Chapter 10: The Campaign in Syria: (June–July 1941)
See Map 17
Syria had already been the scene of civil disorders, for under the French mandate the country had been dissatisfied with its slow progress towards self-government. There were many internal problems, such as the future of the Lebanon and of the Jebel Druse, and although the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine was in abeyance as a major issue, it was still the cause of bitter feeling in the neighbouring countries, especially Syria. After the signing of the Armistice in June 1940 the French leaders in Syria had soon followed the lead of North Africa in obeying the order of the Bordeaux (later Vichy) Government to surrender. To the confusion of racial and religious interests there was then added the sharp division of Frenchmen into the adherents of Vichy and the Free French followers of General de Gaulle. Only the Polish Brigade and a comparatively small number of Frenchmen succeeded in crossing from Syria into Palestine to continue the struggle against the Axis.
On 1st July 1940 the British Government announced their policy. They could not allow Syria or the Lebanon to be occupied by any hostile power or be used as a base for attacks on those countries which the British were pledged to defend, or to become the scene of such disorder as to constitute a danger to those countries. Towards the end of August the Italian Armistice Commission arrived in Syria, and at about the same time General de Gaulle claimed to have information that the time might be ripe for a coup d’état. The Chiefs of Staff welcomed the idea of a spontaneous coup by the Free French but thought it would be a mistake to offer too much encouragement, because if it were unsuccessful it might cause the Vichy French in Syria to become actively hostile. Moreover, this might be the signal for a Syrian native rising, and, as General Wavell pointed out more than once, there were no British forces to spare for any commitments in Syria.
It was not long before the Commanders-in-Chief had reason to be anxious about the use of Syria as a base for subversive activities throughout the Middle East, and in October the Gaullist General Georges Catroux arrived to begin a campaign of propaganda for the Free French cause. In November, however, a new pro-Vichy High
Commissioner, General Henri Dentz, was appointed; more and more Germans were arriving in the country; and by the end of the year the prospects of a coup d’état were clearly remote. By March 1941 the Free French propaganda merely appeared to have irritated French and Syrian opinion. It was to our interest that Syria should rally to de Gaulle, but we were not in any position to. make a promise of independence to the Syrians, and it was obviously necessary to avoid stirring up trouble which might spread to Palestine.
General de Gaulle himself visited the Middle East in April. There was general agreement on the need to rally the country, but not on the means of doing it. It was no help to General Wavell to be advised that strong forces should be used so that General Dentz could bow to the inevitable without loss of honour. In fact the Commanders-in-Chief were opposed to any plan which involved the use of British forces. The battle of Keren had indeed been won and some forces had been at once released from Italian East Africa, but on the other fronts the situation was very bad; all Cyrenaica except Tobruk had been lost and in Greece there seemed every prospect of a serious military defeat. These events did not pass unnoticed in the Arab countries. It is small wonder that at this moment the Commanders-in-Chief felt obliged to ask that something should be done to relieve them of as much political business as possible, and leave them freer to deal with their military problems. As will be seen later this request was met, but not at once; things were to grow worse before they improved, and General Wavell in particular was continually being faced with awkward political and diplomatic problems.
The Free French movement and the stability of Syria were matters of deep concern to the British Government and telegrams flew to and fro between the Commanders-in-Chief and Chiefs of Staff, the British Ambassador in Egypt and the Foreign Office, the High Commissioner in Palestine and the Colonial Office, and between General de Gaulle (now in French Equatorial Africa) and General Catroux and Major-General E. L. Spears, the head of the British Liaison Mission with General de Gaulle. Thinking that the Germans, who had now conquered Greece, were likely to be preparing for an airborne landing in Syria, the Chiefs of Staff asked what troops could be spared to help General Dentz to resist. The three Commanders-in-Chief replied at once that they mistrusted General Dentz and could not consent to his being informed of our weakness. He himself was thought to have some 25,000 regulars and 20,000 local troops with about ninety good tanks, but until the Australians from Greece could be re-equipped the largest force that we could produce was one mechanized cavalry brigade, one regiment of artillery, and one infantry battalion, and this only if it was not necessary to send any troops to Iraq. But on 5th May, as has already been seen, General Wavell was instructed to take command over
Northern Iraq, whereupon this small British force (Habforce) became committed to the more pressing of the two tasks and had to move as quickly as it could to relieve Habbaniya and settle the Iraqi revolt.
Thus the crisis in Iraq made it impossible for the British to send any troops immediately to Syria, whereupon General Catroux proposed that the small Free French force which was collecting in Palestine should cross the Syrian frontier and make a dramatic appeal, with the idea of rallying the French in Syria to his cause. From the British he would need only lorries, drivers, and air support. In London this proposal was warmly received, for if General Wavell could provide no troops it seemed a good idea to give Catroux some lorries and send him in to attempt to win over his countrymen. (It should be noted that the shortage of lorries was already hampering Habforce.)
On 12th May came the news that German aircraft had landed at Damascus, but this did not alter the fact that the only troops that General Wavell could spare were now committed to Iraq. He pointed out that in any event the use of inadequate force would be unsound, and would merely be likely to result in another Jameson Raid. It was agreed, however, that General Catroux should try by broadcasting and by dropping encouraging pamphlets to rouse the will of the French to resist the Germans. Permission was given from London for the Royal Air Force to attack German aircraft in Syria, even when they were on French airfields. Frequent air reconnaissances were thereafter made of Palmyra, Mezze (Damascus), Aleppo, Homs, Rayak and Deir ez Zor, and attacks were made from time to time when German aircraft were observed. Anti-aircraft fire was met, but no opposition by fighters.
It was natural to expect the Turks to be apprehensive about the arrival of Germans in Syria, and on 16th May it was learnt that Turkish troops were moving towards the Syrian frontier. The Chiefs of Staff thought that by cooperating with the Turks we might prevent the Germans from gaining complete control over Syria. Accordingly they instructed the Commanders-in-Chief to improvise the largest force they could without prejudice to the security of the Western Desert and be ready to move into Syria at the earliest possible date—an operation to be called EXPORTER. By the time this order arrived there had been a new development in Cairo, for on 18th May General Catroux announced that he had reliable information that the French in Syria were withdrawing the whole of their troops into the Lebanon and would hand over the rest of Syria to the Germans. The road to Damascus was therefore open, and he asked General Wavell to give immediate orders for an advance into Syria. General Wavell—much to General de Gaulle’s indignation—declined to be rushed. The information was not supported from other sources, and neither troops nor transport were ready. Next day General Catroux said that the general opinion among French troops was now more favourable to us as a
result of the appearance of the Germans and of our bombing and of his broadcasts. He admitted that there was likely to be little resistance to the Germans, but claimed that if the British were to enter at once with strong forces they would not be vigorously opposed. In reporting this to London General Wavell pointed out once more that he had not got strong forces, and that he still disagreed with the use of weak ones. He also told the Chiefs of Staff that Catroux had made a formal request for the Free French troops to be moved at once to the Syrian frontier opposite Deraa in order to discover the French and Arab reactions. General Wavell’s comment was that he disliked the proposal, for it meant finding at least 300 lorries, either from Habforce or from Egypt. He asked for an immediate decision whether he was to accede to General Catroux’s request in spite of his own objections. The outcome of this was an order from the Defence Committee telling him to do as Catroux wished.
Meanwhile, arrangements had been put in hand to prepare a force for Syria, in accordance with the Chiefs of Staff’s instructions. The 7th Australian Division (less one brigade in Tobruk) was ordered to move to Palestine, being replaced at Matruh by the 5th South African Brigade (not long arrived from Kenya) and the Polish Brigade. General Wilson, commanding in Palestine and Transjordan, was told to make a plan with primary objectives the airfields at Damascus, Beirut, and Rayak. The troops would be mixed British and French, with the British leading. How the necessary transport was to be found was not yet clear to him.
The decision by the Defence Committee that General Wavell was to do as General Catroux wished drew from him an indignant reply. He would not agree, he said, to dictation by Generals Catroux and de Gaulle in respect of action that would be bound to have a serious effect upon the military situation in the Middle East. ‘You must trust my judgment in this matter’ he wrote to General Dill, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, ‘or relieve me of my command.’ General Dill commented on this to the Prime Minister in these words: ‘My own feeling is that at this juncture we should trust Wavell. It is no time to make a change.’
Mr. Churchill replied to General Wavell on 21st May, pointing out that, as he had himself shown, there was not the means to mount a regular military operation and that at present all that could be done was to give the best possible chance to a kind of ‘armed political inroad.’ General Wavell was wrong in supposing that the Government’s policy arose out of any representations made by the Free French leaders or General Spears. It arose entirely from the view taken by those who had the supreme direction of war and policy in all theatres. If the Germans could pick up Syria and Iraq with petty air forces, tourists and local revolts, we must not shrink from running equal
small-scale military risks, and facing the possible aggravation of political dangers from failure. ‘For this decision we of course take full responsibility, and should you find yourself unwilling to give effect to it arrangements will be made to meet any wish you may express to be relieved of your command.’
The very same day the information which had started this disagreement was admitted by General Catroux to be quite inaccurate. His latest news was that, far from withdrawing to the Lebanon, the French had occupied the positions in which they intended to fight in defence of Syria. He thought that any advance on Damascus with a small force was now out of the question. General Wavell’s comment in reporting this development to London was that they could now consider in a calmer atmosphere the measures to prevent the Germans establishing themselves in Syria. To the Prime Minister he explained that his experience had made him sceptical of information about Syria from Free French sources, and that Free French plans were sometimes apt to bear little relation to realities. He had felt that their views were perhaps being given too much weight, and that he was being committed to an unsound military enterprise on unverified information at a time when Crete, Iraq, and the Western Desert required all his resources and attention. The storm died down. General Wavell had been right, but the fact that he was showing signs of tiring did not pass unnoticed in London.
See also Map 20
On 25th May the outline plan for operation EXPORTER was sent home. The advance would be made by 7th Australian Division (less one brigade), the Free French troops, and part of the 1st Cavalry Division. This was a much smaller force than General Wavell thought necessary for occupying Syria, but it was the largest that could be made available quickly. To occupy Syria would require two divisions and an armoured brigade—an estimate with which General de Gaulle was understood to agree. The force actually available might reach Damascus, Rayak, and Beirut, and perhaps make raids on Tripoli and Horns. But the enemy might be expected to establish himself at Aleppo and Mosul, and work south, so General Wavell suggested that the Turks might be asked whether they would occupy the airfields in northern Syria in the event of our being obliged to occupy those in the south. He also wished to know whether he was to act as soon as he was reasonably ready, or waft for some occasion that might create a more favourable reaction. such as the arrival of more Germans. Thirdly, was he to take the Free French into his confidence?
The reply to this was that while the principal British object was to
gain a decisive military success in the Western Desert, it was nevertheless important to establish ourselves in Syria before the Germans could recover from the immense drain on their resources which General Freyberg’s vigorous resistance in Crete had caused. The Turks would be invited to cooperate by occupying the northern airfields, particularly Aleppo. The answers to General Wavell’s other questions were that on the whole it would be best to act as soon as he was reasonably ready, and that no Free Frenchman except General de Gaulle should be let into the secret. The Defence Committee added that they realized the difficulty in apportioning the available air forces if the advance into Syria should coincide with BATTLEAXE. They also affirmed that Syria was of far greater importance than Cyprus. No additions should therefore be made to the garrison of that island: its task was to make sure that the enemy did not gain possession of Cyprus without a fight.
On 2nd June the Turkish Government declined the request that their troops should occupy the north Syrian airfields. They intended to do no more than reinforce their frontier garrisons.
Within a few days of the intended start of EXPORTER the force had grown to include the following:–
7th Australian Division, of two brigades only.
Two cavalry regiments, one horsed and one (composite regiment) mechanized.
5th Indian Infantry Brigade Group, back from Eritrea.
A weak Free French force, under General Legentilhomme, of six battalions, one battery, and a few tanks.
One squadron of armoured cars, one light and one heavy anti-aircraft regiment and one field regiment, RA
A commando—C Battalion of the Special Service Brigade—available at Cyprus for making landings from the sea.
The Navy had allotted a landing ship, and a number of cruisers and destroyers to give support along the coast. The air force would be one medium bomber, one fighter, and one army cooperation squadron. A second fighter squadron, equipped with Tomahawks, would be available, but not at full strength at the outset.
In reporting this to London General Wavell added that the operation was obviously in the nature of a gamble. The Chiefs of Staff, for their part, were disturbed by the small numbers of the air forces, which they thought was the crux of the problem. They nevertheless insisted that BATTLEAXE must not be spoilt, and all they could suggest was a day-by-day use of the air forces from bases in Palestine, so that they could subsequently be used for BATTLEAXE. The Commanders-in-Chief had to reject this ingenious device for having the best of both worlds, because it did not allow for the preliminary tasks for BATTLEAXE.
This, then, was the position three weeks after the surrender of the Duke of Aosta at Amba Alagi, and a fortnight after the unsuccessful
action at Capuzzo and Sollum. The armistice in Iraq and the withdrawal of the British forces from Crete had both occurred a week ago, and operation BATTLEAXE, of which such high hopes were held in London, was due to begin in a week’s time. These facts may serve to convey something of the pressure on the Commanders-in-Chief, trying to face every direction at once, anxious to maintain Malta and Tobruk and to interfere with the enemy’s sea communications to Libya, and acutely aware of the threat presented by the Luftwaffe in Crete. And German aircraft at Damascus would be nearer to the Suez Canal than if they had been at Matruh.
This last danger, however, came to nothing. When the Germans saw the futility of trying to bolster Rashid Ali’s revolt they decided to withdraw from Syria in order to give the British no pretext for moving in. Syria was to them of minor importance for the time being; what mattered was BARBAROSSA. In due course Syria would play its part when the victory over the Russians was being exploited, but the heavy losses among the German airborne troops in Crete ruled out any immediate action. Thus while the British were actuated by the fear that the Germans were moving into Syria, the Germans had in fact chosen to move out. Whether the French would oppose the Germans was therefore never put to the test; the issue became the unhappy one of Frenchmen versus Frenchmen and British.
The military operations against the French in Syria lasted five weeks. They began in a curious atmosphere of unreality, but any idea that there would be little more than token resistance—a view which was not held by the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East—was quickly dispelled. The Vichy French not only fought well but showed great bitterness at the use of their own countrymen against them. Attempts by Free French officers to parley were met with abuse or even fire. There were instances of abuse of the white flag and of the ill-treatment of prisoners. With the Vichy troops in this frame of mind, their numbers, their compact organization, the suitability of their equipment, their knowledge of the ground, the ample time to prepare their defences, and their superiority in armour all combined to make them formidable opponents. The British force, by comparison, suffered from the usual failing of being at the outset a collection of units and formations—not even the 7th Australian Division was complete—handicapped by a shortage of tanks, signal equipment, transport, and anti-aircraft weapons.
In the air also the British had to make do with what they could. The Air Officer Commanding Palestine and Transjordan, Air Commodore L. O. Brown, had under his command at the start: No. 11 Squadron (Blenheim IV), much depleted both in aircraft and crews; No. 80
Squadron (Hurricane), re-equipping; No. 3 RAAF Squadron, rearming with Tomahawks; No. 208 Army Cooperation Squadron—in reality one Hurricane flight; and X Flight (Gladiator). In all about fifty first-line aircraft. In addition, a detachment of 815 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, based in Cyprus, and No. 84 Squadron (Blenheim) in Iraq were detailed to cooperate. The Vichy air forces consisted of about thirty bombers and sixty fighters at the start, but during the campaign these were nearly doubled by arrivals from French North Africa. German aircraft, as has been seen, were already withdrawing from Syria when operations began, but they joined in by attacking British ships from airfields in the Dodecanese.
General Wilson had been ordered to capture Beirut, Rayak, and Damascus, and subsequently to advance on Palmyra, Homs, and Tripoli. The lie of the country had an important bearing on his plan. Between Rayak and Beirut runs the Lebanon range, parallel to the coast. Its foothills fall right down to the sea in a tumble of steep and rocky spurs and valleys, making the coastal road easy to block and any movement across the grain extremely difficult. Farther inland, between Rayak and Damascus, and again roughly parallel to the coast, runs the Anti-Lebanon range with Mount Hermon (9,000 feet) near its southern end. Separating the two ranges is the valley of the Litani (or Leontes) river, along which runs a road from Rayak to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. A few miles from the Palestine frontier, near the Lebanese town of Merjayun, the Litani turns westward to break through the Lebanon range and make its way to the sea between Tyre and Sidon. The only good roads crossing the line of the two mountain ranges were the one joining Damascus to Beirut and a very winding road through Kuneitra and Merjayun to Sidon. Kuneitra lies also on a road from Tiberias to Damascus which follows the eastern foothills of the Anti-Lebanon range. Farther to the east a road runs through Deraa to Damascus across less hilly country. To the east of Damascus is desert.
Beirut was the seat of government and of General Dentz’s headquarters, and General Wilson decided to make it his main objective. Being on the coast it was exposed to naval action and landings from the sea. The landward approaches to the town ran through difficult country, but the Vichy tanks would have less of an advantage here than in the more open country to the south of Damascus. General Wilson decided nevertheless to advance by three routes in order to engage the enemy on a wider front. On the right, through Deraa to Damascus; in the centre through Merjayun to Rayak; and the main effort on the left by the coast road to Beirut. The central and coastal routes were allotted to the 7th Australian Division (Major-General J. D. Lavarack) under whose command were C Battalion Special Service Brigade and a number of units of 1st Cavalry Division and 6th Australian Division. The advance on the right was to be led by the experienced 5th Indian
Infantry Brigade (Brigadier W. L. Lloyd) as far as Deraa, where General Legentilhomme’s Free French Force would pass through. Lack of transport made it necessary to limit the latter to one brigade group.
Admiral Cunningham gave the 15th Cruiser Squadron (Phoebe, Ajax, with the Coventry, the landing ship Glengyle and eight destroyers) under Vice-Admiral E. L. S. King the tasks of supporting the Army’s advance and covering a landing by the Special Service troops. There were several Vichy war vessels based on Beirut; the Fleet destroyers Guépard and Valmy, three submarines, one patrol vessel, one netlayer and one sloop. Orders were given that these surface vessels were not to be fired upon unless they attempted to interfere with our operations.
The ensuing campaign falls conveniently into three phases. The first, from the crossing of the frontier on 8th June until the 13th, by which time the advance on all three lines, after some initial success, was held up. During the second phase the enemy made a number of counterattacks, which had to be dealt with. Only at Damascus was much further progress made. In the third phase the British were able to strengthen all their forces, and to move first Habforce and later the 10th Indian Division westwards from their locations in Iraq—the former towards Palmyra, the latter along the Euphrates through Deir ez Zor, thus threatening the enemy’s flank and rear. By this time General Dentz’s strength had dwindled and after losing the battle for his main position south of Beirut he sued for terms.
Early on 8th June leaflets and broadcasts informed the peoples of Syria and Lebanon that General Catroux, in the name of General de Gaulle and the Free French, had come to put an end to the Mandate and to proclaim them free and independent. A statement by the British Ambassador in Egypt was also issued, associating His Majesty’s Government with this assurance.
In the early hours of the morning the leading troops had crossed the frontier. On the right the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade quickly secured Deraa and by nightfall was held up fifteen miles farther north at Sheikh Meskine.1
That night the Vichy troops withdrew from Kuneitra, which was occupied by the 1st Royal Fusiliers. On the morning of 9th June Sheikh Meskine was evacuated under cover of air attacks, and the Free French troops, taking up the advance, made good progress and gained contact with a defended position at Kissoue only ten miles from Damascus. Attacks on this position on 11th and 12th June were unsuccessful, whereupon General Wilson sent up 5th Indian Infantry
Brigade to reinforce General Legentilhomme. General Legentilhomme was wounded, and Brigadier Lloyd assumed command in this sector. He decided that a more deliberate attack would be necessary, for which the preparations could be ready by 15th June.
The capture of Merjayun was entrusted to the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier A. R. B. Cox), which had but recently arrived from England. It soon became clear that the enemy were in considerable strength in this area and there was every sign that they intended to resist methodically. Merjayun was taken on the afternoon of the 11th, but the force of cavalry sent to pursue in the direction of Rayak soon ran into stiff opposition. General Lavarack realized that progress on this line was likely to be very slow and decided to postpone the advance on Rayak. Instead, he ordered the bulk of the 25th Brigade to move to the help of the main body of the Division by making a wide turning movement through Jezzine. The cavalry detachment, one battalion, and one field battery were left as garrison of Merjayun. When the engineers had bridged the Litani, Brigadier Cox set off on the evening of 13th June on a nightmare of a march to Jezzine—without lights, by unknown corkscrew tracks, and along the precipitous sides of the Lebanon mountains.2
The 21st Australian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier J. E. S. Stevens) had its axis of advance along the coastal road. Every endeavour was made to capture the first few bridges, intact, and columns were sent on wide detours to the eastward to work round behind the enemy. The principal cause of anxiety was the main road bridge over the river Litani. The plan was for C Battalion Special Service Brigade (called for short the Commando) to land from the sea. and seize the bridge intact early in the morning of 8th June. The landing craft ship, HMS Glengyle, arrived up to time but the surf was too heavy for a landing to be attempted. This led to complications, for on the next night, when the sea was calmer, the Commando and the Australians were not fully aware of each other’s situation. It seems certain that surprise was not achieved and, as luck would have it, the bridge had already been destroyed. An error in the landfall resulted in some of the troops being put ashore to the south instead of to the north of the river mouth. The Commando tried hard to retrieve the position; their Commanding Officer (Lieut.-Colonel R. N. N. Pedder) was killed and they became somewhat scattered, but in the fighting that went on intermittently all day they accounted for many of the enemy and certainly caused confusion. In so doing nearly half the battalion was lost.
Early on 10th June the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade crossed by a pontoon bridge and overran the remaining Vichy defenders. The further advance, led by 2/27th Battalion, was opposed by rearguards
every few miles but these were successfully dealt with and by the evening of the 12th the advanced troops were in contact with the enemy at Sidon. An attack made by 2/16th Battalion next day failed, and it was clear that the enemy was holding a strong position.
The general situation on land on 13th June was therefore none too satisfactory. Fair progress had been made on the right towards Damascus but very little in the centre at Merjayun, while on the left the resistance was stiffening. There had been some 500 casualties in all, and the Special Service Battalion had lost heavily. The Vichy French were showing no signs of changing their defiant attitude. In fact it was evident that progress was going to be very slow unless more troops could be produced. General Wavell decided to send up the 6th (British) Division—of two brigades, one of them freshly formed—from Egypt, which provided a divisional headquarters to take control of the Damascus sector. Each of the brigades was to move up as soon as it could receive some essential transport from cargoes then arriving by sea.
At the end of May and in the first few days of June the Royal Air Force in Palestine and Iraq had attacked French airfields and petrol installations in Syria with the object of weakening the German air force. From 8th June onwards the Blenheims of Nos. 11 and 84 Squadrons had as their principal targets the airfields at Aleppo, Palmyra, Damascus, Rayak, and port installations at Beirut. Numbers did not permit of heavy or continuous attacks; in all only twenty-one sorties were flown against these targets between 8th and 13th June. In addition Blenheims and Hurricanes intervened on the Kissoue front to attack troops and gun positions on 12th June.
Fighters of Nos. 3 RAAF and 80 RAF Squadrons attacked the nearer airfields and intercepted several French formations, but their primary role became the maintenance of standing patrols over the British warships, on which task they destroyed two German bombers on 13th June. Aircraft of Nos. 815 and 829 Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm reconnoitred Beirut and Juniye harbours daily and attacked shipping when seen, the order forbidding surface ships to be attacked having been cancelled on 9th June after the two Vichy fleet destroyers had begun to shell the Australians at the Litani. In a subsequent encounter with these large destroyers HMS Janus was badly damaged and HMS Jackal was also hit.
The problem of providing air support for the naval squadron led to an important decision on policy. The primary task of the Navy had been to assist the Army’s advance along the coast, but the Fulmars of the Fleet Air Arm were unable to afford the necessary protection against shore-based fighters. The Royal Air Force could not provide enough fighters in addition to giving direct support to the Army. The Commanders-in-Chief debated whether to withdraw the ships
altogether but decided that the Navy, protected by the Royal Air Force, should continue to operate off the coast, for the principal reason that the run of the valleys made raking fire from seaward particularly effective. The lack of fighter support for the Army had to be accepted.
The second phase—from 14th to 22nd June—coincided with operation BATTLEAXE in the Western Desert, the failure of which was described in Chapter 8. The air operations differed from those in the first phase in that about half the medium bomber sorties were devoted to the attack of targets of opportunity when the enemy withdrew from Damascus. The remaining targets were Aleppo, Rayak, and Beirut as before. In the nine days the Blenheims of No. 11 Squadron flew fifty-three sorties and those of No. 84 Squadron nine, which shows that the weight of attack was not yet very great. The fighters were still occupied mainly in protecting the ships, which led to several encounters with German Ju.88s, but they continued also to take steady toll of Vichy aircraft with comparatively little loss to themselves.
The naval forces supporting the Army were twice heavily attacked by German bombers on 15th June and the destroyers Isis and Ilex were both badly damaged. One Ju.88 was shot down. Admiral Cunningham was deeply concerned at the damage among his few remaining destroyers and ordered Admiral King to withdraw to Haifa during daylight, except when special operations were asked for or when fighter protection was available for certain. The Navy contrived nevertheless to keep up their bombardment of the enemy’s shore positions every day, usually at dawn. A success was scored when the newly-arriving Vichy fleet destroyer Chevalier-Paul was sunk by torpedo-bombers of No. 815 Squadron off Cyprus.
On land it was a period of sharp cut and thrust. Brigadier Lloyd’s attack at Kissoue in the morning of 15th June caught the defence off its guard; good headway was made and two brisk counter-attacks were beaten off. A second attack, by night, was equally successful and strengthened the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade’s hold on Kissoue. On the eastern flank Colonel Collet’s Circassian cavalry were able to gain a little ground. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade had only its two Indian battalions, the third battalion (1st Royal Fusiliers) less one company having been sent to hold Kuneitra, on the lateral road to Merjayun. The fight at Kissoue was going well when word came that at Kuneitra the outposts of the Royal Fusiliers had been driven in and that a strong force which included tanks was evidently preparing to attack. Nothing could be done in time to support these three companies of the Royal Fusiliers and the troop of The Royals with them. From dawn on the 16th they were attacked by a much larger force
which included field guns, mortars, armoured cars and medium tanks. Their one (Italian) anti-tank gun broke down, and though they resisted until late in the evening the odds were too great for them. Only a few officers and men escaped being taken prisoner.
The 16th Infantry Brigade of the 6th Division was now beginning to arrive from Egypt. Its leading battalion, 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Royal Regiment, moved across country from Sanamein and reached Kuneitra on the evening of 17th June. With the help of one 25-pdr troop and a company of 2/3rd Australian Machine-Gun Battalion they recaptured the place without difficulty.
Farther to the east on 15th June a Vichy force had made a sally from the Jebel Druse and driven out the small garrison of the Transjordan Frontier Force from Ezraa, a place about twenty miles behind the Free French headquarters. Next morning they made an unsuccessful attack on Sheikh Meskine on the main Damascus road. On 7th June a strangely assorted force hastily collected and led by Major J. W. Hackett, Staff Officer of the Transjordan Frontier Force, made a spirited attack on Ezraa, recaptured it, and made prisoner more than 160 Tunisians.
Thus the Vichy forces’ successes at Ezraa and Kuneitra were short lived, but farther west in the Litani valley they had made an inroad which proved more difficult to deal with. On the evening of 13th June the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade had left Merjayun on its march over the hills to Jezzine. On the 15th the commander of the small force left at Merjayun, determined not to adopt a passive defence, made an ambitious attempt to outmanoeuvre the enemy who were blocking the Rayak road. He sent a large part of his force into the Hermon foothills to work round the enemy’s left flank, and while it was away the enemy attacked Merjayun from the north and captured it. For a while it seemed that there was nothing to stop them from pressing on into Palestine. They paused, however, and a force was collected as quickly as possible, partly from the divisional reserve and partly from the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade at Jezzine, with which to restore the situation. This was put under the command of Brigadier F. H. Berryman, the Commander of the Divisional Artillery, who acted with great energy. Although his two rapidly organized attacks failed and the phase ended with Merjayun in Vichy hands, the further advance of the enemy was definitely checked. It was during this fighting that Lieutenant A. R. Cutler, 2/5th Australian Field Regiment, performed the first of the many outstanding acts of gallantry for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
General Legentilhomme, though wounded, could not bear to be inactive, and returned to his headquarters on 16th June. The situation looked bad, on account of the threat presented to his supply line by the enemy’s activities at Kuneitra and Ezraa. Brigadier Lloyd was not to
be deterred, however, and boldly decided to make a dart at Mezze, where the Damascus airfield is situated, and where the road and railway from Damascus to Beirut enter the gorge of the river Barada. Brigadier Lloyd was still officially in command of all the troops facing Damascus, including the Free French, and the command of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade had devolved upon Lieut.-Colonel L. B. Jones of the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles.
The advance began after dark on 18th June and was opposed almost from the start, which made it difficult to keep touch and direction. Before 5 o’clock in the morning, however, Mezze had been rushed and taken, though the forts overlooking the village were in Vichy hands. Part of the Brigade, including the transport, had become separated and veered off to the right under heavy shell fire from the forts at daylight. It ended up in the woods at Kafr Sous to the south-east. From here it tried without success to gain touch with the troops at Mezze.
Throughout the 19th and 20th the enemy tried to retake Mezze. Cut off from their food, reserves of ammunition, and medical supplies, the defenders were gradually pressed back into a small area where they were surrounded. Their anti-tank rifles were of no avail against the Vichy tanks, but they held out all day, all next night, and most of the 20th. Meanwhile the force at Kafr Sous had been reinforced by every available British unit and the whole placed under the command of Major H. S. J. Bourke, RA By this time the Marine Battalion, alone of the Free French infantry, could be relied upon; the colonial battalions had lost their enthusiasm and were unwilling to fight against their own countrymen. On the morning of the 20th Bourke’s force advanced to the help of the survivors of Mezze and had first to capture some of the forts. They entered the village in the late afternoon, too late to relieve the garrison which by now had been overpowered.
That night the 2/3rd Australian Battalion, which had moved up in reserve, took the enemy by surprise at the Barada gorge and cut the Beirut road. Recovering, the Vichy troops counterattacked strongly but were held. By the middle of the morning a general weakening was apparent, and the Royal Air Force arrived quickly to interfere with the withdrawal. Meanwhile the Free French Brigade, preceded by a company of Australian machine-gunners, had worked forward to the southern outskirts of Damascus where they were met by the civil authorities ready to surrender the city. In the afternoon Colonel Collet and his Circassians came in from the east, and shortly afterwards General Legentilhomme made his formal entry as Military Governor.
This notable success was largely due to the fine qualities and conduct of the Indian troops, resolutely led. The losses of the two Indian battalions amounted to 738 officers and men; Vichy records claimed 300 prisoners, a large number of whom were wounded. It is possible that if a fresh British force had been available to exploit rapidly westwards it
might have broken right through to the Litani valley. But the 16th Infantry Brigade of the 6th Division was not yet far enough forward, and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade had been fought to a standstill.
The same day, 21st June, a new land front came into being with the advance of Habforce towards Palmyra. The units of this force had been spread all over northern Iraq, but with the arrival of the 10th Indian Division from Basra it became possible to withdraw Habforce and use it to threaten Vichy communications between Damascus and Homs. The advance on Palmyra was made by the 4th Cavalry Brigade from two directions: westwards from Abu Kemal and northwards from the Haifa-Baghdad road near Rutba. The capture of an isolated post about forty miles from Palmyra gave Vichy the first warning, and it was not long before bomber and fighter aircraft appeared, making the first of a series of attacks lasting for a fortnight. Lying exposed in the open desert and possessing few anti-aircraft guns, the 4th Cavalry Brigade lost a lot of men and vehicles and its weak cavalry units had great difficulty in maintaining any pressure on Palmyra. The garrison—two companies of the Foreign Legion and one Light Desert Company—put up a resolute defence, and the historic oasis, far from falling on the first day as had been hoped, defied capture for twelve days. It was discouraging for the men of Habforce never to see a friendly fighter, but it would have taken many times the available numbers to have had much chance of intercepting the Vichy bombers, who could choose their time and could be escorted by fighters.
In the coastal sector the attack on Sidon was repeated on the 14th with the support of a naval bombardment. The 2/27th Australian Battalion moved into the hills to turn the flank of the Vichy force which was in position to the north-east of the town—a slow and laborious task. The 2/16th lay in the orchards to the south of the town and their supporting artillery broke up a counter-attack by Vichy tanks and infantry. That night the enemy withdrew, leaving evidence that the ships’ gunfire had been very effective. Sidon was then occupied, but by this time the setback at Merjayun had led to the recall of part of the 25th Australian Infantry Brigade from Jezzine to join Brigadier Berryman’s force. The remaining battalion—the 2/31st—was repeatedly attacked at Jezzine between 15th and 18th June but held its ground and took many Senegalese prisoners. On the evening of the 18th the 2/14th Australian Battalion was moved across from the coastal sector to support the hard pressed 2/31st. In these circumstances Brigadier Stevens’s 21st Brigade was ordered to adopt an aggressive defence for the time being.
To sum up the position at the end of the second phase: Sidon and Damascus had been captured; the Vichy counter-attacks had everywhere been held; Kuneitra and Ezraa had been retaken, but Merjayun was still in enemy hands. Palmyra was holding out and the investing
force was in difficulties. The Navy was doing valuable service on the Army’s left flank, not without sustaining damage. The Vichy air force was still active but weakening, and on land there were signs that their troops were tiring.
An important change in the system of command was made on 18th June when General Lavarack, with the Headquarters of the 1st Australian Corps, took over the whole land front from Damascus to the sea. Until recently the Corps had been commanded by General Blamey, who had on 23rd April been appointed to the new post of Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. General Lavarack had been chosen to succeed him and Major-General A. S. Allen took over the 7th Australian Division. At the same time Major-General J. F. Evetts, Commander of the 6th Division, took command, under General Lavarack, of all troops other than Free French in the area Damascus–Deraa–Kuneitra.
During the final phase of the campaign, 23rd June to 12th July, the initiative was once more with the British. The naval force now consisted of five cruisers and eight destroyers. On 23rd June there was an inconclusive engagement with the two Vichy fleet destroyers, but this was the last time they tried to interfere with British operations. Another fleet destroyer—the Vauquelin—had arrived on the 21st with ammunition, but had been damaged next day during air attacks on Beirut. On the 25th the submarine Parthian, on patrol off Beirut, sank the Vichy submarine Soufleur.
An added task for the Navy and Air Force at this time was to prevent the arrival of Vichy sea-borne reinforcements. It was presumed that the French would try to bring in troops as well as aircraft, and this proved to be correct. The negotiations between the Vichy Government and the German Armistice Commission took time, however, and the first idea of sending a strong force via Bizerta was gradually whittled down for one reason or another, until in fact one battalion left France on 27th June for Salonika by rail, together with several trainloads of weapons and war material. How to move all these to Syria was a problem, because the Turkish Government refused to allow passage through their country. It was hoped at one time to borrow German transport aircraft to carry the men, but the opening of the Russian campaign on 22nd June put an end to this hope. There was nothing for it but to try the risky passage by sea, and on 1st July the Vichy destroyers slipped out of Beirut to meet the ships. One troopship, the St. Didier, got as far as the Gulf of Adalia where she was sunk by an Albacore of No. 829 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm from Cyprus.3 All
this time the Royal Air Force was making attacks on the harbours at Beirut and Tripoli, the airfield at Aleppo, and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Fleet Air Arm joined in with attacks against shipping in Beirut, and it must have been obvious to General Dentz by very early in July that he could not count on the safe arrival of many troops.
It has been described how, during the second phase, the British managed to add to their land forces in Syria; for the final phase they were able to increase their air forces also, because operation BATTLEAXE had been called off on 17th June. The additions were No. 45 Squadron (Blenheim) and two newly-formed composite Hurricane Squadrons, No. 450/260 and No. 806/33. At the same time the Wellingtons of Nos. 37, 38, 70 and 148 Squadrons began to operate from the Canal Zone against Aleppo and Beirut. Apart from the attacks designed to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, the principal bomber targets were the railway yards at Aleppo and Rayak (in order to interrupt internal movement) and ground targets in connexion with the Army’s operations. These brought the total number of bombing attacks during the five weeks to 50 on harbours and shipping, 34 on airfields, and 36 on other targets—120 in all. The average number of aircraft on each occasion was between three and four. The fighters, too, had considerable success in their attacks on grounded aircraft, and made many interceptions in the air as well.
As before, it will be convenient to consider the sectors of the land front in turn. Soon after the confused fighting which followed Brigadier Berryman’s second attempt to retake Merjayun had died down, there were signs that the enemy in this area was weakening. By 24th June the Australians, now joined by 2nd Battalion The King’s Own Royal Regiment (of the 16th Infantry Brigade), had taken several of the nearby villages and reoccupied Merjayun itself, but an attempt to continue the advance towards Rayak was unsuccessful. The newly formed 23rd Infantry Brigade (Brigadier A. Galloway) had begun to replace the troops of the 7th Australian Division in this sector, and General Allen was able to concentrate his division in the coastal area to resume the advance on Beirut.
The 16th Infantry Brigade (less the 2nd King’s Own), the first of the two brigades of the 6th Division, had been moved up from Palestine to support the attack on Damascus. The collapse of the Vichy defence in this area had left the remains of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade facing west astride the Damascus-Beirut road, and General Evetts was now told to advance towards Zahle with the object of seizing Rayak airfield and cutting off the Vichy forces on the Merjayun front. It soon became apparent that the enemy intended to offer strong resistance, and that it would be necessary to secure the precipitous height of the Jebel Mazar (5,000 feet) before any appreciable progress could be made.
2/3rd Australian Battalion tried without success to scale the formidable ridge during the night 24th/25th June; a second attempt next night was partially successful, though the enemy still had good observation over the whole area and his shelling was accurate and intense. On the morning of the 27th the Australians, supported by the 2nd Queen’s, gained the twin summits of Jebel Mazar after a sharp fight, but were unable to retain their hold. In fact, the attempt to exploit the success at Damascus by advancing westwards had failed, and General Lavarack ordered General Evetts to stop attacking. General Wilson had decided to resume the original plan of making the main effort up the coast. All this time the Free French had been protecting Damascus and by the end of the month had secured Nebek, forty-five miles along the road to Homs.
Meanwhile around Palmyra 4th Cavalry Brigade Group lay uneasily in the desert, trying to strengthen its grip but without much success. Indeed, it almost looked as if the capture of the oasis might be beyond the powers of Habforce. At this time the Arab Legion proved invaluable. On 26th June they compelled the surrender of the Vichy post at Sab Biyar, to the south of Palmyra, which enabled Habforce to switch to a shorter and safer line of supply. On 1st July the Legion was out under Glubb Pasha on a distant reconnaissance near Sukhne, some forty miles north-east of Palmyra, when part of the enemy’s 2nd Light Desert Company from Deir ez Zor bumped into them. The Legion reacted in a violent but somewhat unorthodox manner and made a spirited mechanized cavalry charge which produced a complete rout. After a bloodcurdling hunt they killed eleven of the enemy and captured five officers and seventy-five men for only one of their own number killed and one wounded. The news of this stirring affair soon spread and must have had a depressing effect on Vichy morale not only at Deir ez Zor but also at Palmyra. To Habforce it was the second encouraging event within a few days, for on 28th June eight Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF, escorting a raiding force of Blenheims to Palmyra, met a force of Vichy raiders and shot down several of their Marylands in full view of the troops. The same day 1st Battalion The Essex Regiment, who had recently moved up from Habforce reserve, established themselves on the height to the north-west of Palmyra and for three days they and the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry tried with varying success to gain possession of the ridge overlooking the town from the west and to penetrate into the outskirts. Early on 3rd July the courageous and greatly outnumbered garrison surrendered, together with the defenders of the small post at T.3 a few miles away. The prisoners numbered 187, including 48 airmen.
Habforce soon found that its ordeal by air was not by any means over, but the 4th Cavalry Brigade had by 6th July gained touch with the British armoured cars working with the Free French, and next
day entered Furglus, twenty miles from Homs, The line of supply could now be run through Damascus, and the end of the campaign found Habforce to the east and south of Homs, and only a few miles from it.
During the last phase of the campaign the net round the Vichy land forces was cast wider still. General Slim’s 10th Indian Division, having replaced Habforce in Iraq, was called upon to move into Syria as soon as enough transport could be provided and the necessary supplies stocked at Haditha. The first objective was the important bridge and track-centre at Deir ez Zor. The 10th Indian Brigade Group was to make a feint from the direction of Mosul, while the 21st Indian Brigade Group (Brigadier C. J. Weld) was to move up the Euphrates through Abu Kemal. The 17th Indian Brigade Group was to safeguard the railway across the ‘Duck’s Bill’ in the extreme north-east corner of Syria. As regards the air, the 10th Indian Division was more fortunate than Habforce in that it had the support of No. 127 Fighter Squadron, although this amounted to only four Hurricanes and four Gladiators.
The advance from Baghdad and along the Euphrates was delayed at first by severe dust storms and later by bombing, but by the evening of 1st July the foremost troops were under shell fire from Deir ez Zor. General Slim insisted upon two combined attacks—one frontal, one very wide round the left flank. These were made in the morning of 3rd July and succeeded at once. Nine guns and about 100 prisoners were taken, which suggests that many of the garrison had melted away. Most of the 2nd Light Desert Company, which had formed part of it, had of course been captured at Sukhne two days before.
The column of 17th Indian Brigade Group met little opposition in moving along the railway from Tel Kotchek and gathered a number of prisoners, largely by bluff. By 5th July part of the 21st Indian Brigade Group from Deir ez Zor had pushed on seventy-five miles up the river to Raqqa and the threat to Aleppo began to take shape, as advanced elements pushed on as far as Jerablus on the Turkish border. On 9th July the detachment of the 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles left at Raqqa was attacked from the air and at midnight was visited by a band soon recognized as belonging to an old opponent, Fawzi Qawukji. Two bayonet charges settled this issue.
Fawzi Qawukji was an influential Syrian Arab who had gained a reputation as a guerilla leader in Palestine. He had come on the scene again as Habforce was starting to move to Habbaniya, hovered around Rutba, and had then vanished, only to reappear as a dangerous nuisance on the lines of communication. After the Iraq revolt was over General Clark had begun an operation to pay off old scores, but before Fawzi could be rounded up Habforce had to leave for Palmyra. Here the long and lonely desert tracks provided him with plenty of opportunities for raiding, and he became quite a bogey man. In fact he was
giving a good return for the support afforded him by Dr. Rahn and the Vichy French.
In the coastal sector the 7th Australian Division had been preparing for what was expected to be the decisive battle of the campaign. At least five battalions of the enemy, well supported by artillery and other arms, were firmly established on a formidable position about twelve miles from Beirut behind the River Damour, and there were other forces near Beirut and at Beit ed Dine. 7th Australian Division had now been made up to three brigades, the 17th (Brigadier S. G. Savige) having been formed of battalions which had already been in action separately. The 21st Brigade was probing forward to gain information and observation, while the 25th (now under Brigadier E. C. P. Plant) was in the mountains about Jezzine, receiving its units back from Merjayun.
The country to north and south of the River Damour consists of huge rocky spurs and deep valleys running generally east and west. The river was fordable, but its banks rise very steeply—in places almost sheer. North of its mouth the foothills recede from the shore, leaving a flat tract of banana and palm groves more than half a mile wide along the coast; this tract was heavily mined and wired. The main defences were on the spur on which the village of El Atiqa stands. Farther inland, on the higher ground, the French had evidently thought it unnecessary to add much to the natural difficulties of movement. Just above El Boum the ground rises sharply to Point 560 (1,800 feet above sea level) and the general rise culminates in a commanding feature at Abey (3,000 feet), higher than any of the crests for many miles to the south.
General Allen’s plan was briefly for the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade to penetrate as far as Damour by a combination of frontal attack on El Atiqa and an outflanking movement northwards through El Boum.4 17th Brigade would pass through and exploit. 25th Brigade would advance from Jezzine and Rharife and afford flank protection by capturing the important road centre of Beit ed Dine. The Navy was to cooperate by bombarding gun positions and selected areas.
A preliminary operation began at midnight 5th/6th July to secure a commanding spur near El Moughira on the road to Beit ed Dine. This led to fighting all day, but the spur was held by a detachment of 2/14th Battalion in spite of many Vichy attempts to retake it. On the main El Atiqa front the bombardment (by sixty guns) began at 1.20 a.m., under cover of which the 2/16th Battalion crossed the river and formed up on the far side. At 4.40 the barrage lifted and the assault began. Fighting went on all day and at the end of it the battalion was still pinned in an area just north of the river. Meanwhile the 2/27th
Battalion had crossed the river with great difficulty a mile farther upstream, had clambered up to El Boum and had pushed on beyond. By nightfall they were on Point 560 and the 2/14th Battalion began to pass through. Thus at the end of the day the frontal assault had only partially succeeded but the enveloping movement was going well.
That night and next morning a bridge for the main road was built to replace the one destroyed. Little headway was made at El Atiqa, but on the right the progress continued in spite of opposition and many prisoners were taken. Counter-attacks from the direction of Abey were made—as expected—but were held. On the 8th another thrust at Damour from the south was met by heavy machine-gun fire in the banana groves and failed. Farther to the right the 17th Brigade pushed ahead to the north-east of Damour and repeated counter-attacks from the direction of Abey were repulsed. Early on the 9th the defence crumbled, Damour was captured and a general French withdrawal began. Rumours were rife that the Vichy High Command was throwing out peace feelers. On 10th July, however, there was stiff opposition at Khalde, five miles from Beirut, which was overcome later in the day by 2/5th Battalion with strong artillery support. At this time fighting was still going on north of Jezzine, where, on the night of 10th July, Private J. H. Gordon, 2/31st Australian Battalion, won the Victoria Cross.
Meanwhile on the front of the 6th Division there were signs that the Vichy troops might be thinning out, although their artillery was still very active. In order to prevent any troops being sent to the main front, General Evetts ordered the 16th Infantry Brigade to attack astride the Damascus–Beirut road on the night 9th/10th July. On the right of the road the Free French Marine Battalion came under heavy shell and mortar fire and was soon held up. To the south the issue became once more a struggle for the summit of Jebel Mazar. The Queen’s and the King’s Own managed to gain footings, supported on their right by 2nd Battalion The Leicestershire Regiment who had relieved the Free French. Renewed shelling and counter-attacks made it impossible to hold all that had been won, and by midnight 11th/12th July the Brigade was exhausted. So was the enemy.
The general situation of the Vichy forces was unenviable. The battle for Beirut had been lost, and the troops on Jebel Mazar could hold out no longer. Fifty-five aircraft were lying destroyed or irreparably damaged on Syrian airfields. Harbours, airfields, and railways were under constant air attack, and Homs and Aleppo were now threatened with attack by land at any moment. The internal situation was none too good and no more reinforcements of any kind could be expected. The alternative to surrender was disaster.
On the evening of 11th July General Dentz asked by radio that hostilities might end at midnight. His representatives arrived early next day to discuss terms, and after much discussion a draft convention was agreed upon and initialled. It allowed for the occupation of the country; the handing over intact of ships, aircraft, and naval and air establishments; the release of prisoners; and so on.5 The terms had already been approved by the British Government, who had insisted, contrary to General de Gaulle’s wishes, that all Frenchmen should be given the choice of being repatriated or of joining the Free French. When faced with this choice only 5,668 out of 37,736 decided to throw in their lot with de Gaulle.
After the terms had been submitted to the Vichy Government, the Convention was signed at Acre on 14th July by General Wilson and General de Verdilhac. It could not be signed by General Catroux, as the Vichy authorities would have nothing to do with the Free French; but he signed a separate letter agreeing with the terms. A Commission of Control, under a British officer, was set up to put the provisions into effect and one of its first duties was to arrange for the repatriation by sea of over 37,000 persons, civil and military. A difficulty arose over the return of the British prisoners, some of whom were found to have been sent out of Syria after the Convention had been initialled. Thirty senior officers, including General Dentz, were therefore detained as hostages and released when the British prisoners were returned.
General Catroux, the Délégué Général de la France, now assumed control of the civil administration, and an agreement was made, not without difficulty, defining the various responsibilities of the British and Free French authorities. Political unrest was inevitable in such a troubled country, and one of the principal causes at this moment was that the Syrians saw their promised independence slipping away once more, and felt that one unpopular French regime had merely been replaced by another.
For the second time matters had turned out well for the British, and once again the stimulus had come from London. General Wavell had been reluctant to embark upon yet another campaign with what he judged would be inadequate strength on land and in the air if the Vichy forces resisted: they did resist, and the British forces had to be increased, in a manner which could only be piecemeal. Many of the troops were seeing action for the first time, and the difficult ground over which they were required to work provided a severe test of their training. The experienced Indian units showed up particularly well. The Australians had, on the whole, the worst of the country, and
brought off the decisive stroke by means of a good plan carried through with great determination. The shortage of air forces was acutely felt by all three Services, for while it was obviously desirable to seek out the enemy’s air forces and destroy them, this was a process that took time. There could be no question, however, of waiting to win the air battle before sending the ships and soldiers into the attack. Everything—as usual in the Middle East—had to be done at once. The Vichy Air Force worked on a different plan; its main targets were ships and soldiers, who had therefore to stand a great deal of punishment before the attacking air forces were reduced and driven back as far as Aleppo, where they finally wasted away.
The British casualties in Syria, including prisoners, amounted to about 3,300: the Royal Air Force lost 27 aircraft. The Free French casualties were about 1,300. The Vichy losses are believed to have been over 6,000 of whom 1,000 were killed. (This includes all those who deserted during the fighting to join de Gaulle). These are sadly high figures for this regrettable and bitter campaign, but even at this price the British could count themselves fortunate. The view that the Germans would establish themselves in Syria happened to be wrong, but the strategic results of trying to forestall them were well worth the cost. Turkey was brought for the first time into physical touch with the British by reasonably good communications, and would be more able to resist Axis pressure. Germany’s chance of getting a foothold in Syria cheaply had gone. The British had gained naval and air bases well to the north of the Suez Canal, and also considerable depth for the defence of the Basra–Baghdad–Haifa route.
While giving full credit to London and to the forces engaged in Iraq and Syria for the successful outcome of the two campaigns, it is only right to recognize that things would have been very different if the Germans had been able to support Rashid Ali effectively. They were caught quite unready and the heavy losses to their airborne force in Crete prevented them from turning the situation to good account—even by taking Cyprus. They could not gain control of Syria, so they wanted to see it remain in Vichy hands. Therefore they decided to cut their loss and withdraw, in the hope of depriving the British of an excuse for moving in. They lost both ways.