Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The political situation in Syria in late July to August 1941

The Free French seem to have been a creature of Churchill. The Australians were very cool towards the Free French organization and had better feelings for the Vichy French than they did for the Free French. As early as 21 July 1941, the Free French wanted access to more of Syria. General Wilson broached the subject with General Lavarack, the Australian corps commander. In fact, the Free French were moving troops without permission. General Lavarack informed General Wilson that many Vichy troops would join the British, but wanted nothing to do with the Free French organization. General Lavarack told General Wilson that the Free French movements were jeopardizing the "security situation". One particular problem was that the Free French thought that they should have the civil administration of Syria under their control, which was not what had been agreed upon for obvious reasons. The Vichy French were obeying the terms of the Armistice, but the Free French were not. The British were apparently ready to undercut General Lavarack's authority to satisfy Churchill and General De Gaulle. Another sticking point was that the Free French wanted to take over all Vichy French war materials for their use, while General Lavarack wanted to be able to resupply the Australians from the Vichy French supplies and arms. Eventually, eight convoys sailed from Syria to France with some 37,500 passengers, mostly troops. 5,668 Vichy French troops joined the Free French out of 37,700 troops. By late August, the Free French division was disbanded due to lack of men. The Free French troops were divided into districts, instead. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 26, 2015

After the Armistice in Syria and Lebanon in 1941

After the armistice in Syria and Lebanon, the area was divided up between various authorities. The area north of the road from Beirut to Damascus came under the control of the 1st Australian Corps. Within that area, the 7th Australian Division was on the coast. The Free French forces were in the east, which included Damascus. Habforce would occupy the desert areas in the northeast. The 10th Indian Division occupied the farthest portion of the northeast. That was "beyond the Euphrates".

One feature of the armistice was that prisoners taken to metropolitan France were to be set free. Another feature was that Vichy French troops would be allowed to join the Free French. They were also allowed to choose to return to France. The Allies were not to pressure the French troops to join the Allied cause.

A commission was set up in Beirut to administer the armistice. The commission had a number of committees. The one on prisoner release was headed by Colonel Blackburn, who had coaxed the Free French into Damascus. His civilian vocation was being an attorney. He was a South African.

The British goal was to transfer General Dentz and his army from Syria. Of course, General De Gaullea and General Catroux wanted to have many Vichy French troops join the Free French forces. That immediately created a source of strife and conflict. The Vichy authorities and officers wanted to return to France as quickly as possible, so that meshed well with the British goals. The Australians thought well of the Vichy officers and troops, as they had fought well and fairly. The Australians were less friendly to the Free French, who they considered had painted the campaign in rosier condition than was what was actually found. They also considered that the Free French had not performed well in the battle for Syria.

The Syrian people, who had been living under French rule, would have liked to be free from European rule, but were astute enough to realize that freedom would not be coming soon. The Australians were well aware of the position of the Syrian people. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

General Catroux lost his kepi to an Australian on 12 July 1941

The Free French General Catroux was the barracks at Acre for the armistice signing on 12 July 1941. He had left his Oak Leaf kepi on the seat of his car. When he returned, he noticed that it was gone. He knew about the Australians and figured that an Australian soldier had made a trophy of the hat. He did tell the camp commandant and others about the kepi, but he figured it was gone for good. He was good-natured enough to not be bothered by the incident. He had a lot of experience with the Foreign Legion, and they were very much like the Australians. As the general said: "what was taken by them was taken for good." General Wilson was "delighted" by the news. General Lavarack smiled when he heard about the missing kepi. The Vichy officers talked among themselves and thought that General Latroux was the victim of the bad company he kept. The Vichy General de Verdilhac returned to his side after midnight, at 1:30am on 13 July 1941. A column moved forward on the coastal road on 15 July. The column consisted of the 2/5th Battalion, some artillery, and some cavalry troops. They were not to enter Beirut, but to bypass the city on their way north to Latakia. The 2/16th Battalion and part of the 6th Cavalry Regiment got to enter Beirut on 15 July. They were cheered by the populace who assumed that they would have independence. The ceremonial entrance by the Allied generals happened at 10:30am on 16 July. They had 24 Bren carriers and some field guns. The next step would be spreading out the force to occupy Syria and Lebanon. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 19, 2015

French troops performed well in Syria and Lebanon in June and July 1941

General Dentz had a surprising low opinion of French troops defending Syria and Lebanon. In reality, French troops performed very credibly in the campaign. There was a mix of troops, Europeans, North Africans, and Africans from Senegal.

French R-35 tanks and armored cars, even if just improvised, provided a very tough opponent for British and Australian troops. Until they received sticky bombs, they had no answer for when they encountered French tanks in particular. The only anti-tank weapons that the British and Australian troops had at the beginning of the campaign in June 1941 were 2-pounder anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles. The anti-tank rifles were not able to damage an R-35 tank, and it is unclear how effective the 2-pounder was against the R-35 either.

A small band of Foreign Legion troops held out for a long period at Palmyra against the cavalry brigade and the Arab Legion. They were apparently in good positions that gave protection and allowed them good fields of fire.

At Kuneitra, Merjayoun, and Jezzine, French infantry, machine guns, and artillery, gave British and Australian troops a tough fight. The 5th Indian Brigade was decimated in the fighting and a British battalion, the Fusiliers, was all but destroyed. That area continued to be a problem, even for British troops, right up until the Armistice.

We must assume that General Dentz was not familiar with the French troops under his command. Otherwise, how could he have had such a low opinion of them? When the attack commenced in early June 1941, he expected that the French army would collapse, when that was not the case at all. Even French colonial troops, with professional French officers, performed extremely well in the tough battles on the mountain ridges in Syria and Lebanon. We found, though, that the Australian troops in particular achieved results beyond what might be expected. This is based on our assessment of the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

General Dentz wants to stop fighting from 22 June 1941 until 12 July 1941

As early as 22 June 1941, General Dentz, the French commander in Lebanon and Syria, expected that his forces would be defeated. In France, on 28 June, Marshal Petain and Admiral Darlan agreed that they should stop fighting in Syria and Lebanon. At the time, though, they did not tell that to General Dentz. The next day, on 29 June, British bombers partly destroyed the General's residence in Beirut. General Dentz had already left the place prior to the bombing. Some French officers said that they should bomb the residence of the high commissioner in Jerusalem, but General Dentz was not prepared to bomb Jerusalem. By 30 June, General Lavarack sent a message to General Dentz, but he did not realize at the time that the British had bombed General Dentz's residence. After he found out about the bombing, he thought it had nullified his message. Palmyra was finally captured by 3 July. There was now nothing to stop an advance to Aleppo. By 8 July, General Dentz heard the news that his government was prepared to stop fighting. General Dentz sent a message to the British through the American Consul in Beirut. The British sent back a list of conditions under which they would agree to a cease fire. General Dentz then sent back a message that he agreed, with the cease-fire to happen at midnight on 11 July. The news was broadcast in Australia, which was a bad idea. General Lavarack sent an angry note to General Blamey. General Dentz replied to a wireless message from General Wilson with another wireless message. The French would stop fighting at 12:01am on 12 July 1941. The French envoys came to the Australian outpost on the road to Beirut, as requested. They were transported to Acre, where they met with General Wilson, General Lavarack, and General Catroux. They reached an agreement that allowed the Allies to occupy Syria and Lebanon. The French soldiers would be treated with full honors. They could keep their "personal weapons", but all other weapons would be stacked and controlled by the Allies. By midday on 15 July, the Australians moved forward to occupy the key locations in Syria and Lebanon. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The fighting in Syria and Lebanon ended at midnight of 11 to 12 July 1941

To the east, the fighting overlapped the armistice at midnight of 11 to 12 July 1941. The cavalry had sent out patrols to the west from the 6th and 7th of July. The 4th Cavalry Brigade was actually on the move on 11 July. The Brigadier was attacked on 12 July, nominally after the armistice. After the armistice, when the French records became available, the British were able to learn more about the defending French forces near the end. When the initial attack at Damour started, the Vichy French had about seven battalions defending Damour and Jezzine. A similar-sized force held Merdjayoun and Jebel Mazar. There were also two battalions holding Jebel Druse. Just as the Australian battalions were short of men, the French battalions were also short. The French battalions were between 250 and 450 men when the fighting stopped. That would put them stronger than many of the Australians, which were very shot of men. During the fighting at Damour, two units were pulled out, which left a cavalry regiment and three battalions holding the road to Beirut from Damascus. The French said that they took 194 men prisoner during the initial attack at Jebel Mazar. The second attack quickly came to a stop. To achieve that, the French took heavy losses, enough to cause the French general to order a withdrawal to a further line to the north. The French showed in the fighting that they had good troops who were well-led, even if the troops were Senegalese. We have constantly suspected that Churchill had ordered the attack on Syria and Lebanon, hoping for a cheap victory to aid his political fortunes after a very difficult first six months of the year. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Merdjayoun front from 9 to 11 July 1941

On 30 June 1941, the British 6th Division took over command on the Merdjayoun front in Syria. The British 23rd Brigade was actually in place at Merdjayoun when they realized that the Vichy French forces to the immediate north were withdrawing. This was on the night of 9 to 10 July. By 11 July, the 23rd Brigade moved north to the Bekaa Valley, a very familiar name in the 20th Century. The French had made demolitions and had left booby traps, so that slowed the British advance. General Evetts had planned an attack by the 16th Brigade on 10 July against the Jebel Mazar. They would have the Free French Marine Battalion with them. They attacked at 2am and made some progress. The next night, they advanced again. The situation on the ridge was very unstable, and General Evetts considered a withdrawal to more secure positions. However, he heard that there had been an armistice requested by the French, so he had his men hold their present positions. The French that they had been fighting had decided to withdraw, so suddenly, the 16th Brigade was on Jebel Mazar at midnight. General Evetts had planned for success and had a pursuit force ready to move north. The pursuit force included most of the 9th Australian Cavalry, the 2/Queen's battalion, artillery, machine guns, and four Free French tanks. The Free French marines were stopped on the right, so General Evetts sent them help from the pursuit force. At midday on 10 July, they moved out and came under fire. Much of the fire came from Jebel Mazar. The vehicles from the pursuit force moved up and down the road and came under fire. Every one of their 33 vehicles had been hit at some point. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The attack on the heights at Badarane on 9 and 10 July 1941

Starting in the evening of 9 July 1941, a company from the 2/31st Battalion was ordered to take the heights at Badarane. This was especially challenging because there was a deep wadi between the Australians and the Badarane heights. They might have had support from their battalion carrier platoon and a troop from the 6th Cavalry, but there was a bridge out that blocked them from participating. The wadi was 800 feet deep. The heights were 600 feet above the wadi and were terraced. The attacking company had only some sixty men. The platoon leaders were a lieutenant and two sergeants. The men left Niha at 9pm on 9 July, which was about three miles away. They started out with four mules and their drivers, but they were left behind because the terrain was too difficult for mules. They had progressed to within 400 yards of Badarane by 2:30am on 10 July. They came under machine gun fire that was fired over their heads and was landing behind them. The company commander led his men to the left of the heights into olive trees. One man alone bayoneted the four defenders in one position. 43 Australians attacked and 13 were killed in the fight. They found some forth or fifty dead Senegalese soldiers. There were also many wounded that they took prisoner. There had been about 200 defenders of the heights when the Australians attacked. By 5am, the company had won the battle. They eventually got orders to destroy the French equipment and to withdraw back to the company headquarters. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Back to Jezzine from 6 July 1941

The 25th Australian Brigade had started to make progress at Jezzine while the battle for Damour was being fought. From 6 July 1941, the 2/31st Battalion moved north to Beit ed Dine. The 2/31st had advanced to Niha and beyond by early 7 July. The Cheshire Yeomanry was also active and had taken some French prisoners in Mrousti. They had talked with a Swiss member of the French Foreign Legion who told them that the French had withdrawn from Bater because of the intensity of the artillery fire. The current commander of the 25th Brigade, Brigadier Plant, ordered the left battalion group (because they included artillery) to take Beiqoun and Mazraat ech Chouf. One company was to take the commanding heights near Mazraat ech Chouf. The 2/25th Battalion with support from the 2/6th Field Regiment would move north. By 3pm on 8 July, they started to receive French artillery fire. They called in artillery support from the 2/6th Field Regiment. One platoon then was attacked by African troops. By 7pm, one platoon was in an exposed position and had taken casualties. The platoon was withdrawn, leaving the French in possession of the high ground. To the east, a company of the 2/31st Battalion was attacked twice on 8 July. Their losses left them with only 20 men. By 4:30, they were reinforced by an 18 man platoon from another hill. One company of the 2/25th Battalion tried to take Hill 1054 from the French. The attackers were left in exposed positions and were unable to move. Fortunately, some of the Pioneers came up in support. Men with Bren guns were able to take out three French machine guns. Artillery fire was called in. The guns fired for about 50 minutes and then the Australians charged the French with fixed bayonets. The French broke and ran. The French withdrew in confusion, but the Australians had lost communication with their artillery. Otherwise, they could have taken out the French vehicles. That withdrawal left the Australians on the heights at Mazraat ech Chouf. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Near the coast on 11 July 1941 approaching Beirut

Early on 11 July 1941, French fire had slowed and stopped. Lt-Col. King ordered men to probe north from the roadblock. The men did not see any French forces, but they found that the French had merely allowed the probing men to pass through their lines and return without disturbing them. During the early afternoon, the French were active and present again. They also sent a tank squadron out along the sand dunes. This was just beyond the wireless antenna. Brigadier Savige, on hearing the news, told Lt-Col. King to stay in place in their current positions. Brigadier Savige was planning an attack for the morning of 12 July. At the same time, Brigadier Savige, commander of the 17th Australian Brigade, had ordered the 2/3rd Battalion to move forward onto the ridges that dominated the land near Aramoun. The land was so rough that supplying the forward troops with food was a problem. They survived on goat and also got horse meat from the local villagers. Hutchison's company, now of only about thirty men, came under French fire. They pulled back and set up a mortar that they used to fire back at the French machine guns. On the right, the 2/14th Battalion moved forward. They found four French 155mm guns and 200 rounds at Daqoun. They eventually moved forward to Ain Kaour. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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