Monday, June 29, 2015
By 28 June 1941, the forces attacking Palmyra were still finding strong resistance. The 1/Essex battalion might have taken the chateau that day, but the defenders still were holding up further progress. The situation prompted the commanders to order the 10th Indian Division from Iraq to attack towards Aleppo. The 10th Indian Division was commanded by General Slim, later to become famous for his service in the Far East. One factor that we have not previously mentioned is that Germany had invaded Russia starting on 22 June 1941. In everyone's assessment, they assumed that the invasion removed any threat of Germany invading the Middle East beyond their fighting in the Western Desert in Libya and Egypt. General Wavell had reported to the CIGS about the situation and had said that he would have the force from Iraq bypass Palmyra and move on to Homs. He would order the Free French to advance to the road from Homs to Nebek. They would order the Australians to beat back the French forces at Merdjayoun. The British 16th Brigade would be sent to take Rayak. More reinforcements were sent from Egypt. This time it would be the 23rd Brigade, also from the 6th British Division, the same as the 16th Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Habforce (I suppose that the Hab came from Habbaniyah) was to advance on Palmyra and take the place. This was the ruins of an ancient city. Habforce included British cavalry and Arab Legion troops. They started off on 21 June 1941 and hoped to take Palmyra that day. Generals Wavell and Auchinleck were involved in the planning. To the south of the old city was a "salt pan" said to be impassible. There were thought to be three companies in possession of Palmyra. Two were French Foreign Legion. One cavalry regiment would take the hills to the west. Another regiment would move until they could enter the ancient city from the north. The over-optimistic plans were disrupted by Vichy French air attacks on the force. They were also held up by machine gun fire on the southwest corner. The commander, Major-General Clark asks the command in Jerusalem for help. They needed air protection. What was sent were some nine Gladiator biplane fighters, but there was no way to maintain a protected air field, so they left the area. Air attacks continued to June 23 and 24, and many vehicles were destroyed. The situation was such that they were running short of supplies. Rebel Arabs and French armored cars waited for supply columns to arrive. One of the British commanders, Brigadier Kingstone, collapsed on 24 June. Major Gooch took command in his place. By 28 June, a British bombing attack hit the French and Tomahawk escorts from No.3 Squadron RAAF shot down six French bombers. 1/Essex took one strong point, the "chateau". The French defenders of Palmyra continued to hold out. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Monday, June 22, 2015
After having taken Jebel Mazar from the French, the subsequent loss by 28 June 1941 was very difficult. The forward artillery observer had lost some essential parts of his radio gear, so that he was not able to call in artillery fire in support. After this, the 16th Brigade, including the 2/3rd Battalion, was withdrawn to "a line from Deir Kanoun to Yafour". The very depleted "5th Indian Brigade was on the Col de Yafour". The French counterattack on Jebel Mazar had first been made by a company of Senegalese. They failed to dislodge the Australians. Two more companies of French colonial troops then attacked. They nearly reached the peak, but had to stop the attack. By morning, they discovered that the Australians had withdrawn and took a few prisoners. Habforce had hoped to stage an attack on Syria from Iraq, but they were stopped in a similar situation to Jebel Mazar. Hapforce had been freed up by the arrival of the 10th Indian Division. They were scattered through Iraq, but were a diverse group of units, where the 4th Cavalry Brigade was the strongest unit. By 18 June, 1941, the decision was made to send two of the Indian brigades from the 10th Indian Division into Syria. They had hoped to easily take Palmyra, but by 28 June, they were still stopped. There was the issue of French bombing attacks on the attackers and their vehicles. Also, the land was rugged and not easily crossed.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
By 7am on 27 June 1941, the French commenced heavy fire from medium machine guns and field artillery on the Australians on Jebel Mazar. The French started sending groups of men to attack the hill. As the day went on, by afternoon, the situation got more intense. A captured Australian was sent to invite Captain Murchison and his men to surrender. He sent the man back, declining the offer. After 5pm, the French started another artillery attack. The mortars were more effective than the field guns, however. Murchison saw how the situation was developing and decided to hold on until dark and then withdraw, unless something changed. As they climbed down the mountain, they saw no sign of the rest of the battalion. They seemed to have all left. They eventually made their way to Yafour and occupied two large caves, where they slept. By day on 28 June, they found a truck from the Queen's battalion. The truck was used to transport the wounded, The rest made their way out on the next day, eventually joining up with the 2/3rd Battalion. It turned out that Hutchison's company had beaten off an atteck and then had withdrawn to the east. They met Major Stevenson with 16,000 rounds of ammunition that he had wanted to take to Murchison. Once Stevenson realized the situation, he ordered Hutchison to funcation as a rear-guard so that the Queen's and artillery could withdraw. After that they would pull back to Yafour. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
The Australians had taken Jebel Mazar by 4:30am on 27 June 1941. The sun was just rising, and they could start to see. They surveyed the area and saw that there were actually two high points on the peak. They put men on both. As Captain Murchison was inspecting the area, the French officer who had been the artillery observer stood up from a small trench. He started talking with Murchison in English. The Australians could see significant French forces to the west. An artillery observer was to join them on the peak, but had not arrived. The observer finally arrived at 7am but he had left his radio a thousand feet below. Murchison sent him down to get the radio, but he never returned. Later in the morning, more men arrived. Some of the attackers had lost their way in the dark, and only now were rejoining. They had also picked up more men along the way. Among them were a sergeant and 17 men from the Queen's battalion. The sergeant had been sent to take the ridge beyond Jebel Mazar, but the ridge was strongly held by a French battalion. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Monday, June 15, 2015
By June 26, 1941, Brigadier Lomax had wanted to withdraw his battalions to a safe position and go into a defensive posture. Major Stevenson, of the 2/3rd Battalion asked to make another attempt to capture Jebel Mazar. The new company from Sidon, had 110 men. It was larger than the remnants of the other companies combined. They were given bad guiding by the unreliable Syrian, so they did not meet up with Hutchison's company when they started to climb. They attempted an attack on the morning of 26 June. They ran into heavy machine gun fire. Shortly after this, Captain Murchison, the commander of the fresh company, found the remnants of Hutchison's company. They combined into one group, by the time Brigadier Lomax had wanted them to withdraw. At about 7pm, a sentry saw the French making an attack. They forced the attackers back towards Hutchison, where they were caught by Bren gun fire. They were decimated, as they had been caught by surprise. The survivors escaped. By 1am on 27 June, the two groups combined and started climbing in "single file". The Australians had the advantage that they could see the French defenders in silhouette, while the Australians were in darkness. There was a quick fight, where the French were beaten. They rested for ten minutes and fell asleep on the rocks. They neared the summit, where they still had the advantage of stealth from the dark while the French were easily seen against light. They charged, took one machine gun, while the other started firing at 30 yards. They charged, fired a Very pistol round. The defenders were Africans, and they ran at the attack. They were under fire from machine guns located at some distance. They climbed another 400 yards, and were at the top. They made one final charge, yelling, and the French and Africans broke and ran. Murchison fired his Very pistol, to signal that they had won. When they saw the light from the flare, some French and Africans surrendered. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
The 2/3rd Battalion, such as it was, was under the command of Brigadier Lomax of the 16th Brigade. Brigadier Lomax had Major Stevenson withdraw to Adsaya, except for one company. That company would join the Leicesters. However, Hutchison's company was ordered to take Jebel Mazar. Brigadier Lomax thought that the peak was unoccupied, which turned out not to be true. The company was sent by trucks to Yafour. The peak was 1,600 feet high and was a dominant feature. It is in familiar territory, as it is connected to Mount Hermon. We know that there were artillery observers on the heights. They were calling in artillery fire from remote locations, out of sight. The Australians headed out from Yafour at about 8:30pm. Their guide took them to a lesser high point, thinking that was where they were going. Hutchison realized the error, but they waited until morning to go further. By 8am, they tried to move, but were under machine gun fire and a heavy mortar. The fresh company from Sidon was released to rejoin the 2/3rd to help with the assault on Jebel Mazar. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
On 24 June 1941, at 5am, the 2/3rd Battalion moved off to the west in trucks, heading towards Beirut. The three carriers were in the lead, followed by their platoon with anti-tank weapons. Their resources were limited, as they only had an anti-tank rifle and a Very pistol. They also had a 2 inch mortar, it appears. The other two battalions from the 16th Brigade were to advance north towards the road on which they were traveling. As the neared the point where they expected to see a friendly battalion, they received artillery fire and then small-arms fire. They returned the fire, but then discovered they were exchanging fire with the Leicesters. Major Stevenson, commanding the 2/3rd Battalion met with the commander of the Leicesters. He agreed to help take the high ground held by the French. After that, the 2/3rd would be in reserve, holding the road block. The French were firing heavy artillery fire on the road, the heaviest that the 2/3rd had seen. The 2/3rd moved forward in a widely-dispersed formation, since they were under fire. On the south side, the platoon there took the hill that there was their objective. Two French tanks attacked them there. They fired the anti-tank rifle, the Very pistol, and the 2-inch mortar at close range with smoke bombs. They did not damage the tanks, but they caused them to retreat. The two field guns with the 2/3rd were knocked out, but they had fired on French cavalry and drove them away. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Monday, June 08, 2015
We find that Damascus was abandoned by the Vichy French by 21 June 1941 due to the cutting of the road to Beirut. There had been six colonial battalions in Damascus, including North Africans and Senegalese. Those troops had withdrawn to the west, through the mountains. They ended up around the Barada Gorge. That is north of the road from Damascus to Beirut. The French set up roadblocks at Qatana and Doummar. The French commander was concerned that his forces at Merdjayoun would get cut off by British movement up the road towards Beirut. The 2/3rd Battalion of Australians was now reduced to 21 officers and 320 men. General Evetts now commanded the forces in the east. He hoped to hold a line north of the road. Brigadier Lloyd met with Major Stevenson, who was now acting as 2/3rd Battalion commander. They decided to only patrol to the north and to hold the line with the forts. On the afternoon of 23 June, Brigadier Lloyd informed Major Stevenson that they were now part of the British 16th Brigade, not the 5th Indian Brigade. At this point, General Evetts may have nominally had a division, but only had three battalions with some remnants of the 5th Indian Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Thursday, June 04, 2015
After resting overnight, a new attack commenced at 9am on the heights to the southwest of Damascus. Major Stevenson oversaw the operations of the 2/3rd Battalion. He was on Fort Goybet with a signaller. A company of Indian troops was on the right. One company moved across the gorge. They eventually reached the northern side of the gorge and climbed to the northern heights. The men on the southern heights were taking fire from the northern side from French machine guns and mortars. An Australian private with a Bren gun moved forward and shot the crews of three French machine guns. At one point, a man saw armored cars on the road that gave the impression that the French might be withdrawing along the road from the roadblock. On the left, there was another company, along with an Indian officer and 20 men. They had moved under cover and took two pinnacles. From there an artillery observer was able to call in fire on the French positions, while Bren gunners were able to fire at long range. There were some 400 men on the ridge south of the gorge. During the day on 22 June, French artillery fired on Mezze and caused casualties. Mezze was attacked by two tanks in the afternoon. They defenders had first thought that they were Free French, not Vichy. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
Volume II of the Australian Official History mentions that the Brigadier Lloyd had "quickly won the admiration of the Australians". He was commander of the 5th Indian Brigade, which had been augmented by the 2/3rd Battalion of Australians in June 1941. In retrospect, we can see that Brigadier Lloyd's strategy for the attack on Damascus worked. General Evetts and the British troops were not a factor. The 2/3rd Battalion succeeded on the heights southwest of Damascus on 20 and 21 June 1941. The Indian troops and Free French marines were also ultimately successful at Mezze. Indian troops with the Free French marines had infiltrated into Mezze after the surrender of the two Indian battalions. The French apparently did not occupy Mezze, because they attacked and were driven off, with broken morale, according to a captured French account. When the 7th Chasseurs d'Afrique were repulsed, they turned their attention to the heights and the stone forts. They must have been very strong, although they did take the 2/3rd Battalion headquarters and commander. Two companies of the 2/3rd Battalion ultimately took the forts and freed the battalion commander and headquarters. The task of attacking the stone forts seemed like to much to ask of the two companies on the heights, but they were successful. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
The Free French force commanded by Colonel Casseau on the road from Kiswe to Damascus had moved to the outskirts of Damascus in the morning of 21 June 1941. Troops in a barracks were firing on the Free French, so the Colonel sent a gun forward to start firing. The Australian machine gunners were on the right flank, protecting against any attacks. The Free French infantry were moving forward towards the city. Colonel Casseau sent two armored cars forward. In the opposite direction were a column of cars, with a white flag flying. Lt-Col. Blackburn accompanied Colonel Casseau. The city and police were surrendered, and a formal ceremony and luncheon were held. By 4pm, General Legentilhomme led a column of vehicles into Damascus and met with the cabinet. One company of the Australian machine gunners were ordered to move through the city and take position on the road to Homs. Troops of the 2/3rd Battalion were now split. There were still two companies on the heights to the southwest of Damascus. A third company had been formed and were at the roadblock on the road to Beirut. Brigadier Lloyd would have liked to attack immediately, but Major Stevenson asked that the men be fed and have some rest. They moved out the next morning. There were the Australians and a company of Indian troops. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.
Monday, June 01, 2015
Early on 21 June 1941, the acting 2/3rd commander, Major Stevenson, learned that the brigade commander wanted the battalion to capture Fort Goybet on the ridge southwest of Damascus. When Stevenson learned more about the situation, he determined to take Fort Weygand after Goybet fell. The artillery fire on Fort Goybet commenced on schedule, but ended ten minutes to early, by the Australian's watches. The attackers were concerned that there might be more artillery fire, so they attacked late. They tried throwing grenades through the gun slits. They realized that they would have to go through the gate to take the fort. They started firing on the fort when a French soldier came out with a white flag. They entered the gate and took 75 French troops, all Europeans, prisoner. This was at 10am. Weygand fell to a group of men from Mezze with sub-machine guns. There was still a small group of men at the roadblock on the road to Beirut. They held the block for twelve hours against tanks and armored cars. By 4pm, a platoon of Indian troops arrived. They had anti-tank rifles and took position above the roadblock. The French had tried attacking Mezze again, but they found Indian and Free French troops there who drove off the attackers. They instead took Fort Goybet and Sarrall, and the 2/3rd battalion headquarters. They also entered Fort Weygand. This was during the night of 20 to 21 June. The Australians found out eventually, that Damascus had fallen at about 11am. The successes to the southwest of Damascus. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.