miles had all Hill 832.
Lieutenant Cameron’s14 platoon captured the town of Hasrout, and established a road-block. During the morning the company was heavily shelled and machine-gunned, and an enemy counter-attack was seen being assembled on the southern side. However, Robertson directed artillery fire on the assembled French troops and they were dispersed. Some fifty French were seen running from the village towards Rharife.15
Meanwhile at 11.30 a.m. on the 4th the Pioneers opened an attack on Mtoulle. They encountered fire from field guns, mortars and machine-guns, but late in the afternoon had taken the village and were in touch with the 2/25th.
Marson’s company had moved out at 4.30 p.m. on the 3rd through Daraya and advanced east and north-east through the mountains until they were fired on by about twelve Frenchmen who were in position on the west of a steep hill north of the track about a mile west of Rharife. By the time this enemy party had been manoeuvred off this hill it was dark. Marson took two platoons through Rharife where he found one Senegalese soldier who was taken prisoner. Unable to reach his battalion headquarters with his radio telephone, he fired a prearranged success signal with a Very pistol, and put the company in a defensive position on the road about 1,000 yards north of Rharife until the following morning, when he marched through the village again. On 4th July large numbers of French were withdrawing north-east from Mtoulle.
General Allen instructed Brigadier Plant to continue active patrolling and to take advantage of the enemy’s withdrawal by advancing to Beit ed Dine. That day the 2/31st Battalion reported that there were no French troops in the Wadi Nagrat or Array, but that there were concentrations north of Kharat. A company of the 2/31st patrolled north along the road with the object of examining the ridge west of Marat by an advance from the north-west. The company occupied Hill 1115 but was forced off it by heavy fire, though not before it had taken fourteen prisoners, among whom was the artillery observation officer who had been directing fire on Jezzine and the roads leading into it. Thus on 5th July the 2/25th Battalion on the left was holding a line through Rharife, Beiqoun and Mtoulle, while the 2/31st, east of the gorge, was patrolling forward along the road leading north from Jezzine to Bater.
General Lavarack had ordered General Evetts’ 6th Division to carry out aggressive patrols16 in the Damascus and Merdjayoun sectors with the object of suggesting to the French that an attack was likely in those areas, and thus preventing them from transferring troops to the west. To add to the deception troops were moved by daylight in the Damascus area, but at night on the coast – a device that probably proved ineffective because the movements were reported to the French by agents in the villages.
By 3rd July the 6th British Division was deployed with its 16th Brigade astride the Beirut road from Deir Kanoun to Yafour, the depleted 5th Indian Brigade on the Col de Yafour, closing the gap north of Qatana, the North Somerset Yeomanry in the Chebaa area on the southern slopes of Hermon, and the 23rd Brigade at Merdjayoun and Khiam.17 As a precaution against a possible attack on Damascus the 1/Royal Fusiliers manned the forts overlooking the Beirut road and the 9th Australian Cavalry (less two squadrons) was held in readiness to counter-attack.
At 6 a.m. on the 3rd the dogged little French garrison at Palmyra surrendered. It numbered only 165 – six French officers, 87 Germans and Russians of the Foreign Legion, 48 air force men, and 24 of a desert company. Next day three NCOs and nineteen others of the Foreign Legion at T3 also capitulated. These 187 soldiers, mostly mercenaries, with air support, had sustained for twelve days the attacks of a force of four cavalry regiments (counting the Arab Legion as one), and an infantry battalion.
General Quinan’s force in Iraq now included five infantry brigades, two more – the 17th and 24th – having arrived at Basra between 9th and 16th June. On 3rd June troops were flown into Mosul, and later in the month Major-General Slim of the 10th Indian Division was placed in command of all troops in northern Iraq.
General Wilson now instructed General Clark to cut the roads from Horns to Tripoli and Baalbek, working in conjunction with Free French companies from Nebek, gain touch with the 10th Indian Division about Deir ez Zor, and open communications with Damascus. The 1/Essex garrisoned Palmyra and the cavalry force concentrated at El Beida on the pipe-line 20 miles west of Palmyra. It was unlikely that these forces would now meet strong opposition to their occupation of eastern Syria; a fortnight earlier the defenders had withdrawn the bulk of the forces from eastern Syria into the Lebanon, leaving only isolated outposts in the desert.
In spite of the small results achieved by the desert thrusts of Habforce up to 3rd July, the staffs in Cairo and London had continued to pin much faith on such manoeuvres. On the 3rd an appreciation prepared for the Chief of the General Staff in London stated that the plan was to maintain pressure “on a broad front from the Damascus area to the coast while Habforce moves on Horns via Palmyra and an Indian brigade from
Iraq will move on Abu Kemal and Deir ez Zor and ultimately on Aleppo ... no early conclusion of the campaign should be expected”.
The precise tasks allotted to Slim’s 10th Indian Division advancing from Iraq were to move north from Abu Kemal and seize Deir ez Zor, to drive off any Arab irregulars such as those organised by Fa wzi el Kawakji, and to prepare for a further advance along the Euphrates to Aleppo. Only one brigade group could be maintained on wheels forward of Abu Kemal, but this group – Brigadier Weld’s18 21st Indian Brigade – included the 13th Lancers (armoured cars). In addition the 20th Indian Brigade, at Mosul, was to send out a battalion group to demonstrate against Deir ez Zor, and another column was to operate independently against Hassetche and Kamechlie in the remote north-eastern corner of Syria. The only direct air support available to these forces was from an improvised squadron of four Hurricanes and four Gladiators manned by semi-trained pilots, and four Blenheim bombers.
The 21st Indian Brigade entered Syria on 28th June. The main column (including two Gurkha battalions) advanced along the Euphrates while a flying column (13th Lancers and 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles) moved along the pipeline to T2 and thence on Deir ez Zor from the south. They were delayed by air attacks, dust, and shortage of petrol and water. On the 3rd a concerted attack was launched against the town which was soon taken, with about 100 prisoners, nine guns and fifty lorries. A number of the enemy escaped and many Syrian troops removed their uniforms and hid. The garrison had consisted of one Syrian infantry battalion, a light desert company, a light mechanised unit, and eleven guns. The French subjected the force at Deir ez Zor, as at Palmyra, to sharp air attack each day and by 6th July the last of the supporting Hurricanes was shot down.
While the number of casualties inflicted were not many (states the report of the 10th Indian Division) the moral effect of the frequent bombing and machine-gunning from the air was serious. All units, British and Indian, were somewhat shaken by it and certain administrative units, which were composed of recently enlisted, only partially trained and often unarmed men, were for some days hardly able to carry on.
On 5th July the 2/4th Gurkhas occupied Rakka without opposition. Three days later information arrived that the enemy was withdrawing his outpost forces in the north-east corner westward along the frontier. The 2/4th Gurkhas were sent to Tel Abiad to cut them off but when they arrived there on 9th July the enemy had gone. A squadron of armoured cars and a platoon of infantry pursued the enemy as far as Djerablous, where the Euphrates enters Turkish territory. Meanwhile, the small garrison left at Rakka was strafed by aircraft, shelled by guns sited on the south side of the river, and severely attacked at night by Arab tribesmen. The northern columns – two Indian battalions operating from Mosul – occupied Kamechlie on the 7th and Hassetche on the 9th without opposition.
In this operation the 10th Indian Division lost 25 killed, 50 wounded and 10 missing, more than half of these casualties being caused by air attack. Chiefly because of transport difficulties and the opposition of the French air force the proposed advance on Aleppo did not develop.
Meanwhile the final stage of the preparations for a weightier offensive – the assault on Damour – had been reached. The French force defending Damour and Beirut was believed now to consist of two battalions of the Foreign Legion, one of which contained only three weak companies; and five battalions of native Lebanese troops, each probably at about half strength. There were thought to be four batteries of 75’s and two of medium guns, and some coast defence guns. The Australian staff had received information also that General Arlabosse, when inspecting the Damour defences, had mentioned that there were two supporting lines, one about Khalde, and one just south of Beirut extending inland through Aley to Bhamdoun. This last line was manned, it was believed, by two battalions of Lebanese troops and some squadrons of Spahis.
Allen’s final instructions for the Damour attack (issued on 4th July) were that before the attack opened the 21st Brigade was to clear enemy patrols from the area south of the river and, on the first day, advance to a line Er Roumane – Four a Chaux – Point 212 – the river mouth; and exploit to Kheurbet el Biar and Damour. The 17th Brigade was to concentrate about Dhar el Moughara and be ready at one hour’s notice either to counter any threat outside the 21st’s area or to carry on its attack. On the first day it was to move forward into the area vacated by the 21st.19 The 25th Brigade, now brought to full strength by the transfer of the 2/25th Battalion to Plant’s command, was ordered to press on towards Beit ed Dine, with the Cheshire Yeomanry operating in the mountains on its right flank.
Allen’s instruction listed the targets to be bombarded by the navy on the two days before the attack and on “D-day”; and the role of the air squadrons. The air force’s chief task was to give protection over the battle area, and particularly to protect the guns, and to bomb targets indicated by the army; its secondary task was to strafe troops on the roads to the French rear.20
On the 5th Stevens issued detailed orders to his battalions. They provided that as a preliminary operation a company of the 2/27th should destroy the enemy on the spur west of El Mourhira where it would be relieved by two companies of the 2/14th; the 2/16th would capture El Atiqa and exploit to the Nahr Daqoun; and the 2/27th would move across the river to El Bourn and Four a Chaux and turn the enemy’s flank. The 2/14th with two companies would then move through the 2/27th to the line of the Nahr Daqoun.
The 21st Brigade was to be supported by the guns of the 2/4th and 2/5th Field Regiments, two troops of the 2/9th Field Regiment and the 212th British Medium Battery-62 guns in all. These would concentrate on the enemy’s infantry and artillery positions from 12.35 a.m. to 1.20 a.m., then from 1.20 until 4.40 a.m. protect the advance of the 2/16th Battalion to its forming-up position beyond the river. From 4.40 to 5.30 the guns would provide a barrage ahead of the 2/16th and lifting 100 yards every five minutes. Finally the 2/4th would support the 2/27th Battalion and the 2/5th the 2/16th Battalion, each battalion being accompanied by a forward observation officer.
The 17th Brigade’s role, if ordered to continue the attack, was to advance through the right flank of the 21st until its left battalion, the 2/5th, was on a line from Deir Mar Jorjos to En Naame and the 2/3rd occupied the wooded plateau on the right covering the roads leading into the area from the east.
It was a plan that would demand uncommon fortitude and endurance from the infantry. On the left a steep and well-defined ridge overlooking the river was to be assaulted. On the right there was to be a flanking march by four battalions through extremely rugged country into which they could take only what they, and perhaps the mules, could carry on their backs.