Operation Battle of Merdjayoun

The 'Battle of Merdjayoun' was a battle between Allied and Vichy French forces near the Lebanese town of Marjayoun during the formers' 'Exporter' operation to take Syria and Lebanon (19/24 June 1941).

The capture of Merdjayoun was entrusted to Brigadier A. R. B. Cox’s Australian 25th Brigade, which had only recently arrived from England. It soon became clear that Vichy French forces in this area were of considerable strength, and there was every indication that they intended to resist methodically. Merdjayoun was taken on the afternoon of 11 June, but the force of cavalry sent to pursue in the direction of Rayak soon ran into stiff opposition. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of the Australian I Corps, realised that continued advance on this axis was likely to be very slow and therefore decided to postpone the advance on Rayak, instead, ordering the bulk of the Australian 25th Brigade to move to the help of the division’s main body by effecting a wide turning movement through Jezzine. The cavalry detachment, one infantry battalion and one field battery were left to garrison Merdjayoun. When the engineers had bridged the Litani river, Cox set of on the evening of 13 June on an exceptionally difficult march to Jezzine without lights, by unknown corkscrew tracks, and along the precipitous sides of the Lebanon mountains.

Brigadier J. E. S. Stevens’s Australian 21st Brigade had its axis of advance along the coastal road. Every endeavour was mac to capture the first few bridges intact, and columns were sent on wide detours to the east in efforts to work their way round the Vichy French defences. The principle cause of concern was the main road bridge over the Litani river. The plan was for C Battalion of the Special Service Brigade to land from the sea and seize the bridge intact early in the morning of 8 June. The landing ship Glengyle arrived on time, but the surf was too heavy for any attempt to get the troops ashore. This led to complications, for on the next night, when the sea was calmer, the C Battalion and the Australians were not fully aware of each other’s situation. Surprise was not achieved, and the bridge had already been destroyed. A landing error resulted in the arrival on shore of some of the troops to the south instead of to the north of the river’s mouth. The commando battalion fought hard to retrieve the situation: Lieutenant Colonel R. N. N. Pedder, the battalion’s commanding officer, was killed and the commandos became somewhat scattered, but in the day’s spasmodic fighting the commandos killed many Vichy French soldiers and caused much confusion on the latters ranks and higher command. The day’s fighting cost the commando battalion almost half of its number.

Early on 10 June the Australian 21st Brigade crossed the river on a pontoon bridge and overran the remaining Vichy French defenders. The further advance, led by the Australian 2/27th Battalion, was opposed by rearguard elements every few miles but overcame these, and by the evening of 12 June the advanced troops were in contact with the Vichy French at Sidon. An attack by the Australian 2/16th Battalion on the following day failed, and it was clear that the Vichy French were holding a strong position.

The overall situation on 13 June was therefore not as good as had been expected by Wilson and his senior subordinates. Adequate progress had been made on the right toward Damascus but very little in the centre at Merdjayoun, while on the left resistance was stiffening. There had been some 500 casualties in all, and the Special Service battalion had suffered especially heavily. The Vichy French were showing no signs of changing their defiant attitude, and it was evident that progress was to be very slow unless more troops cold be committed. General Sir Archibald Wavell, the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East, decided to despatch Major General J. F. Evetts’s British 6th Division (two brigades, of which one had only recently been formed) from Egypt, and this provided a fresh divisional headquarters to take control of the Damascus sector. Each of the brigades was to move up as soon as it had receive some essential transport from cargoes then arriving by Air Force in Palestine and Iraq had attacked French airfields and petrol installations in Syria with the object of weakening the Vichy French and their small but high-quality German support. From 8 June the Bristol Blenheim twin-engined light bombers of Nos 11 and 84 Squadrons had as their principal targets the airfields at Aleppo, Palmyra, Damascus and Rayak as well as the port installations at Beirut. The number of bombers available was not adequate to ensure either heavy or continuous attacks and, in all, only 21 sorties were flown against these targets between 8 and 13 June. In addition, Blenheim bombers and Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters intervened on the Kissoué front to attack troop and gun positions on 12 June. Fighters of the Australian No. 3 Squadron and British No. 80 Squadron attacked the nearer Vichy French airfields and intercepted several Vichy French air formations, but their primary role became the maintenance of standing patrols over the British warships: on this task the fighters destroyed two German bombers on 13 June. Aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm’s Nos 815 and 829 Squadrons reconnoitred Beirut and Juniye harbours daily, and attacked shipping when seen, the order forbidding attacks on surface ships having been cancelled on 9 June after the two destroyers available to the Vichy French shelled the Australian forces on the Litani river. In a subsequent engagement with the two large Vichy French destroyers, the British destroyer Janus was severely damaged and another destroyer, Jackal, was also hit.

The problem of providing air support for the naval forces operating off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria led to an important policy decision. The Royal Navy’s primary task had been to provide assistance to the overland advance along the coast, but the the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Fulmar single-engined but two-seat warplanes had shown themselves incapable of providing the protection required against nimbler Vichy French land-based fighters. The RAF could not provide enough fighters for this task while also providing direct support to the land forces. The commanders-in-chief discussed whether or to withdraw the British warships altogether, but decided that the navy, protected by RAF warplanes, should continue to operate off the coast, for the principal reason that the run of the valleys, primarily from east to west to the sea, made raking fire from seaward particularly effective. The lack of fighter support for the army had therefore to be accepted.

The second phase of 'Exporter'. between 14 and 22 June, coincided with the unsuccessful 'Battleaxe' offensive in the Western Desert. The air operations differed in this second phase differed from those in the first phase inasmuch as about half of the medium bomber sorties were devoted to attacks on targets of opportunity when the Vichy French pulled back from Damascus. The remaining targets were Aleppo, Rayak and Beirut, as before. In the nine days the Blenheim bombers of No. 11 Squadron flew 53 sorties and those of No. 84 Squadron nine, which shows that the weight of the attack was slight only slight. The fighters were still occupied mainly in protection of the ships, which led to several encounters with German Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined bombers, but they continued also to take a steady toll of Vichy French aircraft with comparatively little loss to themselves.

The naval forces supporting the army were twice heavily attacked by German bombers on 15 June, and the destroyers Isis and Ilex were both severely damaged; one Ju 88 was shot down. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, was deeply concerned at the damage among his few remaining destroyers, and ordered Vice Admiral E. L. S. King, commander of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, to withdraw to Haifa, on the coast of Palestine, during the daylight hours except when special operations were requested or when there was a certainty of fighter protection. Even so, the navy managed to keep up its bombardment of the Vichy French shore positions every day, usually at dawn. A success was scored when the newly arriving Vichy French fleet destroyer Chevalier Paul was sunk by torpedo bombers of the FAA’s No. 815 Squadron off Cyprus.

On land this was a period of sharp actions. The attack of Lloyd’s brigade on Kissoué during the morning of 15 June caught the defence off guard and made good progress, beating off two energetic counterattacks. Another attack, by night, was equally successful and strengthened the Indian 5th Brigade’s hold on Kissoué. On the eastern flank of 'Exporter' Colonel Collet’s Circassian cavalry was able to make a small advance. The Indian 5th Brigade had only its two Indian battalions, its British battalion (1/Royal Fusiliers) less one company having been sent to hold Kuneitra, on the lateral road to Merdjayoun. The fight at Kissoué was going well when it was reported that at Kuneitra the Royal Fusiliers' outposts had been driven in and that a strong Vichy French force, including tanks, seemed to be preparing to attack. Nothing could be done in time to support these three Royal Fusiliers' companies and the troop of The Royals with them. From dawn on 16 they were attacked by a much larger Vichy French force which included field guns, mortars, armoured cars and medium tanks. The defenders' sole anti-tank gun, a captured Italian weapon, broke down, and though the defenders resisted until a time late in the evening the strength which had been brought to bear on them was too great for them, and only a few of the defenders escaped being taken prisoner.

Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax’s British 16th Brigade of the 6th Division was now beginning to arrive from Egypt. Its leading battalion, the 2/The Queen’s Royal Regiment, moved across country from Sanamein and reached Kuneitra during the evening of 17 June. With the support of one troop of 25-pdr gun/howitzers and one company of the Australian 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, the battalion captured the place without difficulty.

Farther to the east on 15 June, a Vichy French force had sallied from the Jebel Druse and driven out the small garrison of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force from Ezra’a, about 20 miles (32 km) behind the headquarters of Général de Division Paul Legentilhomme’s Free French forces. On the following morning they made an unsuccessful attack on Sheikh Meskine on the main Damascus road. On 17 June a oddly mixed force hastily assembled and commanded by Major J. W. Hackett, a staff officer of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, attacked Ezra’a, recaptured it and took prisoner more than 160 Tunisian troops of the Vichy French forces. Thus the Vichy French forces' successes at Ezra’a and Kuneitra were short-lived, but farther to the west in the Litani river valley they had made an inroad which proved more difficult to handle. On the evening of 13 June the Australian 25th Brigade had left Merdjayoun on its march over the hills to Jezzine. On 15 June the commander of the small force left at Merdjayoun, determined not to adopt a passive defence, made an ambitious effort to outmanoeuvre the Vichy French who were blocking the road to Rayak. He sent a large part of his force into the Hermon foothills work round the Vichy French force’s left flank, but while this detachment was absent the Vichy French attacked Merdjayoun from the north and captured it. For a while it seemed that there was nothing to prevent them from pressing forward into Palestine. The Vichy French paused, however, and a force partly from the divisional reserve and partly from the Australian 25th Brigade was collected as quickly possible at Jezzine, with which to restore the situation. This force was commanded by Brigadier F. H. Berryman, commander of the divisional artillery, who acted with great energy. Although his two rapidly organised attacks failed and the episode ended with Merdjayoun still in Vichy French hands, the farther advance of the Vichy French was definitely checked.

Although wounded, Legentilhomme could not bear inactivity and returned to his headquarters on 16 June. The situation seemed bad on account of the threat presented to his supply line by the Vichy French activities at Kuneitra and Ezra’a. Lloyd was not to be deterred, however, and boldly decided to make a rapid advance toward Mezze, the location of Damascus’s airfield and the point at which the road and railway linking Damascus and Beirut entered the gorge of the Barada river. Lloyd was still officially in command of all the troops facing Damascus, including the Free French, and command of the Indian 5th Brigade had passed to Lieutenant Colonel L. B. Jones of the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles.

The advance began after the fall of night on 18 June and was opposed almost straight from its start, which made it difficult to keep touch and direction. Before 05.00, however, Mezze had been rushed and taken, though the forts overlooking the village remained in Vichy French 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, and found itself in the woods at Kafr Sous to the south-east. From here it tried without success to regain contact with the troops at Mezze.

Throughout 19 and 20 June, the Vichy French 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 in which they were surrounded. Their anti-tank rifles proved ineffective against the Vichy French tanks, but the group held out all day, all the following night, and most of 20 June. Meanwhile the force at Kafr Sous had been reinforced by every available British unit and placed under the command of Major H. S. J. Bourke. By this time the Marine Battalion, alone of the Free French infantry, could be relied upon, for the colonial battalions had lost their enthusiasm and were unwilling to fight against the own countrymen. On the morning of 20 June, Bourke’s force advanced to help the defenders of Mezze and had first to capture some of the forts. The force entered the village late in the afternoon, but found that it was too late to relieve the defenders, who had by now been overpowered.

That night the Australian 2/3rd Battalion, which had moved up in reserve, took the Vichy French by surprise at the Barada river gorge and cut the road to Beirut. After recovering, the Vichy French troops counterattacked strongly but were held. By the middle of the morning a general weakening was becoming apparent, and the RAF arrived quickly to interfere with the Vichy French withdrawal. Meanwhile the Free French Brigade, preceded by 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 Colonne and his Circassians arrived from the east, and shortly after this Legentilhomme made his formal entry as military governor. This notable success was the result largely of the fine qualities and condition of the Indian troops under resolute and skilled leadership. The two Indian battalions' losses totalled to 738 officers and men; Vichy French records claimed the seizure of 300 prisoners, of whom a large number were wounded. It is possible that had a fresh British force had been available to undertake a rapid exploitation to the west, the Allies might have broken right through to the Litani river valley. The British 16th Brigade of the 6th Division was not yet far enough forward, however, and the Indian 5th Brigade had been fought to a standstill.

On this same day, 21 June, a new land front came into being with the advance of 'Habforce' from Iraq toward Palmyra. The units of this force had been spread all over the northern parts of Iraq, but with the arrival of Major General W. J. Slim’s Indian 10th Division from Basra it became possible to withdraw 'Habforce' and use to threaten the Vichy French communications between Damascus and Homs, The advance on Palmyra was spearheaded by Brigadier J. J. Kingstone’s (from 29 June Brigadier J. G. E. Tiarks’s) British 4th Cavalry Brigade in two directions: westward from Abu Kemal and northward from the road linking Haiifa and Baghdad at a point near Rutba. It was the capture of an isolated post about 40 miles (65 km) from Palmyra which gave Vichy French their first warning on the emergence of thos new front, and it was not long before bomber and fighter aircraft appeared, making the first of series of attacks that lasted for two weeks. Lying exposed in the open desert and possessing few anti-aircraft guns, the 4th Cavalry Brigade lost many men and vehicles, and its weak cavalry units had great difficulty in maintaining any pressure on Palmyra. The garrison, which comprised two companies of the Foreign Legion and one light desert company, fought a resolute defence, and the historic oasis, far from falling on the first day as had been hoped, held out for 12 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 French bombers, who could choose their time and were escorted by fighters.

In the coastal sector, the attack on Sidon was repeated on 14 June with the support of a naval bombardment. The Australian 2/27th Battalion moved into the hills to turn the flank of the Vichy French force which was in position to the north-east of the town, and this was a slow and difficult task. The Australian 2/16th Battalion waited in the orchards to the south of the town, and its supporting artillery broke up a Vichy French counterattack delivered by tank-supported infantry. That night the Vichy French withdrew, leaving evidence that the the naval gunfire had been very effective. Sidon was then occupied, but this time the setback at Merdjayoun had led to the recall of part of the Australian 25th Brigade from Jezzine to join Berryman,s force. The remaining unit, the Australian 2/31st Battalion, repeatedly attacked at Jezzine between 15 and 18 June, but held its position and took many of the Vichy French troops from Senegal. On the evening of 18 June the Australian 2/14th Battalion was moved from the coastal sector to support the hard pressed Australian 2/31st Battalion. In these circumstances, Stevens’s Australian 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 of 'Exporter': Sidon and Damascus had been captured; every Vichy French counterattack had been held; Kuneitra and Ezra,a had been retaken, but Merdjayoun was still in Vichy French hands; and Palmyra was holding out and the investing force was in difficulties. The navy supporting the left flank of the army admirably, though not without sustaining some damage. The Vichy French air force was still active but was steadily weakening, and on land there were signs that the Vichy French troops were tiring.

An important command change took place on 18 June when the headquarters of the Australian I Corps took over the whole land front from Damascus to the sea. Until recently the Australian I Corps had been commanded by Blarney, who had on 23 April been appointed to the new post of Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. Major General J. D. Lavarack, commander of the Australian 7th Division, succeeded Blamey, and Major General A. S. Allen assumed command of the Australian 7th Division. At the same time Evetts, commander of the 6th Division, took command, under Lavarack, of all Allied troops other than Free French in the area of Damascus, Dera’a and Kuneitra.

During the final phase of the campaign, which lasted from 23 June to 12 July, the initiative was gained and held once more by the British. The naval force now comprised five cruisers and eight destroyers. On 23 June there was an inconclusive engagement with the two Vichy French destroyers, but this was the last time the Vichy French attempted to interfere with British naval operations. Another destroyer, the Vauquelin had arrived on 21 June with ammunition, but had been damaged on the following day during air attacks on Beirut. On 25 June, the submarine Parthian, patrolling off Beirut, sank the submarine Souffleur.

An added task for the navy and air force at this time was to prevent the arrival of Vichy French reinforcements by sea: it was presumed that the Vichy French would try to ferry troops as well as aircraft to the Levant, and this presumption proved to be accurate. The negotiations between the Vichy French government and the German armistice commission took time, however, and the first idea of sending a strong force via Bizerte was gradually whittled down for a number of reasons until in fact one battalion left France on 27 June by rail for Thessaloníki in northern Greece, together with several trainloads of weapons and other matériel. How to move all these to Syria was then a major difficulty as the government of neutral Turkey refused to allow transit through that country. It was hoped at one time to borrow transport aircraft to carry the men, but the opening of the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR by the Germans on 22 June ended any such hope. There was therefore no alternative but to attempt the risky passage by sea, and on 1 July the Vichy French destroyers slipped out of Beirut to meet the ships. One troopship, St Didier, got as far as the Gulf of Adalia but was then sunk Fairey Albacore single-engined biplane bombers of the FAA’s No. 829 Squadron from Cyprus. All this time the RAF continued to deliver attacks on the harbours at Beirut and Tripoli, the airfield at Aleppo, and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. The FAA complemented the RAF effort with attacks on shipping in Beirut, and it must have been obvious to Général Henri Dentz, the Vichy French commander-in-chief in the Middle East, by a time very early in July that he could not count on the safe arrival of many troops.

During the second phase of 'Exporter', the British had managed to add to their land forces in Syria and now, for the third and in the event final phase, they were able also to increase their air forces as 'Battleaxe' had been terminated on 17 June. The additions were No. 45 Squadron flying the Blenheim and two new composite Hurricane units, Nos 450/260 and 806/33. At the same time the Vickers Wellington twin-engined medium bombers of Nos 37, 38, 70 and 148 Squadrons began to operate from the Suez Canal Zone against Aleppo and Beirut. Apart from the attacks intended specifically to prevent the arrival of Vichy French reinforcements, the principal targets for the bomber force were the railway yards at Aleppo and Rayak in order to interrupt internal movement, and ground targets in connection with the army’s land 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. 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 also made many interceptions in the air.

Soon after the confused fighting which followed Berryman’s second attempt to retake Merdjayoun had come to an end, there were signs that the Vichy French forces in this area were becoming weaker. By 24 June the Australians, now joined by the 2/The King’s Own Royal Regiment of the 16th Brigade, had taken several of the nearby villages and reoccupied Merdjayoun itself, but an attempt to press the advance forward in the direction of Rayak was unsuccessful. Brigadier A. Galloway’s newly arrived 23rd Brigade had started to replace the troops of the Australian 7th Division in this sector, and Allen was able to concentrate his division in the coastal area and resume the advance on Beirut.

The 16th Brigade (less the 2/King’s Own Royal Regiment), the first of the 6th Division’s two brigades, had been moved from Palestine to support the attack on Damascus. The collapse of the Vichy French defence of this area had left the remnants of the Indian 5th Brigade facing to the west astride the road linking Damascus and Beirut, and Evetts was now ordered to advance toward Zahle with the object of seizing Rayak airfield and cutting off the Vichy French forces on the Merdjayoun front. It soon became clear that the Vichy French intended to offer strong resistance, and that would be necessary to secure the precipitous 5,000-ft (1525-m) height of the Jebel Mazar before any appreciable progress could be made.