This was the British campaign to take Lebanon and Syria from the Vichy French (8 June/14 July 1941).
The British-led operation was aimed at preventing Germany from using the Vichy French-controlled Syrian republic and the French mandate territory of Lebanon as springboards from which the Germans might be able to attack the British in Egypt (in concert with German and Italians attacks from Libya) and, more specifically, take the Suez Canal or halt the movement of shipping through this vital link on the route to India and Australasia. In ceding autonomy to Syria in September 1936, the French had retained treaty rights to maintain armed forces and two airfields in the territory.
At the end of March 1941 the Emir Abdul Illah, regent of Iraq and a major advocate of friendship with the UK, which had received the League of Nations’ mandate to rule this ex-Ottoman country after World War I, was compelled to leave Baghdad after a rebellion by his prime minister, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, and an army mutiny. On May 2 the rebel forces attacked Habbaniyah, the large British air base on the right bank of the Euphrates river some 30 miles (48 km) from Baghdad. With limited resources in Iraq, the British had to try to ascertain if the rebels now intended to sever the pipeline carrying oil from the Mosul fields to Haifa in Palestine, or to occupy Basra within reach of the Kuwaiti oilfields and the great refinery at Abadan in Iran.
This was a critical time for the British, but the events in Iraq appear to have taken both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the German and Italian dictators, totally by surprise. Not until 23 May did Hitler sign Führerweisung Nr 30, ordering that a military mission be organised and despatched to Baghdad as the Sonderstab 'F', which was to be commanded from Greece by an air force officer, General Hellmuth Felmy. Its task was to prepare for the arrival and use in action of two air force units, one of Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engined and Bf 110 twin-engined fighters, and the other of Heinkel He 111 bombers. Mussolini’s contribution was a promise to send a few fighters to Iraq.
But by this time Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already seized the advantage. He was aware of the doubts felt in Cairo by General Sir Archibald Wavell, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, but the political and military high command in India, as represented by Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy, and General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief, rapidly diverted to Basra an Indian division previously intended for service in Malaya. On 19 May a motorised division from Palestine arrived at Habbaniyah, where the rebels had abandoned their effort to overcome an ad hoc base defence force. On the surrender of the rebels, a ceasefire was declared on May 30, so ending the Anglo-Iraqi War, and the defeated Rashid Ali fled Iraq for refuge in Germany, by way of Turkey.
The problem with which the British were now confronted was how to deal with the connivance of the Vichy French authorities in Lebanon and Syria with the delivery of German air support to the Iraqi rebels. The Vichy French had permitted German aircraft en route to Iraq to be refuelled at Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo. Given the fact that the Germans had by now taken Crete, it was inevitable that Churchill and the rest of the British politico-military leadership should come to believe that the Germans’ next move could be an invasion of Cyprus.
This Vichy French connivance had its origins in the early part of May 1941 when Amiral de la Flotte Jean Louis Xavier François Darlan, the prime minister of Vichy France, signed the 'Paris Protocols' with Germany, and thereby gave the Germans access to Vichy French military facilities in Syria. Though the protocols were never ratified, Général d’Armée Charles Léon Clément Huntziger, the Vichy French war minister of War, had ordered Général de Corps d’Armée Henri Fernand Dentz, the high commissioner for the Levant, to implement them and allow German and Italian warplanes to refuel in Syria. The Germans had also requested permission from the Vichy French authorities to use Syrian railways for the delivery of weapons and ammunition to the Iraqi rebel forces in Mosul. Thus in Iraq Wavell’s forces had faced a direct threat from the Vichy French collaboration with Germany and Italy.
On 14 May, a British Bristol Blenheim light bomber flying a reconnaissance mission over Palmyra central Syria sighted the take-off of a Junkers Ju 90 transport aircraft, and more German and Italian aircraft were seen later in the same day. An air attack was therefore authorised in the evening of 14 May, and attacks on German and Italian aircraft staging through Syria continued, six Axis aircraft being claimed as destroyed by 8 June; the Vichy French forces claimed to have shot down one Blenheim on 28 May and to have forced down another Blenheim on 2 June. A Vichy French Martin Model 167F bomber was shot down by the RAF over Palestine on 6 June.
These were immediate precursor events to 'Exporter', as the British-led seizure of Lebanon and Syria were known. It is worth noting that little in the way of information about the campaign, and more specifically the severity of some of the fighting and the extent of the casualties, in Vichy French-controlled Lebanon and Syria during June and July 1941, was released by the British and Free French at the time as senior Allied political and military leaders believed that knowledge of fighting against French forces could have a negative effect on public opinion.
Thus the threat of German and Italian penetration into the Near and Middle East, either directly or indirectly, combined with the British fear that Vichy France might become a member of the Axis alliance, and demanded a military solution to the problem of the Vichy French presence in the Near and Middle East.
Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, heading the London-based Free French movement, supported the proposed operation and decided to provide a Free French element so that what had begun as a British plan became an Allied undertaking. de Gaulle therefore Général de Division Paul Louis Victor Marie Legentilhomme’s 1st Free French Light Division of six infantry battalions including the 13th Demi-Brigade de la Légion Etrangère, one field battery, and one company of light tanks.
The British preparations for 'Exporter' could not be concealed on anything like a complete basis for the RAF had to be notably active in matters such as aerial reconnaissance, troop movements in Palestine could not be hidden, and de Gaulle was making a very conspicuous visit to Cairo. Wavell therefore instructed his deception chief, Colonel Dudley W. Clarke, to lull the Vichy French into thinking that the operation might not, in fact, actually be launched.
Over a period of just four days Clarke was able to launch the 'Exporter' cover plan. This had as its 'story' the supposed fact that de Gaulle was in Cairo to mediate a dispute between Wavell and Général de Corps d’Armée Georges Albert Julien Catroux, the courtly and dapper commander of the Free French troops in the Middle East and de Gaulle’s deputy, about the latter’s failure to persuade the former to invade Lebanon and Syria. On 6 June, two days before the scheduled start of 'Exporter', de Gaulle was ostensibly to depart Cairo in disgust after failing to persuade Wavell to act.
Rumours and 'leaks' were launched in the 'Exporter Cover Plan'. de Gaulle’s co-operation was secured, and early in June Shepheard’s Hotel was notified that de Gaulle planned to leave sooner than had been planned; baggage was packed; a special transport aeroplane was provided; and the British governor of Sudan was warned to expect the Free French leader’s party in Khartoum for the night of 6.7 June as it made its way back to Fort Lamy in Chad.
Clarke flew to Jerusalem on 4 June and arranged to infiltrate an Arab agent across the border in the early hours of 6 June with the 'story' that de Gaulle was flying to Khartoum and that the invasion had been called off.
This cover plan seemed to work, at least in part. It was later learned that Vichy French intelligence had 'bought' the primary 'story', and as a result there were indications that the Vichy French resistance was at first lighter than it might otherwise have been been.
The deception also served to confirm, were confirmation needed, that it was very useful for a deception 'story' to be based on a kernel of truth. It was indeed true that Catroux had pressed Wavell to act more swiftly than Wavell thought prudent, and Wavell had resisted Catroux’s pressure to the point of offering his resignation.
Wavell did not share Churchill’s appreciation of the danger potentially posed by the Vichy French forces, but finally acceded to Churchill’s demands and ordered into Syria an expeditionary force, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson 1.
Since Dentz, the Vichy French high commissioner and commander-in-chief of the Armée du Levant, had two divisions including a Foreign Legion regiment, this British-led force could not be considered strong, and it is therefore not surprising that the operation progressed only relatively slowly, especially as Hitler permitted the transfer of additional forces from Vichy France and allowed German air support missions to be flown from Greece and Crete. The Armée du Levant comprised regular metropolitan and colonial troops and the troupes spéciales (special troops), who were indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers. Dentz had seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal, including the 6th Régiment Etranger d’Infanterie and the 24th Régiment Mixte d’Infanterie Coloniale, 11 infantry battalions of ‘special troops’ (including at least 5,000 horsed and motorised cavalry), two artillery groups and supporting units.
The Vichy French air force in the Levant was relatively strong at the outbreak of hostilities, with some 90 aircraft, but was reinforced as three groups were flown in from France and the Vichy French empire in North-West Africa, so increasing the Vichy French air strength in Lebanon and Syria to 289 aircraft.
Two destroyers and three submarines were available to support the Vichy French forces in the Levant.
While German interest in the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon was ultimately revealed as very limited, Adolf Hitler permitted reinforcement of Lebanon and Syria by permitting Vichy French aircraft en route from French North Africa and metropolitan France to Syria to overfly Axis-controlled territory and refuel at the German-controlled Eleusina air base in Greece. The activity of German aircraft based in Greece and the Dodecanese islands group was interpreted by the Allies as being in support of Vichy French forces, but although he briefly considered the acceptance of German support, Dentz refused the offer on 13 June.
Initially, the Allied forces to the south of Syria in the British mandated territory of Palestine comprised two main elements under Wilson’s command. These were the Australian 7th Division less its 18th Brigade, which was in North Africa under siege in Tobruk, and the so-called 'Gent' Force () of two Free French brigades of the 1st Free French Division (including two battalions of the 13th Demi-Brigade de la Légion Etrangère attached to the 1ère Brigade d’Orient) and the Indian 5th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division bolstered with artillery, engineers and other support services attached to create the Indian 5th Brigade Group.
Elements of Quinan’s Iraq Command ('Iraq' Force) were used in this campaign to attack northern and central Syria from the east. These elements comprised the Indian 10th Division and parts of Brigadier D. D. Gracey’s Indian 17th Brigade of the Indian 8th Division, and Glubb’s 'Hab' Force with the British 4thh Cavalry Brigade and the Arab Legion.
Commando and raiding operations were undertaken by the British No. 11 (Scottish) Commando and the Palmach, a unit recruited from Jews in British Palestine. The Palmach also provided interpreters and guides for other Allied units.
Close air support was provided by squadrons from the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force, and the ground forces on the coast were supported by the guns of British and Australian warships. So far as fighters werew concerned, Wavell provided Wilson with 70 aircraft. By comparison, the Vichy French had at least 100 fighters. The forces were more evenly matched than numbers alone would indicate, with British Hawker Hurricane and new US-supplied Curtiss Tomahawk machines comparing favourably with the Vichy French Dewoitine D.520 and Potez 63 aircraft.
In reserve for the Allies were Evett’s British 6th Division (including the Czechoslovak 11th Battalion—East attached to Brigadier A. Galloway’s British 23rd Brigade) and Brigadier S. G. Savige’s Australian 17th Brigade. On 18 June, two brigades of the British 6th Division came into the line as reinforcements, mainly on the Damascus front, and the southern force was placed under the command of Lavarack’s new Australian I Corps.
Wilson’s campaign was based on four axes of advance: from Palestine to the north along the Mediterranean coast toward Beirut and thence Aleppo, from Palestine to the north along an inland route toward Damascus and thence Furqlus, from northern Iraq to the west in the direction of El Haseke and Deir ez Zor and thence Jerablus, and from central Iraq to the west in the direction of Palmyra and thence Homs.
At dawn on 8 June the Allied forces including the Australian 7th Division, two Free French brigades and the Indian 5th Brigade Group launched thrusts into Vichy French territory from bases in the British mandated territory of Palestine. The ground forces were supported by the gunfire of British and Australian warships, and by ground attack squadrons of the RAF and RAAF. Further support was provided by a force of Palestinian Jews (the Palmach) to disrupt the Vichy French defences and serve as guides.
The offensive was backed by a barrage of radio and other propaganda. To prevail, Wavell eventually had to draw on some of his last reserves, two brigades of the British 6th Division and the motorised group he had sent to help the defenders of the Habbaniyah base. Wavell’s and Wilson’s basic plan underwent a number of modifications as troop movements dictated, but remained in essence a strong thrust (by the Australian 7th Division, the British 1st Cavalry Division, the Indian 5th Brigade Group, and the Free French) from Palestine under Wilson’s command against Dentz’s two Vichy French divisions.
de Gaulle and his deputy, Catroux, had claimed the resistance would be only limited as the Vichy French forces would capitulate when faced with the prospect of combat with Allied forces. Thus commanding officers of all British, Australian, Indian and Free French forces were instructed to approach under cover of the white flag, make contact with Vichy French commanders, and then attempt a negotiated avoidance of fighting. But as Wavell suspected, the well equipped and well trained Vichy French forces showed no intention of surrendering without a fight to invaders inferior in strength and in numbers, especially when those numbers included Frenchmen whom they regarded as traitors and rebels.
In purely military terms, the vital region in Syria and the Lebanon was the south-western corner bounded in the south by the borders with Palestine and Trans-Jordan. To the north was the railway linking Beirut (capital of Lebanon and the Vichy French headquarters) via Rayak (the principal airport) to Damascus (capital of Syria). In this area were situated two of the three main cities and nearly half the population. The western half comprises rugged mountains and steep upland valleys. The Vichy French outer defence consisted of a perimeter of artillery-backed infantry ‘blocks’ such as those at Palmyra, Es Suweidiya, Sheikh Meskíne and Quneitra, with mobile units operating between them.
Wavell’s plan, backed by Wilson in the latter’s capacity as the British commander-in-chief in Palestine and Transjordan, was to take Damascus, Rayak, Beirut and, if possible, Homs and Tripoli, with advances along whatever roads were available. Although Wavell and Wilson attached great importance to the capture of Mezze airfield near Damascus, the advance on the city would be over open country suitable for the action of armoured fighting vehicles, in which the Vichy French were known to be superior. Moreover, the capture of Damascus would not, in itself, be sufficient. Beirut was the seat of government and Dentz’s headquarters, and the approaches to Rayak and Beirut lay through mountains and defiles. The Vichy French forces thus had the advantage of terrain favouring the defence rather than the attack, for apart from the narrow coastal strip, the Allied forces advancing into Syria or the Lebanon could operate only through mountain terrain or by wide turning movements in the eastern desert.
As outlined above, the Allied offensive was schemed as a three-or four-part undertaking: first, the two parallel main advances from Palestine and the western part of Trans-Jordan toward Damascus with a parallel advance along the coast to Beirut; second, an advance across the desert of central Iraq by ‘Hab’ Force from Iraq, in the direction of Palmyra; and third, an advance from northern Iraq by the brigades of the Indian 10th Division moving up the Euphrates river, taking Deir ez Zor, and moving forward on Aleppo, with a second advance moving from Mosul to El Haseke and El Qamishliye, in the region of the Syrian/Turkish frontier.
Wilson’s operational plan for the first phase was to facilitate the advance along the coast to Beirut by operations in the area of Merjuyun, which would also serve as a springboard for the attack on Rayak, while the advance on Damascus was to be made via Deraa and Kissoué with the Allied forces’ right flank secured by the capture of Quneitra. Wilson thus divided his forces into three groups as the Australian 7th Division and supporting elements, the Indian 5th Brigade Group with attached troops including the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, and the Free French division whose two brigades comprised one with a battalion of Foreign Legion and two battalions of Senegalese, and the other with a battalion of Fusiliers Marins and two battalions of Senegalese, incomplete in transport and weapons. The Free French also had a number of supporting units.
The Australian 7th Division was as yet untried, and lacked tanks except for the light vehicles of the divisional cavalry squadron, no medium machine guns, and troop-carrying transport for only two battalions. Certain additional units provided Lavarack with tanks, armoured cars and horsed cavalry; and by sending forward special mobile columns, Lavarack hoped to achieve the utmost penetration at the outset. The Australian sector extended from the Jordan river westward to the coast, and included the two main routes leading north from Palestine into Lebanon. The road extending along the tongue of land formed by the Palestine border, which offered good going as far as Merjuyun but then entered the narrow gorge of the Litani river, was allocated to Baxter-Cox’s (from 22 June Brigadier E. C. P. Plant’s) Australian 25th Brigade with its complement of tanks, armoured cars, and horsed artillery. The main route, extending into Lebanon direct to Beirut, was the coastal road, which was allocated to Stevens’s Australian 21st Brigade and attached troops forming the main column. From the tunnelled headland at the frontier, this road was dominated along almost its whole length by hills rising abruptly from a flat littoral strip, nowhere more than 2,000 yards (1830 m) wide, and in places the cliff face lay so close that the road could easily be blocked by a simple demolition.
Air support made available by Air Marshal A. W. Tedder comprised 2.5 fighter squadrons (including No. 3 Squadron of the RAAF), two bomber squadrons and one army co-operation squadron: these units had 70 aircraft and flew primarily from airfields in Palestine and Trans-Jordan. To these should be added the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 813 Squadron (12 Fairey Swordfish biplanes), No. 829 Squadron (five Swordfish and four Fairey Albacore biplanes) and No. 803 Squadron (12 Swordfish biplanes), which rendered useful service operating from Nicosia in Cyprus and Lydda in Palestine.
The naval squadrons formed part of Vice Admiral E. L. S. King’s 15th Cruiser Squadron, which also comprised two cruisers, one anti-aircraft cruiser, eight destroyers and one special service vessel. The squadron was under orders from Admiral Sir Admiral Cunningham, commanding the British Mediterranean Fleet, to protect the advance along the coast from interference by French warships based on Beirut, and to give support by bombarding Vichy French defences and landing commando troops.
As noted above, the Vichy French forces in Syria were estimated at about 35,000 men, the remnants of Général d’Armée Maxime Weygand’s considerably larger Armée du Levant of 1940, and mostly well trained and experienced soldiers. They comprised 18 battalions of long-service infantry and 20 squadrons of cavalry. Their great advantage, in addition to their intimate knowledge of the terrain, was their possession of 90 tanks and 120 pieces of field and medium artillery. This army was not greatly interested in political issues, but it was characterised by a high degree of professional pride and was keen, given the chance, to do something to restore the reputation the French army had lost in France. The comparatively small forces with which the Allies started the Lebanese and Syrian campaign gave them this chance.
The Vichy French forces were concentrated most strongly on the border with Palestine and Trans-Jordan, in the Jebel Druz, and in the area’s two main cities (Damascus and Beirut), with strong contingents at such salient points as Deraa, Ezra, Sheikh Meskíne, Quneitra, Deir ez Zor and Aleppo. The Vichy French forces were supported by 92 aircraft, although during the campaign a steady flow of reinforcements was permitted by Germany and Italy, so that by mid-June the Vichy French air forces could call of 159 aircraft of all types. These were based mainly at Rayak, with smaller forces at Mezze (Damascus), Palmyra, Aleppo and the seaplane base at Tripoli.
The Australians crossed the frontier into Vichy French territory during the early hours of 8 June and pushed forward along the main coastal road and tracks through the hills inland toward Iskanderoun, Merjuyun and Rayak, and the Litani river. A mixed force of Australians and the Cheshire Yeomanry moved on Tyre. The strength and capability of the Vichy French opposition was soon put to the test.
An attempt by the Royal Navy to put ashore Lieutenant Colonel R. N. R. Pedder’s C Battalion of the Special Service Brigade from Cyprus on the northern bank of the Litani river about 16 miles (26 km) from the frontier, had been postponed from sunrise on 8 June to 04.00 on the following day, thus robbing the landing of any chance of securing meaningful surprise. The commando’s task was to prevent the destruction of the river bridge and to hold it until the arrival of the Australians from the south, but the landing was met with a heavy attack from Vichy French troops, during which Pedder was mortally wounded, many of the officers were killed, and the commando lost 25% of its strength. The Vichy French then blew the bridge when the Australians were almost within touching distance of it. The commando rallied, and during the following night Australian attacks broke Vichy French opposition on the Litani river by 10 June, allowing Australian engineers to build a pontoon bridge over which vehicles, men and equipment were soon streaming.
Meanwhile, in two days, the Indian 5th Brigade Group, much of which had recently seen service in Abyssinia, secured the railway to the east of the Jordan river as far as Deraa, captured Deraa itself, and established a defensive flank along the line between Deraa and Ezra via Sheikh Meskíne to shield forward communications from attack by Vichy French troops from the Jebel Druz.
At the same time the Free French forces advanced toward Damascus with flank protection on the left provided by Général de Brigade Philibert Collet’s Groupement ‘Collet’, which moved on Fiq. Farther to the west the 1st Royal Fusiliers crossed the Jordan river and, working with the Groupement ‘Collet’, secured Quneitra, 13 miles (21 km) beyond the Damascus road. The Allies' matériel inferiority, especially in tanks and armoured cars, led to delays as the movement toward Damascus continued. The Allies took Quneitra on 9 June but lost it one week later when the Vichy French counterattacked with infantry supported by armoured fighting vehicles, and a battalion of the Royal Fusiliers was forced to surrender when its men ran out of ammunition. The Free French were in front of Kissoué, near Damascus, on 9 June but their initial attack on 11 June was repulsed and it was only a night attack by two battalions of the Indian 5th Brigade Group which restored the situation.
With just two anti-tank rifles, the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force was very successful against Vichy French light armoured fighting vehicles at Ezra, but nonetheless had to pull back on a temporary basis.
Slightly farther to the west, the Australians took Merjuyun, which was an important communications nexus, on 9 June but the Vichy French used their artillery superiority to regain a foothold on 15 June and did not finally surrender until a week later. Meanwhile off to the west, on the coast, the Australians were investing Sidon, and managed to oust the Vichy French without causing undue damage to the town.
In its advance on Damascus, on 19 June the Indian 5th Brigade Group has taken Mezze before two of its battalions found themselves cut off, without anti-tank guns, artillery, ammunition reserves, medical supplies, and food, all of which were no more than 2 miles (3.2 km) away. The two battalions were now strongly counterattacked by the Vichy French who, for two days, used tanks with infantry support to encircle the village, occasionally pulling back to permit their artillery to pour fire into the village over open sights. As outlying companies ran out of ammunition and had to surrender, the Vichy French forces were able to surround and concentrate their attacks on ‘Mezze House’, a large square building in which the brigade headquarters was making a determined last stand. Yet the Indians drove back the attacks several times before the last of their ammunition had been used. In a final attempt to gain time for a relief that was now tantalisingly close, Colonel Jones sent a message to the Vichy French commander under the white flag requesting a lull to tend the wounded and dying, but the besiegers rushed in and overpowered the survivors of the garrison, and when relief at last arrived, it was too late.
The sacrifice of the Indian troops at Mezze was not altogether in vain, however, for the Vichy French defence was shaken and a continuation of Allied attacks soon brought success. An Australian battalion arrived from Quneitra, and Lloyd’s attached troops completed the capture of the forts on the hills and also cut the road and rail links between Damascus and Beirut in the gorge beyond, and the Free French moved in.
Before the fall of night on 20 June, the RAF was bombing Vichy French transport on the Beirut road, and the Groupement ‘Collet’ had crossed the Aouadj river and was approaching Damascus from the south-east. On the morning of 21 June the Vichy French forces seemed disposed to give up the struggle. Wilson was very unhappy with the prospect of any urban fighting in Damascus, and therefore radioed Dentz with the request that the Vichy French commander declare Damascus an open city. Dentz delayed, but the defending Vichy garrison evacuated the city while there was still time.
Later in the campaign the Allied methods became necessarily more forceful, but in general the Allied forces, conscious of the advantage which their restraint gave the Vichy forces, nonetheless made a point of waging their campaign with the greatest possible care for Syrian and Lebanese life and property. All in all, the country as a whole suffered very little. The fall of Damascus, on 21 June and after rather less than two weeks of fighting, marked the completion of a definite stage in the occupation of Syria and Lebanon.
To the east, the second phase of the invasion plan was about to be put into action. Clark of the 1st Cavalry Division commanded ‘Hab’ Force (Kingstone’s 4th Cavalry Brigade and other units including the 1/Essex Regiment, the Royal Wiltshire and Warwickshire Yeomanries, and 350 men of the Arab Legion from Trans-Jordan) which had played a vital role in the previous month’s fighting against the Iraqi rebels. On June 17 Clark was ordered to occupy Palmyra and then cut the road from Damascus to Homs.
‘Hab’ Force concentrated at pumping station H-3, some 140 miles (225 km) to the south-east of Palmyra, while one regiment arrived at T-1 on the branch pipeline to Tripoli in an effort to mislead the Vichy French into the belief that the advance would be made up the Euphrates river.
Wavell and Wilson had now agreed on the third phase of 'Exporter', in which two more brigades (drawn from the Indian 10th Division now in northern Iraq) would capture Deir ez Zor and move to Aleppo, while a second force would evict the Vichy French forces from the forts along the Syrian/Turkish frontier.
On June 21 ‘Hab’ Force began to advance with the object of capturing Palmyra on the same day. The main body of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, including the Wiltshire and the Warwickshire Yeomanries (each less one squadron) advanced from H-3, and its column of cars crossed the Syrian frontier at dawn. About 23 miles (37 km) from Palmyra, French bombers and fighters attacked. Although Clark asked headquarters in Jerusalem for air protection as a matter or urgency, none was forthcoming, and on 23/24 June the air attacks were so heavy and so many vehicles were destroyed that supplies ran short. To add to the discomfort of ‘Hab’ Force, Fawzi al Qawukji and his guerrillas, reinforced by Vichy French armoured cars, lay in wait for supply convoys near T-3. Qawukji, continuing the old Palestine policy of attacking the British whenever and wherever they were vulnerable, constituted a particular source of annoyance. A troop of the Warwickshire Yeomanry now kept an eye on the garrison at T-3, and on 24 June, when six cars approached the British troop, one of them flying a white flag, the yeomanry emerged from its shelters. The cars promptly opened fire and killed or captured 12 men. Later that day, a British convoy was ambushed and captured at T-3. Kingstone had by then collapsed under the strain of air attacks during the approach to Palmyra, and Major Gooch of the Lifeguards took over pending the arrival of Brigadier J. G. E. Tiarks on 29 June.
On June 25 the attacking force still pressed doggedly forward. The ordeal of ‘Hab’ Force was not to last much longer, for nine Tomahawk fighter-bombers of No. 3 Squadron, RAAF, arrived on the scene and proceeded to shoot down six French bombers, in full view of the delighted British troops.
Meanwhile, Glubb Pasha’s invaluable Arab Legion was scouring the desert in all directions and was able, without opposition, to take control of Sab Biyar, 60 miles (100 km) to the south-west of Palmyra. This allowed ‘Hab’ Force to shift its base farther to the west and south, from H-3 in Iraq to H-4 in Transjordan, thereby securing a shorter and more readily protected line of supply.
On 1 July the Arab Legion won a memorable victory east of Es Sukhne in a gap in the hills on the road to Deir ez Zor. Seeing a Vichy French detachment advancing out of the desert, five of Glubb’s impatient warriors called upon their fellows to follow and rushed upon the opposition, which led to the complete rout of the Vichy French, who lost almost 70 prisoners, six armoured cars, two trucks, and 12 machine guns gathered in at the cost of one man killed and one injured.
The fighting continued in the ruins of the old Roman city of Palmyra, but the defenders of the Vichy French camp maintained a strong resistance even after the ‘Chateau’ was taken. At dawn on 3 July the end came: the troops who laid down their arms that afternoon were six Vichy French officers and 87 Foreign Legionnaires (nearly all Russian or German by birth), 48 members of the ground staff of the airfield and 24 of the 2nd Light Desert Company. These had fought with extreme doggedness and resolution, as too had the 22 Foreign Legionnaires who surrendered during the following day, having held T-3, 20 miles (32 km) to the east. Australian cavalry, patrolling up from Damascus, were only 16 miles (26 km) from Palmyra when the Vichy French force there surrendered. On 6 July the Household Cavalry Regiment from Palmyra linked with British armoured cars operating from Damascus in company with the Free French.
The Allies occupied Furqlus, on the road to Homs, during the following day, and on 8 July the road linking Damascus and Palmyra was opened as a line of supply. All was now ready for an advance to cut the road linking Damascus and Homs.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, Slim’s Indian 10th Division was having difficulties as a result of its move from Mosul to Deir ez Zor. The crucial problem was inevitably the provision of supplies of the right type and in the required time. Stocking and incessant replenishment required transport, which in practice meant motor transport as the local railway facilities were quite unequal to the demands of a military campaign. but there was an acute shortage of motor transport. Only 1.5 general-purpose transport companies were available, giving a maximum of 220 load-carrying vehicles, and there was also a grave shortage of the standard equipment, tools and spares with which such vehicles were equipped.
Yet somehow the situation was kept in hand. On 1 July Brigadier C. J. Weld’s 21st Indian Brigade began to move forward on Deir ez Zor. Brigadier D. Powell’s Indian 20th Brigade, detached from the Indian 10th Division, was to threaten Deir ez Zor from the north-east and Gracey’s Indian 17th Brigade was to clear the Syrian portion of the railway linking Iraq and Turkey railway in the territory known from its shape as the Bec du Canard (‘duck’s bill’). The Indian 21st Brigade moved in two columns: the main body of two Gurkha battalions advanced up the Euphrates, while a cavalry regiment and the Frontier Force Rifles moved first to the west along the pipeline and then to the north across the desert.
The Indian 21st Division’s main attack on Deir ez Zor was made on the morning of 3 July. While the river column made its frontal attack, a motorised detachment kept to the desert and cut the Aleppo road 5 miles (8 km) beyond Deir ez Zor, taking the Vichy French garrison by surprise. In order to avoid a repetition of the experience of ‘Hab’ Force at Palmyra, Wilson had arranged for air cover (four Hurricane monoplane and four Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters) to operate from the T-1 landing ground about 30 miles (48 km) short of the Abu Kemal starting point. Even so, the river column was seen and bombed by Vichy French aircraft in the course of the day. The full and bold use of a completely motorised desert force gave Slim and Weld a tactical advantage which justified the risk taken. The desert contingent was sent wide to the west and then came in from the north on the rear of the Vichy French, achieving complete surprise and causing a large quantity of equipment (five aircraft, nine guns, 50 very useful lorries, a number of machine guns, and quantities of ammunition) to fall into British hands.
Moving on, Slim’s men occupied Raqqa, from which a column was immediately sent to intercept the Vichy French troops retreating from the north-west of Syria. This was a bold move executed at great speed, covering 200 miles (320 km) from Deir ez Zor and driving the Vichy French forces across the Euphrates river at Jerablus.
Back in Raqqa itself, however, the depleted garrison of Indian troops was attacked on 9 July by the guerrilla band under the leadership of Fawzi al Qawukji. Fighting lasted until well into the night, but the guerrillas were finally driven off with considerable losses.
Equally bold and dramatic was the advance of a small mobile force provided by the Indian 17th Brigade of the Indian 8th Division sent to occupy the forts along the railway in the region of the Syrian/Turkish border. With a great deal of courage and bluff, and an even greater amount of tact, two companies of the 1/12th Frontier Force Regiment with a few guns and armoured cars captured Tel Kotchek, taking three officers and 130 men as well as a great quantity of rolling stock. Tel Aolo followed on the night of 5 July, Qamishlye on 7 July, and El Haseke on 8 July, bringing the whole of the Bec de Canard area under British control. At Ras el Ain, however, the advance had to stop for lack of supplies of ammunition, petrol and food.
Farther to the west, the Allied forces had been considerably reinforced, and Australian, British, Free French and Indian forces drove north along the coastal strip and on to Aleppo, while ships of the Royal Navy moved steadily on their Mediterranean flank and Bristol Beaufighter twin-engined and Tomahawk single-engined fighters harried Vichy French airfields.
It had been the Vichy French intention to hold a quadrilateral extending from Tripoli to the north-east in the direction of Homs, to the south in the direction of Damascus and Merjuyun, and thence to the west in the direction of Sidon. This was already badly dented, however, and the end came quickly. With the capture of Damur by the Australians on 9 July, Beirut was virtually lost and the Vichy French position in southern Lebanon was threatened. Homs was in danger from the troops who had taken Palmyra, and the Baalbek railway to the south of Homs was cut on 10 July.
Communications with the Jebel Druz had also been cut, and Dentz, who had already put out peace feelers at the time of the fall of Damascus, now asked for terms after losing some 6,500 of his 45,000 men, most of his aircraft, the destroyer Chevalier Paul and the submarine Souffleur. Dentz sent Général de Corps d’Armée Joseph Antoine Sylvain Raoul de Verdillac, his second-in-command, to request an armistice from Wilson, who offered the French representative very honourable terms. The agreement was signed at Acre on 14 July, but not without vigorous protest from de Gaulle, who considered that he had been cheated of his share of the victory. An addition to the agreement, on 24 July, gave de Gaulle the right to the French forces’ equipment in the Levant and facilities for recruiting among the 30,000 men who had surrendered: 127 officers and 6,000 men were thus induced to join de Gaulle’s Free French forces. de Gaulle had appointed Catroux as his ‘Delegate-General and Plenipotentiary in the Levant’ with instructions to negotiate, with the Syrian and Lebanese authorities, a new statute granting the two countries independence and sovereignty but ensuring that they remained French allies.
But propaganda, intrigues and money were already being employed by, among others, Glubb ‘Pasha’ commanding the Arab Legion at Palmyra, Commodore Bass in the Jebel ed Druz, and the chief British liaison officer, Major General Sir Edward Spears, at Damascus and Beirut to supplant Vichy and Free France alike. This caused new quarrels between Oliver Lyttelton (British resident minister of state in the Middle East) and de Gaulle. But there was nothing the French could do to prevent the appointment, in January 1942, of Spears as British minister plenipotentiary in Lebanon and Syria.
So far as the war in the air above 'Exporter' was concerned, the initial advantage enjoyed by the Vichy French did not last long, and in fact the ichy French lost most of their aircraft during the campaign. The majority of these were destroyed on the ground, where the flatness of the terrain, the absence of infrastructure and the lack of modern anti-aircraft artillery left them vulnerable to air attacks. On 26 June, for example, strafing by Tomahawk fighters of the RAAF’s No. 3 Squadron destroyed five and damaged six D.520 fighters of the Groupe de Chasse II/3 on Homs airfield.
On 10 July, five D.520 fighters attacked Blenheim bombers of the RAF’s No. 45 Squadron, which were being escorted by seven Tomahawk fighters of No. 3 Squadron. The French pilots claimed three Blenheim bombers shot down, but at least four D.520 machines were destroyed by the Australians. On the following day, a D.520 shot down a Tomahawk of No. 3 Squadron, the only Tomahawk lost during the campaign.
By the end of the campaign, the Vichy forces had lost 179 aircraft from about 289 committed to the Levant, the remaining aircraft with the range to do so flying to Rhodes in the Italian-held Dodecanese islands group.
Naval warfare was not a major element of 'Exporter', but did play a part. During the Battle of the Litani River, rough seas kept commandos from landing along the coast on the first day of battle. On 9 June 1941, the Vichy French destroyers Valmy and Guépard fired on the advancing Australians at the Litani river before being driven off by shore-based artillery fire, and then exchanged fire with the British destroyer Janus. The New Zealand light cruiser Leander and six more British destroyers came to the aid of Janus, and the Vichy French retired.
On 15 June, with or without French approval, the Luftwaffe attempted to come to the aid of the hard-pressed French naval forces. Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Major Gerhard Kollewe’s II/Lehrgeschwader 1 attacked British warships off the Syrian coast, scoring hits on the destroyers Ilex and Isis. During the evening of the same day, Vichy French naval aircraft bombed British ships off the Syrian coast.
Ilex and Isis were towed to Haifa for repairs. Isis returned to service quite soon but, after a number of temporary repairs at Haifa, Ilex had to travel to the USA for full repair and a refit, further temporary repairs being made en route at Suez, Aden, Mombasa and Durban.
On 16 June, British torpedo aircraft sank the French destroyer Chevalier Paul as the ship was on its way from Toulon to Syria carrying ammunition from metropolitan France. On the following day British bombers attacked another French destroyer, also carrying ammunition, in the port of Beirut.
During the night of 22/23 June, Guépard fought two British cruisers and six destroyers off of the coast of Syria, and escaped under cover of darkness.
On 25 June, the British submarine Parthian torpedoed and sank the French submarine Souffleur off the Syrian coast, and soon after this the 4,289-ton Vichy French oiler Adour was attacked by British torpedo aircraft. The oiler was carrying the entire fuel supply for the Vichy French forces in the Middle East and was badly damaged. With the ceasefire which started on 11 July, Dentz ordered the remaining ships and aircraft under his command to escape as best they could and, given his ship’s lack of speed and defensive armament, the captain of Adour opted for internment in neutral Turkey.
Hostilities officially ceased on 11 July by all parties other than Fawzi al Qawukji, who continued his own private campaign against the British. The Acre Convention was signed by representatives of both sides on 14 July. The terms of the armistice were generous to the defeated Vichy French, who were accorded all the honours of was and were permitted to retain all personal arms; they were offered the choice between repatriation or, if they preferred, to rally to the Free French cause, an option of which few availed themselves. All war matériel, installations, and public facilities, as well as ships, aircraft, ports, telephones, etc, were to be handed over to the Allies without any damage, while schools, cultural institutions and civic officials could continue with their work as before.
Violation of one main clause, that concerning the exchange of prisoners of war, soon led to dissension. The clause stated that all Allied prisoners of war (including those transferred to France) were to be set free, the Allies reserving the right to hold Vichy French troops or similar rank until this demand had been satisfied. By the end of July some 841 British and Indian officers and other ranks had been returned, but many of the others had been sent out of Syria. It was later discovered that some prisoners of war had been flown out of the country after the signature of the Acre Convention. Having been taken as far as Thessaloníki, some were placed in German hands and transported into the interior of Europe, and a few more were handed over to the Italians on the island of Scarpanto. Wilson then exercised his right to intern Dentz and 35 of his senior officers until matters had been rectified. It was not until the end of August that the last Allied prisoners were returned. Lebanon and Syria then came under the Free French control of Catroux.
On 8 November 1943 Lebanon became an independent state, and on 27 February 1945 declared war on Germany and Japan. Syria became independent on 1 January 1944, and on 26 February 1945 declared war on Germany and Japan.