Fact File : Syrian Campaign
8 June to 12 July 1941
Theatre: North Africa and Middle East
Players: Allies: Two brigades of the Free French Infantry Division; British 6th Infantry Division based in northern Palestine; 7th Australian Infantry Division based in Haifa; 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, 10th Indian Infantry Division and Habforce, based in Iraq.
Vichy France: Armée du Levant under General Henri Dentz; Lebanon Command and South Syria Command, including 6th Regiment, French Foreign Legion
Outcome: Operation Exporter, the Allied invasion of Syria, was a costly and bitter campaign but it eliminated a potential threat to the Allied rear.
Syria had formerly been a part of the Ottoman Empire, but as a French mandate it sided with the Vichy French government after the fall of France in 1940. The High Commissioner, General Dentz, was a Vichy appointee and his forces posed a threat to the rear of the Allied forces in Libya.
In May 1941, Dentz allowed German aircraft to refuel in Syria en route to Persia and Iraq, which the Allies had invaded to overcome hostile rebellions. This was the final straw. On 8 June the Allies invaded Syria and Lebanon; one week later, more forces followed from Iraq.
The Allies hoped that a brief campaign would be followed by mass desertions from the Vichy forces to the Free French. However, the fighting was bitter and hard. There were fierce battles at the River Litani and at Kissoué, where Frenchmen fought Frenchmen. But on 22 June, Damascus fell.
In Lebanon, the defence was similarly resilient and only the 7th Australian Division succeeded in breaking though, supported by naval gunfire south of Beirut. When that city fell on 9 July, Dentz realised his position was impossible. Terms were agreed two days later.
The campaign was costly, but its success helped to ensure the security of Allied forces in Northern Africa so that they could concentrate on defeating the Germans and Italians in Libya.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.