The Syrian Campaign is one of the least-known Australian operations of the Second World War. Between 7 June and 11 July 1941, Australian troops, principally from the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. Syria and Lebanon had been French protectorates since France was granted a League of Nations mandate over them in 1919, and a pro-German Vichy French administration had assumed control following the fall of France in June 1940.
The aim of the campaign was to occupy Syria and Lebanon to prevent the establishment of a German presence there that could threaten Britain's bases in Palestine and its broader strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean. German aircraft had already operated from Syrian airfields in April 1941 in support of a revolt against the British administration in Iraq. The campaign was timed to take advantage of the losses suffered by the German forces during their invasion of Crete. Unbeknown to the British Government, however, Germany had suspended any further operations in the eastern Mediterranean, in order to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The plan developed by British General Henry Maitland Wilson, commanding the expedition, involved a three-pronged advance. The 21st Australian Brigade would advance north, from Palestine, along the Lebanese coast, with Beirut as its objective. The 25th Australian Brigade would head for Rayak, the site of a large airfield, along an inland route. Even farther to the east, the 5th Indian Brigade and a Free French Force would march on Damascus. Once these three objectives were attained, phase two of the operation - an advance on Tripoli, Homs, and Palmyra much further to the north - would commence. The Allied land forces were to be supported both by gun fire from naval vessels offshore and several air force squadrons, including the RAAF's 3 Squadron.
The invasion began on the night of 7 June, in the ill-informed hope that the Vichy French would offer only token resistance. This was not to be. The Vichy French resisted stoutly and skilfully along all three of the Allied routes of advance. On the coastal sector, fierce fighting occurred at the Litani River on 9 June; progress thereafter was slow but steady, with Sidon being occupied on 15 June. On the central route, Merdjayoun was captured on 11 June. Precipitous terrain, however, made a rapid advance a doubtful prospect, and on 12 June it was decided to transfer the bulk of the forces there to take part in the coastal advance, via a mountainside route that passed through Jezzine. The most rapid progress was made by the Indians and Free French towards Damascus.
On 14 June the Vichy forces launched a counterattack that struck at the lines of communication of both the 25th Brigade and the Indian and Free French force before Damascus. They recaptured the towns of Ezraa, Kuneitra and Merdjayoun, but by 18 June the situation had been restored, with all but Merdjayoun back in Allied hands. The Allied emphasis then switched to the capture of Damascus, which fell on 21 June. On that day a mixed force of British troops, including those of the Arab Legion, entered Syria from Iraq and advanced on Palmyra. The British attacked Palmrya on 25 June, but the Vichy forces kept the British at bay for nine days before surrendering.
After the capture of Damascus, the (mainly Australian) drive on Beirut became the Allied main effort. Pressure was maintained around Jezzine by the 25th Brigade, while the 21st, reinforced by the 17th Brigade from the 6th Division, drove north along the coast. The climactic battle of the campaign was fought to secure Damour between 5 and 9 July. There was little progress in the Western sectors. Attention was then concentrated on the Jezzine and coastal areas. British forces headed north to Beirut, with the Australians capturing Damour on 9 July. On 10 July, with the Australians within 10 kilometres of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, the British 4th Cavalry Brigade closing on Homs, and the 10th Indian Division having advanced into northern Syria from Iraq, the Vichy French Commander, General Henry Dentz, sought an armistice. A ceasefire was arranged to begin at one minute after midnight on 12 July 1941; two days later, the armistice was signed at Acre.
Australian casualties during the fighting in Syria and Lebanon numbered 416 killed and 1,136 wounded. Approximately 1,000 Vichy French troops were killed throughout the theatre.