Thursday, May 21, 2015

Lt-Col. Blackburn's force - 20 June 1941 in Syria

General Evetts, the new commander in Eastern Syria on 20 June 1941 decided to send Lt-Col. Blackburn to join the Free French and get them moving towards Damascus. General Evetts' assessment was that the Free French were not mentally able to continue on their own. Lt-Col. Blackburn nominally had a battalion-sized force under his command, actually only had "one company (Captain Gordon's), one platoon of another company and five anti-tank guns". Blackburn moved forward to where Colonel Casseau's Free French troops were located at Jebel el Kelb. The Free French excuse had been that the Vichy French were better equipped, as they had tanks and armored cars. Colonel Casseau was impressed that Blackburn had anti-tank guns. Lt-Col. Blackburn got Colonel Casseau to agree to attack at 5pm. Lt-Col. Blackburn had his four platoons astride the road, ready to advance. He found that the French African troops would only advance as far as his machine-gunners, when they would stop. The machine-funners had to keep advancing to convince the Africans to advance more. By following this pattern, they were able to get the Free French African troops to advance three miles, almost to the outskirts of Damascus. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The new situation in Syria from 18 June 1941

The 5th Indian Brigade battalions were heavily engaged in battle at Mezze late on 18 June 1941. Also on 18 June, the 2/3rd Australian Battalion was boarding the train at Majdal, in Palestine. They were destined for Deraa in Syria. One of the battalion's companies had already been sent to Sidon, in Lebanon. They were survivors of the Greek and Crete battles, and more men were being taken. They were reduced to "21 officers and 385 men". The temperature was 130 degrees and the men were transported in cattle cars. They reached Khan Deinoun early on 20 June 1041. They were told that they were now in the 5th Indian Brigade. They were considered the "British battalion". They road on trucks to Mouadammiye. They were in position to the right of the Kuneitra road. They could hear the 1st Field Regiment battery firing. They were under Major Bourke's command and were part of the force hoping to relieve the two Indian battalions at Mezze. The dismal situation with the Free French on the road to Damscus was having an effect. The Free French were very unreliable and did not want to be fighting other Frenchmen. Part of the problem was that the Free French were mostly African colonials, with low marale. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The sacrifice of the 5th Indian Brigade was not in vain-plans change on 20 June 1941

One result of the 5th Indian Brigade advance to Mezze was that the plans for the campaign changed on 20 June 1941. General Evetts was the 6th Infantry Division commander. Interestingly enough, General Evetts was an old Middle Easterrn hand. He had commanded the 16th Infantry Brigade in Palestine from 1935 until 1939. This was during a period of unrest with the Arabs in revolt. On 19 June, he was appointed to command the attack on Damascus. He had all Australian, British, and Indian formations east of Merdjayoun under his command. He also had the Free French under his command, although they were considered to be not reliable. Once General Lavarack heard about having General Evetts and his men, he requested that he be given the 16th Brigade, rather than sending it to the coast for the advance on Beirut. General Wilson gave permission with the condition that the Damascus attack be concluded quickly. General Lavarack had his chief of staff consult with General Allen, of the 7th Australian Division, and asked if he could hold on with two brigades. He said that he could, so they diverted the 16th Brigade to the attack on Damascus. The deal was that once Damascus was taken, some of the force would be sent back to the coast for the attack on Beirut. By the end of 20 June, the force in the east consisted of the remnants of the 5th Indian Brigade and the 16th Brigade. There were also three more battalions that replaced the depleted 5th Indian Brigade units. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

French tanks in Syria in 1941

We asked the obvious question: "What sorts of tanks did the Vichy French have in Syria?" The French use of tanks against the Australians and the 5th Indian Brigade were a major factor in the counter-attack that destroyed the 5th Indian Brigade and held up the advance to Damascus. The Australian Official History has at least a partial answer. There were two tanks regiments, each equipped with 45 R-35 tanks. These were the Chasseurs d'Afrique. The armored cars that were involved were all locally-converted vehicles. There were some 150 armored cars, a few equipped with 37mm guns. Others just had machine guns. They were effective enough against the Australians, who had just carriers. The reference to the tanks is on page 358 of Greece, Crete and Syria, by Gavin Long. This is Volume II of the Australian Official History. Frank Cozens, in a forum post, suggests that there were some purpose-built French armored cars present, as well. He says that the armored vehicles were painted dark green. Chris Ellis, in Tanks of the World, shows a North African R-35 in olive green with the rail attachment for helping with crossing ditches and rough ground.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The 5th Indian Brigade surrenders but the situation improves

The two battalions of the 5th Indian Brigade at Mezze were in deep trouble. Their 12 vehicles with the anti-tank guns had gotten ahead of the marching infantry and were lost. The men at Mezze had fought well, but they were attacked by tanks and had not way to fight them. The Indian troops were able to fight off the French infantry, but the tanks were a problem. They were also under constant artillery fire. One company that had become separated was forced to surrender by 4pm on 19 June 1941. The remaining men were fighting from Mezze House. They were out of food and were low on ammunition. It was at this point that Colonel Jones had sent the men to Lloyd to tell them of the situation. They arrived too late, early on 20 June. The 5th Indian Brigade had actually done better than the Free French. They had attacked on 19 June, but had made no progress. The Free French seem to have often been rather unreliable. The failure of the attack had left the French to concentrate on the 5th Indian Brigade, destroying the unit. The one result of the attack on Mezze was that the Vichy French had started to withdraw from Damascus. Men from the British 6th Infantry Division had arrived by 20 June, and their guns had repelled the Vichy tanks that had stopped the Free French from moving forward. When Brigadier Lloyd heard about the plight of the men at Mezze, he sent a relieving force. It was too late but they were stopped by French tanks. The relief force had included 1st Field Regiment, some Free French marines, and more Punjabi companies (all that remained). Big changes had a dramatic effect. General Lavarack requested that the 16th British Brigade be sent to the attack on Damascus, not for the advance on Beirut. The British general Evetts was given command of the attack on Damascus. They needed the attack to conclude quickly, so that troops could be diverted to taking Beirut. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Brigadier Lloyd's plan on 18 June 1941

Brigadier Lloyd commanded the attack on the right of the British attack on Lebanon and Syria. The Vichy French had launched a counter-attack on his rear in an attempt to stop his advance on Damascus. On 18 June 1941, Brigadier Lloyd thought that the best plan would be to push on Damascus. That would counteract the attacks to the left. He had not received word that Kuneitra had been recaptured from the French, which would have confirmed that he was on the right track. The plan was for the Free French to move towards Kadem, which would threaten the south side of Damascus. The 5th Indian Brigade would move on the left through Kuneitra and on to the road between Beirut and Damascus, to cut the main road. A defensive group was formed of Free French Marines and two companies from the 5th Indian Brigade. They would be located "from Artouz to Jebel Madani". The big move was for the remaining two battalions of the 5th Indian Brigade to move forward. They would move to Mezze, take the place, and then form a defensive position. They were an all-Indian unit now. The Indians would move out at 8:30pm on 18 June. By 10pm, they were fired on by French artillery. There was a heavy fight, but the French post was disrupted so the men could move forward. The vehicles got ahead of the infantry and got in trouble, but the infantry continued on and were up to Mezze by 4:15am on 19 June. They attacked at 4:30am. The men then worked to set up defenses at Mezze. They made road blocks from "timber, stones and wire". All during 19 June, the French attacked. Colonel Jones sent men to let Brigadier Lloyd know their situation. They reached the headquarters at 5:30am on 20 June. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Syrian Campaign plan and the progression in June 1941

General Wilson had decided to reorganize the attacking force in Syria and Lebanon as the campaign progressed in June 1941. When they reached the road between Beirut and Damascus, General Lavarack would become a corps commander and General Allen would become the 7th Australian Division commander. General Lavarack would then become the commander of operations in Syria and Lebanon. While they had not reached the road between the two cities, they still made the transfer so that someone below the level of General Wilson would have overall control of the campaign. General Wilson was situated in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, not very close to the action in Syria and Lebanon. General Wilson was responsible for a larger area than Syria and Lebanon, as he had Palestine and Trans-Jordan, as well. General Lavarack had the 7th Australian Division, the 5th Indian Brigade, and the 1st Free French Division under his command. The only unit in Syria not under General Lavarack's command was "Habforce" from Iraq. The 16th British Brigade was included in the 7th Australian Division for this operation. On 18 June, General Wilson made a radio broadcast asking for General Dentz to withdraw from Damascus and made Damascus an "open city". This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The French counter-attack from 13 to 17 June 1941 in Syria and Lebanon

The commander of the Vichy French army, General Verdilhac, had wanted to disrupt to British attack on Lebanon and Syria, so he could be prepared to fight an expected British force from Iraq. The operation started with a reconnaissance operation in front of Nahr el Awaj. Some armored cars and motorized infantry moved out from Sassa. They probed Kuneitra, were fired upon, and then pulled back. The next step commenced on 14 June. General Verdilhac used 13 battalions, a strong force. He sent a column to take Kuneitra, if possible. They would then move forward to Banias and Bennt Jacub. Another column would take Ezraa and Sheikh Meskine. There were also three battalions in front of Damascus. Kuneitra fell and they captured some 470 prisoners. The group sent to Sanamein was deterred by the size of the defensive force and pulled back. Because of that, the French pulled back from Kuneitra, leaving a small force to hold the town.

While this was happening, Brigadier Lloyd continued to press towards Damascus in the east. General Verdhilhac sent two more battalions to reinforce the troops in front of Damascus. Two battalion commanders at Kiswe were sacked and replaced with stronger leaders. Colonel Keime was appointed at the new commander of the south Syria defenses. He replaced General Delhomme. The new battalions were moved near Artouz and Mezze.

A strong attack at Merdjayoun included three infantry battalions (two Algerian and one Tunisian). They were assisted by some twenty tanks. By 21 June, a French Foreign Legion battalion had been added. Their eastern flank was covered by cavalry. They oped to advance south of Fort Khiam and Khirbe. The eastern-most battalion was to move forward towards Banias.

The attack northward along the coast was halted by news of the French attacks to the east. General Lavarack had requested help from General Wilson. He was given a 16th Brigade battalion, the 2/King's Own, instead of the two Australian battalions that General Lavarack had requested. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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