LEBANON, SYRIA PLUCKED FROM AXIS GRIP

Beirut, Lebanon · July 12, 1941

During their advance on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in June 1941, the British shot down a Luft­waffe air­craft flown in support of the pro-German Iraqi govern­ment of Rashid Ali el‑Ghalani. (El-Ghalani had led a nation­alist coup that un­seated a pro-British regime weeks before and was under­stood to be negoti­ating for German mili­tary support.) The nearest Axis bases were on the east­ern Aegean island of Rhodes. The British deduced that the air­craft had to first land some­where between Rhodes and Iraq to be able to fly to Bagh­dad. The only possi­ble spot was Syria, which was gar­ri­soned by Vichy French sol­diers under the com­mand of Vichy High Com­mis­sioner Gen. Henri Dentz. (The Vichy gar­ri­son in Syria was an arti­fact of Franco-German col­labo­ra­tion following the fall of France in June 1940; a May 1941 proto­col allowed the rump Vichy French state to con­tinue gar­ri­soning and admin­istering France’s over­seas terri­tories in exchange for ceding Ger­many and Italy the use of mili­tary bases in Syria, Tuni­sia, and West Africa.) Opera­tion Ex­porter, the in­va­sion of Syria and Leba­non by British Com­mon­wealth and Free French in­fan­try, armored units, and air­craft began on the morning of June 8, 1941. It followed on the heels of a 5,800-strong Com­mon­wealth march on Bagh­dad that im­posed a British-Iraqi armis­tice. Vichy French troops vigo­rously resisted British and Aus­tra­lian columns moving into Leba­non from Pales­tine, at the time a Brit­ish Man­date. Pres­sure there even­tually over­whelmed Vichy resis­tance and, when com­bined with the destruc­tion of Ger­man air­bases in Syria by east­ward-driving Free French forces and a British-led advance on Damas­cus from Iraq, Gen. Dentz nego­ti­ated an armis­tice in Acre (in modern Israel) on this date in 1941. The armi­stice placed Syria under Gen. Charles de Gaulle, head of the Free French Army. Nearly 6,000 Vichy sol­diers switched sides. British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill’s dis­patch of troops to topple the pro-German mili­tary junta in Iraq and the Allied occu­pa­tion of Leba­non and Syria con­ferred three stra­te­gic benefits on the victors: it restored sta­bility in a cri­tical area of the Middle East, it foiled Ger­man attempts to gain con­trol or influ­ence over these states and neu­tral Iran (Per­sia), and it en­sured a stable supply of Middle Eastern oil to the Allies.





Operation Exporter: The Syria-Lebanon Campaign, June 8 to July 14, 1941

Syria-Lebanon Campaign, June 8–July 14, 1941

Above: Movement of Allied forces into Syria and Lebanon, June 8 to July 14, 1941. Aus­tra­lians com­prised the largest number of Allied com­ba­tants (18,000 men), followed by British (9,000), French (5,000), and Indian (2,000) forces. On the Vichy side there were 8,000 French and 25,000 Syrians and Lebanese.

Fall of Damascus, mid-June 1941 Australian troops at Aleppo airfield, Syria, June 1941

Left: The fall of Damascus to the Allies, June 18–21, 1941. A car carrying two Free French com­manders, escorted by Vichy French cavalry, enters the city in this photo.

Right: Australian troops at the French Aleppo air­field, Syria, June 1941. In the back­ground are Morane-Saulnier MS.406 fighters. The initial 5:1 ad­van­tage the Vichy French Air Force (Armée de l’Air de Vichy) enjoyed over the RAF and the Royal Aus­tra­lian Air Force quickly evap­o­rated. Most Vichy air­craft were de­stroyed on the ground. In all, Vichy forces lost 179 air­craft from about 289 that had been com­mitted to defending French Syria and Lebanon.

2/25th Battalion, Beirut, September 12, 1941 Australian 7th Division east of Beirut, September 1941

Left: The Battle of Beirut (July 12, 1941) marked the end of hos­tili­ties in the Syria-Lebanon cam­paign. The entry of the Aus­tra­lian 7th Divi­sion into Bei­rut suc­cess­fully estab­lished the Allied occu­pa­tion of Leba­non. Beirut later became an im­por­tant Allied base for Medi­ter­ranean naval oper­a­tions. This photo shows mem­bers of the Aus­tra­lian 7th Divi­sion, 2/25th Bat­talion in Beirut, Septem­ber 12, 1941. The 2/25th Bat­talion, which had ear­lier entered the Syrian capi­tal Damas­cus on June 21, was em­ployed on gar­ri­son duties along the coast after the mid-July armistice came into effect.

Right: Maj. Gen. Arthur Allen (center), commander of the Aus­tra­lian 7th Divi­sion, inspects some of his men east of Beirut, September 1941.

Allied Operations in the Middle East, Second Half of 1941