With the British fully committed in the Western Desert, Greece, and East Africa, it seemed an opportune time to move. In desperation, British commander in the Middle East General Sir Archibald Wavell, apprehensive about losing British communications with India and the supplies of Iraqi oil, ordered a minor offensive. The besieged garrison at Habbaniya attacked on 2 May. A 5,800-member-strong column, Habforce, was hastily organized from the 1st Cavalry Division in Palestine. Habforce made a 500-mile trans-desert dash to reach Habbaniya on 19 May, by which time the 10th Indian Division had landed in Basra. Although Axis planes flew to Syria in support and were involved in the fighting, the Iraqis moved a month too early, before the Germans were able to offer effective assistance. The Germans were themselves too slow in reacting, and the British captured Baghdad on 31 May.
The British were alarmed by ultra evidence that the Vichy high commissioner in Syria General Henri Ferdnand Dentz, who buttressed his pro-Vichy patriotism with a strong personal Anglophobia, had supplied weapons to the Iraqis and freely cooperated with the Germans. The British worried that Germany—supported by the vehemently anti-British French Admiral Jean Darlan, who was now in control of Vichy France—would extend its victories beyond Crete and through Syria into the Middle East.
This fear, combined with the threat posed to the British base in Egypt by the French Army of the Levant, a force of 45,000 hard-core professional soldiers that included four battalions of Foreign Legionnaires, convinced the British to launch Operation exporter, the invasion of Syria and Lebanon. On 8 June, a hastily concocted force consisting of the 21st and 25th Australian Brigades, the 5th Indian Brigade, and the weak 1st and 2nd Free French Brigades, all commanded by General Maitland "Jumbo" Wilson, invaded in three drives—through Deraa to Damascus, through Merjayun to Rayak, and along the coast from Haifa to Beirut.
The British had hoped for a peaceful occupation by guaranteeing the independence of Syria and Lebanon, but Dentz was aware of negotiations between Vichy France and Germany that would culminate in the Paris Protocols, and he was determined to demonstrate solidarity with Germany. By the end of the first phase on 13 June, it was evident that the Vichy French showed no sympathy with Free French ambitions, and all advances were stalled by fierce fighting at Kissoué, Mezze, the River Litani, and especially at Merjayun. Damascus finally fell on 22 July, and with the conclusion of Operation battleaxe in the Western Desert, the British were able to bring up two fighter and three bomber squadrons. Meanwhile, Habforce and Major General William Slim's 10th Indian Division invaded Syria from Iraq against Palmyra and Aleppo on 21 June to isolate Dentz's force.
The campaign for Syria and Lebanon also involved naval operations. Vice Admiral E. L. S. King commanded a British force of three cruisers, eight destroyers, and a landing ship with a small commando unit. Opposing them was a Vichy French force of two large destroyers, a sloop, and three submarines. The naval portion of the campaign consisted of small skirmishes as the British carried out both coastal landings and shore bombardment. The French damaged several of the British warships through both air and naval attack, necessitating the dispatch of other ships. The French lost to air attack on 21 June just 50 miles from Syria one of two large destroyers dispatched from Toulon. The other French destroyer made it safely to Beirut on 21 June, but it was damaged there in bombing the next day. The Vichy French government considered dispatching the battle cruiser Strasbourg from Toulon but, with the campaign too far gone, decided against it.
After five weeks of bitter fighting, Dentz capitulated on 11 July, and an armistice known as the Acre Convention was signed on 14 July. Although its terms were generous, the immediate results of the armistice did little to encourage belief in any French desire to see the defeat of Nazi Germany. Only 5,668 troops (only 1,006 of whom were native Frenchmen) opted to join Free French Forces rather than be repatriated to France.
This tragic, regrettable episode, which cost the lives of 3,500 men, was a short but sour war imbued with resentment, particularly between the Vichy and Free French Forces who wreaked sacrilegious vengeance on each other. For the British, however, the campaign consolidated their flank and guarded against any German attack through Turkey.
A few weeks later, Britain, in unison with the Soviet Union, occupied Iran to guarantee the transfer of Lend-Lease supplies through Iran to Russia. In the process, Britain secured its position in the Middle East. Thus, in midsummer 1941, Germany consolidated its position in the Balkans while Britain dominated the entire Middle East. The British commander was liberated from all other preoccupations but that of defeating Axis forces in Libya, and for the first time he could concentrate all his force on a single task.
Paul H. Collier
Buckley, Christopher. Five Ventures: Iraq-Syria-Persia-Madagascar-Dodecanese. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977.; Kirk, George. The Middle East in the War. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.; Mockler, Anthony. Our Enemies the French. London: Cooper, 1976.; Pitt, Barrie. The Crucible of War. Vol. 1, Wavell's Command. London: Cassell, 2001.; Warner, Geoffrey. Iraq and Syria, 1941. London: Davis-Poynter, 1974.; Zweig, Ronald W. Britain and Palestine during the Second World War. Suffolk, UK: Boydell, 1986.