Beirut, Lebanon July 12, 1941

During their advance on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in May 1941, the British were harassed by Luft­waffe air­craft (Hein­kel bombers and Messer­schmitt fighters) flown in support of the pro-German Iraqi govern­ment of Rashid Ali al‑Gaylani. (Al‑Gaylani or 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 while hosting spies and com­mando agents known as the Branden­burgers working for Adm. Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr, or German mili­tary intel­li­gence.) 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, like neighboring Lebanon, was gar­ri­soned by sol­diers of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy France (Armée du Levant, Army of the Levant) under the com­mand of Vichy High Com­mis­sioner Gen. Henri Dentz. The Vichy gar­ri­sons in Syria and Lebanon were arti­facts of Franco-German col­labo­ra­tion following the fall of France in June 1940; a May 1941 proto­col (imple­mented but never rati­fied) allowed Pétain’s rump 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 and reduced occupation costs.

Operation Exporter, the invasion of Syria and Leba­non by British Com­mon­wealth and Free French Forces (Forces fran­çaises libres) 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, the latter a British man­date under the League of Nations. In support of Vichy forces German aircraft attacked British war­ships off the Syrian coast in the first clear-cut case of Vichy and Germany fighting on the same side. Eventually Vichy resis­tance was over­whelmed 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, July 12, 1941.

The armistice placed Syria under Gen. Charles de Gaulle, head of the Free French Forces. 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 five 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), it prevented the German Luft­waffe from using Vichy French-controlled Syria and Leba­non as bases for attacks on nomi­nally inde­pend­ent Egypt and the British-controlled Suez Canal, it ensured a stable supply of Middle Eastern oil to the Allies, and it assured the British that the crucial over­land route between Egypt and India—the most precious jewel in the Imperial Crown—would be barred forever to German armed forces.

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

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

Above: Movement of Allied forces into Syria and Lebanon during Opera­tion Exporter (aka the Syria-Lebanon Cam­paign), June 8 to July 14, 1941. Aus­tra­lians com­prised the largest number of Allied com­ba­tants (18,000 men), followed by British (9,000), Free French Forces (5,000), and Indian (2,000) forces. On the Vichy side there were 8,000 French and 25,000 Syrians and Leba­nese. Vichy French casual­ties numbered between 6,352 and 8,912 (depending on the source), British/­Commonwealth and Free French, 4,652.

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

Left: The fall of the Syrian capital of Damascus to a com­bined British, Aus­tra­lian, Free French, and Indian infan­try, 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-to-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. The Aus­tra­lians remained in Aleppo to defend the northern parts of Syria against a possi­ble inva­sion by German forces through Turkey. The prob­a­bil­ity of that happening in 1941 was next to zero given Hitler’s fixation with liquidating the Soviet Union (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa).

Operation Exporter: 2/25th Battalion, Beirut, September 12, 1941Operation Exporter: 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.

Middle East Cockpit: Allies versus Axis During World War II

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