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Chapter 27: Debits and Credits

IN the five weeks during which the Syrian campaign had been fought the whole shape of Hitler’s war had changed. With the invasion of Russia any immediate prospect of a German offensive in the Levant vanished. A week before that invasion opened the British and Indian force in the Western Desert had attacked with the object of defeating the German armour on the Egyptian frontier and relieving Tobruk.1 All went well on the first day, but on the second and third General Rommel, having brought forward tanks from Tobruk, counter-attacked and compelled the British force to withdraw, after losing many of its tanks.

This failure was “a most bitter blow” to Mr Churchill, and, on the 21st June – the day Damascus fell – General Wavell learnt from his Prime Minister that he was to change places with the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Auchinleck. Auchinleck had won a reputation as an able and forceful soldier, particularly during his service in India between the wars. He had commanded the Allied forces in northern Norway in May and June 1940; and, later, as commander in India, had gained acquaintance with some of the problems on the outskirts of the Middle East command. Wavell’s biographer has recorded that Wavell’s chief of staff, Lieut-General Arthur Smith, received the telegram announcing the transfer shortly after midnight. He took it to Wavell early the next morning. Wavell was shaving. Wavell read it quietly, and then remarked: “I am sure the Prime Minister is right. You will find a new man with new ideas will be a good thing.”2

Afterwards Churchill wrote that he held Wavell responsible, in part or wholly, for the loss of Benghazi “which had undermined and overthrown all the Greek projects on which we had embarked”;3 for the failure in Crete; and for the defeat in the Western Desert. He said also that he was displeased by Wavell’s opposition to the reinforcement of Iraq from the Middle East, and to the plan to invade Syria.

The loss of Benghazi, however, had been chiefly a consequence of denuding Cyrenaica so as to send an expedition to Greece. As a result of the loss of Benghazi, Wavell retained in the Western Desert for two months one Australian division earmarked for Greece. It is hard to accept the assumption that if that division had been sent to Greece (where it could not have arrived until the campaign was at least ten days old and defeat had been accepted) the Allies would have achieved “the Greek projects on which we had embarked, with all their sullen dangers and glittering prizes in what was for us the supreme sphere of the Balkan war”.4

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Among his colleagues and subordinates in the field Wavell’s reputation was undimmed. Admiral Cunningham, now the only remaining member of the original triumvirate, wrote later that he was “desperately sorry” about the departure of this fellow commander whom he considered “one of the great generals thrown up by the war, if not the greatest”.5

Wavell’s earlier operations against the Italians, boldly undertaken with forces far inferior to theirs in numbers and equipment, had been-brilliantly successful. He loyally accepted responsibility for the faulty estimate of the enemy’s strength before the loss of Cyrenaica. He had supported the Greek venture, of which the loss of Crete was merely a consequence, but had done so with some misgivings. He undertook the operations in Iraq and Syria only after considerable pressure from London. So far as Iraq was concerned events proved that he was wrong to hesitate. As for Syria, fairly substantial evidence that Germany was not planning an early offensive in the Levant was provided at the time by her belated and insubstantial aid to Rashid Ali in Iraq; and it was to anticipate such an offensive that the invasion of Syria was undertaken.

In May the British Prime Minister did not know for certain that the Germans were concentrating for an early invasion of Russia but he thought they were doing so and had attempted to warn Stalin of the coming onslaught early in April.6 There was a possibility, however, that the eastern Mediterranean was also an objective, and Churchill’s instinct was to anticipate Hitler and seize the initiative. This policy had not succeeded in Greece because he lacked land forces strong enough to withstand the Germans on the Continent. The attack on Syria, like the expedition to Greece, was carried out only by withdrawing formations from the Western Desert. The outcome was that both the Syrian and the Western Desert offensives were undertaken simultaneously with insufficient forces. In consequence the Syrian campaign was unduly prolonged and costly, and the Western Desert offensive failed. Two senior officers of Wavell’s staff, Lieut-General Smith and Lieut-Colonel (later Major-General) de Guingand, writing after the campaign, expressed the opinion that the Government was right in pressing Wavell to invade Syria. “We were ordered from home to carry out the advance into Syria not so much as a military operation as ‘a political gesture’,” said General Smith. “An odd way to wage war, but events proved the British Government to be right.”7 One outstanding event, however – the German invasion of Russia – showed the Syrian offensive to have been premature. There would have been time to undertake it later with adequate forces.

Moreover, if it was primarily “a political gesture” the political factors were somewhat misjudged. The political advisers on the Allied side failed to estimate correctly the feelings of the Vichy French. The Free French, wishing to ensure that the invasion took place, under-estimated the probable resistance. Naturally the Free French were anxious to take a leading

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part in the operations so as to enhance their prestige and be on the spot to assert their political interests; but it seems that the presence of the hated de Gaullists as much as any other factor ensured a bitter resistance by the Vichy leaders, who regarded them as renegades. France was in a state of civil war and the two groups were divided by all the rancour and recrimination that civil war breeds.

The presence of the Free French contingent also complicated control, because it was not placed fully under a British commander, but acted in “cooperation” – always an unsatisfactory procedure, and particularly with a force built up largely of more or less mercenary African troops and foreign legionaries.

The hotch-potch of political and military considerations was reflected in the news which went to the outside world. A political as well as a military censor was given supervision of reports of the campaign. The first communiqué issued at Cairo stated that “only slight and often no resistance” had been met; the censors were instructed from Wavell’s headquarters that they must delete references to fighting. The Australian army censor, Major Fenton,8 would not apply this instruction to reports for Australian newspapers, and General Lavarack’s chief Intelligence officer informed Middle East headquarters that Lavarack was worried about the effect on his troops of BBC broadcasts that the French were not resisting. This situation – the result of the inexperience of officers and civil officials – caused some London correspondents, having discovered what was happening, to advise their newspapers to have Australian dispatches about Syria cabled back from Australia to London, and this was done.

The fiasco of the British press censorship in the early stages of the campaign, and the vigorous protests, particularly of the American correspondents, against the general working of the public relations system led to changes in the censorship staff and the appointment as Cairo “spokesman” of the enterprising Major Randolph Churchill,9 Mr Winston Churchill’s son, who was serving in a commando unit in the Middle East.

It was on Randolph Churchill’s advice that his father at last, in June, granted General Wavell’s request, made in April, for the appointment of a senior political authority to Cairo. “Why not send a member of the War Cabinet here to preside over whole war effort?” Randolph Churchill cabled on 7th June. On the 29th the Prime Minister informed General Wavell that Mr Oliver Lyttleton, formerly President of the Board of Trade, would leave London by air next day to become Minister of State in the Middle East.

The larger part of the task in Syria had been borne by Australian troops. Early in July General Auchinleck sent to the War Office a statement of the

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strength of each national contingent employed in Syria to the end of June:

Australian, 18,000; United Kingdom, 9,000; Indian, 2,000; Free French, 5,000.

The total Allied losses were approximately: British and Indian, 1,800; Australian, 1,600; Free French, 1,300. All of the Australian losses thus listed, however, were killed and wounded; about 1,200 of the British and Indian troops, and about 1,100 of the Free French who were lost were taken prisoner. The battle casualties in the 7th Australian Division were: 37 officers and 379 other ranks killed, 87 and 1,049 wounded. In addition 3,150 sick men passed through the two Australian field ambulances, including 350 suffering with malaria.10 If the campaign had lasted a few weeks longer malaria would have caused serious losses.

As a result of the censorship policy described above, the Australians, most of whom were in action for the first time, felt aggrieved that so little was printed about the campaign both during it and afterwards – a feeling that is evidenced not only in contemporary records but in regimental histories produced after the war.11

In August the Vichy French stated that their losses were 521 killed, 1,037 missing, 1,790 wounded and 3,004 prisoners. It appears that these figures do not give a true account of the numbers who deserted from the Vichy forces, because, according to British figures, these totalled 8,912. At the cease-fire the strength of the Vichy army was from 24,000 to 25,000. At his trial General Dentz said that 1,092 Vichy officers and men had been killed in Syria. If the dead numbered 1,092 the wounded probably totalled between 2,200 and 2,500. Such figures are not inconsistent with the total of 3,348 killed, wounded and missing quoted above.

In the light of later knowledge it is easy to criticise the conduct of the operations, particularly on the ground that there was failure to concentrate against one main objective. The relative weakness of his force, however, placed each senior commander – first Wilson and then Lavarack – in an

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unenviable situation. The French were well led, skilful, and were fighting in country which they knew intimately and in which the defender had every advantage. In addition – a fact that could never be forgotten in the early weeks – they possessed some 90 medium tanks, whereas the attackers had none, except those they captured and could put into working order. In consequence, until the French tank force was disabled, the enemy had the means of launching counter-attacks across the vulnerable lines of communication of the whole invading force, and perhaps of marching across the Jordan into Palestine, which had been largely denuded of equipped troops. The French counter-attacks on the 15th and the following two days achieved greater dislocation than their strength merited, or – after the opening day – the French leaders themselves expected. This was because of fear lest a further short advance might cut vital roads behind the invading force.

Because the invading force had no tanks and was ill-equipped with ammunition for its mortars – invaluable weapons in the mountain country – the campaign soon resolved into a slogging match in which infantry supported chiefly by 25-pounder field guns again and again attacked well-trained regular forces supported by tanks, artillery and mortars.

It seems probable that the Allied failure to concentrate on a single objective until a late stage was partly the result of the unhappy arrangement (criticised by Brigadier Rowell before the invasion opened) whereby, until 18th June, operations were controlled from Jerusalem by General Wilson and a staff preoccupied with political and administrative problems and too remote from the battlefields to exercise close command in the field. In each of the campaigns with which this and the previous volume are concerned errors in the allocation of command had been made. In Libya the system whereby General Wilson, as commander of British Troops in Egypt, had been interposed between General Wavell and the field commander, General O’Connor, had proved unsatisfactory. In Greece General Wilson had found it necessary eventually to hand control of the field force to General Blamey. In Crete there had been failure at an early stage to appoint and retain a senior commander to concentrate on the problem of defending the island; the weary General Freyberg took over only when invasion was imminent.

In Syria the invading force had certain important physical advantages: command of the sea and, in the later stages, of the air; a slowly increasing pool of men and equipment on which to draw; more and better artillery boldly used – though the Frenchman’s excellent heavy mortar largely offset the Australian guns in the mountain fighting; and the French were always plentifully supplied with ammunition.12

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The invaders had a superior spirit. The French and colonial troops drew their determination from their professional pride as soldiers (many thought the British despised them for their defeat in France), from their hatred of the de Gaullists, and their resentment against the British for attacking them, and particularly for attacking them on the ground that they were harbouring Germans; but the British and Indian invaders were impelled by a stronger pride and devotion than such private animosities could produce; and the Australians in particular revealed greater staying power than the French.

Tactically the Australian division learned important lessons. Like the 6th Division in Greece it gained experience of mountain warfare which was to prove of great value in a critical operation in the following year. Leaders and men learnt the need in such country of securing the ridges, the danger of defiles, and the necessity for attacking defiles from a flank; the use of cover on rocky slopes; the value of mortars in tangled, steep-sided hills where field artillery was unable to operate with full effect. In addition, they learnt how to fight tanks with guns – holding the fire of the anti-tank gun until the tanks were within a few hundred yards, and employing one or two field guns forward with the infantry. The frequent possibility of ambush in mountain passes was seen and practised.13

Except in the Palmyra area and along the Euphrates, where the French air force achieved notable success, neither it nor the British air force was able to deploy sufficient power to greatly influence the battle below. At Palmyra, however, the Vichy aircraft provided a particularly illuminating illustration of the extent to which determined and repeated air attack may turn the scales in the land fighting. Efforts were made during the campaign to improve liaison between army and air force. For the Damour battle one fighter squadron (No. 3 R.A.A.F.) and one bomber (No. 45 R.A.F.) were placed in close support of the 7th Division. However, this experiment in obtaining quicker air support was only partly successful. Targets were hard to find in such rugged country, the delay between asking for support and the appearance of the aircraft over the target was from two hours to two and a half, and the number of aircraft available was too small to exert an important influence on the outcome of even minor engagements.

The country and enemy action made tactical reconnaissance and artillery difficult (stated the report of the 7th Australian Division). Enemy guns were well concealed and invariably difficult to locate. On several occasions the area in which enemy

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guns were located was known, yet they could not be definitely pin-pointed from the air. When our planes were over the area the enemy artillery there remained silent. The difficulty of locating guns is best illustrated by the experience of one pilot who, knowing the exact location of our own guns, was not able to spot them until he was down to about 200 feet. It can be said that artillery reconnaissance, which was limited, was not really a success. It is considered that the Hurricane is too fast for this type of air cooperation. Tactical reconnaissance was provided throughout and obtained useful information, but owing to the nature of the country this information was chiefly confined to reports on roads.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution made by the air force in the coastal area was that, by protecting the naval squadron, it enabled it to continue its bombardment of the enemy on land. This bombardment hampered the French supply columns and depressed the spirit of their troops. The British fighters reduced French air attack in the coastal and mountain sectors to such an extent that it did not seriously impede movement on the roads; so successfully was this done that the report of the 7th Australian Division said that “lack of strong enemy air [force] has probably lulled this division into a false sense of security”.

The campaign was won chiefly by the infantrymen’s determination, physical strength and endurance. In those sectors where at length the fight resolved itself into an affair of attrition, the attackers eventually surpassed the defenders. After the fighting the French leaders volunteered that the Australian troops had proved more rugged than their own. One report quotes a French colonel as saying, “Until I saw your infantry crossing the Damour River and fighting in the mountains, I believed the Foreign Legion were the toughest troops in the world.” The 5th Indian Brigade, the most experienced troops in Syria – excepting perhaps the 2/3rd and 2/5th Australian Battalions – had fought magnificently, as they and other Indian regular formations had done in the Western Desert and Abyssinia.

At the end the fighting men on each side were probably equally fatigued. Those infantrymen who had been in the three earlier campaigns in which Australians had fought considered that the Syrian operations were more exhausting than those in Libya or Greece; and in few later campaigns did diarists in infantry, cavalry and artillery so constantly refer to fatigue, mental and physical, to a consequent prevalence of “slight shell-shock”, and the weeding out of those who were less fit in mind and body. It had been a costly and wearing campaign, bitterly fought out against the troops, mostly mercenaries, of a former ally. On the credit side was some strengthening of the strategical position in the Middle East, and the experience gained, particularly by an Australian formation which was soon to play a decisive part in a more critical campaign in another hemisphere.