Operation Battle of Kissoué

The 'Battle of Kissoué' was a battle between British-led and Vichy French forces as part of the Allied advance on Damascus in Syria during the 'Exporter' (i) campaign (15/17 June 1941).

The battle is notable for the fact that it pitted Free French and Vichy French forces against each other, and the former met with stiff resistance from the latter.

On 8 June, troops of Brigadier W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 5th Brigade Group of Major General F. W. Messervy’s Indian 4th Division had crossed the border from the British mandated territories of Palestine and Trans-Jordan into Vichy French-controlled Syria to take Quneitra and Dera’a with the objective of opening the way for Free French forces to advance along the roads from these towns to Damascus. This was one of four attacks planned for the 'Exporter' campaign by the Allied commander, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson. By 12 June, Dera’a, Sheikh Meskine and Ezraa on the road linking Dera’a and Damascus had been captured, and the Indian and Free French forces, now named 'Gentforce' and commanded by Général de Division Paul Legentilhomme, had reached Kissoué. Legentilhomme was wounded almost immediately after taking command,m and was succeeded on 14 June by Lloyd.

Kissoué was a strong defensive position. To the east of the road, the town’s houses and gardens provided cover for Vichy French infantry and tanks backed by the considerable defence works on the steeply rising Jebel el Kelb and Jebel Abou Atriz behind them; and to the west of the road were the hills of Tel Kissoué, Tel Afar and Jebel Madani, which commanded the roads to Damascus from both Quneitra and Dera’a. Being more than liberally strewn with boulders, the country was virtually impassable by wheeled vehicles except on the road, and this was a factor which rendered progress difficult even on foot. Furthermore, the Awaj river flowed in front of the Vichy French positions across the Allied line of advance.

At 04.00 on 15 June, Indian troops made a frontal attack which, wholly providentially, coincided with a relief of the Vichy French forces' forward troops. After fierce fighting, the village had been taken by 08.30, within 30 minutes the Indian troops were pushing forward into the hills behind the village which overlooked the main road from the west and within 60 minutes had captured Tel Kissoué. On the river on the far left flank of the advance, the village of Monkelbe had been secured by Free French marines by 11.30.

A second phase of the attack had begun at 11.00, with Free French forces advancing across the river into the hills on the right of the Damascus road. Having taken Jebel Kelb, the advance stalled on Jebel Abou Atriz, while on the far right a flanking move by Free French tanks was stopped by heavy shelling from Vichy French artillery. More depressing news then reached Lloyd from the Allied troops holding Quneitra on the other main northward road to Damascus, which reported the approach of a strong Vichy French force from the north. Furthermore, Lloyd’s own lines of communication were being threatened by the capture of Ezra’a by Vichy French Tunisian troops who had advanced across country from Tel Soutaine to the east. Ezra’a was only 6 miles (9.7 km) to the east of Sheikh Meskine, which was on the main road to the south from Kissoué.

Lloyd decided that the optimum solution to dealing with this critical situation would be a rapid advance on Damascus. He therefore despatched two Free French companies and some artillery southward to Sheikh Meskine to bolster the two squadrons of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force that had taken defensive positions across the road to the east from Sheikh Meskine to Dezra’a. and ordered the Indian brigade to advance. During the night of 15 June, pushing forward through the hills to the left of the road between Kissoué and Damascus, Indian troops took Aartouz on the road between Quneitra and Damascus, cutting the rearward communications of the Vichy French force advancing on Quneitra. During the afternoon of 16 June, it was reported incorrectly that Ezra’a had been retaken by the Allies, but the news from Quneitra was less promising. Outnumbered 3/1 and facing tanks against which they had no effective counter, the Allied defenders at Quneitra, which was one battalion of the Royal Fusiliers less one company which was at Kissoué, held out until 19.00 on 16 June when, surrounded and almost out of ammunition, the surviving 13 officers and 164 men surrendered.

Despite this threat to to the supply line nourishing 'Gentilforce', it was decided to press forward to Damascus. This forced the Vichy French commander to withdraw his flanking forces.