Crossing of the Litani River
Crossing of the Litani River
The Litani River presented a considerable obstacle to the Australian 21st Brigade as it advanced along the southern Lebanon coast in June 1941. Like many natural obstacles, the Litani had been incorporated into the Vichy French defensive plan, and strong, well-sited positions had been sited in the hills to the south of the river. Realising how critical it was to a rapid advance, the plan for the Allied invasion of Syria included a seaborne commando landing to sieze the bridge that carried the coastal road across the Litani. On the first day of the invasion - 8 June - heavy surf prevented the commandos landing and their operation was postponed until the morning of 9 June. By this time the 2/16th Battalion was advancing towards the bridge along the road. The commandos were to land north of the river at 4.30 and capture the bridge; the 2/16th would attack at 5.30am if they were unsuccessful.
The commando operation was unable to achieve its objectives and thus the 2/16th Battalion were committed to the attack. A plan to rush the bridge was forstalled when its defenders blew it up, leaving the 2/16th with no option but to cross the Litani, under fire, in a single canvas assault boat. The boat could carry no more than eight men so the crossing was slow, but a bridgehead was established on the north bank, east of the bridge, and progressively enlarged. By early afternoon sufficient troops were across the river to allow the main Vichy French positions on the ridge above it to be tackled. A series of attacks, supported by artillery, steadily cleared the ridge throughout the afternoon and early evening. Communications difficulties, however, resulted in a breakdown of the co-opeation with the artillery and two naval vessels providing fire support, and the infantry had to withdraw from some of the positions they had captured to avoid being shelled by their comrades. Nevertheless the ridge was firmly in Australian hands by the night's end.
West of the bridge, another fight had been going on throughout the day. C Company of the 2/16th and a party of commandos that had been incorrectly landed behind them had advanced towards the river under heavy fire from Vichy French redoubts on the north bank and suffered greviously. It was not until early afternoon that they were able, also using a single canvas boat, to gain a foothold on the far bank. Due to determined French resistance, progress here was much slower than along the ridge - it was not until late that night, when a company of the 2/27th Battalion had been ferried across the river, that Vichy French resistance was finally subdued.
With the Vichy French positions north of the river destroyed, the 2/6th Field Company were able to construct a temporary bridge across the river, and at 5am on 10 June the first vehicles and men of the 2/27th Battalion crossed it to resume the advance along the coast.