Battle of Damascus (1941)
|Battle of Damascus|
|Part of the Syria-Lebanon Campaign of World War II|
Map of Syria and the Lebanon during World War II
| United Kingdom
|Commanders and leaders|
| Henry Maitland Wilson
Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd
On 8 June 1941, troops of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade Group had crossed the Syrian border from the British Mandate of Palestine to take Quneitra and Deraa with the objective of opening the way for the forces of the 1st Free French Division to advance along the roads from these towns to Damascus. This was one of four attacks planned for the campaign by the Allied commander, General Sir Maitland Wilson.
By 17 June this force, named Gentforce after its commander Major-General Paul Legentilhomme, was resting and consolidating following hard fighting to gain Kissoué and the hills behind and was planning a final push to Damascus along the two main roads from the south, from Quneitra and Kissoué. Gentforce had been under the temporary command of the commander of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd, since 12 June when Major-General Legentilhomme had been wounded.
Alarmingly Quneitra had been recaptured by Vichy forces on 16 June. This threatened Lloyd's rear. By 18 June, Quneitra was recaptured but the Vichy forces from Quneitra still posed a potential threat to Gentforce's supply and communication lines. Nevertheless, it was decided that an early thrust to Damascus would force the Vichy commander to withdraw his forces to assist in its defence. Thus the threat to Gentforce's rear was to be relieved.
The plan called for the troops of 5th Indian Brigade to advance northwards from their positions at Aartouz on the Quneitra to Damascus road across country west of the road towards Mezzeh. Mezzeh was a large village on a junction with the Beirut to Damascus road, some three miles west of Damascus itself. The brigade's supplies, ammunition and the anti-tank element would follow closely behind on the road proper. Meanwhile, the Free French forces would advance along the Kissoué - Damascus road to capture Qadim as a preliminary to entering the Syrian capital, some four miles further north.
At 20.30 on 18 June, the Indian troops set out and skirmished their way north. They reached Mezzeh at 04.15. By 05.30, after an hour of fierce hand to hand fighting, Mezzeh was captured. However, there was a major problem: the equipment and anti-tank guns travelling up the main road had earlier got ahead of the infantry and run into a Vichy roadblock where most of the vehicles were knocked out. Furthermore, the planned advance by the Free French to Qadim had been delayed so that the Vichy forces were able to concentrate on the Mezzeh action, applying intense pressure on the Allied position, whilst thwarting any attempt to relieve them and bring in vitally needed anti-tank weapons.
On 19 June, Major-General John Evetts, commander of the British 6th Infantry Division, arrived to relieve Lloyd and take control of the Allied forces east of Merdjayoun. With the losses suffered by the Indian brigade, he requested that the British 16th Infantry Brigade be detached from the 7th Australian Division and sent to his sector.
By nightfall on 19 June, the Allied position at Mezzeh was desperate. Ammunition was running low, no food had been eaten for 24 hours, casualties were severe, and medical supplies were exhausted. During the night (when Vichy attacks were suspended), three men managed to reach Gentforce headquarters with the news of the position in Mezzeh. Early on 20 June, Brigadier Lloyd, having handed over to Evetts, resumed command of the 5th Indian Brigade and sent a force comprising two companies from the 3/1st Punjab Regiment, two companies of French Marines and a battery of artillery to fight its way through to Mezzeh. But they could not blast a way through and they progressed only slowly against determined opposition from French tanks. A Free French attack on Qadim the previous night had failed expensively, so that they were unable to exert pressure on Qadim that morning to draw Vichy forces away from Mezzeh. That night, however, the Free French with support from British anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and an Australian machine-gun battalion, advanced against light Vichy defences and captured Qadim on the morning of 21 June.
Through the night of 19–20 June, the Indian defenders at Mezzeh had continued to hold out. But by 13.30 on 20 June, with ammunition exhausted and having had no rations for 50 hours, they were being shelled at point blank range. A decision was made to ask for a truce to evacuate the wounded, to try to buy time for the relieving column (which could be heard fighting in the distance), to reach them. However, the white flag was mis-read as a signal of surrender by the Vichy forces who rushed the positions of the remaining bayonet-wielding defenders and overpowered them. The relieving column, reinforced by a battalion of Australian infantry, recaptured Mezzeh at 19.00 that evening to find it empty save for the dead.
By noon on 21 June, the Allied forces were in Damascus and the Vichy forces were retreating west along the Beirut road.
On 21 June 1941, with the fall of Damascus, Gentforce accomplished its primary goal.
- Compton Mackenzie, p. 116
- Compton Mackenzie, pp. 117-118
- Long (1953), p. 418
- Compton Mackenzie, p. 119
- Long (1953), p. 420
- Compton Mackenzie, p. 120
- Long, Gavin (1953). "Chapter 21 - Damascus Falls" (pdf). Australia in the War of 1939–1945 Series I (Army). II – Greece, Crete and Syria (1st ed.). Canberra: Australian War Memorial.
- Mackenzie, Compton (1951). Eastern Epic. London: Chatto & Windus. OCLC 1412578.