Syria-Lebanon Campaign

Syria-Lebanon Campaign

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Syria-Lebanon campaign

caption=Hammana, September 1941. With terrain typical of the region in the background, Maj. Gen. A. S. Allen (centre), commander of the Australian 7th Division, inspects some of his men. British Commonwealth units garrisoned Lebanon and Syria for several months, following the end of the campaign. (Photographer: Frank Hurley.)
partof=Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatre
Middle East Campaign
date=June 8July 14, 1941
place=Syria and Lebanon
result=Allied victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom|size=25px United Kingdom
*flagicon|India|British|size=25px British India
*flagicon|Palestine|Mandate|size=25px British Palestineflagicon|Australia|size=25px Australia
flagicon|Free French|size=25px Free France
Flagicon|Czechoslovakia|size=25px Free Czechoslovakia
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson
strength1=Approximately 35,000 troops Australian: 18,000
British: 9,000
Indian: 2,000
Free French: 5,000
strength2=35,000 regular troops (including 8,000 French).Long (1953), p. 334]
10,000 Syrian/Lebanese infantry
416 killed
1,136 wounded
UK & India:
600 killed or wounded
Free French:
300 Killed or Wounded
casualties2=3,341 Killed or Wounded.
3,004 Captured (during campaign).|

The Syria-Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter, was the Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon, in June-July 1941, during World War II.

"Time" magazine referred to the fighting as a "mixed show", [Time Magazine, [,9171,851152,00.html Mixed Show] ] while it was taking place, and the campaign remains little known, even in the countries that took part. There is evidence that Allied censors acted to suppress or reduce reportage of the fierce fighting. [Brune, p.48] Senior Allied commanders and/or politicians believed that knowledge of fighting against French forces could have a negative effect on public opinion in Allied countries.


The Allied offensive was aimed at preventing Nazi Germany from using the Vichy French Mandate of Syria and Mandate of Lebanon as springboards for attacks on the Allied stronghold of Egypt, as the Allies fought a major campaign against Axis forces further west, in North Africa.

Although the French had ceded autonomy to Syria in September 1936, they had retained treaty rights to maintain armed forces and two airfields in the territory.

In May 1941, Admiral François Darlan signed an agreement with the Germans known as the "Paris Protocols." Darlan signed on behalf of Vichy France and the agreement granted the Germans access to military facilities in Syria. [ Keegan p. 676] Though the protocols were never ratified, French high commissioner for the region, General Henri Dentz had, in accordance with orders received from the Vichy Minister of War, allowed aircraft of the German Air Force ("Luftwaffe") and the Italian Royal Air Force ("Regia Aeronautica") to refuel in Syria. These planes, who pretended to be Iraqi and had been painted as such, were "en route" to Iraq during the Anglo-Iraqi War. The Germans also requested Vichy authorities to use the Syrian railways to send armaments to Iraqi rebels in Mosul. There was a threat of Axis support for anti-British parties in Iraq, thus endangering strategic oil supplies and communications. British Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, Commander in Chief of the Middle East Command, had to respond to the threat posed by Vichy collaboration with Germany and Italy.

The balance of forces

The Vichy French and Allied forces confronting each other in Syria and Lebanon were evenly matched in general.

Vichy French forces

The ground forces available to General Henri Dentz were termed the Army of the Levant ("Armée du Levant"). This formation was divided into the regular metropolitan colonial troops and the "special troops" ("troupes speciales", which were indigenous Syrian and Lebanese soldiers). [Mollo, p.144]

Dentz had seven infantry battalions of regular French troops at his disposal. These battalions included the 6th Infantry Regiment of the French Foreign Legion and the 24th Colonial Infantry Regiment. [Mollo, p.144]

Dentz had eleven infantry battalions of "special troops." In addition, Dentz had two artillery groups and supporting units. The "special troops" included at least 5,000 cavalry -- horse and motorized. [Mollo, p.144]

The Vichy French air force was relatively strong at the outbreak of hostilities. But the initial advantage they enjoyed did not last. The Vichy French lost most of their aircraft during the campaign. The majority of the lost aircraft were destroyed on the ground [Mollo, p.146] , where the flat terrain, absence of infrastructure and modern anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) made them vulnerable to air attacks. On June 26th, a strafing run by Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron RAAF on Homs airfield destroyed five and damaged six Dewoitine D.520s of Fighter Squadron II/3 ("Groupe de Chasse II/3") in a matter of seconds. [Shores & Ehrengardt p. 94]

While German interest in the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon turned out to be limited, German dictator Adolf Hitler permitted reinforcement of the French troops by allowing French planes en route from Algeria to Syria to safely fly over Axis-controlled territory and refuel in German-controlled Eleusina air base in Greece [Shores & Ehrengardt p. 30] . Activity of German aircraft based in Greece and the Dodecanese Islands was interpreted by the Allies as being in support of Vichy troops. In reality, though Dentz briefly considered accepting German support, he turned down the offer on 13th June [ de Wailly, Henri, "Syrie 1941, la guerre occultée", p. 246] .

Allied forces

Allied forces to the south of Syria in the British Mandate of Palestine used in the campaign consisted of the following units:
* Australian 7th Division (minus the 18th Brigade, which was in North Africa at the Siege of Tobruk)
* Gentforce: two Free French brigades of the 1st Free French Division (including two battalions of the 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade attached to the 1st Free French Brigade) and the Indian 5th Brigade (of the Indian 4th Infantry Division) with artillery, engineers, and other support services attached to form the "5th Indian Brigade Group"

Iraqforce, Allied forces in Iraq that were commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Quinan, was used in this campaign to attack northern and central Syria from the east. The Iraqforce formations used in Syria consisted of the following units:
* The Indian 10th Infantry Division and elements of the Indian 17th Infantry Brigade (from the Indian 8th Infantry Division)
* Habforce: the British 4th Cavalry Brigade and the Arab Legion, under John Glubb ("Glubb Pasha")


Commando and raiding operations were undertaken by the British Army's No. 11 Commando, and "Palmach", a unit recruited from Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. "Palmach" also provided interpreters and guides to other Allied units.

Close air support was provided by squadrons from the British Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force and the ground forces on the coast were supported by shelling from British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy units. Concerning fighters, Wavell provided Wilson with 70 aircraft. By comparison, the Vichy French had at least 100 fighters. The forces were more evenly matched than numbers alone would indicate, with British Hawker Hurricanes and brand-new, US-built Curtiss Tomahawks, matching up well against French Dewoitine 520s and Potez 63s.

Allied forces in reserve included the British 6th Infantry Division (including the Czechoslovak 11th Infantry Battalion — East attached to the 23rd Brigade) and the Australian 17th Brigade.

The plan of attack

The Allied plan of attack was devised by General Wilson. The plan called for four lines of attack: on Damascus from Palestine; on Beirut from Palestine; on northern Syria from Iraq and; on Palmyra (in central Syria) and Tripoli from Iraq.


The 5th Indian Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd, were ordered to cross the Syrian border from the British Mandate of Palestine and take Quneitra and Deraa. It was anticipated that this would open the way for the 1st Free French Division forces to advance to Damascus. Four days after the commencement of the operation, this force was bought under unified command and was named "Gentforce" after its French commander, Major-General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme.


The Australian 7th Division, commanded by Major-General John Lavarack [Long (1953), p. 338] (succeeded by Major-General Arthur "Tubby" Allen on 18 June when Laverack took over Australian I Corps), [Long (1953), p. 413] had the responsibility of advancing from Palestine along the coastal road from Haifa towards Beirut. The Australian 21st Brigade was tasked with taking Beirut. The Australian 25th Brigade was tasked with attacking the major Vichy French airbase at Rayak. The operation was also to include a supporting commando landing from Cyprus at the south of the Litani River.

Northern Syria

Once the two southern prongs were well engaged, it was planned that a third force, comprising formations drawn from "Iraqforce", would attack Syria from Iraq. The bulk of 10th Indian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General William "Bill" Slim, were to advance northwest up the Euphrates River from Haditha in Iraq (upstream from Baghdad) towards Deir ez Zor and thence to Raqqa and Aleppo to threaten the communication and supply lines of the Vichy forces defending Beirut against the Australians advancing from the south, in particular the railway line running northwards through Aleppo to Turkey (at the time, Turkey was thought by some to be sympathetic to the Vichy government and to Germany).

Meanwhile, a group comprising two infantry battalions from the 10th Indian Division's 20th Brigade and two from 8th Indian Division's 17th Brigade, would operate independently to capture all the territory in north-east Syria including the "Bec du Canard" (or Duck's Bill) region through which a railway from Aleppo ran eastward to Mosul and then to Baghdad. [Mackenzie, p. 121]

Central Syria

Finally Wilson's plan called for "Habforce", consisting of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, the 1st Battalion of the Essex Regiment, the Arab Legion Mechanised Regiment, and a battery each of field, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft artillery to gather in western Iraq between Rutba and the Transjordan border. At the same time as the thrust up the Euphrates, this force would advance in a northwesterly direction to take Palmyra in Syria. "Habforce" was to secure the oil pipeline from Haditha to Tripoli. "Habforce" was in Iraq, attached to "Iraqforce", because it had previously struck across the desert from the Transjordan border as part of the relief of RAF Habbaniya during the Anglo-Iraqi War. Transjordan is modern day Jordan and at that time was part of the British Mandate of Palestine.

The campaign

Hostilities commenced on 8 June 1941. The major battles of the campaign were:
*Battle of the Litani River (9 June 1941): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
*Battle of Jezzine (13 June 1941): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
*Battle of Kissoué (15 June 1941 to 17 June 1941): part of the advance on Damascus from Palestine
*Battle of Damascus (18 June 1941 to 21 June 1941): part of the advance on Damascus from Palestine
*Battle of Merdjayoun (19 June 1941 to 24 June 1941): part of the advance on Beirut and Damascus from Palestine
*Battle of Palmyra (1 July 1941): part of the advance on Palmyra and Tripoli from Iraq
*Battle of Deir ez Zor (3 July 1941): part of the advance on central and northern Syria from Iraq
*Battle of Damour (5 July 1941 to 9 July 1941): part of the advance on Beirut from Palestine
*Battle of Beirut (12 July): part of the advance on Beirut from PalestineOn July 10, as the Australian 21st Brigade was on the verge of entering Beirut, Dentz sought an armistice. At one minute past midnight on July 12 a ceasefire came into effect. To all intents and purposes this ended the campaign and an armistice known as Armistice of Saint Jean d'Acre (also known as the "Convention of Acre") was signed on July 14 at the "Sidney Smith Barracks" on the outskirts of the city of Acre. [Time Magazine, [,9171,765788,00.html Acre Pact] ]


The Vichy French forces lost approximately 6,000 men. Of these, roughly 1,000 had been killed. This left 37,736 Vichy French prisoners of war. But, when given the choice of being repatriated to France or joining the Free French, only 5,668 men chose to join the forces of General Charles De Gaulle. [Mollo, p.144]

In late July 1941, De Gaulle flew from Brazzaville to personally congratulate the victors. [Time Magazine, [,9171,884370,00.html Reconquering an Empire] ]

Free French General Georges Catroux was placed in control of Syria and Lebanon. On 26 November 1941, shortly after taking up this post, Catroux recognised the independence of Syria and Lebanon in the name of the Free French movement. [Time Magazine, [,9171,849648,00.html Free Again] ]

On 8 November 1943, after elections, Lebanon became an independent state. On 27 February 1945, it declared war on Germany and the Empire of Japan.

Syria became independent on 1 January 1944. On 26 February 1945, Syria declared war on Germany and Japan.

Notable participants

In addition to the various military commanders already noted, the Syria-Lebanon Campaign had numerous participants who are worth noting.

Victoria Cross recipients

*Sir Arthur Roden Cutler, later an Australian diplomat and Governor of New South Wales. A Lieutenant at the time, Cutler was awarded the British Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross (VC), for his actions at the Battle of Merdjayoun. Cutler lost a leg as a consequence of the fighting.
*Jim Gordon, Australian Private soldier, awarded the VC for his actions at the Battle of Jezzine.
*Geoffrey Keyes, celebrated British commando officer involved with the crossing of the Litani River and with operations against German General Irwin Rommel in North Africa. Keyes was awarded his VC posthumously.


*Frank Berryman, later a prominent Australian General.
*Moshe Dayan, later an Israeli general, who lost an eye while serving as an interpreter with an Australian unit. Dayan received the Military Cross for his actions in the campaign.
*Roald Dahl, a fighter pilot at the time who had previously fought in the Greek campaign, later a prominent British author.
*Bobby Gibbes, member of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, who claimed the first of ten victories during the campaign and went on to become the squadron's longest-serving wartime commander.
*Sir John Hackett, an Australian-born junior officer in the British Army at the time; prominent after the war as both a British General and author. Hackett was wounded during the campaign.
*Pierre Le Gloan, French air ace, who served on the Vichy side during the campaign. He shot down seven Allied aircraft.
*Paddy Mayne, celebrated British Special Air Service (SAS) officer.
*Stanley Savige, commander of the Australian 17th Brigade, later a prominent Australian General.

ee also

* Attack on Mers-el-Kébir
* Anglo-Iraqi War
* Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran
* Haganah
* 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine
* Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence (1936)
* Italian bombings on Palestine in World War II


*cite book| last = Brune| first = Peter| title = A bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua| publisher =Allen & Unwin| date = 2003| location =Crows Nest, NSW
*cite book| first=Gavin| last=Long| title=Volume II – Greece, Crete and Syria (1st edition, 1953)| series=Official Histories – Second World War| url=| chapter=Chapters 16 to 26 | publisher=Australian War Memorial| location=Canberra| year=1953
*cite book |first=Compton|last=Mackenzie |authorlink=Compton Mackenzie |title=Eastern Epic |location=London |date=1951 |publisher=Chatto & Windus|pages=623 pages
*cite book| last = Mollo| first = Andrew| title = The Armed Forces of World War II| publisher =Crown| date = 1981| location =| isbn=0-517-54479-4
*cite book| last=Shores| first=Christopher F. | coauthors= Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques| title=L' aviation de Vichy au combat 2 La campagne de Syrie, 8 juin - 14 juillet 1941| location=Paris | publisher=Lavauzelle | date=1987| isbn=978-2702501719| language=French


External links

* [ Australian War Memorial, 2005, "Syrian Campaign"]
* [,8816,795404,00.html "Exit With A Flourish"] - Time Magazine Article, 1941
* [ The Palmach]

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