The Syria–Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter, was the Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon in 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 Allied censors acted to suppress or reduce reportage of the fierce fighting. Senior Allied commanders and/or politicians believed that knowledge of fighting against French forces could have a negative effect on public opinion in Allied countries.
The Allied offensive was aimed at preventing Nazi Germany from using the Vichy French-controlled Syrian Republic and the French Lebanon as springboards for attacks on the Allied stronghold of Egypt, as the Allies fought a campaign against Axis forces further west 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, after a coup d'état, Iraq was controlled by pro-German rebel forces under Rashid Ali, causing eventually the outbreak of Anglo-Iraqi War and the subsequent British victory and control over neighboring Iraq.
In May 1941, Admiral François Darlan signed an agreement with the Germans known as the "Paris Protocols". Darlan signed on behalf of Vichy France and the agreement granted the Germans access to military facilities in Syria. Though the protocols were never ratified, Charles Huntziger, the Vichy Minister of War, sent orders to Henri Dentz, the High Commissioner for the Levant. In accordance with these orders, aircraft of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) were allowed to refuel in Syria. Disguised as Iraqi aircraft, the German and Italian aircraft 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 rebels in Mosul. There was a threat of Axis support for anti-British parties in Iraq, thus endangering strategic oil supplies and communications. General Archibald Wavell—Commander in Chief of Middle East Command—faced a threat posed by Vichy collaboration with Germany and Italy.
Early air clashesEdit
On 14 May, a British Bristol Blenheim bomber flying a reconnaissance mission over Palmyra spotted a Junkers Ju 90 transport taking off, with more German and Italian aircraft seen later that day, resulting in a strafing mission being authorised later that evening. Attacks against German and Italian aircraft staging through Syria continued, with a total of six Axis aircraft being claimed destroyed by 8 June, while Vichy French forces claiming to have shot down a Blenheim on 28 May, with a further Blenheim being forced down on 2 June. A Vichy French Martin 167F bomber was shot down by the RAF over Palestine on 6 June.
The Vichy French and Allied forces confronting each other in Syria and Lebanon were fairly evenly matched.
Vichy French forcesEdit
The High Commissioner of the Levant was General Henri Dentz. Dentz was also Commander in Chief of the Army of the Levant (Armée du Levant). This formation was divided into the regular metropolitan colonial troops and the "special troops" (troupes speciales, who were indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers).
Dentz had seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal. These battalions included the 6th Infantry Regiment of the French Foreign Legion and the 24th Colonial Infantry Regiment. Dentz also had eleven infantry battalions of "special troops", including at least 5,000 cavalry—horse and motorized forces. In addition, Dentz had two artillery groups and supporting units.
The Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) in the Levant was relatively strong at the outbreak of hostilities. Starting with over 90 aircraft, three additional groups were sent from France and from North Africa. This increased the strength of the air force in Lebanon and Syria to 289 aircraft.
Two destroyers and three submarines of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) were available to support the Vichy forces in the Levant.
While German interest in the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon turned out to be limited, Adolf Hitler permitted reinforcement of the French troops by allowing French aircraft en route from Algeria to Syria to safely fly over Axis-controlled territory and refuel in German-controlled Eleusina air base in Greece. The activity of German aircraft based in Greece and the Dodecanese Islands was interpreted by the Allies as being in support of Vichy troops. Although Dentz briefly considered accepting German support, he turned down the offer on 13 June.
Allied forces and planningEdit
Commando and raiding operations were undertaken by the British Army's 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 Allied 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 shelling from Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy units. Concerning fighters, Wavell provided Wilson with 70 aircraft. By comparison, the Vichy French had at least 100 fighters. The forces were more evenly matched than numbers alone would indicate, with British Hawker Hurricanes and brand-new, U.S.-built Curtiss Tomahawks, matching up well against French Dewoitine D.520s and Potez 63s.
The Mediterranean Sea was a traditional focus of British maritime power. The Mediterranean Fleet was Britain's instrument of this maritime power.
Allied forces in reserve included the British 6th Infantry Division (including the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion—East attached to the 23rd Brigade) and the Australian 17th Brigade. In mid-June, the British 6th Infantry Division with two infantry brigades under command came into the line as reinforcements, mainly on the Damascus front and the southern force was placed under the command of Australian I Corps HQ on 18 June.
The Allied 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 forces 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 northwest 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 to be sympathetic to the Vichy government and to Germany).
Meanwhile, a group comprising two infantry battalions from the 10th Indian Division's 20th Indian Infantry Brigade and two from 8th Indian Infantry Division, 17th Indian Infantry Brigade, 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 (or Duck's Bill) region through which a railway from Aleppo ran eastward to Mosul and then to Baghdad.
Palmyra and TripoliEdit
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 and a battery each of field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery—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 northwesterly 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 landEdit
Hostilities commenced on 8 June 1941. The major battles of the campaign were:
War in the airEdit
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 during the campaign. The majority of the lost aircraft were 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 seaEdit
The war at sea was not a major part of Operation Exporter but it did play a part. 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.
On 15 June, with or without French approval, the Luftwaffe attempted to come to the aid of the hard-pressed French naval forces. 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 of the Syrian coast.
HMS Ilex and Iris were towed to Haifa for repairs. Iris returned to service soon thereafter. Ilex underwent a series of temporary repairs at Haifa but further temporary repairs had to be made at Suez, Aden, Mombassa and Durban in order for Ilex to reach the United States for a refit and full repair.
On 16 June, British torpedo aircraft sank the French destroyer Chevalier Paul. The destroyer was on its way from Toulon to Syria carrying ammunition from Metropolitan France. On 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 with two British cruisers and six destroyers off of the coast of Syria. The French destroyer was able to retire under cover of darkness.
On 25 June, 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 ships and aircraft under his command to go to neutral Turkey where they were interned.
AftermathEditOn 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. This left 37,736 Vichy French prisoners of war. When given the choice of being repatriated to Metropolitan France or joining the Free French, only 5,668 men chose to join the forces of General Charles De Gaulle. The total number of persons repatriated to Metropolitan France, civilian and military was 37,563. Eight convoys composed of three hospital ships and one "gleaner" ship sailed for France between 7 August and 27 September 1941 and were cleared without any unfortunate 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 initialled. The delay in obtaining the return of these prisoners led to the detention in Palestine of Dentz and 29 of his most senior officers. They were released in due course as the British prisoners were returned to Syria.
In late July 1941, De Gaulle flew from Brazzaville to personally congratulate the victors.
Free French General Georges Catroux was placed in control of Syria and Lebanon. 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 27 February 1945, it declared war on Germany and the Empire of Japan.
Syria became independent on 1 January 1944. On 26 February 1945, Syria declared war on Germany and Japan.
Victoria Cross recipientsEdit