Operation Battle of Damascus

The 'Battle of Damascus' was the final action of the Allied advance on Damascus, the capital of Syria, during the 'Exporter' campaign to expel the Vichy French from Lebanon and Syria (28/21 June 1941).

The initial Allied advance was undertaken by Indian troops with the object of capturing Mezzeh, a large village to the south-west of Damascus, while Free French forces took Qadam to the immediate south of Damascus. While the Free French were checked, the Indian force was able to capture Mezzeh but was then cut off by a Vichy French counterattack. British and Australian reinforcements were brought up, and throughout 19 and 20 June the Indian troops in Mezzeh continued to hold despite running short of ammunition and food. Late on 20 June, Australian troops attempted to relieve the Indian force and entered the village, arriving to find Mezzeh deserted as the remaining Indian troops had been captured and removed earlier in the day. On the following day, the Free French, supported by British and Australian troops, captured Qadim, and throughout 21 June further actions were fought around the Quneitra road and the Barada gorge. By the middle of the morning on 21 June the Vichy French garrison in Damascus had surrendered to the Allied forces.

On 8 June, men of Brigadier W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 5th Brigade Group had crossed the Syrian border from the British Mandate of Palestine to take Quneitra and Dera’a and thereby open the way for the forces of Général de Division Paul Legentilhomme’s 1st Free French Division to advance along the roads from these towns toward Damascus. This was one of the four primary attacks planned for the 'Exporter' campaign by the Allied commander, General Sir Henry Wilson.

By 17 June this 'Gentforce', so named after its commander, was resting and consolidating after its hard fighting to gain Kissoué and the hills behind it, and was planning a final push to Damascus along the two main roads from the south, from Quneitra and Kissoué. 'Gentforce' had been under the temporary command of Lloyd since 12 June, when Legentilhomme had been wounded.

Alarmingly for the Allies, Quneitra had been recaptured by Vichy French forces on 16 June, for this posed a real threat to Lloyd’s rear. By 18 June, Quneitra had been recaptured, but the Vichy French forces from Quneitra still posed a potential threat to the lines of communication and supply on which 'Gentforce' was reliant. Even so, it was decided that an early thrust to Damascus would force the Vichy French commander, Général Henri Dentz, to withdraw his forces to assist in the defence of Syria’s largest city. Thus the threat to the rear of 'Gentforce' would be removed.

The Allied plan called for the Indian 5th Brigade Group to advance to the north from its positions at Artouz on the road linking Quneitra and Damascus across country to the west of the road toward Mezzeh, which lay on a junction with the road linking Beirut and Damascus some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west of Damascus. The brigade’s supplies, ammunition and anti-tank element were to follow closely behind the infantry on the road proper. Meanwhile, the Free French were to advance along the road linking Kissoué and Damascus to take Qadim as a preliminary to entering the Syrian capital, some 4 miles (6.4 km) farther to the north.

At 20.30 on 18 June, the Indian troops moved forward and skirmished their way north to reach Mezzeh at 04.15. By 05.30, after 60 minutes of fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the Indian troops had secured Mezzeh. There was a major problem, however, inasmuch as the equipment and anti-tank guns travelling up the main road had earlier got ahead of the infantry and run into a Vichy French roadblock, where most of the vehicles were knocked out. Furthermore, the planned Free French advance to Qadim had been delayed, giving the Vichy French defenders the opportunity to concentrate on the Mezzeh action, putting intense pressure on the Allied position while thwarting any attempt to relieve the Indian troops and bring in the anti-tank weapons they so desperately needed.

On 19 June, Major General J. F. Evetts, commander of the British 6th Division, arrived to succeed Lloyd and take control of the Allied forces in the area to the east of Merdjayoun. In light of the losses suffered by the Indian brigade group, Evetts requested that Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax’s British 16th Brigade be detached from Major General A. S. Allen’s Australian 7th Division and sent to his sector. Three Australian units (the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and the 2/3rd and 2/5th Infantry Battalions) were also detached to Evetts’s command.

By the fall of night on 19 June, the Allied position at Mezzeh was desperate. Ammunition was running low, there had been no food for 24 hours, casualties were severe, and medical supplies were exhausted. During the night, in which the Vichy French attacks were suspended, three men managed to reach 'Gentforce' headquarters with the news of the position in Mezzeh. Early on 20 June Lloyd, after handing over to Evetts, resumed command of the Indian 5th Brigade Group and sent a force comprising two companies of the 3/1st Punjab Regiment, two companies of Free French marines and one battery of artillery) to fight its way through to Mezzeh. But this grouping could not drive its way through to Mezzeh and in fact managed to advance only slowly against determined opposition by Vichy French tanks. A Free French attack on Qadim in the course of the previous night had failed at great cost so that the Free French could exert no pressure on Qadim that morning to draw Vichy French forces away from Mezzeh. During the night which followed, however, the Free French had the benefit of British anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and an Australian machine-gun battalion, and were able to advance against light Vichy French defences to take Qadim on the morning of 21 June.

Throughout the night of 19/20 June, the Indian defenders at Mezzeh had continued to hold their position. But by 13.30 on 20 June, with their ammunition exhausted and without food for 50 hours, they were being shelled at point-blank range. It was decided to request a truce for the evacuation of the wounded and at the same time to buy time for the relieving column, which could be heard fighting in the distance, to reach the defenders. However, the white flag was misread as a signal of surrender by the Vichy French forces, which rushed the positions of the remaining bayonet-wielding defenders and overpowered them. The relieving column, reinforced by the Australian 2/3rd Infantry Battalion, retook Mezzeh at 19.00 to find it empty of all but the dead.

Throughout the evening of 20/21 June, the Australians fought several actions, attacking a series of stone forts overlooking Mezzeh and the Quneitra road. Elsewhere, a company of Australians attempted to move around the Vichy French left flank to cut the road running to the north-west toward Beirut and establish a roadblock in the Barada gorge. There followed a see-saw action among the forts, during which a force of 59 Australians was briefly captured, before a counterattack early on 21 June freed them and retook the forts. Meanwhile, a 12-hour defensive action held the Barada gorge to the west, turning back several Vichy French attacks that included tanks and armoured cars.

During the morning of 21 June, the Australians consolidated their positions around the forts and in the Barada gorge, and at about 11.00 the Vichy French garrison in Damascus surrendered. By 12.00 on 21 June, the Allied forces were ensconced in Damascus and the Vichy French forces were retreating to the west along the road Beirut and thus the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. With the fall of Damascus, 'Gentforce' had accomplished its primary goal, but Elsewhere fighting around Merdjayoun continued until 24 June when Allied forces eventually captured the town. The fighting between Allied and the Vichy French forces continued throughout the month. Further actions included fighting around Damour and the capture of Beirut before an armistice came into effect on 12 July.