Categories 1941

Britain invades French occupied Syria

The invasion of Syria was probably the last time that cavalry units of the British army were engaged on operations - mainly in a reconnaissance role.

The campaign in Syria attracted relatively little attention, partly because it was overshadowed by the invasion of Russia. The Australian 7th Division which led the invasion started to refer to itself as the ‘silent seventh’ because of the lack of publicity it received.

Unexpected resistance was received from French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in France. Fighting was especially bitter when they confronted Free French troops who were part of the invading force.

This is the account of Lt. Gerald Bryan of the No.11 (Scottish) Commando which attacked the French behind the lines at the Litani River:

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.

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.

Read more about the Litani River: The Daring Commando Raid

For more on No. 11 (Scottish) Commando and the Litani River assault see World War II Today Extra.

Palestine and Syria.

On 8th June our troops, with Free French troops on their right, advanced into Syria in four columns. French opposition was encountered, but by 10th June we had reached a line Kiswe (15 miles South of Damascus) Merdjayum- mouth of River Litani. Merdjayum, which guards the valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, was captured by our troops during the afternoon of 11th June, and by the evening of that day our left column was reported to be one mile south of Sidon.

Our aircraft have co-operated with land and naval forces in the advance into Syria, which began on the morning of the 8th June. Blenheims made daylight attacks on the aerodromes at Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra; hangars and buildings were hit and a number of aircraft destroyed on the ground. Five Tomahawks carried out a machine-gun attack at Rayak aerodrome and hit six fighters, while Hurricanes probably destroyed a Morane at Estabel. Six Blenheims with fighter escort bombed aviation petrol stores at Beirut and started a large fire.

From the Military and Air Situation Reports for the week see TNA CAB 66/17/2

Tomahawk aircraft manufactured in the USA were now coming into service with the RAF in the Middle East.

2 thoughts on “Britain invades French occupied Syria”

  1. It doesn’t surprise me that troops occupying colonial possessions would support the government in the mother country uncritically. If I consider the government in Vichy to be duly-constituted and worthy of authority, then it is my duty to oppose my government’s enemies, and deny the territory which I occupy to them. From my perspective, the war is already over – we lost, and it’s now time to make the best of it, get on with the Germans as best we can. We still have possession of this colony, which still needs to be governed, and whose occupation is meant to be part of my government’s policy, and presumably brings some benefit to the mother country. And the English have already attacked us at Mers-el-Kebir.

  2. After all this time, I still do not understand why the Vichy soldiers would fight the British or Americans or even the Free French. Maybe some sort of massive “Stockholm syndrome.” did they really think fighting for the Nazi conquerors was an honorable thing?

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