In June 1941, Allied forces launched one of the least known operations of the Second World War, invading Lebanon and Syria from Palestine to defeat Vichy French forces whom they suspected of aiding Germany in gaining a foothold in the Levant. With no hope for reinforcement or resupply, the French waged a stubborn defense, holding the capital city of Beirut for over a month before the weight of Allied reinforcements, naval, and air superiority finally forced French commanders to seek terms. Although Vichy France’s “Army of the Levant” was ultimately defeated Allied casualties and dashed expectations for a much faster victory stand in marked contrast to the rapid demise of the French Army at the hands of the Germans a year earlier.
The Army of the Levant was for all intents and purposes a miniature version of the same French army that surrendered to the Germans, with commanders trained in the same military schools, practicing more or less the same doctrine. In fact, some Vichy commanders had fought against the Germans in the Battle of France.[i] How is it then that the army best known for crumbling in 1940 was able to account so well for itself just a year later? A comparison of the two battles may provide some redemption to the martial reputation of French soldiers, whose tactical performance in 1940 was undermined by strategic, pre-war decisions that—as we’ll see—had considerably less bearing on the battlefield effectiveness of French soldiers in the Army of the Levant.
Operation Exporter–The War in the Levant, 1941
Terms of the Franco-German armistice allowed for southern France to remain free of German occupation and for France to retain its empire abroad, including its African colonies and its mandates over Lebanon and Syria. One term of the agreement, however, was that the new French government, which established its capital in the village of Vichy, had to defend its overseas territories from any aggressors.[ii] In 1941, Great Britain learned that Germany was using French air bases in the Levant to refuel, causing alarm that the Germans could ultimately use the bases to strike at the Suez Canal and sever Britain’s access to much of its empire.[iii] Churchill—against the wishes of his senior commander—insisted on invading Lebanon and Syria to ensure the Germans could not gain a foothold.[iv] Vichy France—concerned that inaction against the Allies would bring further German punishment—found itself compelled to conduct a defense of Lebanon and Syria against Allied forces invading from Palestine.
The commander of the Army of the Levant was Gen. Henri Dentz, best known to history as the officer tasked with formally surrendering Paris to Germany in June, 1940.[v] Gen. Dentz read the geography facing the attacking forces in Palestine and determined that the attacker would most likely approach on 1 to 3 axes of advance: (1) Along the narrow coastal road leading to Beirut; (2) into the rugged mountainous terrain of southern Lebanon, en route to the French airfield at Rayak; and (3) the open desert plain that leads to Damascus.[vi]
The Allied plan of attack—code-named Operation Exporter—devised by Lt. Gen. Henry Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson, in fact, decided on not one or two, but all three axes of advance, with all three receiving roughly the same brigade-sized effort. The Australian 21st and 25th Brigades led the advance on the Lebanese coastal and mountain sectors, respectively, while the Indian 5th Brigade–assisted by a contingent of ‘Free French’ soldiers loyal to Charles de Gaulle–was responsible for the attack on Damascus.[vii] Gen. Archibald Wavell—commander of all Commonwealth forces in the Middle East—despite his reluctance to commit troops to the Levant, believed Beirut and Damascus would be taken in just a day.[viii]
On 8 June, the Allied invasion commenced. Dentz organized the defense of Lebanon such that he could use the terrain to force the Australian columns into parallel bottlenecks while needing only to deploy a small number of Vichy forces in any single engagement.
By 9 June, the Australians had arrived at the Litani River—the first major obstacle on the coastal road. Once there, a single battalion of France’s 22nd Algerian Tirailleur (Infantry) Regiment held up the Australian advance for two days. The French destroyed the Qasmiye bridge over the Litani and forced the Australians to cross the river under a barrage of machinegun and mortar fire. In the early morning hours of the 9th, a Scottish commando battalion conducted an amphibious attack north of the Litani in a failed effort to capture the bridge before the French could destroy it. The commando raid yielded the capture of several French 75-mm field guns and the efforts of Australian engineers ultimately established a secure pontoon crossing, but the fighting had already taken a toll to include heavy casualties (25%) inflicted on the commandos.[ix] [x]
Just seven kilometers past the Litani, the Australian column was again halted, this time by two companies of Legionnaires who found concealed positions in ancient Phoenician caves near the village of Adloun.[xi] The Legionnaires were at times supported by French R-35 medium tanks, which would soon become a key feature in multiple counterattacks on all three Allied columns. Again, the Australians persevered, but only after another two days of hard fighting and mounting casualties, a pattern that would repeat itself multiple times over the following weeks.
In the central sector, progress initially appeared less contested than it was on the coast. When the Australians reached Merdjayoun on 11 June, the Vichy barracks had been abandoned, prompting Australian leadership to push farther north. On 15 June, Vichy forces launched a major counterattack led by three battalions of North African infantry, supported by 20 R35s, Legionnaires, and Circassian Cavalry, dislodging the Australians from Merdjayoun and driving them nearly back to Palestine and effectively negating a week’s worth of progress.[xii]
The eastern most column advancing toward Damascus led by the 5th Indian Brigade and assisted by a contingent of Free French forces made solid progress, taking Deraa, Sheikh Meskin, Esra, and Kuneitra with little resistance. On 15 June, Vichy forces out of Damascus counterattacked, recapturing Esra and Kuneitra, making great use of R35s just as they had in the central sector.[xiii] The experienced 5th Brigade was able to regroup and ultimately took Damascus on 21 June, but only after fighting through several more Vichy counterattacks as they approached the city.
With Damascus captured and the central sector column making very slow progress, the focus of Operation Exporter shifted to the coast and, specifically, the steep ridges of the Damour River where Vichy defenders made one final effort to prevent Allied forces from reaching Beirut. A series of engagements were fought between Australian infantry attempting to scale the cliffs and seize French outposts in the hills overlooking the river.[xiv] Well cited French artillery made the movement difficult and costly for the Australians, but intense and frequent shelling by the Royal Navy and Australian artillery units ultimately compelled the Vichy forces to fall back after four days of fighting.[xv] [xvi]
The Army of the Levant might have continued to fight for the few remaining kilometers that stood between the Allied advance and Beirut. However, the Vichy government, believing that the Army of the Levant had fought hard enough to demonstrate to the Germans that they had satisfied France’s commitment to defend its colonial possessions under the previous year’s armistice agreement, allowed Dentz to agree to discuss armistice terms with the Allies.[xvii]
‘To Lose a Battle’ — France, 1940
The events that led to the collapse of the French Army just over a year earlier are among the best chronicled of any operation in the Second World War. The Wehrmacht swept through Holland and Belgium, which caused the Allied forces to predictably push northeast to meet what they thought was the main German effort. All the while, enormous columns of German armor—including Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division—maneuvered through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest, achieving a breakthrough across the Meuse River.[xviii] The Wehrmacht then drove west, linking up with the divisions that had attacked through Holland and Belgium, encircling hundreds of thousands of British and French troops. The French Army continued to fight, making possible the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, but was never able to launch a meaningful counterattack. Paris fell on 14 June, and an armistice was completed with the Germans on the 25th—just 46 days after fighting had begun.[xix]
French strategy on the eve of conflict had been to fight on the defensive, grinding the anticipated German advance to a standstill, creating a continuous front reminiscent of the First World War in order to buy time for broader mobilization and Allied reinforcements.[xx] This strategy was critically undermined long before any shots had been fired by a series of interwar policies that slashed the number of active-duty (or professional) soldiers in the army in favor of more conscripts while frequently reducing the length of conscript service. Similarly, the number of active-duty units was pared back in favor of more reserve units to be manned largely by those same conscripts who were provided with less and less time to familiarize themselves with their weapons and train on fundamental soldiering skills such as marksmanship, demolition, and entrenchment.[xxi]
The French army’s reliance on reservists and the organizational rigidity that accompanied the development of a defensive doctrine to accommodate inadequately trained soldiers was displayed throughout the battle. If the strategy was to slow and delay the German advance, then the army missed several opportunities to do so, often in areas manned by reserve units.[xxii] Consider the experience of the aforementioned 7th Panzer Division, which often served as a spearhead of the German breakthrough.
At the Ourthe River in Belgium, a team of French combat engineers demolished a bridge just ahead of the 7th Panzer Division’s arrival on 11 May. However, the army failed to leave a combat unit on the opposite bank to fire on the Germans once they arrived, allowing German engineers to quickly erect pontoon crossings.[xxiii]
At the Somme River, the French Army failed to demolish any of four railway bridges—two across the river and two across roads—that were ultimately captured by Rommel on 5 June. In The Rommel Papers, B.H. Liddell-Hart speculates that, “Once the rails had been [captured], [Rommel’s] tanks and other vehicles were able to pass over the river and marshy belt with far less delay than if bridges and causeways had had to be built. [. . .] If the French had destroyed even the final pair of bridges, over the road, the capture of the bridges over the river would have been of little avail.”[xxiv]
During an engagement at Sigy on 8 June, the French army demolished a bridge over the River Andelle. This forced Rommel to reconnoiter another crossing for his tanks. Upon finding an area of the river he felt was suitable to ford, the column began to move forward only to halt again after the breakdown of a Panzer II tank in the middle of the river. Large pieces of the demolished bridge and even reeds cut from the river bank were used to improve the ford for further crossing by the unit. That was until Rommel received word that a Wehrmacht reconnaissance unit had prevented the French army from demolishing bridges over the Andelle at nearby Normanville and he had his forces move at top speed to that crossing.[xxv]
In addition to the multiple failures to challenge the German advance at points where the terrain would have made them most vulnerable, the French army often delayed counterattacks, allowing the Germans to strengthen bridgeheads and resume the advance before an effective counterattack could even be launched.[xxvi] These examples do not mean to suggest that the French army never made effective use of terrain to slow the German advance during the Battle of France—they did. Nor do I suggest the French army was unable to launch small-scale counterattacks with some success—they did that as well. However, these actions were too few and on too limited a scale to prevent the Wehrmacht’s ultimate, swift, and total victory.
Tactics Enabling Strategy
So how is it that the Army of the Levant was so able to consistently delay the Allied advance and selectively counterattack to reverse Allied gains, while a year earlier, the German advance seemed to cut right through the French army with little resistance? It would be impossible to answer that question without first appreciating the unique circumstances of each conflict. In particular, the nature of the adversaries and the makeup of the respective French forces provide useful variables through which to gauge France’s relative combat effectiveness.
As the saying goes, “the enemy gets a vote,” and the German army of 1940 was probably the best trained in the world and innovated revolutionary armor and air doctrines. Germany determined its point of main effort (or schwerpunkt) would be the Ardennes Forest, where the French considered an invasion possible but could not imagine such a maneuver being executed as quickly as it was by the Wehrmacht. Further, German commanders like Rommel pressed every tactical advantage and even pushed back on orders from higher headquarters to slow down so that troops could rest.[xxvii] In doing so, the Wehrmacht often denied the French army chances to regroup and conduct any sort of meaningful counterattack.
By contrast, the majority of the Allied forces at the outset of Operation Exporter were drawn from Australia’s untested 7th Division. In addition, Gen. Wavell determined that he could not spare any armor to support the invasion, which proved a constant source of aggravation to Australian commanders.[xxviii] Gen. Wilson’s own ill-considered plan, spreading his forces evenly along the front, rather than concentrating them on a single objective (as the Germans had in France a year earlier), very likely contributed to how long the Vichy forces were able to maintain the defense.[xxix]
Additionally, the scale of each battle varied significantly. The German force that invaded France in May, 1940, consisted of more than 3,000,000 men and 2,500 tanks. While France and its allies had, roughly, a 1:1 parity with the Germans at the outset of conflict, the vast majority of the French army was composed of conscripts and reservists.[xxx]
In contrast, all of the 35,000 French and colonial personnel under Dentz’s command were professional soldiers. This, above all, is what allowed the Army of the Levant to so capably resist the Allied advance, which itself was manned by just 34,000 soldiers. In the Australian 7th Division’s report on Syria, praise for the Army of the Levant’s tactical ability was effusive:
The siting of the French defensive posts at the Litani and all other defensive positions was an object lesson. Their concealment, camouflage, and battle discipline were excellent. The difficulty found in pinpointing strong posts even when they were firing had to be experienced to be believed. Where our tendency is to build up unnatural posts and try to camouflage them, he disturbs the natural cover as little as possible and gets down behind it.[xxxi]
The Army of the Levant was excellent at constructing and concealing defensive positions and held those positions from larger attacking units with complimentary and lethal fields of machinegun and artillery fire. Army of the Levant soldiers also regularly counterattacked with combined infantry and armored elements that often delayed the Allied advance for several hours and occasionally set them back by a matter of days. To conduct such types of operations requires years of regular training. The ability to counterattack, especially, is no easy task and benefits from having units manned by soldiers who are familiar with one another and have trained together.
The austerity measures the French army underwent during the interwar period denied several hundred thousand French soldiers the opportunity to develop any level of martial parity with professional soldiers in the army. Worse still, French conscripts and reservists often did not even train in the units with which they would be mobilized for war.[xxxii]
Indeed, professional French soldiers fought well against the Germans too, including in the battle’s first tank engagement in Belgium. Unfortunately, it wasn’t professionals, but soldiers from the oldest and least trained class of French reserves that were tasked with defending the area where the Germans achieved their breakthrough.[xxxiii]
The French defeat of 1940 is often blamed on poor strategy. While there is certainly merit to that judgement, it is incomplete and misses an important nuance: soldiers are only as capable as the sum of their training. The vast majority of the French army lacked the requisite training to carry out the strategy of slowing the Germans down and creating a continuous front. Even the best military strategy will lead to defeat if the forces assigned to carry it out lack the tactical proficiency to do so. The Army of the Levant’s defense in 1941 tells us that professional French soldiers of that era were excellent at fortifying defensive positions and counter attacking with high morale and skill. Such competencies would have been invaluable if more broadly available in the French army a year earlier.
[i] Henry de Wailly, Invasion Syria 1941: Churchill and de Gaulle’s Forgotten War, I.B. Tauris, London, New York, 2016, pgs. 29, 37, 207.
[ii] “The Franco-German Armistice Terms.” Bulletin of International News, vol. 17, no. 13, 1940, pp. 779–780. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25642810. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.
[iii] “Britain Takes Action in Syria,” The Times (London), May 17, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-05-17/4/1.html. Accessed 25 January 2021.
[iv] Henry de Wailly, Invasion Syria 1941: Churchill and de Gaulle’s Forgotten War, I.B. Tauris, London, New York, 2016, pgs. 80, 104.
[v] “World War: Acre Pact.” Time, July 21, 1941. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,765788,00.html. Accessed 1 February 2021
[vi] Richard James, Australia’s War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, NSW, Australia, pg. 122.
[vii] 2nd Australian Imperial Force and Commonwealth Military Forces unit war diaries, 2/14 Battalion war diary, June 1941, AWM52 8/3/14/21. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1361044. Accessed 24 January 2021.
[viii] Richard James, Australia’s War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, NSW, Australia, pg. 117.
[ix] “Daring Landing From the Sea,” The Times (London), June 12, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-06-12/4/6.html. Accessed 3 February 2021.
[x] Long, Gavin, Australia in the War (1939-1945) Series 1, Volume II - Greece, Crete, and Syria, Australia War Memorial, 1953, pg.364. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417307. Accessed 17 November 2020.
[xi] “Tough Defence Broken,” The Times (London), June 13, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-06-13/4/6.html. Accessed 5 February 2021.
[xii] Long, Gavin, Australia in the War (1939-1945) Series 1, Volume II - Greece, Crete, and Syria, Australia War Memorial, 1953, pg. 412. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417147. Accessed 17 November 2020.
[xiii] HL Deb 6 August 1941, Volume 119, Col 1126. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/1941-08-06/debates/e3e1f276-d214-4850-846c-e9343cc655c5/OperationsInSyria?highlight=syria%20lebanon%20palestine#contribution-46b5102a-2289-474c-837a-5538cb071cff. Accessed 28 January 2021.
[xiv] Long, Gavin, Australia in the War (1939-1945) Series 1, Volume II - Greece, Crete, and Syria, Australia War Memorial, 1953, pgs. 481-505. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417307. Accessed 17 November 2020.
[xv] “The Battle for Damour,” The Times (London), July 8, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-07-08/4/3.html. Accessed 6 February 2021.
[xvi] “Ridge Occupied Above Damour,” The Times (London), July 9, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-07-09/4/5.html. Accessed 6 February 2021.
[xvii] “Armistice in Syria,” The Times (London), July 14, 1941, pg. 4. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1941-07-15/4/5.html. Accessed 8 February 2021.
[xviii] Erwin Rommel and B.H. Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, Da Capo Press, New York, 1953, pgs. 3-87.
[xix] R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, Fourth Edition, Harper Collins, New York, 1993, pgs. 1159-1165.
[xx] Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle, Penguin Books, London, 1990, pgs. 68-72.
[xxi] Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, pgs. 15-42.
[xxii] Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Oxoford University Press, Oxford, 2003, pgs. 163-174.
[xxiii] Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle, Penguin Books, London, 1990, pg. 281.
[xxiv] Erwin Rommel and B.H. Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, Da Capo Press, New York, 1953, pg. 46.
[xxv] Erwin Rommel and B.H. Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, Da Capo Press, New York, 1953, pgs. 54-55.
[xxvi] Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Oxoford University Press, Oxford, 2003, pgs. 47-55.
[xxvii] Erwin Rommel and B.H. Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers, Da Capo Press, New York, 1953, pgs. 21, 29.
[xxviii] General Sir Archibald P. Wavell, “Operations in the Middle East From 7th February, 1941 to 15th July, 1941,” Reported in the Gazette (London Gazette Supplement), Issue 37638, 3 July 1946, pg. 3443.
[xxix] Richard James, Australia’s War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, NSW, Australia, pg. 114.
[xxx] Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, pgs. 30-32.
[xxxi] 2nd Australian Imperial Force and Citizen Military Forces unit war diaries 1939-1945 war, August 1941 Report on Operations in Syria, AWM52 4/1/14/10. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2658965. Accessed 18 January 2021.
[xxxii] Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, pgs. 30-32.
[xxxiii] Julian Jackson, The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Oxoford University Press, Oxford, 2003, pgs. 163-174.