Invasion Syria 1941 – Churchill and de Gaulle’s Forgotten War
by Henri de Wally
List Price: $40.00
Hardcover: 554 pages
Date Published: April 18, 2016
A Review by Michael Dilley
Unlike in World War I when much is known and much has been written about the Middle East and Arab countries and the fighting therein, there is little available about fighting in this area during the early part of World War II. That campaign began on 8 June 1941 and ended with a cease fire 34 days later, on 12 July. Because of its length it seems almost like a backwater compared to later campaigns in the area and has been mostly neglected by military historians.
This should change with the publication of Henri de Wally’s latest book, Invasion Syria 1941. This book brings to light a new and very readable account of the events leading up to this campaign as well as those that led to an armistice and even events beyond the armistice. This is all possible because de Wally consulted a wide variety of sources, including memoirs of those involved and later court transcripts of some who were tried for various offenses. Mixed in with all these events is the extremely difficult positions French officers and units were put in because of their conflicting loyalties – to France, to the Vichy government, to Free France, to their own consciences, and to pragmatic survival decisions.
When Germany conquered France in May 1940, it established a government in Vichy. This was the root of problems for French citizens. Many of them believed that Vichy and its leaders were collaborating with Germany and, therefore, had no authority over them or their actions. General Charles de Gaulle personified this attitude for many but not all French citizens. He established Free France in London and, later, Free French military forces. Others, including many military personnel and units, believed that they owed their loyal to Vichy as the legitimate French government, even if they disagreed with its orders.
In the minds of many of the military commanders whose units were located outside France, they believed that it was their duty to protect the French Empire and its colonies – from control or conquest by any foreign country. This was particularly the belief of the French commander in the Levant, which included Syria. This commander was General Henri Dentz.
In March 1941, an Arab ‘nationalist’ (Rachid Ali) who was sympathetic to Nazi Germany (particularly because of its virulent anti-Semitism) led an insurrection against Great Britain, centered in Baghdad. British troops fought this insurrection. In attempting to come to the aid of Rachid Ali, Germany forced Vichy to order Dentz to permit German aircraft to land and refuel at several local airfields in Syria. Dentz personally opposed this order but permitted the landings because Vichy ordered him to do so. Some German military personnel got off the planes that landed and did not leave.
This caused Winston Churchill to believe that this was a German attempt to backdoor British forces in Egypt and, ultimately, North Africa which were fighting advances by Rommel’s
Afrika Korps. It also came at a time (May 1941) when Germany invaded Crete and defeated British forces there, at great cost to German parachute forces. Paying absolutely no attention to the advice of the military officers of the Imperial General Staff as well as other military leaders in England and North Africa, Churchill ordered General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Middle East, to invade Syria with British forces (more than half from Australia) and Free French forces under the control of de Gaulle. These forces included ground, air, and sea elements. Air elements were told that their priority was to support the fleet not the ground forces.
The relative strength of the sides was not equal - about 34,000 for the British (including units from Australia and India), and about 45,000 for the Vichy forces. This inequality was one of the reasons that Churchill’s advisors advised against action. Additionally, the British/Free French forces were sadly lacking in equipment, armor, other weaponry, and even maps. While the British/Free French used maps with a scale of 1:200,000, the Vichy forces had French maps of 1:50,000, which were much more useful to infantry forces. Some of the Free French units refused to take part in the operation because they would not fight with French forces on the other side. This caused de Gaulle to remind them that “I am France” and that the followers of Vichy were no longer Frenchmen. This tactic worked on some of the objectors but not all of them.
The forces of Vichy in the Levant saw themselves in the same light. In their minds fighting to defend Syria against the invaders was the same as defending France. They were acting out of duty as they saw it and not for any political reasons.
On 4 June, the bombing of petrol tanks in Beirut began some action but it was not until 8 June that the main offensive began. It was preceded by propaganda messages from both sides to their supporters and to those opposed. In the course of the next 34 days fighting raged back and forth. During the early part of the campaign Vichy air forces commanded the air because they had more modern aircraft. As the fighting continued, the Allies received the use of updated equipment and began to gain air superiority. Even with this advantage, many of the Free French pilots refused to fire on Vichy units. By 28 June, General Dentz realized that he could no longer hold out. Allied commanders had come to a similar conclusion, that the campaign was not winnable, several days before. Although the fighting continued, albeit by exhausted forces on both sides, negotiations for an armistice went on behind the scenes.
The back story for each side in agreeing to negotiations was not smooth. The Australian commander urged for continued fighting. Although at first the Vichy government also wanted fighting to continue, at least for several more days, it eventually agreed but on the condition that no negotiations take place with de Gaulle or any of his subordinate commanders. This demand was not met but negotiations continued.
Ultimately it was agreed to declare a cease fire and for the British command to lead negotiations with Dentz and his representatives.
On 12 July, a cease fire was declared at mid-day. On 14 July, Bastille Day, the accord to end the fighting was formally signed. What had the 34 days of fighting accomplished? Neither side would actually take any pride in the fighting. Bitter feelings were felt by those on both sides, directed at their own decision makers, concluding that the fighting had been for political reasons and not for military ones.
The bitterest pill for all those who fought there was that both England and France were very strict in the censorship of the entire campaign. Whatever mention may have been made downplayed the extent of the fighting. That downplaying of events in Syria in 1941 continues to the present day. None of the major histories of World War II mention the campaign. Invasion Syria 1941 seeks to correct this error and does so in a major way.
This is an interesting and fascinating book. It demonstrates the problems faced by French forces on both sides – Vichy and Free France. It explores in depth a battle which is not well known among historians or even the general public. Henri de Wally has spent a good deal of time researching this book and the results are well worth reading. I highly recommend this book as a very worthwhile addition to the libraries of students of history and military history, and to readers interested in learning new aspects of World War II.
©2016 Michael F. Dilley
Written by Michael F. Dilley. The author retains the copyright to this piece bearing his name. No reproduction, copying, or other forms of retrieval without permission. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael F. Dilley at:
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About the author:
Michael F. Dilley has a B.A. in History from Columbia College in Missouri and is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer. He served two tours in Viet Nam and six and one-half years in airborne units. In the field of military history, he was written three books (one of them as co-author) and contributed to two anthologies. He has also written many articles and book reviews dealing with special purpose, special mission units.
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