(June 4, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, Allied forces invaded the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon, in “Operation Exporter.” The Allied forces did not believe that they would face serious resistance from the French forces stationed there, or their colonial Arab units. They were wrong.
Actually, hostilities had begun on May 15, 1941, when the RAF began bombing airfields in Syria. By the time of the Allied invasion, on the morning of June 7, in addition to the bombings by the RAF, six Axis and one Vichy French aircraft had been shot down by the RAF, while the French had shot down two British Blenheim Bombers.
Allied Forces, under the command of Gen. Sir Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson, numbered about 36,000 and included Australians, English, Welsh, Czechs, Free French, French Foreign Legion, Circassians, Jews, Gurkhas, Punjabis and Sikhs.
The troops defending Syria were the 45,000 man Armée du Levant commanded by Gen. Henri Dentz. The soldiers available to Gen. Dentz included French, French Foreign Legion, Algerian, Lebanese, Sengalese, Morrocan, Tunisian, Mehariste, Druz, and Circassians.
After the invasion began, Vichy France attempted to send reinforcements through Greece, and then by sea to Lebanon, but the circuitous route caused them to arrive too late.
The 7th Australian Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Lavarack, crossed the border from Northern Palestine into Southern Lebanon on June 8, 1941. They were assisted by guides from the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Jewish Haganah. Two of its members were future Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan. It was during the invasion of Syria that Dayan lost his eye.
The objective of the Australians was Beirut, in Lebanon. In order to get there, they had to cross the Litani River. Assisting the defenders were the French destroyers, Guépard and Valmy. Eventually, on June 9, the River was crossed and the advance on Beirut continued.
Simultaneously, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, consisting of Australians, Welshmen, Gurkhas, Punjabis and Englishmen, commanded by Wilfred Louis Lloyd, crossed the Syrian border from Palestine, en route to Damascus. During the campaign, the invaders were joined by the 1st Free French Division, commanded by Paul Louis Legentilhomme.
On June 15, the 6,000-year-old city of Sidon fell to the Australians after two days of fighting. It is the third largest city in Lebanon and is located on the Mediterranean coast, 25 miles south of Beirut. Today, it has a population of 200,000.
Habforce, commanded by John G. W. Clark, invaded Syria from Iraq on June 21. This was a force which had been assembled to relieve the Habbanayi Royal Air Force Base, located near Lake Habbanayi, about 60 miles outside of Baghdad, which had been under siege by an Iraqi force. Its objective was the capture of the 4,000-year-old city of Palmyra which is located about 175 miles northeast of Damascus.
Damascus was captured the same day. Damascus is, and was, the capital of Syria and is considered by historians to be the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. Currently it has an estimated population of about 2 million.
On July 1, units of 10th Indian Division, commanded by William Slim, crossed into Syria from Iraq. Two days later, these troops captured Deir-el-Zor, located about 375 miles northeast of Damascus, on the Euphrates River. Today it has a population in excess of 500,000. Palmrya surrendered to Gen. Clark’s Habforce the same day.
On July 9, the 4,700-year-old Lebanese port city of Tyre fell, Damour was captured after a three-day battle, and Homs, the third largest city in Syria, was taken. Tyre is located on the Mediterranean coast 50 miles south of Beirut, and currently has a population in excess of 100,000 and is the fourth largest city in Lebanon.
Damour, 20 miles south of the Lebanese capital, was taken by the 7th Australian Division, now commanded by Gen. Arthur S. “Tubby” Allen. Homs is located 101 miles north of Damascus on the Orontes River and currently has a population of 1.5 million.
Gen. Dentz, despite orders to the contrary from Vichy, on July 11 sought an Armistice. His request was denied by the British, because they suspected that he was playing for time, in hopes of a German rescue.
Gen. Dentz, instead, was told to have a representative at the British outpost on the Beirut-Haifa road at 9 a.m., July 12, or hostilities would resume. He sent his assistant, Lt.-Gen. Joseph-Antoine-Sylvain-Raoul de Verdillac. The French general was then transported to Acre in Palestine. Acre, one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Israel, is located in the north of the country on the north side of Haifa Bay, and currently has a population of 46,000.
The Armistice of Saint Jean d’Acre was signed on July 14 — Bastille Day — at the Sydney Smith Barracks on the outskirts of the City of Acre. In Vichy France, it was the “Day of National Mourning.”
The Allies had suffered 4,052 casualties. The French had suffered between 6,352 and 8,912. The Allies had lost 27 aircraft and the French 179. Two British Destroyers, Illex and Isis, were seriously damaged by the Luftwaffe. The RAF sank the French Destroyer, Chevalier Paul. The British Submarine, Parthian, sank the French Submarine, Souffleur.
The Allies offered 37,736 Vichy French soldiers the choice of being repatriated to France or joining the Free French. Only 5,668 men chose to join the Free French. Between Aug. 7 and Sept. 27, 1941, eight convoys of four ships sailed from the Middle East to France carrying the defeated Vichy French soldiers.
Free French Gen. Georges Catroux was placed in control of Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon became an independent state on Nov. 8, 1943, and on Feb. 27, 1945 declared war on Germany and Japan. Syria became independent on Jan. 1, 1944 and on Feb. 26, 1945 declared war on Germany and Japan.
In January 1945, Gen. Dentz was tried for his collaboration with the Axis, convicted and sentenced to die. Gen. de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. However, on Dec. 13, 1945, he died.
This action created much consternation among the French as Frenchman fought Frenchman. It did help to keep Turkey neutral this time.
Next week: Operation Battleaxe - Another Victory for the “Desert Fox”
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.