Monday, June 30, 2014

German action with respect to Syria in early June 1941

The Germans decided to pull out of Syria any overt presence. Disguised German intelligence officers would be the only Germans to stay in Syria. General Keitel had passed this information on to the Italians on 2 June 1941. The German plan was to keep from giving the British any excuse to attack Syria and to foment discontent between the Vichy French and the British. The Vichy French government had ordered General Dentz to fight any British attempt to occupy Syria. At his trial after the war, General Dentz argued that he had to resist the British invasion to keep from giving the Germans any reason to move into the French colonies and the continental Vichy France. The case was that the British pretext for invading Syria was to keep Syria out of German hands, but by the time of the invasion, German policy was to withdraw from Syria and not offer any reason for the British to invade. A mistaken German policy after the Armistice in 1940 had been to disarm the French colonial armies. They later regretted that plan as they could see that the only way to keep the British out was if the French colonial forces were strong enough to resist invasion. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

General Dentz was not on board with helping the Germans in May and June 1941

The key person involved with the Germans in May and June 1941 was none other than Admiral Darlan. General Dentz, the commander in Syria, had assured the British in April that he had the airfields guarded and they would not let the Germans use them. However, on 6 May, Admiral Darlan had ordered that the Germans should be allowed to use the airfields. During the fighting in Iraq, as many as 120 German aircraft passed through Syria, going to Iraq and returning from there. General Dentz had been doing the best he could to thwart the aid to the rebels in Iraq. He had sent a small number of artillery pieces without sights and had send old machine guns. By the end of May, the failure of the rebellion in Iraq was obvious. By 6 June, the Germans were gone from Syria. The Americans were informed of this fact. It seems strange to have the Americans involved, but they were. The Germans were also concerned that the British would have a pretext for occupying Syria, and ordered the aircraft and men to be withdrawn. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, June 23, 2014

More about the Darlan Agreement about Syria in May 1941

Admiral Darlan, the Vichy Foreign Minister, had signed an agreement that would give aid to Germany and the efforts in Iraq to create trouble for the British. One particularly inflammatory move was to agree to sell three quarters of the military equipment in Syria at the armistice. The sale would be to Iraq to equip the rebel forces that were in opposition to British rule. We already mentioned that German and Italian aircraft would be able to use Syrian airfields and be refueled. The German aircraft would be allowed to operate out of the airfield at Aleppo and would be permitted to use Syrian ports and railroad facilities. France would be allowed to send artillery to Syria along with heavy anti-aircraft batteries. They would also be permitted to send more troops to Syria. Marshal Petain was informed that the Darlan agreement would cause trouble with America and the British. In early June, Marshal Petain ordered a reappraisal of Vichy relations with Germany. France, of course, did not know about the pending German invasion of Russia which would have a great impact on the military situation in North Africa. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Australian War Memorial on the Start of the Syrian Campaign

There is some interesting coverage of the start of the Syrian campaign on the Australian War Memorial web site. The campaign started on 7 June 1941 and apparently ended on 11 July. The Australians involved were primarily from the 7th Australian Division. The goal of the attack was to occupy Syria, which was under the control of the Vichy French government. There was increasing concern that the French were allowing the Germans to use Syrian territory, particularly to support the uprising in Iraq. The campaign planned to occupy not only Syria but also Lebanon. What was already at work, however, was that the Germans were concentrated on the attack on Russia, from 22 June, and did not want to be tied up in the Eastern Mediterranean area. Oddly enough, the British commander was General Wilson, who we know from his handling of the Greek campaign (or mishandling). Two Australian brigades were involved. One was the 21st Brigade, located in Palestine, and the other was the 25th Brigade, which had as its objective, and airfield at Rayak. An British Indian unit, the 5th Indian Brigade along with the Free French were to head for Damascus. One of the air units involved was from the RAAF. This is based on the account on the Australian War Memorial web site.

German interest in Syria

The situation in Syria was that the Germans were more concerned about keeping Syria from being occupied by the British than actually moving in forces from Germany. After the armistice in 1940, Italy was given the responsibility for monitoring French colonial forces. They would determine the size and encourage the reduction in strength. One problem with that was that the French North African and Middle East territories were more vulnerable to British attack. By late 1940, the French army in Syria was reduced to about 28,000 men. Hitler got involved with the policy making and recognized that the best way to keep the Free French and British out of Syria would be for the Vichy French to increase their forces. One possibility would have been to bring in some ten thousand Moroccan troops. The immediate problem with that was being able to transport them to Syria. Admiral Darlan, who was the French Foreign Minister in May and June 1941, met with German officials in Paris. There, Admiral Darlan agreed to make arms available to the Iraqi rebels and to allow German and Italian aircraft passage through Syria to Iraq. The Germans made promises to the Vichy government that is they defended the colonies against the Free French and British, they would able to keep them after the war, assuming that the Axis governments won the war. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, June 16, 2014

At least General Blamey kept the Australian Government informed

During the first half of 1941, General Wavell had an abysmal record in his relations with the Australian Government. Besides lying to the senior Australian Officers, he also lied to the Australian Prime Minister about the Greek campaign. He met with them separately and then told them, wrongly, tha the other had agreed with the plan for going into Greece. Of course, Wavell was taking being a "good soldier" too far, because he knew that Greece was a pet project for Churchill and his foreign secretary. Now, in the run up to occupying Syria and probably fighting the Vichy French forces, he did not bother to inform the Australian Government. The only reason that the Australian Government knew anything was because of communications from General Blamey, the senior Australian Officer at Wavell's headquarters. The Australian Government had received a message from General Blamey on 30 May 1941, prior to the end of the battle on Crete. Churchill did communicate with the Austrlian Prime Minister on 31 May about Syria. The Austrlian Official History notes that the Australian Government had not been informed about the plans until right before the attack. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

General Wavell's plans for Syria

By 22 May 1941, while the forces in Crete were still resisting, General Wavell was making plans for an operation into Syria. He expected to use two brigades from the 7th Australian Division, the Free French forces, and a portion of the 1st Cavalry Division. They would comprise about a division-and-a-half. There were almost no armoured forces involved, even though they would be desirable. Three days later, General Wavell traveled to Basra to meet with General Auchinleck, who was the commander in India. General Wavell thought that his forces could move on Syria by 7 June 1941. General de Gaulle and General Spears arrived in Jerusalem on 29 May. It seems that the British had decided to use the Australians without formally asking permission from the Australian government. General Blamey had given the government notice about what was planned. It was only late on 7 June that Mr. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister received the word that the attack on Syria would start the next morning. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bad advice for the British about Syria and Lebanon

The British policy stance that would take direct action against the Vichy government whenever the opportunity presented itself obviously made any sort of compromise or negotiations impossible. The Middle Eastern leaders were very anti-French, as they resented France's continued occupation of countries on the Mediterranean Coast, such as Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Syria. Since the British government lacked a direct contacts in Syria and Lebanon, they had to rely on Middle Eastern sources and the people associated with Charles de Gaulle. The latter, in particular, always wanted to paint the French forces in Syria and Lebanon in the worst light, and would assert that they would surrender at the first sign of force. General Wavell's intelligence staff had a more cautious view. They had good intelligence of the size of the French military, naval, and air forces in Syria and Lebanon. The politicians insisted that Wavell's forces could walk into Syria unopposed. Churchill wanted Wavell to use "General Catroux" and his military force to take Syria. Wavell had a more realistic view and rejected the use of Free French forces of doubtful size and strength to take Syria. Wavell vowed to resign rather than rely on the Free French. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The campaign in Syria and Lebanon in June and July 1941

I was interested to read that for political reasons, the news about the fighting in Syria and Lebanon was suppressed in the Allied news media. There was a substantial Australian participation, hence the inclusion in the Australian Official History. The stage was set for this campaign when Admiral Darlan signed an accord with the Germans that gave them access to Syria. The Vichy Minister of War had sent orders to General Dentz to allow German and Italian aircraft to refuel in Syria. The Germans also wanted to be able to use rail lines in Syria to supply the Iraqi rebels with arms and supplies. One of the Vichy aircraft shot down during British air operations included a Martin 167F, which was used by the British as the Martin Maryland. The Vichy aircraft was shot down over Palestine, so they were apparently actively conducting air operations against the British. The initial French air strength consisted of 90 aircraft, but that was increased to 289 aircraft by reinforcements. There were also two French destroyers and three submarines available to participate in the upcoming battles. This is based on information from the Wikipedia page about the Syria-Lebanon Campaign.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Britain, United States, and the Vichy government in 1941

The United States policy towards Vichy France in early 1941 was to "humor them". The British disagreed with the concept, but allowed the United States to send wheat shipments to Marseilles. The British sources of information about Syria and North Africa tended to be anti-French and therefore painted a more negative picture of the situation in Syria than actually existed. The de Gaulle people were deeply involved with wishful thinking, crediting themselves with more capability and support than actually existed. Charles de Gaulle was a favorite of Churchill, so Churchill was somewhat caught up in the wishful thinking as well. Leaders in the Middle East tended to side with the British in wanting to see action taken against the Vichy French in the region. General Wavell had his own estimates of French strength that included some 28,000, although mostly African and Arab troops, and some 25,000 Syrian and Lebanese under their control. They also put the German presence at about 300 men. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, June 02, 2014

The political situation with respect to the Vichy government and Syria

One interesting aspect of the Syrian situation in early 1941 was that the Syrian people were ashamed to be governed by a defeated country: France that had surrendered to Germany. Another aspect is that elements of French society admired the authoritarian German government and wanted to establish something similar for France. Elements of the upper class in France and in the army which liked the idea of setting up a "totalitarian" government in France. Along with that inclination was that there still existed a strong French nationalism and a desire to resist further encroachment on French national honor by both Germany and Great Britain. As we have noted, the Vichy government hated the British government under Churchill. Immediately after the fall of France, Churchill had shown his true colors by the attack on the French naval base at Mers el Kebir and the destruction and damage to the ships located there. This is baaed on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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