Syria - Operation 'Exporter' 1941
After France fell to the Germans in 1940, and the Free French Government withdrew to the United Kingdom to form a Government-in-exile (along with many other European Governments), a splinter French Government formed and was based in the town of Vichy in southern France. They assumed control of the remaining French military assets and overseas Colonies. The Vichy French forces thus became part of the Axis (Nazi Germany, Italy and later Japan).
On July 1 1940, the British Government had declared that it would not permit Syria or Lebanon to be occupied by any hostile power.
However they had no capacity to do anything at that time. The Battle of Britain was about to begin and The Middle East campaign was in full stride.
By early 1941, the French leader-in-exile General Charles de Gaulle demanded that the British take action in Syria through support of a coup d’etat by the Free French. However the Middle East camapign had started to sour particularly with an intervention in Greece going badly and an uprising took place in Iraq draining further British resources.
The Free French leader in Egypt General Catroux proposed an invasion of Syria by Free French Forces, provided they could get British logistic and air support. However it was a fatuous proposition because the Free French had just 5,000 men against the Vichy’s 35,000 including the legendary French Foreign Legion. In addition there were about 25,000 auxiliaries. The British Commander General Wavell was opposed to any further diversion of forces, but UK Prime Minister Churchill and Australia’s Menzies had other ideas. Their resolve was hardened by the news that the Germans were reinforcing the Vichy French.
Operation Exporter ultimately comprised some 34,000 Allied personnel, including Australian forces comprising the RAAF’s 3 Squadron (fighter / ground attack), 18,000 troops comprising two Brigades from the 7th Division (the 21st and 25th; the 18th Brigade was in Tobruk) and elements of the 6th Division. The British provided 9,000 troops and 2,000 Indian troops and the Free French 5,000.
South Australia’s 2/27th Battalion was part of the 21st Brigade ,and the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion comprising mainly South Australians and Tasmanians was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Blackburn VC, of Gallipoli and Pozieres fame from WW 1.
Paradoxically, the Germans withheld their troops so as not to give the British a pretext for invasion.
On the7th June 1941, the Allies attacked on three axes of advance – a coastal route (21st Brigade including the 2/27th Battalion) supported by the Royal Navy, a central mountain route (25th Brigade) and the third (17th Brigade detached from the 6th Division) across open desert.
More to follow......