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Operation Exporter: Invasion of the French Levant
Due largely to Vichy granting permission for German and Italian aircraft to refuel in the Levant en route to supporting the regime of Rashid Ali and the colonels of the "Golden Square" in Iraq in the spring of 1941 -- and also at de Gaulle's urging -- British forces in the Middle East under Wavell invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine and Transjordan on Sunday, 8 June 1941 (with columns arriving from Iraq later in the campaign) under the codename "Operation Exporter".
De Gaulle and the Allies anticipated a quick knockout followed by immediate rallying of Vichy forces to the Free French. It was not to be. Vichy forces were small and without sufficient reserves or supplies, but their ground forces were tough and well-trained, and their small air force actually maintained air superiority for much of the campaign.
Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces (two brigades of the latter, comprised mainly of Senegalese) slugged it out with the Vichy defenders (also containing a good percentage of Sengalese troops) and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July. By July most of the Free French forces (especially the Senegalese), having had enough of killing their countrymen, were of questionable value and regarded as unreliable by British headquarters.
The Allies sustained about 4700 casualties. The 1st Royal Fusiliers were cut off by a Vichy counterattack and the entire battalion was lost. The Aussies lost 1600 killed and wounded during the month of combat (as opposed to about 3000 killed and wounded during the much lengthier siege of Tobruk).
When the campaign ended, only some 5700 (out of about 26,000) Vichy troops elected to join de Gaulle. The remainder were evacuated by sea to French North Africa under Allied supervision.
Initial Allied OB
Australian 21st Infantry X
Australian 25th Infantry X
Free French 1st Infantry X
Free French 2nd Infantry X
Indian 5th Infantry X
Before the end of the operation, these forces were reinforced by Australian 17th Brigade; Habforce (returning from its jaunt to Habbaniya and Baghdad), including elements of the Arab Legion; British 14th, 16th, and 23rd Brigades; and elements of British 5th Cavalry Brigade.
Mockler, Anthony. OUR ENEMIES THE FRENCH. London: Leo Cooper, 1976. This is probably the best work on the subject.
Buckley, Christopher. FIVE VENTURES. London: HMSO, 1954, 1977. Also good, but only one of its five chapters is devoted to the Levant.
The British, Australian, and Indian official histories also provide good information. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to find much in French on the subject.
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
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