The Syria-Lebanon Campaign 1941

Syria-Lebanon

Operation Exporter

Lebanon had formed part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years prior to the First World War. Following the Armistice in 1918, Greater Lebanon, later the Lebanon Republic, was included as a semi-independent state in the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon, which included modern day Lebanon, Syria and part of modern day Turkey.  French influence and interference in Lebanese governance and law was strong throughout the 1920s and 1930s. When France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany in June, 1940, French colonial governments and military forces divided their allegiances between the Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle, based in England, and the Vichy French, led by Philippe Pétain as head of the state of Vichy France. By the terms of the armistice, the Vichy French were allowed to maintain military provisions for the French colonial empire overseas. This included approximately 45,000 Vichy French troops throughout the Vichy-local French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Within a few weeks of this armistice, the Vichy French government began collaborating with Nazi Germany. In 1941, it became evident that the Vichy government was allowing Germany and Italy to stage military forces in Syria and Lebanon. As a result, an Allied force, consisting largely of Australian, British, Free French and Free Czechoslovakian troops, invaded Syria and Lebanon in what is now known as Operation Exporter. The campaign lasted for six weeks, from 8 June to 14 July, 1941, and it saw Allied troops fighting against their former French allies. Following the Allied victory Lebanon, and later Syria, established their independence.

Visitors to Lebanon today can visit historic sites associated with the Australian role in the campaign. In particular, the 7th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force played a key role in advancing along two main drives, one along the coast towards Sidon, and the other inland towards Jezzine. After the campaign various Australian units were based around Lebanon on garrison duties.

Image: Major General A. S. “Tubby” Allen (centre), commander of the 7th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force, near Hammana, Lebanon, 2 September, 1941.
Creator: Frank Hurley
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Beirut

Most visitors arrive in Lebanon via the Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. From here, there are a number of sites of relevance to Australian history in different directions.

The Beirut War Cemetery is located north of the airport on Jalloul (road), in the southern outskirts of central Beirut in the Assas area. The cemetery is split into two halves located on either side of the road. The northern plot is the original First World War cemetery, and this contains a Cross of Sacrifice and graves from the First World War. Across the road, the southern plot is much larger, and this primarily holds graves from the Second World War, with some additional First World War graves, in addition to hosting another Cross of Sacrifice and a Cremation Memorial for Indian casualties of the Second World War. Combined, the cemetery as a whole contains 628 graves from the First World War, and 531 burials from the Second World War. Of these, 267 are Australians, 24 of whom were buried in the First World War, and 243 of whom were buried in the Second World War.

Another site of relevance is Nahr al Kalb, or ‘Dog River’, which lies twenty kilometres north of Beirut, via the main Sea Side Road. There are a number of plaques and inscriptions in this area, ranging in period from Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE, through the Roman Emperor Caracalla, through to the French Emperor Napoleon III. Among these are two inscriptions of relevance to Australians. The first records ‘The Desert Mounted Corps composed of British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian Cavalry, with a French regiment of Spahis and Chasseurs d’Afrique and the Arab forces of King Hussein captured Damascus Homs and Aleppo October 1918’. A second inscription further east along the river commemorates the liberation of Lebanon and Syria following Operation Exporter in the Second World War.

Image: Beirut War Cemetery
Source: Courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Battle of Jezzine

Operation Exporter, the Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon, called for four main lines of advance. A northern drive up from Palestine along the coast towards Beirut; another northern drive up from Palestine inland towards Demascus; a western drive from Iraq to secure northern Syria; and a western drive from Iraq to secure central Syria. As the 7th Division of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2/AIF) advanced up the coast they were also required to secure their flanks, including inland roads and towns that could be used by the Vichy French. A key town along this inland path was Jezzine, located about 70 kilometres south-south-east of Beirut, or 30 kilometres east of Sidon.

The Australians captured Jezzine with relative ease on 14 June, 1941. However, two days later the Vichy French attacked the town as part of their broader counter-attack throughout this region. As seen in this image, Jezzine is perched on a cliff-side and is surrounded by rugged, rocky, mountainous terrain. This made fighting in this area very difficult for both sides, and the conflict around Jezzine continued through to signing of the armistice on 12 July, 1941.

During the fighting around Jezzine on 10 July, 1941, Private Jim Gordon of the 2/31st Battalion, 2/AIF, earned the Victoria Cross for the following action:

On 10 July 1941 at Jezzine, Syria, Private Gordon's company was held up by intense machine-gun and grenade fire from Vichy French forces, but on his own initiative, he crept forward alone and succeeded in getting close to the machine-gun post. He then charged it and killed the four machine-gunners with his bayonet. His action demoralized the enemy in this sector and the company advanced and took the position.

There is little physical evidence of this fighting around Jezzine today. However, as this image suggests, a trip to Jezzine presents visitors with the opportunity to tour some spectacular areas of the Lebanese countryside.

Image: The town of Jezzine, Lebanon, c. 1941.
Source: Australian War Memorial, 023630.

Battle of Damour

The town of Damour is located about 25 kilometres south of Beirut along the main coastal road. In 1941 Damour was the French administrative capital of the local area and was the final obstacle barring 7th Division’s advance into Beirut. On 6 July, 1941, Australians of the 21st Brigade, 2/AIF, began the attack on Vichy French positions south of Damour, and fighting would continue in the area until 9 July when the Vichy French withdrew from the area. During the fighting, on 8 July, the Vichy French commander, General Henri Dentz, sought an armistice with the Allied commanders. This came into effect on 12 July, 1941, the same day that Australians advanced into Beirut.

There is little evidence today of the fighting that took place here in July, 1941. The Damour River, just south of the town, marks the scene of much of the early fighting on 6 July, and a trip to Damour presents visitors with an opportunity to tour the Lebanese coast and it surrounds.

Image: Australians of the 2/16th Battalion, 2/AIF fuse mills bombs (grenades) during a lull in the fighting around Damour in July, 1941.
Source: Australian War Memorial, 008641

 

Sources:

Gavin Long, Official History of Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 1 – Army. Volume II – Greece, Crete and Syria, 1st edition, Australian War Memorial, Canberra 1953. 

Garrie Hutchinson, Pilgrimage: A traveller’s guide to Australia’s battlefields, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2006.

Peter Dean, 'Man of might: Brigadier Berryman and the battles of Merdjayoun and Jezzine, Syria, 1941', Wartime, No. 42, 2008.

Australian War Memorial, http://www.awm.gov.au

Jolyon Horner, ‘Gordon, James Hannah (Jim) (1907-1986), Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-james-hannah-jim-12554

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