The Battle of the Litani River

This was not the first Commando raid but it probably counts as the first where they were fully engaged. It was a very intense and fierce battle. Since this was a campaign against the French there was probably not the usual publicity at the time – and the whole Syrian campaign got rather overshadowed by Barbarossa in any event. This new account drawing on the recollections of many who participated is therefore very welcome and important.

We crawled through some scrub to get closer to the gun. Here we met B Section officer Alastair Coode and a few men also attacking the gun position, so we joined forces. The gun itself was deserted, the crew being in a slit trench. We bunged in a few more grenades and then went in ourselves. It was rather bloody.

My section was comprised mostly of Royal Artillery blokes who knew how to handle the gun, and in a few minutes Sgt Worrall, had discovered which fuses to use from one of the original gun crew. This gun was the right hand gun of a battery of four, the others being anything from about 100 yards to 300 yards away. They were still firing.

Our gun was pointing away from the battery, so we grabbed the tail piece and heaved it right round so that it was pointing towards the nearest gun. The Sergeant took over command of the gun, shoved a shell in and sighted over open sights, then fired. The result was amazing. There was one hell of an explosion in the other gun site and the gun was flung up into the air like a toy. We must have hit their ammo dump.

No time to waste. The Sergeant traversed onto the next gun, sighted rapidly and fired. There was a pause. Where the devil had the shell gone? Then there was a flash and a puff of smoke in the dome of a chapel about half a mile up the hillside. A thick Scottish voice said, “That’ll make the buggers pray!” The Sergeant hurriedly lowered the elevation and fired again, this time a bit low. However, the gun crew started to run away and our Bren opened up and did good work.

Lt. Gerald Bryan’s story is just one of many to be found in Ian McHarg’s recent book Litani River.

It was just after this episode with the guns that Gerald Bryan was wounded – his account featured on World War II Today on 9th June 1941.

I am very grateful to Ian McHarg for providing some comprehensive background information on The Battle of the Litani River and the battle fought by No.11 (Scottish) Commando during Operation Exporter.

No.11 (Scottish) Commando and The Battle of the Litani River

No.11 (Scottish) Commando was raised in Galashiels in the summer of 1940, under the command of Lt Col Richard (Dick) Pedder, from volunteers from the Scottish Command. From Galashiels they completed a 100 mile march to Ayr before commencing arduous commando training on the Isle of Arran. From Arran the commando sailed to the Middle East as part of Layforce where in June 1941 they carried out the first opposed amphibious landing on an occupied shore by a complete Commando Force.

Divided into three parties, X Y and Z, they were tasked to land from the sea and attack the enemy from the rear in order to secure and hold the occupied ground around the mouth of the Litani River, allowing the advancing 21st Australian Brigade to cross the river and continue its advance north to Beirut.

The operation got underway on 8 June 1941 and immediately encountered difficulties; a heavy sea swell and the risk of capsizing their landing craft, resulted in the first attempt being aborted in clear view of the enemy. With the Australians lined up south of the Litani a second attempt to land was carried out the following night. Delays during embarkation result in the landing craft reaching the beach with day light breaking.

With the element of surprise already lost 24 hours earlier, they experience further difficulties when X and Y Parties are landed in front of, rather than behind the enemy, leaving no option but to mount frontal assaults against heavily armed and fortified enemy troops.

X Party, commanded by Major Geoffrey Keyes, landed on the south side of the Litani and courageously fight their way to the river bank, taking a number of casualties on the way. Using a small boat borrowed from the Australians they were able, despite being under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, to cross the river and capture a heavily fortified enemy redoubt that dominated the ground. The party held the position for over eight hours; long enough to allow the Australian Brigade to build a pontoon bridge and start crossing the river.

Y Party, commanded by the units tough, uncompromising Commanding Officer, Lt Col Dick Pedder, were originally tasked to act in reserve and support X Party if required, however the party consisting of the Commando HQ and No’s 1, 7 and 8 Troops landed in the heart of the enemy’s heavily manned and defended position, which included a barracks, numerous artillery pieces and machine gun posts. Chaotic and confused fighting followed the landing, resulting in the three Troops operating independently.

No. 7 Troop commanded by Lt Blair “Paddy” Mayne, achieved their objective quickly, killing and capturing many enemy troops in the process, before turning south with the intention of assisting X Party. Despite being fired upon on several occasions by the Australians the Troop managed to cross the Litani River, taking several prisoners with them.

No. 8 Troop’s two Sections, under Capt Glennie and Lt Fraser, where separated during the landing, Glennie’s A Section headed north engaging the enemy and taking prisoners until it reached and joined up with Z Party at Kafr Badda. Fraser’s B Section accompanied No.7 Troop in the early stages of the operation before also heading north to support Z Party.

The Commando HQ and No.1 Troop were involved in Y Parties heaviest fighting. Initial contacts were successfully dealt with and before long the barracks and numerous artillery guns were captured. However as the enemy regrouped and reinforcements flooded the area the situation quickly deteriorated. Outnumbered and surrounded they took many casualties including Lt Col Pedder, Capt Farmiloe and Lt Coode all killed, and with the last remaining officer, Lt Gerald Bryan, wounded and captured, RSM Lewis Tevendale took command of the Party. Despite showing extreme courage the remainder of the party was soon surrounded and RSM Tevendale was left with no option but to surrender to the French, who held them captive until released by the advancing Australians the following day.

Z Party commanded by Capt George More, was also landed on the wrong side of the enemy and was left with no option but to carry out a frontal assault on the Kafr Badda Bridge, which was situated on the main coastal road from Beirut, and the enemy’s main supply route from the north. Despite having to advance over open ground with little cover; overcome an enemy that was dug into the high ground and supported by armoured fighting vehicles (AFV’s); the Party successfully captured and held the bridge. For over twelve hours they were subjected to probing attacks by AFV’s, before the sheer weight of enemy numbers and armour forced them to withdraw south towards the Litani River.

Split into two groups, one led by More and the other by Lt Tommy Macpherson, they withdrew in separate directions. More’s group followed the coast and eventually got trapped in a barbed wire entanglement surrounding enemy machine gun positions. After taking several casualties they were forced to surrender, and were held captive until the French commander, observing the advancing Australians, duly surrendered to More.

Macpherson’s group, leaving the courageous LCpl Noble Sproule to single handedly hold the enemy with a captured heavy machine gun, withdrew from the bridge and headed to the hills in the east. Reunited with Sproule and under the cover of darkness Macpherson successfully took his group back across the river and into the Australian lines.

Despite being out numbered and suffering incredible misfortune and difficulties the Commando was able to hold the line long enough for the Australians to cross the river and continue with their advance to Beirut.

However their bravery was not without loss; of the 406 men that landed 130 were killed or wounded in nearly 29 hours of fighting, for which they only had enough ammunition and food to last eight. The death of the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Dick Pedder, and so many others was disastrous for the unit and a situation from which it would never fully recover.

Operation Exporter was a controversial and bitter campaign that has gone relatively untold for nearly 70 years, with even suggestions that Allied censors acted to suppress reporting of the fierce fighting against French forces, which saw Frenchmen fighting Frenchmen.

The battle for Litani River was among the hardest fought of the operation, and despite being awarded four Military Crosses, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, a Military Medal and two Mentions in Dispatches, for their courage and bravery at Litani River it was clear that within days of the Commando returning to Cyprus it was likely to be disbanded, a fate that had already befallen both No. 7 and No. 8 Commando.

Ian McHarg’s book is available either as a hard copy from Amazon, or – for a donation to Help for Heroes -as an ebook download from his website Litani River.

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