Operation Battle of the Litani River

The 'Battle of the Litani River' was a battle fought by largely Australian forces against Vichy French forces in Lebanon as part of the British-led 'Exporter' campaign to take Lebanon and Syria from the Vichy French (9 June 1941).

The battle was part of the Allies' drive to the north along Lebanon’s Mediterranean Sea coast toward Beirut, and was centred on the crossing of the Litani river by Major General J. D. Lavarack’s Australian 7th Division.

At the start of 'Exporter', Australian forces in northern Palestine had crossed the border into southern Lebanon. Initial resistance from Vichy French forces in the area to the south of the Litani river was scattered and disorganised. Brigadier J. E. S. Stevens’s Australian 21st Brigade advanced along to the north along the coast road heading for Beirut and attempted to cross the Litani river. A surprise night time landing by the British No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel R. L. Pedder, was attempted in order to seize the bridge near the mouth of the river, but was delayed by rough seas on the proposed landing beach, and this provided the Vichy French defenders time sufficient for the destruction of the bridge. When the commandos eventually landed in daylight, in three separate places, their initial landing was almost unopposed as the defenders were currently in combat against the Australian troops, but in the subsequent fighting the commandos took heavy casualties, among them Pedder, who was killed in an assault on the Vichy French barracks. Pedder was succeeded in command by Major G. T. C. Keyes, whose party was ultimately able to secure the crossing by getting over the river in canvas boats with the help of some of the Australian troops.

A Vichy French counterattack using armoured cars was then defeated, and a pontoon bridge was quickly completed. The Australians came under inaccurate fire from two Vichy French destroyers, Guépard and Valmy, and Australian artillery then drove off the warships, which had come close inshore to shell the advancing troops.

Following the fighting around the Litani river, the Australian 21st Brigade advanced northward on Tyre as part of the wider move toward Beirut. From Tyre, several minor actions were fought as part of the drive to capture Sidon, which fell on 13 June. Further inland, on the Australian 21st Brigade’s right flank, Brigadier A. R. B. Cox’s Australian 25th Brigade advanced toward Merdjayoun, which was temporarily secured on 11 June. A small force from the Australian 25th Brigade was subsequently left to hold Merdjayoun, while the rest of the brigade was sent to the north for the capture of Jezzine, which also fell on 13 June. However, on 15 June, a substantial counterattack fell on Merdjayoun, and heavy fighting followed until 27 June.