Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The 25th Brigade holds at Jezzine on 17 June 1941

Brigadier Cox, of the 25th Australian Brigade, was determined to hold his ground at Jezzine. The brigade headquarters moved back to Kafr Houn. The brigade needed to be on the defensive, given the situation. The French made a battalion-sized attack on two Australian companies that were on high ground just to the east of the a road. The Australians consisted of Robson's company and Thomson's company. Thomson's company was able to stop the attack with heavy gunfire. The other company moved up to within 75 yards of the French. Two platoons charged with the support of the third and forced the French, actually mostly Senegalese, to surrender. The surviving troops were what surrendered. The Senegalese had been marched for some four days without adequate rest and food. Despite this setback, the French continued to attempt around the east. Another Australian company was sent forward, and with this reinforcement, the French were stopped by around 4pm. The Australians spent the rest of the day searching dead French soldiers for food and sent parties to collect wounded French soldiers and rendered aid. During the night, the French had fired on the Australians. By morning, one Australian company had attacked, but was stopped by heavy machine gun fire. The company commander and five other men were killed. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The failed attack on Merdjayoun on 16 and 17 June 1941

Brigadier Berryman, in command in the Merdjayoun area, hoped to retake the place on 17 June 1941. The 2/25th Battalion was now in the area. He would have them cross the river and attack from the northwest. One company from the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion would attack from Qleaa. They would have another pioneer company ready to advance if they were successful. The Official History notes that the pioneers were ill-suited to fighting as infantry, as they were poorly equipped with infantry weapons. They had only been in North Africa and the Middle East since May and had only been employed doing engineer work. They plan for the attack now seems to be unrealistic for the available forces. The fort at Merdjayoun had walls so thick that 25-pounder shells could not damage them. After the dust settled, the pioneers had lost "27 killed, 46 wounded and 29 prisoners". The pioneers had run into strong opposition, including tanks. The 2/25th Battalion had to stop short of their position and there was no chance of a surprise attack. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

17 and 18 June 1941 in Syria

The Australian 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was performing important work, helping to hold back the Vichy French counterattack. One company of machine gunners, commanded by Captain Gordon had been sent towards Kuneitra, which had been taken by the French. During the morning of 17 June 1941, Captain Gordon learned that two battalions were on the way to support his company. The first battalion to arrive, the 2/Queen's, arrived by 5pm. The battalion commander was senior and he took command at the position. He planned an attack at 7pm. They attacked Kuneitra and retook the town. The town was littered with knocked out and overturned vehicles. Yet, after all that, the populace was trying to return to normal and there were shops open for business.

Meanwhile, at Sheikh Meskine, the force there was enduring hard fighting. Early on 18 June, a company attacked Ezraa, but the French attacked with tanks and the battalion commander was killed. A notable event happened when Major Hackett, "a young Australian serving in the British regular army" led and attack with a motley force of 100 men in trucks and took the town. They captured 168 prisoners. They also took various weapons. Hackett's men included Senegalese, 12 men from the Royal Fusiliers, several carriers, along with an anti-tank gun (certainly a 2pdr). This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

At Kuneitra again

Early on 17 June 1941, the machine gunners sent a force towards Kuneitra. They had General Wilson's order still in force to try and reinforce Kuneitra. They had a machine gun company, two armored cars from the Palestine police, and two two-pounder anti-tank guns. Kuneitra was some 25 miles away from the machine gun battalion. The force was commanded by Captain Gordon. He met an officer from the Fusiliers who had been at Kuneitra. Given the news about the French in Kuneitra. By 6am, they met another Fusiliers officer who gave more detailed information about the French force in Kuneitra. There were apparently still about 160 Fusiliers, including 17 officers. The machine gunners took a position on a ridge looking down on Kuneitra. They could see some French vehicles and troops. They started firing, hoping to draw the tanks into anti-tank gun range. Instead, the armored vehicles returned to Kuneitra and the cavalrymen dismounted. The Palestinian armored cars then moved towards the cavalry, which then "scattered". The machine gunners could see three tanks in the nearby town. They could also see artillery moving on the road. The guns turned out to be British and they drew French artillery fire. The British artillery fire then drove off the French tanks. The machine gunners then sent the armored cars to the British artillery position to let them know of their positions. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 20, 2015

More of the French counteracttack on 16 June 1941 in Syria and Lebanon

A French company attacked the Australians at Khiam fort in the afternoon of 16 June 1941. The attack was strong enough that the company that was attacked withdrew some 300 yards farther south. Another Australian company came up in support and they took a position in a ravine. The battalion commander then ordered them to fall back to a position about a mile-and-a-half farther south. On their left, there were some Royal Scots Greys cavalrymen, a company of the 2/5th Battalion, with a company of pioneers moving up to reinforce them. They had not been further challenged since the morning.

The plan approved by General Lavarack was to attack at Merdjayoun to relieve some pressure at Khiam. General Lavarack not only approved Brigadier Berryman's plan, but gave he command of a greater number of troops. The new force included three battalions, 22 field guns, and cavalry (6th Australian and Royal Scots Greys). The French counterattack had gotten a quick response.

At Jezzine, in Lebanon, the 25th Brigade was attacked as well. The first movements were seen early in the day on 15 June. They could see trucks and horsed cavalry moving forward. The attackers also had some artillery. The first attack happened late on 15 June. The Australians were able to call in artillery fire sufficient to halt the attack and to cause the attackers to withdraw. Another group of French troops moved forward early on 16 June. The defenders knocked out French armored cars and took prisoners. French cavalry tried to attack along a northern road and lost almost all their men and horses to machine gun fire. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The other action in Syria on 15 and 16 June 1941

With the forces in the east threatening Damascus, Brigadier Lloyd had decided to press on despite the setbacks to the west, in his rear. On 15 June 1941, he had ordered the 5th Indian Brigade to move forward to Jebel Madani. That happened during the night. Early on 16 June, the Punjabi troops had taken the heights, from which they could see the skyline of Damascus, minarets and all. The distance was about nine miles. The Rajputana had been relieved by a Free French unit. That allowed them to pass through the lines and move forward along the Kuneitra road. They were about two miles to the south. The Free French Marines had moved up to them in support. They were faced by a heavy attack that included tanks and aircraft that caused many casualties. These moves had placed forces at Artouz, which was in the rear of the French forces at Kuneitra.

16 June saw a successful action in the Merdjayoun area. One company was ordered to withdraw from Hebbariye to the road from Bmeriq to Banias. The men at Fort Christofini were also ordered to withdraw. In the morning on 16 June, there was a battle against Circassian cavalry. The Australian troops circled the village at Rachaya el Fokhar. The men from the fort saw the fight from a distance and the commander ordered them down the hill into the flank of the French cavalry. They killed some fifty French cavalrymen and then took up defensive positions. They were eventually ordered to withdraw to Bmeriq. The one battalion had acquired 34 fine cavalry horses for their use. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Later on 16 June 1941 near Kuneitra, Syria

At 1820 on 16 June 1941, a French officer drove up in an armored car to the Fusiliers battalion headquarters in Kunietra. He had a Fusiliers prisoner with him. He informed the surviving battalion commander that they were surrounded by a "vastly superior force of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles". He hoped that they would surrender, because he did not like fighting the "Englishmen". After a half hour, the commander decided to surrender his 13 officers and 164 men that we previously mentioned. When the battalion commander walked over to the French officer, he saw 11 medium tanks nearby. Not all the battalion had been at Kuneitra. There was still one company which had approached Kuneitra with a 25-pounder gun. They approached from Kiswe, fired off what ammunition they had, and then withdrew. Late on 16 June, the machine gun battalion commander, Lt-Col Blackburn, had heard about the plight of the Fusiliers at Kuneitra. In a typically bizarre incident, an officer from General Wilson's headquarters had brought orders directly from Wilson to take ammunition to Kuneitra. General Wilson seems to have been totally out of touch with the situation, and had taken the initiative outside the chain of command. He must have thought that he was interfering to try and help, but the officers on the scene were in control of the situation and were taking steps to respond to the French attack. During 15 and 16 June 1941, Brigadier Lloyd was at Kiswe. The forces on the east side were within nine miles of Damascus and were going to take the risk to continue to menace the city and perhaps take it. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Late on 15 June to early on 16 June 1941 in Lebanon and Syria

During the night of 15 June to 16 June 1941, General Lavarack made some changes to his troop deployments in response to the threatening French counterattack. General Lavarack had his Australians spread across some 37 miles in southern Lebanon and Syria. To cover that area, he had two infantry brigades with supporting troops. The French attack was a threat to the lines of communication for the 25th Australian Brigade on the right. He ordered a battalion, the 2/25th, the 2/5th Field Regiment and one troop from the 2/6th Field Regiment to move to Merdjayoun. They had been involved in operations at Jezzine. Jezzine was left with just the 2/31st Battalion to hold Jezzine. Brigadier Berryman was ordered to take command of the forces near Merdjayoun to mount a defense of the 25th Australian Brigade rear.

The 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion had been spread across a wide area working on repairing roads. The were ordered to guard the crossing over the Litani River and to set explosives for blowing the bridge if they were attacked. After a long night move, mostly by truck, the pioneers were very tired by the morning of 16 June. The machine-gunners of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion had orders to guard the crossings over the Jordan River. The commander reached the bridge that already had British cavalry on horses on guard. During the night, some anti-tank guns arrived at the bridge. They were fully involved with preparing defenses.

Brigadier Berryman was at Jezzine when he received his new orders. He left Jezzine by 1am and was at the Litani River by 6:30am, where he met the 2/2nd Pioneers commander. He ordered the pioneer commander to move a company to the ridge "between Qleaa and Merdjayoun". The ridge already had the Royal Scots Greys, who he ordered to continue to hold where they were. At the same time, the French attacked Kuneitra. The Royal Fusiliers were at Kuneitra. They had some 570 British infantry. They had one 20mm Italian Breda gun. The French had some 1,500 infantry, "eleven tanks, ten armoured cars, and one or two field guns". The French had broken into Kuneitra by 6am. The surviving fusiliers were concentrated in three stone houses by 11:30am. By 7pm, the surviving fusiliers had surrendered to the French. They were 13 officers and 164 men. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The situation as of the night of 15 and 16 June 1941 in Syria and Lebanon

The British commanders who had planned the attack on Syria had decided to attack in spite of having what were inadequate forces. The attackers had been fortunate in the first days to have not met serious resistance, except near Merdjayoun. The Australians under General Lavarack's command had just the two brigades of infantry with supporting artillery, engineers, and cavalry. General Wilson ordered the 7th Australian Division to send "anti-tank guns and ammunition" to bolster the defenses at Kuneitra. He also diverted to Deraa the first battalion to arrive from the British 16th Brigade. The 7th Australian Division had very little left in way of reserves. There was the division headquarters, two machine gun companies, and the headquarters and one battery from an anti-tank regiment. There was also a pioneer battalion that had units spread across the Australian front doing "engineer work". WIth General Lavarack being responsible for some 37 miles of front, he deployed his meager reserves where he could. He sent the machine-gunners and the anti-tank battery to hold the "bridge of the daughters of Jacob" over the Jordan River, reminding us that we are in biblical lands. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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