Tuesday, February 24, 2015

With the Free French on 12 and 13 June 1941 in Syria

Major-General Paul Legentilhomme commanded the Free French forces on the eastern portion of the Syrian Campaign. He was an old East African veteran, having been in French Somaliland and Eritrea. The Free French had continued to attack the Vichy defenses at Kiswe. There was a report that the Vichy French tanks were moving around their flank, General Legentilhomme had his troops hold their present positions on Jebel Maani and Jebel Badrane. Later in the day, the General was wounded. General Wilson weighed in on the situation with General Wavell and opined that there was not a counter-attack in progress. He did order the 5th Indian Brigade to be under the Free French command and left the protection of the rear to the Transjordan Frontier Force, which was a very small unit. Fortunately, the tanks sighted were Free French, so there was less reason to panic. When the 5th Indian Brigade commander saw the Vichy French defenses at Kiswe, he thought that the positions were so strong that they would need strong artillery support with a set-piece attack to take the place. He discussed the situation with the wounded General Legentilhomme and they agreed to wait until 15 June to attack Kiswe. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Some perspective on the beginning of the campaign from 9 to 14 June 1941

From the beginning of the campaign in Syria and Lebanon from 9 June 1941, the air force had some success. At the start, the RAF was weaker than the Vichy French air force. The RAF had many responsibilities: close air support to the army, air protection to the navy offshore, offensive operations against the French on their airfields, attacking French ports, and attacks on fuel supplies. There were some early successes. No.3 Squadron RAAF caught six French aircraft on the ground at Rayak and damaged them. Blenheim day bombers attacked oil tanks at Beirut. No.3 Squadron, RAAF was equipped with American Tomahawk fighters. They were often providing air cover to the navy off of Lebanon. They shot down three of eight Ju-88's on 14 June.

Given the strong French defence in Syria and Lebanon, the CIGS, General Dill, suggested to General Wavell that they divert forces from Iraq to Syria, and that they use bombers from Egypt. That was very much in line with what General Wavell already had decided. General Wavell told General Dill on 12 June that the attack was progressing slowly, but that was not unexpected, given the rough terrain and inadequate force employed. The 16th British Brigade was ordered to Syria to increase the force employed to approximately equal the strength of the French defenders. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On taking Jezzine late on 14 June 1941

Lt-Col Porter had decided to push into Jezzine, since they were making good progress. As we had noted, he ordered the unengaged companies to move forward and into Jezzine. To reach Jezzine, the men had to move down a steep cliff that was terraced. Any French resistance had ceased, so they were able to enter Jezzine unopposed. They actually entered Jezzine at 8:30pm. The division artillery commander, Brigadier Berryman, moved into Jezzine with the first platoon. They residents of Jezzine welcomed the Australians and give them bread and water. They had wine and food to offer at the police station. The Australians moved past Jezzine to the high ground east of the town. They were astride the roads to the north and west. Probing Australian forces encountered French rearguards blocking the road. During the night, they sent a hot meal to the men. The 2/25th Battalion stayed at Jerme, as there was so little room in the route to Jezzine and in the vicinity. By 13 June, the Cheshire Yeomanry had reached Mazraat Koufra, but had not been able to move forward to Zhalta. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian official History.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Taking Jezzine on 14 June 1941

About three miles short of Jezzine, Lt-Col Porter, the commander of the 2/31st Battalion was shot through one thigh. Porter said that he could continue and attack with two companies. He was consulting with Brigadier Berryman, the artillery commander. They used a troop of guns and mortars in support of the attack. The hills were terraced in three foot steps, about ten feet wide. They had growing vines, the reason for being terraced. The attack commenced at 6pm. Porter had asked the machine gun platoon commander to let individual Vickers guns to fire independently, as they saw targets. When French machine guns started firing, they were immediately silenced. One infantryman slipped past one machine gun emplacement and killed the crew with rifle and bayonet. The men ran across the flat 100-yard area at the foot of the hill and then climbed to the top of the hill that dominated Jezzine. The men could see some French cavalrymen mounting their horses and then then riding off. They Australians fired on them. Two companies from the 2/31st had attacked. Lt-Col Porter then ordered the other two companies to move forward through the first two and to enter the town of Jezzine. As the men entered the town, they saw horses roaming the streets. They were the horses of French cavalrymen that had been killed, apparently. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

North from Merdjayoun from 12 to 14 June 1941

The bridge over the Litani to the southwest of Merdjayoun was finished on 12 June 1941 in the afternoon. Carriers were able to travel the road to the west to meet the 21st Australian Brigade on the coast. There was one road north from Merdjayoun to Jezzine. This was a winding road around mountains. A patrol from the Cheshire Yeomanry had probed north for about 500 yards and had found that the road was passable. Brigadier Cox's plan was to send the 2/31st Battalion, with cavalry, artillery and engineers up the road. The objective was Jezzine, but they would first move to the heights south of Rihane. From there, they would move forward to the Kafr Houn ridge. A road went Jezzine to Sidon so that they could connect with the 21st Brigade. One squadron from the Cheshire Yeomanry would move north to Zhalta. They would then be able to travel the road from Jezzine to Sidon. The entire 25th Australian Brigade would then follow the same route. Starting out at 9pm on 13 June, a column of the 2/31st Battalion with a cavalry troop in the lead headed out for Jezzine. The infantry were carried in British three-ton trucks. The road was narrow and they traveled without lights. There were tight turns that required excessive effort to get the trucks and guns through. Some vehicles turned at the Sidon road and had to be called back. Just before Jerme, an extremely sharp turn required the engineers to work for two hours so that the large trucks could pass. Finally at daybreak on 14 June, they reached Kafr Houn where local women cheered the arriving soldiers. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 09, 2015

General Lavarack's plan on 12 June 1941

General Lavarack really wanted to be making faster progress to the north. The area north of Merdjayoun seemed to be terrain that would aid a defender, so the General decided to join the 25th Brigade with the 21st at Sidon to push north along the coast. While the bridge over the Litani to the southwest of Merdjayoun had been blown, there was a large boulder in the middle of the river. That proved suitable for anchoring a bridge, so two sections were joined at the boulder to make a new bridge over the river. They would use the bridge in the run over to Sidon from Merdjayoun. The General would leave the 2/33rd Battalion to hold the Merdjayoun. They would also have the cavalry and an artillery battery. The cavalry would move to the northeast along two routes, "Route A" and "Route B". Route A was to the right and Route B was to the left. They were divided by "Col's Ridge". The cavalry was quickly halted by accurate artillery and gunfire. They realized that the French were in strong defensive positions and would be difficult to overcome. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Taking Merdjayoun on 11 June 1941

On 11 June 1941, the Australian gunners had a sense that the French were staging a withdrawal. The commander of the 2/6th Field Regiment volunteered to go forward and negotiate with the French. Right before 1pm, he had not reached the fort, so he pulled back, knowing that the plan was for a barrage at 1pm. The artillery commanders agreed to cancel the planned barrage and tried to notify the advancing troops. The infantry was already advancing and reached the fort, which they found had been abandoned. The civilians living in Merdjayoun emerged from hiding and told the Australians that the French had withdrawn. The people living there were mostly Orthodox Christians. As the Australians entered the town, the residents raised the flag of Lebanon. The road north to Merdjayoun was mined, so the engineers were busy removing the mines. The more senior officers started to arrive. They included Brigadier Berryman, the artillery commander, General Allen and Brigadier Cox. By later on 11 June, the 2/25th Battalion was north of Ibeles. The other battalions were also far advanced. The 2/33rd was now north of Khiam. The third battalion, the 2/31st, was at Merdjayoun. In the afternoon of 11 June, the engineers had advanced to the bridge over the Litani river to the southwest of Merdjayoun. The bridge had been blown and a large crater had been blown in the road leading to the bridge. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official history.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Back to Merdjayoun from 10 to 11 June 1941

Merdjayoun is actually in southern Lebanon, although the Australian Official History calls it Syria. On 10 June 1941, an attack was made with artillery support. The 2/25th Battalion was to advance up the slopes to the Ibeles Saki plateau, but that was not possible. Instead, they swung to the north and occupied the village and took 12 pack mules. There were also weapons and ammunition. At this position, they interdicted the roads to the north of Merdjayoun. The attack received high-level attention, as General Lavarack, the current 7th Division commander and his planned successor, General Allen, were present at Brigadier Cox's brigade headquarters. They planned for the 2/31st Battalion to attack the ridge at Khirbe with the leading two companies. Once they did that, they would move forward to Merdjayoun. The barrage was commenced at 2:30am. The foremost men could see the abandoned French positions and could see men withdrawing ahead of them. The leading men moved past Qleaa and had moved forward to a cross-roads by 5am. The following companies had to fight French troops that had been bypassed by the leading companies. Khirbe was taken in a "sharp fight", where they took 56 French prisoners. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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