Eighty year ago, Australians made a major contribution to a misunderstood campaign.
On 21 June 1941 Major General Paul Legentilhomme, commander of the 1st Free French Division in Syria, prepared to lead a triumphant procession into Damascus. The Gaullist general, who was still carrying his left arm in a sling after being wounded earlier in the campaign, was waiting at the head of his motorcade when a rival procession sped past, covering him in dust. That procession was made up of Australian troops from the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, keen to get into the centre of the ancient city before their Free French allies. The visibly upset Frenchman tried in vain to flag down the Australians, jumped out of their way, dusted himself off as best he could, then continued on his way. The next day, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his massive invasion of the Soviet Union, and the exploits of Legentilhomme and the Australians in taking one of the jewels of the Middle East were pushed from the front pages of the international press.
Australian military history is replete with stories of larrikinism of this kind, but the story of Legentilhomme’s misfortunes has more to it than meets the eye. It encapsulates some key issues related to the Syria–Lebanon campaign. The behaviour of the Australians stemmed from their perception that some Allied commanders had performed so poorly that they did not deserve much respect; that the Free French had duped Britain into committing the Australians into an unnecessary campaign; and that the Australians above all deserved the right to claim Damascus, despite being one of several nations contributing to the battle. In the end, the exploits of the Australians in attacking the ancient Syrian capital were soon overshadowed, and for some, largely forgotten. In short, the Syria–Lebanon campaign of June–July 1941 has at times been labelled the misled campaign, the unnecessary campaign, the Australian campaign, and the forgotten campaign. Eighty years on, it is time to reflect on how true these perceptions are.
The Syria–Lebanon campaign came about because the British were concerned that Nazi Germany might use bases in Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon to threaten Allied interests in the Middle East. Those British concerns became more intense from April 1941, when the technically neutral Vichy government allowed German aircraft to land at Syrian airfields on their way to support an anti-British Arab nationalist revolt in Iraq. In response, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered General Archibald Wavell to draw up plans to invade Syria and Lebanon; the attack, designated Operation Exporter, began on the night of 7–8 June.
Operation Exporter consisted of a three-pronged invasion into the south of the Vichy-held territory. On the left, the 21st Brigade, 2nd Australian Imperial Force, attacked along the coast heading for Beirut. In the centre, the 25th Brigade, AIF, headed north from the Sea of Galilee towards the strategically important Bekaa valley, from where they could exploit north to the important rail hub and air base at Rayak. On the right, a combined force of British, Indian and Free French troops, supported by local auxiliaries, were to advance from Transjordan towards Damascus. The entire operation was supported in the air by Allied fighter and bomber squadrons, who focused on destroying Vichy air bases, and at sea by the 15th Cruiser Squadron, Royal Navy, which prevented Vichy French reinforcement and bombarded Vichy coastal areas in support of the 21st Brigade’s attack.
The Vichy French put up a much stiffer than expected defence, but the weight of the Allied offensive was too much. The fighting ended with a ceasefire on 12 July. Operation Exporter was an Allied victory.
The misled campaign?
Operation Exporter was from its very conception beset by problems at the highest levels of the Allied command. When Churchill ordered Wavell to begin drawing up plans for the invasion, Wavell complained bitterly that his resources were already overstretched and even threatened to resign over the matter. Eventually, however, he relented and passed responsibility for the operation to Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson. Wilson then carried out Wavell’s three-pronged attack plan outlined above, a plan that is widely criticised, in the words of one commentator in 1976, as “the most obvious, the easiest and possibly the least effective way to proceed”. Had the Allies concentrated their forces on one axis instead of three, they may have been able to more effectively split the Vichy defences and force an early capitulation rather than commit their forces into a hard fight along three separate fronts.
When the invasion began, Wilson commanded the operation from his headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, 100 miles away from the actual fighting, and it was not until 18 June, in the midst of a heavy Vichy French counter-attack, that he passed command on to Australian Lieutenant General John Lavarack, who had just been promoted from command of the 7th Division to I Australia Corps – a command structure than many still believe should have been in place from the beginning.
Wavell’s concerns about his forces being overstretched led to poor allocation of resources. The Allied forces invading Syria and Lebanon were not allocated any tanks because they were deemed more necessary in North Africa; they were also under-provisioned in assets such as trench mortars. At a wider level, the Allied land forces allocated to the campaign were not enough to complete the task. The campaign began with the land armies of the two combatant sides being roughly equal in size – about 35,000 troops each – but by the end of the campaign, the Allies had been forced to double the number of units committed to the fight in order to meet the unexpectedly fierce Vichy French resistance.
Allied commanders also falsely assumed that the attack would be a walkover. Wavell reportedly thought the invasion would last only a day or two before French capitulation; and some Australian troops were ordered to wear their slouch hats rather than helmets into battle to encourage the French to remember the diggers of the Great War and lay down their arms. Both assumptions were wildly optimistic: the campaign lasted more than a month, and the attacking Australians donned their helmets within hours of the beginning of the attack when they came under fierce Vichy fire.
The unnecessary campaign?
When the troops of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion thumbed their nose at the Free French commander outside Damascus, they reflected a general antipathy held by many Australians for their Gaullist allies and their role in the campaign. Many felt that the Free French troops had performed poorly in the fighting, but most of all, they felt frustrated that the Free French commanders had talked Churchill into involving them in a campaign that was not necessary at all.
When France fell to Germany in 1940, the country was divided into two halves, the northern and coastal sectors under direct military control by Nazi Germany, the rest of the country by a French government based in the city of Vichy, technically neutral but increasingly sympathetic to Germany. The Vichy government was allowed to maintain control of its overseas territories, including Syria and Lebanon, and when Germany began to use Syrian airfields to support the anti-British revolt in Iraq, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle saw an opportunity. By persuading the British to attack, he could simultaneously deal a blow to the Vichy government and potentially convince the French Army of the Levant to join the Free French cause. To that end, he applied significant pressure on the British to take part in the attack by exaggerating how low Vichy morale was and how easy the campaign would be. Churchill took the bait and Operation Exporter went ahead; but when the Vichy French defence did not lie down as de Gaulle had predicted, many on the Allied side resented being drawn into a campaign that they felt was the result of de Gaulle’s political machinations more than anything else.
De Gaulle’s ambitions were, of course, not the only reason for the British to invade Syria and Lebanon. Britain had long feared that Nazi Germany would use the Vichy territories in the Middle East as a base for operations, and Germany’s use of Syrian air bases confirmed many fears and suspicions in London that increasing German influence in the area would deal the Allies a decisive strategic blow. From Syrian and Lebanese air bases, Germany could attack British oil interests in Iraq, British positions in Palestine, and the all-important Suez Canal. Some also thought Germany might use its recent successes in Greece and Crete to land an army in Syria–Lebanon, thus seriously upsetting the strategic balance in the eastern Mediterranean.
It is now known that Germany had no intentions of landing an army in Syria or Lebanon; they were too busy planning to invade the Soviet Union. Hindsight, however, is always 20/20; and given Germany’s ascendancy in the war up to that point, including the recent victories in Greece and Crete, it is fair to conclude that those making the decision to proceed with Operation Exporter were at the time justified in their conclusions: the Syria–Lebanon campaign neutralised a potential strategic threat for the British at a time when strategic threats were thick on the ground.
The Australian campaign?
Operation Exporter is often thought of as nearly exclusively an Australian campaign. Looking at the formations of the attacking units at the beginning of the campaign, this assessment appears justified. Australian troops after all formed the bulk of two of the main attacking columns and were instrumental in some of the key battles as the campaign proceeded – including Sidon, Merdjayoun, Jezzine and Damour. The only two Victoria Crosses awarded in the campaign both went to Australians – Jim Gordon and Roden Cutler – and from 18 June the operation was commanded by Australian Lieutenant General John Lavarack. On top of that, 416 of the approximately 1,000 Allied deaths in Syria and Lebanon were Australians, more than any other Allied contributor.
It should be remembered, however, that Australians ultimately formed less than half of the entire Allied forces that took part in the campaign. As the campaign wore on, the Allies were forced to commit additional units, such as the entire 6th British Division and the 10th Indian Division, to cover heavy losses and overwhelm the Vichy defenders. The Australians, who had formed the majority at the start of the operation, ended up fighting alongside troops from Britain, India, France (including its African colonies), Syria, Lebanon, and even Czechoslovakia.
Australia was not the only country to suffer considerable losses. On 16 June the bulk of the 1st Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was forced to surrender to the Vichy French after hard fighting at Kuneitra. Just four days later, the 3rd Battalion, Punjab Regiment, and the 4th Battalion, Rajputana Rifles – the other two units that made up the 5th Indian Brigade – suffered a similar fate at Mezze on the outskirts of Damascus. When the Vichy French took the survivors of these units as prisoners of war, it amounted to the effective loss of three entire battalions that had formed part of the original attacking force of Operation Exporter.
An important part of the operation’s air component, commanded by South Africa-born Air Commodore Leslie Brown, was formed by No. 3 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, in their Tomahawks, though they were joined and outnumbered by a wide array of Royal Air Force units. At sea, the Royal Navy’s 15th Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Edward King, at times consisted of only a handful of Royal Australian Navy vessels – HMA Ships Perth, Nizam and Stuart. The war on the land and at sea was largely British, and Lavarack later said that the two most important factors in the Allied victory were “the bombardments provided in the coastal sector by the Royal Navy, and our superiority in the air”.
The forgotten campaign?
The Syria–Lebanon campaign has always held an uncomfortable place in the Allied story of the Second World War. First of all, the campaign unfortunately took place at the same time as Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, an event that radically changed the trajectory of the war and drew much of the world’s attention from mid-1941 onwards. Secondly, the confusing nature of the campaign, including the ambiguous enemy (“I thought the French were our allies?”), has often caused Operation Exporter to fall into the too-hard basket of popular memory. Churchill, for one, wanted to curtail celebration of the success of Operation Exporter – a British campaign fought against French soldiers – for fear of fostering French resentment against the Allied cause. In Australia, the exploits of the Australians in Syria and Lebanon did receive coverage in the local press, but the campaign was always overshadowed by the defeat in Greece and Crete, the epic siege at Tobruk, and for the 7th Division, the later campaigns against the Japanese in the Pacific. The 7th Division’s nickname, the Silent Seventh, expresses the perception that their exploits were often overshadowed, and their role in Syria–Lebanon is no exception.
Despite this, it is perhaps an exaggeration to label Syria–Lebanon the “forgotten” campaign. Popular Australian memory of the Second World War does not extend much beyond the most famous battles and campaigns. For many, the entire Australian experience of the war would be summed up in two words – Tobruk and Kokoda. Seen in that light, the Syria–Lebanon campaign is no more or less well-known than, for example, the battles of Bardia and Salamaua or the entire Bougainville campaign. Nearly 200 pages of Gavin Long’s official history of the army in the war are devoted to Operation Exporter (about the same number of pages devoted to Australian campaigns in Borneo) and numerous books have been written on the subject.
Forgotten or not, the Syria–Lebanon campaign resulted in the death of an estimated 2,000 people, including 416 Australians, and for that reason alone, it deserves further study, better recognition, and better understanding of its cause and course 80 years ago.
About the author
Dr David Sutton is a historian at the Australian War Memorial. He is currently writing a book on the Syria–Lebanon campaign.