The Syria–Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter, was the British invasion of Vichy French Syria and Lebanon from June–July 1941, during World War II. Time magazine referred to the fighting as a "mixed show" while it was taking place and the campaign remains little known, even in the countries that took part. There is evidence that the British censored reportage of the fighting because politicians believed that hostilities against French forces could have a negative effect on public opinion in British countries.
The British invasion of Syria and Lebanon aimed at preventing Nazi Germany from using the Vichy French-controlled Syrian Republic and French Lebanon for attacks on Egypt as the British fought the Western Desert Campaign (1940-1943) against Axis forces in North Africa. Although the French had ceded autonomy to Syria in September 1936, they had retained treaty rights to maintain armed forces and two airfields in the territory. From 1 April 1941, after a coup d'état, Iraq, on the eastern border of Syria, came under the control of pro-German rebel forces led by Rashid Ali. The Anglo-Iraqi War (2–31 May 1941) led to the installation of a pro-British government.
In May 1941, Admiral François Darlan on behalf of Vichy France signed an agreement with the Germans, known as the "Paris Protocols". These protocols granted Germany access to military facilities in Vichy-controlled Syria. The protocols remained unratified but Charles Huntziger, the Vichy Minister of War, sent orders to Henri Dentz, the High Commissioner for the Levant, to allow the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica to refuel in Syria. Disguised as Iraqi aircraft, Axis aircraft under Fliegerführer Irak landed in Syria, en route to the Kingdom of Iraq during the Anglo-Iraqi War. The Germans also requested permission from the Vichy authorities to use Syrian railways to send armaments to Iraqi nationalists in Mosul. There, General Archibald Percival Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Middle East Command, perceived a threat posed by Vichy collaboration with Germany and Italy.
On 14 May 1941, a British Bristol Blenheim bomber crew, flying a reconnaissance mission over Palmyra in central Syria, spotted a Junkers Ju 90 transport taking off, with more German and Italian aircraft seen later that day and an attack on the airfield was authorised later that evening. Attacks against German and Italian aircraft staging through Syria continued and the British claimed six Axis aircraft destroyed by 8 June. Vichy French forces claimed to have shot down a Blenheim on 28 May and to have forced down another on 2 June. The RAF shot down a Vichy Martin 167F bomber over the British Mandate of Palestine on 6 June.
Vichy French forces
Dentz was also Commander in Chief of the Armée du Levant (Army of the Levant) which had regular metropolitan colonial troops and troupes speciales (special troops, indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers). There were seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal, which included the 6th Infantry Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, the 24th Colonial Infantry Regiment and eleven infantry battalions of "special troops", including at least 5,000 cavalry in horsed and motorized units, two artillery groups and supporting units.
The Armée de l'Air de Vichy (Vichy French Air Force) in the Levant had over 90 aircraft when hostilities began and three more groups were sent from France and North Africa, increasing the strength of the air force in Lebanon and Syria to 289 aircraft. Two destroyers and three submarines of the Marine Nationale (French Navy) were available to support the Vichy forces in the Levant.
While German interest in the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon was limited, Adolf Hitler permitted reinforcement of the French troops, by allowing French aircraft en route from Algeria to Syria to fly over Axis-controlled territory and refuel at the German-controlled Eleusina air base in Greece. The activity of German aircraft based in Greece and the Dodecanese Islands was interpreted by the British as being in support of Vichy troops. Although Dentz briefly considered accepting German support, he turned down the offer on 13 June.
Initially, British forces to the south of Syria in the British Mandate of Palestine consisted of two main formations under the command of General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the 7th Australian Division (minus the 18th Brigade, which was in North Africa at the Siege of Tobruk), Gentforce with two Free French brigades of the 1st Free French Division (including two battalions of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade attached to the 1st Free French Brigade) and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade (4th Indian Infantry Division) with artillery, engineers and other support services attached to form the 5th Indian Brigade Group.
In northern and central Syria, Iraq Command (Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Quinan) was used in this campaign to attack from the east, consisting of the 10th Indian Infantry Division and elements of the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade (8th Indian Infantry Division) and Habforce, the 4th Cavalry Brigade and the Arab Legion, under John Glubb (Glubb Pasha). Commando and raiding operations were undertaken by No. 11 (Scottish) Commando and Palmach, a unit recruited from Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. Palmach also provided interpreters and guides to other British units.
Close air support was provided by squadrons from the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force and ground forces on the coast were supported by bombardments from Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy units of the Mediterranean Fleet; Wavell provided Wilson with 70 fighter aircraft. The Vichy French had at least 100 fighters but British Hawker Hurricanes and brand-new, U.S.-built Curtiss Tomahawks, were a match for French Dewoitine D.520s and Potez 63s.
British forces in reserve included the 6th Infantry Division (including the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion—East attached to the 23rd Infantry Brigade) and the 17th Australian Brigade. In mid-June, the division with its two infantry brigades, came into the line as reinforcements, mainly on the Damascus front and the southern force was placed under the command of the 1st Australian Corps HQ on 19 June.
The British plan of attack devised by Wilson called for four lines of advance: on Damascus from Palestine, on Beirut from Palestine, on northern Syria from Iraq and on Palmyra (in central Syria) and Tripoli (in northern Lebanon) from Iraq.
The 5th Indian Brigade Group—commanded by Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd—were ordered to cross the Syrian border from Palestine and take Quneitra and Deraa. It was anticipated that this would open the way for the 1st Free French Division to advance to Damascus. Four days after the commencement of the operation, this force was brought under unified command and was named Gentforce after its French commander, Major-General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme.
The Australian 7th Division—commanded by Major-General John Lavarack (succeeded by Major-General Arthur "Tubby" Allen on 18 June when Lavarack took over Australian I Corps)— had the responsibility of advancing from Palestine along the coastal road from Haifa towards Beirut. The Australian 21st Brigade was to take Beirut.
Once the two southern prongs were well engaged, it was planned that a third force, comprising formations drawn from Iraq Command, would attack Syria from Iraq. The bulk of 10th Indian Infantry Division—commanded by Major-General William "Bill" Slim—was to advance north-west up the Euphrates River from Haditha in Iraq (upstream from Baghdad) toward Deir ez Zor and thence to Raqqa and Aleppo to threaten the communication and supply lines of the Vichy forces defending Beirut against the Australians advancing from the south, in particular the railway line running northwards through Aleppo to Turkey (at the time, Turkey was thought by some British strategists to be sympathetic to the Vichy government and to Germany).
Meanwhile, a group comprising two infantry battalions from the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade (10th Indian Division) and two from the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade (8th Indian Infantry Division), would operate independently to capture all the territory in north-east Syria. 20th Indian Infantry Brigade were to make a feint from Mosul and the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade would advance into the Bec du Canard (Duck's Bill) region through which a railway from Aleppo ran eastward to Mosul and then to Baghdad.
Palmyra and Tripoli
Finally, Wilson's plan called for Habforce—consisting of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment, the Arab Legion Mechanized Regiment each supported by field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery batteries—to gather in western Iraq between Rutbah and the Transjordan border.
At the same time as the thrust up the Euphrates, this force would advance in a north-westerly direction to take Palmyra in Syria. Habforce was to secure the oil pipeline from Haditha to Tripoli. Habforce was in Iraq, attached to Iraq Command, because it had previously struck across the desert from the Transjordan border as part of the relief of RAF Habbaniya during the Anglo-Iraqi War.
War on land
Hostilities commenced on 8 June 1941. The major battles of the campaign were:
- Battle of the Litani River (9 June): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
- Battle of Jezzine (13 June): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
- Battle of Kissoué (15–17 June): part of the advance on Damascus from Palestine
- Battle of Damascus (18–21 June): part of the advance on Damascus from Palestine
- Battle of Merdjayoun (19–24 June): part of the advance on Beirut and Damascus from Palestine
- Battle of Palmyra (1 July): part of the advance on Palmyra and Tripoli from Iraq
- Battle of Deir ez Zor (3 July): part of the advance on central and northern Syria from Iraq
- Battle of Damour (5–9 July): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
- Battle of Beirut (12 July): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
War in the air
The initial advantage that the Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) enjoyed did not last long. The Vichy French lost most of their aircraft destroyed on the ground where the flat terrain, absence of infrastructure and absence of modern anti-aircraft (AA) artillery made them vulnerable to air attacks. On 26 June, a strafing run by Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (3 Sqn), on Homs airfield, destroyed five Dewoitine D.520s of Fighter Squadron II/3 (Groupe de Chasse II/3) and damaged six more.
On 10 July, five D.520s attacked Bristol Blenheim bombers from No. 45 Squadron RAF, which were being escorted by seven Tomahawks from 3 Sqn. The French pilots claimed three Blenheims but at least four D.520s were destroyed by the Australians. The following day, a Dewoitine pilot shot down a Tomahawk from 3 Sqn, the only one lost during the campaign.
By the end of the campaign, the Vichy forces had lost 179 aircraft from about 289 committed to the Levant, with remaining aircraft with the range to do so evacuating to Rhodes.
War at sea
The war at sea was not a major part of Operation Exporter, although some significant actions were fought. During the Battle of the Litani River, rough seas kept commandos from landing along the coast on the first day of battle. On 9 June 1941, two French destroyers fired on the advancing Australians at the Litani River before being driven off by shore-based artillery fire. The French destroyers—Valmy and Guepard—then exchanged fire with the British destroyer HMS Janus. The New Zealand light cruiser HMNZS Leander came to the aid of Janus along with six additional British destroyers and the French retired.
With or without French approval, the Luftwaffe attempted to come to the aid of the hard-pressed French naval forces on 15 June. Junkers Ju 88s of II./LG 1 (2nd Group, Lehrgeschwader 1), attacked British warships forces off the Syrian coast. Hits were scored on the destroyers HMS Ilex and Isis. That evening, French aircraft of the 4th Naval Air Group bombed British naval units off the Syrian coast. Ilex and Iris were later towed to Haifa for repairs. Iris returned to service soon thereafter while Ilex underwent a series of temporary repairs at Haifa and then at Suez, Aden, Mombasa and Durban before sailing to the United States for a refit and full repair.
On 16 June, British torpedo aircraft sank the French destroyer Chevalier Paul, which had been en route from Toulon to Syria carrying ammunition from Metropolitan France. The following day, British bombers attacked another French destroyer in the port of Beirut which was also carrying ammunition. On the night of 22/23 June, Guepard fought a brief engagement with two British cruisers and six destroyers off of the coast of Syria, before the French destroyer retired under the cover of darkness.
The French suffered further losses on 25 June when the British submarine HMS Parthian torpedoed and sank the French submarine Souffleur off the Syrian coast; shortly afterward, the French tanker Adour was attacked by British torpedo aircraft. Adour was carrying the entire fuel supply for the French forces in the Middle East and was badly damaged. During the ceasefire which started on 12 July, Dentz ordered all ships and aircraft under his command to go to neutral Turkey where they were interned.
On 10 July, as the Australian 21st Brigade was on the verge of entering Beirut, Dentz sought an armistice. At one minute past midnight on 12 July, a ceasefire came into effect. To all intents and purposes, this ended the campaign and an armistice known as Armistice of Saint Jean d'Acre (also known as the "Convention of Acre") was signed on 14 July at the "Sidney Smith Barracks" on the outskirts of the city of Acre.
The Vichy French forces lost approximately 6,000 men; of these roughly 1,000 had been killed. In addition, there were 37,736 Vichy French prisoners of war. When given the choice of repatriation to Metropolitan France or joining the Free French, a total of 5,668 men chose to join General Charles De Gaulle's forces. The total number of civilians and military personnel repatriated was 37,563. Eight convoys, consisting of three hospital ships and one "gleaner" ship, sailed for France between 7 August and 27 September 1941 and arrived without incident. Prisoners taken by the Vichy French forces were returned as well. It was determined that several British prisoners of war had been sent out of Syria even after the armistice was signed. The delay in obtaining the return of these prisoners led to the detention of Dentz and 29 of his most senior officers in Palestine. They were released in due course as the British prisoners were returned to Syria.
In late July 1941, De Gaulle flew from Brazzaville to congratulate the victors. Free French General Georges Catroux was placed in control of Syria and Lebanon and on 26 November, shortly after taking up this post, Catroux recognised the independence of Syria and Lebanon in the name of the Free French movement. On 8 November 1943, after elections, Lebanon became an independent state on 1 January 1944 and on 27 February 1945, declared war on Germany and the Empire of Japan.
- Sir Arthur Roden Cutler, later an Australian diplomat and Governor of New South Wales. A Lieutenant at the time, Cutler was awarded the British Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross (VC), for his actions at the Battle of Merdjayoun. Cutler lost a leg as a consequence of the fighting.
- Jim Gordon, Australian Private soldier, awarded the VC for his actions at the Battle of Jezzine.
- Attack on Mers-el-Kébir
- 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine
- Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence (1936)
- Italian bombings on Palestine in World War II
- French Colonial Empire
- List of French possessions and colonies
- 18,000 Australians, 9,000 British, 2,000 Indian and 5,000 Free French.
- Air support was provided by 815 Naval Air Squadron (Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers) based in Cyprus and No. 84 Squadron RAF, based in Iraq with Bristol Blenheim bombers Fighter support was provided by No. 3 Squadron RAAF, operating Curtiss Tomahawks.
- 35,000 regular soldiers (including 8,000 French infantry) and 10,000 Levantine infantry.
- The British believed that there was at least 90 tanks supporting the Vichy forces in Syria.
- The Vichy air force in Syria consisted of around 30 bombers and 60 fighters. The air force was nearly doubled in size as the campaign progressed due to reinforcements being flown in from French North Africa (see text).
- The Guépard and the Valmy
- 1,552 Australian casualties (416 killed and 1,136 wounded). ~1,300 Free French casualties (1,100 captured). 1,800 British and Indian casualties (1,200 captured). A further 3,150 British troops fell sick during the campaign, including 350 who contracted malaria. This figure has been excluded from the battle casualties.
- 521 killed, 1,037 missing, 1,790 wounded and 3,004 captured. However, General Dentz later claimed that 1,092 Vichy French troops had died in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, with the extra dead presumably being classed as "missing" before this. If true, this would make the total casualties 1,092 killed, 1,790 wounded, 466 missing, and 3,004 captured.
- Most destroyed on the ground.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Syria-Lebanon Campaign 1941.|
- "Despatch on Operations in Iraq, East Syria, and Iran From 10th April, 1941 to 12th January 1942." (PDF). Supplement to the London Gazette, Number 37685. August 13, 1946. Retrieved September 26, 2009.
- "Claude Auchinleck's Despatch on Operations in the Middle East From 5th July, 1941 to 31st October 1941.". Supplement to the London Gazette, Number 37695. August 20, 1946. Retrieved November 6, 2009.
- Australian War Memorial, 2005, "Syrian Campaign"
- "The Syrian Show Begins" – Time magazine article, June 18, 1941
- "Exit With A Flourish" – Time magazine article, July 28, 1941
- The Palmach