The British invasion of Syria, then held by the Vichy French, quasi allies of Germany, is little remembered. Still less so is the role of 11th (Scottish) Commando. This was the first large scale amphibious landing against on an opposed shore by the Commandos. Many lessons might have been learnt from the episode – unfortunately casualties were heavy, especially amongst the senior officers. This became the only operation by 11th (Scottish) Commando, which was disbanded and the surviving men were absorbed into other units.
The Australian 7th Division had invaded Syria from the south on the 8th June and were pushing north along the coast road. It was known that there was a strong defensive position on the Litani River. A Commando raid from the sea was launched on the 8th June to attack the French positions north and south of the river and attempt to capture the important Qasmiye bridge over the river – and so assist the general advance.
The 11th Scottish Commando was to lead the raid. Lt. Gerald Bryan had successfully crossed the beach and had just destroyed a battery of French guns when he was recalled to the Commando HQ to confer with Colonel Pedder:
We had to cross about 300 yards of open ground to reach the Colonel so we just ran like hell, and although there were a few bullets flying around, I don’t think we had a single casualty. I arrived at Commando HQ and reported to the Colonel. He explained that he was pushing in some men and wanted our section to support them and pick off snipers. We took up what positions we could but there wasn’t much cover.
I left the Colonel and went over to a Bren-gun post about fifty yards away but it took me a good ten minutes to get there as I had to crawl the whole way. The French had spotted us and were putting down a lot of small arms fire – very accurate. The whole time bullets spat past my head and sounded very close. It was very unpleasant and hard to think correctly.
When I reached the Bren posts, they were stuck. Every time they tried to fire, a MG opened up and they couldn’t spot it. Suddenly the B section officer said he had spotted it and grabbed a rifle, but as he was taking aim he was shot in the chest and went down, coughing blood. Then the Sergeant was shot in the shoulder, from a different direction, which meant we were being fired on from two fronts.
I crawled back to Commando HQ but when I was about ten yards away, I heard someone shout, ‘The Colonel’s hit. Get the medical orderly.’ I shouted to the Adjutant and he replied that the Colonel was dead and that he was going to withdraw the attack and try his luck elsewhere. So I shouted to my men to make for some scrub about a hundred yards away and started crawling towards it.
All the time bullets were fizzing past much too close for comfort and we kept very low. The Sergeant, who had been wounded, decided to run for it, to catch us up, but a machine gun got him and he fell with his face covered with blood.
As I was crawling I suddenly felt a tremendous bang on the head and I knew I had been hit. However, when I opened my eyes I saw that it was in the legs and decided not to die. I dragged myself into a bit of a dip and tried to get fairly comfortable, but every time I moved, they opened up on us.
I could hear an NCO yelling to me to keep down or I would be killed. I kept down. After a time (when the initial shock had worn off) the pain in my legs became hellish. My right calf was shot off and was bleeding, but I could do nothing about it, and the left leg had gone rigid.
By now the sun was well up and it was very hot lying there. I was damned thirsty but could not get a drink as I had to expose myself to get my water bottle, and each time I tried I got about twenty rounds all to myself, so I put up with the thirst and lay there, hoping I would lose consciousness.
After about two hours, a lot of fire came down and the next thing was twenty-five French advancing out of the scrub with fixed bayonets. The four men left from my section were captured.
I raised my arm and one of the French came over and gave me a nasty look. I was carrying a French automatic pistol that my Sergeant had given me in exchange for my rifle. It had jammed at the first shot but like a fool I had held on to it. Anyway, he just looked at me for a while and away he went and I was left alone. I had one hell of a drink and felt better.
About half and hour later my four men were back with a stretcher, under a French guard. Both the Colonel and B Section officer were dead, so they got me onto the stretcher and carried me down to a dressing station, where a British medical orderly gave me a shot of morphia.
While we were lying there, a machine gun opened up and the French medical fellows dived into a cave, but the bullets were right above our heads and they were obviously firing over us at something else.
Some time later an ambulance turned up, and we were taken to a hospital in Beirut. In the ambulance were two wounded French, two Sergeants from our side, and myself. We remained as prisoners of war in Beirut until the British entered the town six weeks later.
The full account and other stories from 11 Commando at the Battle of the Litani River can be read at Combined Ops. Ian McHarg’s book ‘Litani River’ contains many more accounts of the battle.