Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The French counter-attack and disarray in response

When the Royal Scots Greys fled through Merdjayoun in headlong flight, they told the Australians that there were no more British troops to the north. That was actually not true. There were still "infantry, cavalry and artillery" forward that did not know about the withdrawal and panic. There was still a rearguard in place at Merdjayoun. There was an infantry company, some cavalry in carriers, and an anti-tank gun battery. The infantry scouted some 500 yards to the north and saw no French troops. They had been ordered to pull back at 2:45am and did so. They moved back to Qleaa to where some Staffordshire Yeomanry and Royal Scots Greys were in place. The Australian infantry were across the road. They saw their first French tanks at 10:30am on 16 June 1941. There were only two, and the anti-tank guns knocked out one and the other pulled back. By now, the company at the "Windy Corner" had pulled back to Khiam and had occupied the fort there. The 6th Cavalry had some Vickers machine guns set up at the nearby road junction.

The French counter-attack in the east had created major problems for the British forces attacking Syria in the east. While ordering his reserves forward, General Lavarack told Brigadier Berryman to take command of the troops at Merdjayoun. Brigadier Berryman was the 7th Australian Division artillery commander and was the most experienced Australian brigadier. Brigadier Berryman had been at Jezzine when he received his orders from General Lavarack. That had been around midnight on 15 June. While Brigadier Berryman had responsibility for the area west of the Litani river, he also made some moves to the esat, where the Royal Scots Greys were at Qleaa. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Panic at Merdjayoun on 15 June 1941

at dusk on 15 June 1941, the French tanks moving on Merdjayoun had stopped. Not just the tanks, but the French attack in general had come to a stop. They would have been foolish to move tanks on mountainous roads in the dark. Still, there was panic among some troops near Merdjayoun with wild rumors of French tanks having broken through the position. The Royal Scots Greys, British cavalry, were among those affected. When some men of the Greys went to where their vehicle park and found that they were gone, the men panicked and they were out of control. This had been observed by an Australian artillery officer. Even the Australians got mixed up with the men in panic. There were four vehicles belonging to the 2/5th Field Regiment which got involved with the scramble of vehicles moving towards Metulla. They eventually received orders "to keep going and keep the roads clear". The "little convoy of four trucks" eventually was able to rejoin their unit after two days on the move. The field guns at Qleaa were eventually withdrawn after a harrowing experience after taking a wrong turn that led them over terraces. They were attacked by a French bomber that a Bofors gun shot down. They eventually the guns made their way to Metulla by dark. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The situation at Merdjayoun deteriorates on 15 June 1941

After the route to Captain Hodge's observation post was cut on 15 June 1941, under the French attack, he sent a gunner back to find out the situation. He returned to say that the Royal Scots Greys had withdrawn. Hodge's team was helped by a troop of carriers that crossed the Debbine Valley. The whole front near Medjayoun was now withdrawing in the face of the strong French attack. The 2/33rd commander, Lt-Col. Monaghan, ordered the cavalry commander, Onslow, to supervise the withdrawal of the forward troops. He also suggested to Colonel Todd, the commander of the Royal Scots Greys, that his men should hold the high ground to the immediate north of Merdjayoun. Monaghan's battalion would try and hold Khiam. He hoped to organize a counter-attack near Rachaya el Fokhar. A new unit, a company of the 2/5th Battaiion was operating under the command of the Royal Scots Greys. As the day got later on 15 June, the French were continuing to attack and make progress. The cavalry squadron on the Balate Ridge withdrew into Merdjayoun in the face of the French attack. Rumors were rife of a big French breakthrough with tanks and a collapse of the Australian position. Some troops panicked and fled without orders. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 23, 2015

At the "Windy Corner" on 15 June 1941

One company of the Australian 2/33rd Battalion was at Route "A" near the Windy Corner. The road north of Merdjayoun, in Syria, during the attack on Syria and Lebanon, curves around the bottom of the Balate Ridge. When the road then turns back to the north, there is a divide into what they called routes "A" and "B". During the afternoon of 15 June 1941, French artillery opened fire on the company that was on Route "A" at the "Windy Corner". The company was under Major Onslow's command. He had two 6th Australian Cavalry squadrons. There were also other troops in the vicinity. They included a machine gun platoon, anti-tank guns, and a field artillery battery. The battery was to support the Royal Scots Greys, which were on the road to the north. Suddenly, at 3pm, they received French artillery fire. In a half hour, ten French tanks, fifty cavalry, and two infantry companies moved into the area. They set up machine guns. Starting at 4:30pm, the tanks attacked on both routes "A" and "B". The Australian anti-tank guns hit the leading tank. Two other tanks backed off, but fired on the machine guns. French troops on the heights started firing on the 2/5th, who were below them in elevation and about 1200 yards away. The French had made a stronger attack on Route "B", and had forced the Royal Scots Greys to withdraw back down the road, as they were attacked by French tanks. The tanks were fired on by artillery and the anti-tank guns. After four tanks were knocked out, they moved back around the curve, out of sight. At ROute "A", a large infantry attack took two of the Australian anti-tank guns. After another attack at Route "B", the guns there were pulled back out of danger. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

15 June 1941 near Merdjayoun

Captain Bennett commanded a company of the Australian 2/33rd Battalion. since the start of the campaign in Syria and Lebanon, Captain Bennett's company had spent much of the time near Merdjayoun. On 15 June 1941, they were moving north and "passed through Rachaya el Fokhar" as they moved towards Christofini. They heard from the local people that the French had been using a fort at Christofini. There had been fifty man groups moving in and out of the fort. They later learned enough to believe that the French had withdrawn earlier on the 15th after receiving artillery fire. Captain Bennett had decided to wait to move towards the fort until 16th.

Another company of the 2/33rd Battalion was moving towards Hebbariye. Major Buttrose commanded this company. They had donkeys to carry their "heavy weapons and ammunition". They quickly found that they donkeys could not handle the steep slopes, so the men had to carry the weapons and ammunition. They also reached Rachaya el Fokhar, where they met an Arab who spoke English and had lived in the United States. He told them he would guide them down the cliff face towards Hebbariye. They reached that village by 11:30am. They heard at 3pm from a "friendly Arab" that the French "knew where they were". Major Buttrose, in response, moved his company down below the village. That proved a wise move, because the French had started firing artillery at the area where they had been above the village. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official history.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Action at Kuneitra and Merdjayoun on 14 and 15 June 1941

A deserver from the Vichy French asserted that the French planned to attack Kuneitra on 15 June 1941 with two infantry battalions and tanks. In the face of what was happening, there were some shifting of command and units. A battle group was formed at Merdjayoun under the command of Lt-Col. Monaghan. He had his battalion, the 2/33rd, the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment, an artillery battery, and some anti-tank guns and engineers. There were also the Royal Scots Greys and 2/2nd Pioneers under General Lavarack. The pioneers had their headquarters near the Litani River crossing. Lt-Col. Monaghan took the risk of sending three companies in a flanking attack on the advancing French forces near the foothills of Mount Hermon. At least some of the Australians knew the area well and were liked by the Syrian villagers, who were willing to give them information. There was a fort at Christofini that was occupied by French cavalry. One company planned to attack the fort on 16 June, although the French had likely abandoned the fort on 15 June. There was a concerted French attack north of Merdjayoun at the area named the "Windy Corner". Australian anti-tank guns were in action and knocked out the lead tank, which discouraged the others, causing them to pull back. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Danger in the rear on 14 and 15 June 1941 in the east of Syria

Some 35 miles behind the front line on the road to Damascus on 14 and 15 June 1941, the commander, now Brigadier Lloyd, as we noted, was notified that on the afternoon of 14 June, two companies of Tunisian troops with armoured cars and artillery had driven out the Transjordan Frontier Force and had taken Ezraa. They were sitting on the road, as a blocking force. The Jordanians had moved to the "Ezraa-Sheikh Meskine" road. After that news, they heard of a French force moving on Kuneitra. Early on 15 June, this group had moved out from Sassa. The had forced back the advance group from the 1/Royal Fusiliers with a few armoured cars and carriers. There was grim news from 15 June that the Vichy French were sending a large force of infantry, tanks, and cavalry towards Kuneitra. The force of Free French and the Indian brigade had essentially bypassed this group on their advance towards Damascus. The bypassed force was now in position to threaten the rear of the troops moving towards Damascus. Brigadier Lloyd responded to the threat by dispatching a small battle group consisting of two Free French companies and some British artillery towards Sheikh Meskine. They were to hold the road near Sheikh Meskine. At noon on the 15th, Australian Tomahawks attacked Vichy French vehicles on the road also near Sheikh Meskine. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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