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The Syria–Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter, was the British invasion of Vichy French Syria and Lebanon from June–July 1941, during the Second World War. The French had ceded autonomy to Syria in September 1936, with the right to maintain armed forces and two airfields in the territory.
On 1 April 1941, the 1941 Iraqi coup d'état had taken place and Iraq had come under the control of Iraqi nationalists led by Rashid Ali, who appealed for German support. The Anglo-Iraqi War (2–31 May 1941) led to the overthrow of the Ali regime and the installation of a British puppet government. The British invaded Syria and Lebanon in June, to prevent Nazi Germany from using the Vichy French-controlled Syrian Republic and French Lebanon as bases for attacks on the Kingdom of Egypt, during an invasion scare in the aftermath of the German victories in the Battle of Greece (6–30 April 1941) and the Battle of Crete (20 May – 1 June). In the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) in North Africa, the British were preparing Operation Battleaxe to relieve the Siege of Tobruk and were fighting the East African Campaign (10 June 1940 – 27 November 1941) in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Vichy French made a vigorous defence of Syria; but, on 10 July, as the 21st Australian Brigade was on the verge of entering Beirut, the French sought an armistice. At one minute past midnight on 12 July, a ceasefire came into effect and ended the campaign. The Armistice of Saint Jean d'Acre (Convention of Acre) was signed on 14 July at the Sidney Smith Barracks on the outskirts of the city. 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 English-speaking countries.
In May 1941, Admiral François Darlan on behalf of Vichy France signed the Paris Protocols, an agreement with the Germans. The 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 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica to refuel in Syria. Marked 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. General Archibald Percival Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, was reluctant to intervene in Syria, despite government prodding, because of the situation in the Western Desert, the imminent German attack on Crete and doubts about Free French pretensions.
Dentz was Commander in Chief of the Armée du Levant (Army of the Levant), which had regular metropolitan colonial troops and troupes spéciales (special troops, indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers). There were seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal, which included the 6th Foreign 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 Vichy garrison numbered 45,000 troops, comprising 35,000 regulars including 8,000 French and 10,000 Syrian and Lebanese infantry. The French had 90 tanks (according to British estimates), the Armée de l'Air de Vichy (Vichy French Air Force) had 90 aircraft (increasing to 289 aircraft after reinforcement) and the Marine Nationale (French Navy) had two destroyers, Guépard and Valmy, and three submarines.
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; 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. 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 support for Vichy troops, but although Dentz briefly considered accepting German assistance, he rejected the offer on 13 June.
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 nationalists led by Rashid Ali who were willing to appeal for German support. The Anglo-Iraqi War (2–31 May 1941) led to the installation of a pro-British government.
British forces to the south of Syria in Mandate Palestine were under the command of General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson and consisted of the 7th Australian Division (minus the 18th Brigade, which was in North Africa, besieged at 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, 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 from Cyprus, as well as Palmach paramilitary and Mista'arvim squads from Mandatory Palestine.
Air support was provided by squadrons from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF); ground forces on the coast were supported by bombardments from Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) units of the Mediterranean Fleet. At the beginning, Air Commodore L. O. Brown, the Air officer commanding (AOC) HQ RAF Palestine and Transjordan had the understrength 11 Squadron (Bristol Blenheim Mk IV), 80 Squadron, re-equipping with Hawker Hurricanes, 3 Squadron RAAF, converting to Curtiss Tomahawks, 208 (Army Co-operation) Squadron with a flight of Hurricanes and X Flight (Gloster Gladiators). A detachment of Fleet Air Arm (FAA) 815 Naval Air Squadron (Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers) in Cyprus and 84 Squadron (Blenheims) in Iraq were to co-operate.
British forces in reserve included the 6th Infantry Division (with 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 on 19 June. At the beginning of Operation Exporter, the British and Commonwealth force consisted of about 34,000 men (18,000 Australians, 9,000 British, 2,000 Indian and 5,000 Free French troops). The RAF and RAAF had about 50 aircraft and the navy contributed the landing ship HMS Glengyle, five cruisers and eight destroyers.
The British plan of attack devised by Wilson called for four lines of invasion, on Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, on northern Syria and Palmyra (in central Syria) from Iraq and Tripoli (in northern Lebanon) also from Iraq. The 5th Indian Brigade Group (Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd) was 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 7th Australian Division (Major-General John Lavarack (succeeded by Major-General Arthur "Tubby" Allen on 18 June when Lavarack took over Australian I Corps) advanced from Palestine along the coastal road from Haifa towards Beirut. The Australian 21st Brigade was to take Beirut, advancing along the coast from Tyre, over the Litani River towards Sidon. The Australian 25th Brigade was to attack the large Vichy French airbase at Rayak, advancing along a route further inland from the 21st Brigade. The operation was also to include a supporting commando landing from Cyprus at the south of the Litani River.
Once the two southern prongs were well engaged, it was planned that a third force, comprising formations drawn from Iraq Command, would invade Syria. The bulk of the 10th Indian Infantry Division (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. The manoeuvre was intended to threaten the communication and supply lines of Vichy forces defending Beirut against the Australians advancing from the south, in particular the railway line running northwards through Aleppo to Turkey (Turkey was thought by some British strategists to be sympathetic to Vichy and to Germany). 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. The 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 Baghdad. 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. Habforce comprised the 4th Cavalry Brigade, the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment and the Arab Legion Mechanized Regiment, supported by field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery units, to gather in western Iraq between Rutbah and the Transjordan border. At the same time as the thrust up the Euphrates, Habforce would advance in a north-westerly direction to take Palmyra in Syria and secure the oil pipeline from Haditha to Tripoli.
Hostilities commenced on 8 June 1941. The battles of the campaign were:
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, the absence of infrastructure and the absence of modern anti-aircraft (AA) artillery made them vulnerable to air attacks. On 26 June, a strafing run by Tomahawks of 3 Squadron RAAF, 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 of 45 Squadron RAF, which were being escorted by seven Australian Tomahawks from 3 Squadron. 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 Squadron, 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.
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, the French destroyers Valmy and Guépard fired on the advancing Australians at the Litani River before being driven off by shore-based artillery-fire. The French destroyers 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 British destroyers and the French retired. The Luftwaffe attempted to come to the aid of the 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 and hit the destroyers HMS Ilex and Isis. That evening, French aircraft of the 4th Naval Air Group bombed British naval units off the Syrian coast.
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, Guépard fought a brief engagement with two British cruisers and six destroyers off of the Syrian coast, 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 afterwards, the French tanker Adour, which was carrying the entire fuel supply for the French forces in the Middle East, was attacked by British torpedo aircraft and badly damaged.
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 and ended the campaign. The 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.
Wavell had not wanted the Syrian distraction when British forces in the Mediterranean were overstretched and the promenade guaranteed by the Free French appeared to be a false promise. Churchill and the CIGS forced the campaign on Wavell and when Vichy forces defended Syria, the British forces needed reinforcement, which could only be provided piecemeal. Many of the British and Commonwealth troops were novices and the hot, dry and mountainous terrain was a severe test, in which Indian Army units excelled. The Australian contingent had to cope with the worst country but conducted the most effective attack, "with a good plan carried through with great determination". The achievement of air superiority was delayed by the lack of aircraft but the urgency of the situation made it impossible for the naval and ground forces to wait. Vichy French airmen concentrated their attacks on ships and ground targets, which were highly effective until they were forced to move north. The scare caused by the German success in Crete had been exaggerated because the German parachute and glider invasion of Crete had been costly and there was little chance of the Germans gaining a bridgehead in Syria. The Germans withdrew from Syria to preserve their forces and to deprive the British of a pretext for invasion. The British invaded Syria anyway and took over naval and air bases far north of Suez and increased the safety of the oil route from Basra to Baghdad in Iraq to Haifa in Palestine.
In August, the Vichy authorities announced 6,352 casualties of whom 521 men had been killed, 1,037 were missing, 1,790 wounded and 3,004 men had been taken prisoner. After the war, Dentz stated that 1,092 men had been killed, which would mean 1,790 wounded, 466 missing and 3,004 prisoners against a British claim of 8,912 casualties of all natures. The Vichy Air Force lost 179 aircraft, most destroyed on the ground, the navy lost one submarine and 5,668 men defected to the Free French. The armistice agreement led to the repatriation to France of 37,563 military and civilian personnel in eight convoys, consisting of three hospital ships and a "gleaner" ship, from 7 August to 27 September. Prisoners taken by the Vichy French forces were returned but several British prisoners of war had been sent out of Syria, some after the armistice. The delay in obtaining the return of these prisoners led to the detention of Dentz and 29 senior officers in Palestine who were released when the British prisoners were returned to Syria. British and Commonwealth casualties were about 4,652; the Australians suffered 1,552 casualties, (416 men killed and 1,136 wounded.) The Free French incurred about c. 1,300 losses and 1,100 men taken prisoner; British and Indian casualties were 1,800 wounded, 1,200 men captured and 3,150 sick, including 350 malaria cases. The RAF and RAAF lost 27 aircraft.
Operations against the Vichy regime in Syria could only be conducted with troops withdrawn from the Western Desert, a dispersal that contributed to the defeat of Operation Battleaxe and made the Syrian campaign take longer than necessary. Churchill had decided to sack Wavell in early May over his reluctance to divert forces to Iraq. Wavell was relieved on 22 June and relinquished command on 5 July, leaving for India two days afterwards. 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. After elections on 8 November 1943, Lebanon became an independent state on 22 November 1943 and on 27 February 1945, declared war on Germany and the Empire of Japan.
By 1945, however, continued French presence in the Levant saw nationalist demonstrations which the French attempted to quell. With heavy Syrian casualties, notably in Damascus, Winston Churchill opposed French action but after being rebuffed by Charles De Gaulle, he ordered British forces into Syria from Jordan with orders to fire on the French. Known as the Levant Crisis – British armoured cars and troops then reached the Syrian capital Damascus following which the French were escorted and confined to their barracks. With political pressure added, De Gaulle ordered a ceasefire and France withdrew from Syria the following year.
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