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Syria-Lebanon campaign
Part of Mediterranean, Middle East and African theatre
AWM 010546 allen lebanon.jpg
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.)
Date June 8–July 14, 1941
Location Syria and Lebanon
Result Allied victory
Free French control of Syria and Lebanon, shortly followed by their independence
 United Kingdom

 Free French Forces
Czechoslovakia Free Czechoslovakia

France Vichy France
Nazi Germany Germany [2]
United Kingdom Archibald Wavell [3]
United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson [4]
France Henri Dentz
Approximately 34,000 troops[nb 1]
50+ Aircraft[nb 2]
1 Landing Ship
1+ Cruisers
6 Destroyers[6]
45,000 troops[nb 3]
90 tanks[nb 4]
289 Aircraft[nb 5]
2 Destroyers[nb 6]
3 Submarines[6]
Casualties and losses
~ 4,052 casualties[nb 7]
27 aircraft[10]
6,352[nb 8] — 8,912 casualties[5]
179 aircraft[nb 9]

The Syria-Lebanon campaign, also known as Operation Exporter,[12] was the Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon, in June-July 1941, during the Second World War.

Time Magazine referred to the fighting as a "mixed show",[13] 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.[14] 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-controlled 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 to maintain two airfields in the territory.

From 1 April, after a coup d'état, Iraq was controlled by pro-German rebel forces under Rashid Ali.

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.[15] Though the protocols were never ratified, Charles Huntziger, the Vichy Minister of War, sent orders to Henri Dentz, the High Commissioner for the Levant. In accordance with these orders, aircraft of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) were allowed to refuel in Syria. Disguised as Iraqi aircraft and painted as such, the German and Italian aircraft landed in Syria en route to the Kingdom of 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, faced a threat posed by Vichy collaboration with Germany and Italy.


Early air clashes

On 14 May, a British Bristol Blenheim bomber flying a reconnaissance mission over Palmyra spotted a Junkers Ju 90 transport taking off, with more German and Italian aircraft seen later that day, resulting in a strafing mission being authorised later that evening.[16] Attacks against German and Italian aircraft staging through Syria continued, with a total of six axis aircraft being claimed destroyed by 8 June, with Vichy French forces claiming to have shot down a Blenheim on 28 May, with a further Blenheim being forced down on 2 June. A Vichy French Martin 167F bomber was shot down by the RAF over Palestine on 6 June.[17]


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

Vichy French forces

The High Commissioner of the Levant was General Henri Dentz. Dentz was also Commander in Chief of 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).[18]

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.[18]

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.[18]

The Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) in the Levant was relatively strong at the outbreak of hostilities. Starting with over 90 aircraft, three additional groups were flown in from France and from North Africa. This brought the strength of the air force in Lebanon and Syria up to 289 aircraft.

Two destroyers and three submarines of the French Navy (Marine Nationale) were available to support the Vichy forces in the Levant.

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 aircraft en route from Algeria to Syria to safely fly over Axis-controlled territory and refuel in German-controlled Eleusina air base in Greece.[19] The activity of German aircraft based in Greece and the Dodecanese Islands was interpreted by the Allies as being in support of Vichy troops. Although Dentz briefly considered accepting German support, he turned down the offer on 13 June.[20]

Allied forces and planning

Initially Allied forces to the south of Syria in the British Mandate of Palestine used in the campaign consisted of two main formations:

Map of Syria and Lebanon during the Second World War.

The Allied forces involved in the campaign were under the command of British General Henry Maitland Wilson.

Iraq Command, 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 Iraq Command formations used in Syria consisted of the following units:

Commando and raiding operations were undertaken by the British Army's No. 11 (Scottish) 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.

The Mediterranean Sea was a traditional focus of British maritime power. The Mediterranean Fleet was Britain's instrument of this maritime power.

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. In mid June British 6th Infantry Division with two infantry brigades under command came into the line as reinforcements, mainly on the Damascus front, and the whole southern force was placed under the command of Australian I Corps HQ on 18 June.

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 fall of Damascus to the Allies, late June 1941. A car carrying the Free French commanders, General Georges Catroux and Major-General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme, enters the city. They are escorted by Vichy French Circassian cavalry (Gardes Tcherkess).

The 5th Indian Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd, were ordered to cross the Syrian border from 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[21] (succeeded by Major-General Arthur "Tubby" Allen on 18 June when Lavarack took over Australian I Corps),[22] 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 Iraq Command, would attack Syria from Iraq. The bulk of 10th Indian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General William "Bill" Slim, was 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 Indian Infantry Brigade and two from 8th Indian Infantry Division, 17th Indian Infantry Brigade, would operate independently to capture all the territory in north-east Syria. 20th Indian Infantry Brigade were to make a feint from Mosul and the 17th Indian Infantry Brigade would advance into the Bec du Canard (or Duck's Bill) region through which a railway from Aleppo ran eastward to Mosul and then to Baghdad.[23][24]

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 Mechanized Regiment, and a battery each of field, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft artillery to gather in western Iraq between Rutbah 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 Iraq Command, 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.

The campaign

Hostilities commenced on 8 June 1941. The major battles of the campaign were:

War in the air

The initial advantage that the Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l'Air de Vichy) enjoyed did not last long. The Vichy French lost most of their aircraft during the campaign. The majority of the lost aircraft were destroyed on the ground[11] where the flat terrain, absence of infrastructure and absence of modern anti-aircraft (AA) artillery made them vulnerable to air attacks. On June 26, a strafing run by Tomahawks of No. 3 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (3 Sqn), on Homs airfield, destroyed five Dewoitine D.520s of Fighter Squadron II/3 (Groupe de Chasse II/3) and damaged six more.[25]

On July 10, five D.520s attacked Bristol Blenheim bombers from No. 45 Squadron RAF, which were being escorted by seven Tomahawks from 3 Sqn.[26] The French pilots claimed three Blenheims, but at least four D.520s were destroyed by the Australians.[26][27] The following day, a Dewoitine pilot shot down a P-40 from 3 Sqn, the only Tomahawk lost during the campaign.[26]

By the end of the campaign, the Vichy forces had lost 179 aircraft from about 289 committed to the Levant, with remaining aircraft with the range to do so evacuating to Rhodes.[28]

War at sea

The war at sea was not a major part of Operation Exporter, but it did play a part. During the Battle of the Litani River, rough seas kept commandos from landing along the coast on the first day of battle. In addition, on June 9, 1941, two French destroyers fired on the advancing Australians at the Litani River before being driven off by shore-based artillery fire. The French destroyers, the Valmy and the Guepard, then exchanged fire with the British destroyer, HMS Janus. The New Zealand light cruiser HMNZS Leander came to the aid of the Janus along with six additional British destroyers and the French retired.[29]

On June 15, with or without French approval, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) attempted to come to the aid of the hard-pressed French naval forces. Junkers JU-88s of II Wing, 1 Training Group, attacked British warships forces of the Syrian coast. Hits were scored on two destroyers, the HMS Illex and the HMS Isis. That evening, French aircraft of the 4th Naval Air Group bombed British naval units off of the Syrian coast.[29]

Both the HMS Illex and the HMS Iris were towed to Haifa for repairs. Iris returned to service soon thereafter. The Illex underwent a series of temporary repairs at Haifa. But other temporary repairs had to be made at Suez, Aden, Mombassa, and Durban in order for Illex to reach the United States for a refit and full repair.

On June 16, British torpedo aircraft sank the French destroyer Chevalier Paul. The destroyer was on its way from Toulon to Syria carrying ammunition supplies from Metropolitan France. On the following day, British bombers attacked a second French destroyer in the port of Beirut. This vessel too was carrying ammunition supplies.[29]

On the night of June 22/23, the Guepard fought with two British cruisers and six destroyers off of the coast of Syria. The French destroyer was able to retire under cover of darkness.[30]

On June 25, the British submarine HMS Parthian torpedoed and sank the French submarine Souffleur of the Syrian coast. Shortly afterward, the French tanker Adour was attacked by British torpedo aircraft. The Adour was carrying the entire fuel supply for the French forces in the Middle East. The tanker was badly damaged.[31]

During the ceasefire which started July 12, Dentz ordered ships and aircraft under his command to go to neutral Turkey where they were interned.


On 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.[32]

Australian troops among the ruins of the old Crusader castle at Sidon, Lebanon, July 1941.

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 Metropolitan France or joining the Free French, only 5,668 men chose to join the forces of General Charles De Gaulle.[18] The total number of persons repatriated to Metropolitan France, both civilian and military was 37,563. Eight convoys composed of three hospital ships and one "gleaner" ship sailed for France between the 7 August and the 27 September 1941 and were cleared without any unfortunate incident.[33]

Prisoners taken by the Vichy French forces were returned as well. However, it was determined that several British prisoners of war had been sent out of Syria even after the armistice was initialled. The delay in obtaining the return of these prisoners led to the detention in Palestine of Dentz and twenty-nine of his most senior officers. They were released in due course as the British prisoners were returned to Syria.[34]

In late July 1941, De Gaulle flew from Brazzaville to personally congratulate the victors.[35]

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.[36]

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


  • 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.
  • Yitzhak Rabin, later an Israeli General, Chief of the General Staff of the IDF, and twice prime minister of Israel, who signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and was assassinated in 1995.
  • Stanley Savige, commander of the Australian 17th Brigade, later a prominent Australian General.

See also


  1. ^ 18,000 Australians, 9,000 British, 2,000 Indian and 5,000 Free French.[5]
  2. ^ Air support was provided by the Royal Navy's No.815 Naval Air Squadron (Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers) based in Cyprus, No. 84 Squadron RAF, based in Iraq Bristol Blenheim bombers [4] Fighter support was provided by No. 3 Squadron RAAF, operating Curtiss Tomahawks.
  3. ^ 35,000 regular soldiers (including 8,000 French infantry) and 10,000 Levantine infantry.[7]
  4. ^ The British believed that there was at least 90 tanks supporting the Vichy forces in Syria.[8]
  5. ^ The Vichy air force in Syria consisted of around 30 bombers and 60 fighters. The air force was nearly doubled in size as the campaign progressed due to reinforcements being flown in from French North Africa (see text).[4]
  6. ^ The Guépard and the Valmy[9]
  7. ^ 1,552 Australian casualties (416 killed and 1,136 wounded).[5] ~ 1,300 Free French casualties.[5] 1,200 British and Indian casualties.[5] A further 3,150 Australians fell sick during the campaign, this figure has been excluded from the battle casualties.[5]
  8. ^ 521 killed, 1,037 missing, 1,790 wounded and 3,004 captured.[5]
  9. ^ Most destroyed on the ground.[11]
  1. ^ Major Allan A. Katzberg (US Marine Corps), 1988, Foundations Of Excellence: Moshe Dayan And Israel's Military Tradition (1880 To 1950) ( Access date: September 25, 2007.
  2. ^ Brief involvement of Luftwaffe, June 15, 1941
  3. ^ Playfair, Chapter X
  4. ^ a b c Playfair, p. 206
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Long, p. 526
  6. ^ a b Long, pp. 333-334
  7. ^ Long, p. 334
  8. ^ Playfair, p. 200
  9. ^ Long, p. 363
  10. ^ Playfair, p. 222
  11. ^ a b Mollo, p.146
  12. ^ Playfair, p. 203
  13. ^ Time Magazine, Mixed Show
  14. ^ Brune, p.48
  15. ^ Keegan p. 676
  16. ^ Shores and Ehrengardt Air Pictorial July 1970, p.242.
  17. ^ Shores and Ehrengardt Air Pictorial July 1970, pp. 242–244.
  18. ^ a b c d Mollo, p.144
  19. ^ Shores & Ehrengardt p. 30
  20. ^ de Wailly, Henri, Syrie 1941, la guerre occultée, p. 246
  21. ^ Long (1953), p. 338
  22. ^ Long (1953), p. 413
  23. ^ Playfair, p. 217
  24. ^ Mackenzie, p. 121
  25. ^ Shores & Ehrengardt p. 94
  26. ^ a b c Herington 1954, p. 94
  27. ^ Brown 1983, p. 17.
  28. ^ Shores and Ehrengardt Air Pictorial August 1970, pp. 283–284.
  29. ^ a b c Piekałkiewicz, p. 144
  30. ^ Piekałkiewicz, p. 146
  31. ^ Piekałkiewicz, p. 147
  32. ^ Time Magazine, Acre Pact
  33. ^ Auchinleck, p. 4216
  34. ^ Auchinleck, p. 4217
  35. ^ Time Magazine, Reconquering an Empire
  36. ^ Time Magazine, Free Again


  • Auchinleck, Claude (1946). Despatch on Operations in the Middle East From 5th July, 1941 to 31st October 1941. London: War Office.  in London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37695, pp. 4215–4230, 20 August 1946. Retrieved on 2009-11-06.
  • Brune, Peter (2003). A bastard of a Place: The Australians in Papua. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. 
  • Keegan, John (2005). Dear, I.C.B.; Foot, M.R.D.. ed. Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 1064 pages. ISBN 978-0192806703. 
  • Long, Gavin (1953). "Chapters 16 to 26". Volume II – Greece, Crete and Syria (1st edition, 1953). Official Histories – Second World War. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. 
  • Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic. London: Chatto & Windus. p. 623 pages. 
  • Mollo, Andrew (1981). The Armed Forces of World War II. Crown. ISBN 0-517-54479-4. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Flynn R.N., Captain F.C.; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshal S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1956]. Butler, J.R.M. ed. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume II The Germans come to the help of their Ally (1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-066-1. 
  • Piekałkiewicz, Janusz (1987). Sea War: 1939-1945. London - New York: Blandford Press. ISBN 0-7137-1665-7. 
  • Shores, Christopher F.; Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (July 1970). "Syrian Campaign, 1941: Part 1: Forestalling the Germans; air battles over S. Lebanon". Air Pictorial 32 (7): pp. 242–247. 
  • Shores, Christopher F.; Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (August 1970). "Syrian Campaign, 1941: Part 2: Breaking the Back of Vichy air strength; conclusion". Air Pictorial 32 (8): pp. 280–284. 
  • Shores, Christopher F.; Ehrengardt, Christian-Jacques (1987) (in French). L' aviation de Vichy au combat 2 La campagne de Syrie, 8 juin - 14 juillet 1941. Paris: Lavauzelle. ISBN 978-2702501719. 
  • Wavell, Archibald (1946). Despatch on Operations in Iraq, East Syria and Iran from 10th April, 1941 to 12th January, 1942. London: War Office.  in London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37685, pp. 4093–4102, 13 August 1946. Retrieved on 2009-10-14.

External links


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