The Syrian Campaign
At the outbreak of the War Syria was under the French Vichy government, which was established by the Germans in June 1940. This soon led to German activity in Syria. At first it was the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) which established its representation there already in January 1941—whose official function was to supervise the carrying-out of the German-French Armistice Agreement in this area as well. The next step was the permission given to the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) to land its aircraft in Syria on their way to Iraq to aid Rashid Ali in his rebellion which broke out there in April of that year.
The German headquarters in Greece even sent a representative to Aleppo, General Helmut Felmy, who was supposed to coordinate the operations in Iraq and Syria, but the failure of the rebellion in Iraq led to the return of the planes back to Syria and from there to Greece three days later. General Felmy left on 19th May.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was suspicious of Germans' intentions and feared they were preparing in Syria a base to attack Egypt. His fear only intensified after the arrival of the German planes and of General Felmy there. With this in view, he ordered General Wavell, then commander of the British forces in the Middle East, to invade Syria.The General did not see things in the same way, estimating that there was no serious German activity in Syria.
In the background was the campaign in North Africa, where General Rommel captured Cyrenaica and besieged Tobruk. General Wavell thought that the campaign in North Africa was the main arena of combat and he even conducted operations (Brevity, Battleaxe), designed to relieve the siege of Tobruk. He therefore informed Churchill that he was opposed to the timing of such an action against Syria, which he saw as an unimportant arena. Wavell, unwilling to obey orders, which continued to arrive from London to prepare for the invasion of Syria, submitted his resignation. This was accepted, but came into force only in July. Despite his opposition, he organized the forces for this operation, commanded by General Maitland Wilson, who was commander of the British army in Palestine and Transjordan, and who commanded the suppression of Rashid Ali's rebellion in Iraq.
On June 8, the invasion of Syria began on several axis:
An Australian brigade moved along the coast from Rosh Hanikra to Beirut and Tripoli;
A second Australian Brigade left Metulla towards the Baq'a Valley in Lebanon.
An Indian brigade, reinforced by the Transjordanian Frontier Force and a "Free French" unit, moved from Dera'a in South Syria in the direction of Damascus.
Three brigades of the 10th Indian Division entered from Iraq to eastern Syria on three parallel axes and mixed units of the Trans Jordanian Frontier Force and a British commando unit moved from the Rutba area into the Syrian Desert.
The Jewish Yishuv also took part in this operation.
About 40 Haganah scouts were attached to the Australian brigade that left Hanita. Their job was to prevent the French from blowing up bridges in the course of the brigade's advance. At the same time, a group of 23 members of the Haganah left Haifa port by boat to sabotage the Tripoli oil refinery, and they disappeared on their way. Their disappearance is a mystery to this day and they must have encountered a mishap of some sort.
The cooperation of British Intelligence with the Hagana in the Syrian campaign is the beginning of the Palmach.
French opposition to the invasion was strong.
The French force in Syria comprised 25,000 African soldiers, several regiments of the Foreign Legion and another 20,000 local soldiers.
Heavy fighting took place near the Litani River and near the village of Kiswe, south of Damascus. On June 19, the French surrounded two Indian regiments and a British regiment near Damascus and received their surrender. Two days later, Australian forces and Free French Forces entered Damascus and battles were fought in its streets between French forces from both sides. The city fell on June 21st. On June 25th, the British forces reached Tadmor (Palmyra) in the Syrian Desert, and conducted fighting against the French garrison, which held out for nine days. The forces of the 10th Indian Division deepened their penetration into northeast Syria.
The French reacted to the invasion by bombing Haifa, like the Italians the previous year, and hit the oil tanks.
The French High Commissioner in Syria, General Henri-Fernand Dentz, demanded from Vichy to request that the German planes return there. His request was rejected, nevertheless German planes made several sorties from Greece and Rhodes. France was not willing to give up Syria easily. On June 27, it was learnt from radio interception of a French plan to send to Syria an army in French ships accompanied by four battleships, four cruisers and six destroyers. This was not an insignificant force in relation to the British naval forces in the region. The Germans were asked to give aerial cover from their bases in Crete and the Dodecanes, but they refused,
As it may be recalled the German General Student had proposed to Hitler some time before after the capture of Crete to continue and attack Cyprus. A French attempt to send a naval force to Syria may have led to a renewal of the proposal and a sharp escalation in Syria and Palestine, as a result of a minor spark lit by number of politicians and officers in Baghdad. The plan was cancelled, not only because the French naval squadron was not promised German air cover, but also because the French had no answer to the British submarine force in the Mediterranean.
On July 10th, when the Australian brigade was about to enter Beirut, Denz asked for a cease-fire. The capture of Beirut ended the possibility of the French getting help by sea. On July 14th, Dentz signed the surrender agreement in Acre. The agreement noted the courage of the French army and allowed its soldiers to return to France. A minority (about 6,000 soldiers) who chose to do so were allowed to join De Gaulle's "Free French" forces.
In retrospect, it turned out that the assessment of General Wavell of German intentions was correct. The Germans had no plans to establish an outpost in Syria. Dentz's fate was no better. When he returned to France he was put on trial for treason and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted and he died in prison in 1945.
The long-term outcome of the campaign was the granting of independence to Syria and Lebanon. "Free French" General Catroux was appointed High Commissioner in Syria and Lebanon; In September 1941, France announced, through British pressure, the independence of Syria and Lebanon and two years later general elections were held.