Battle of Damascus


Battle of Damascus

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Damascus
partof=The Syria-Lebanon campaign, World War II


caption=Map of Syria and the Lebanon during World War II
date=June 18June 21, 1941
place=Damascus, Syria
casus=
territory=
result=Allied victory
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Henry Maitland Wilson
flagicon|France|free Paul Louis Legentilhomme
flagicon|United Kingdom Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd
commander2=
strength1=
strength2=
casualties1
casualties2=

The Battle of Damascus (18 June21 June 1941) was the final action of the Allied advance on Damascus in Syria during the Syria-Lebanon campaign in World War II.

Background

On 8 June 1941, troops of the Indian 5th 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 Henry 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 were 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 Indian 5th Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Wilfrid Lewis Lloyd, since June 12 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. It was decided, nevertheless, that an early thrust to Damascus would force the Vichy commander to withdraw them to assist in its defence. Thus the threat to "Gentforce's" rear was to be relieved.

The battle

The plan called for the troops of 5th Indian Brigade to advance northwards from their positions at Aartouz on the Quneitra to Damascus road cross country west of the road towards Mezze. Mezze was a large village on the junction with the Beirut to Damascus road, some 3 miles west of Damascus. Their supplies, ammunition and 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 Damascus, some four miles further north. [Compton Mackenzie, p. 116]

At 20.30 on 18 June, the Indian troops set out and skirmished their way north. They reached Mezze at 04.15. By 05.30, after an hour of fierce hand to hand fight, Mezze 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 Mezze action, applying intense pressure on the Allied position whilst thwarting any attempt to relieve them and bring in vitally needed anti-tank weapons [Compton Mackenzie, pp. 117-118]

By nightfall on 19 June, the Allied position at Mezze was desperate. Ammunition was running low, no food had been eaten for 24 hours, casualties were severe, and medical supplies exhausted. During the night (when Vichy attacks were suspended) three men managed to reach "Gentforce" headquarters with the news of the position in Mezze. Early on 20 June, Brigadier Lloyd, resuming command of 5th Indian Brigade, sent a force of French Marines and a battery of artillery to fight its way through to Mezze. But they could not blast a way through and they progressed only slowly. 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 Mezze. That night, however, the Free French with support from British anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, broke the Vichy defences and captured Qadim in the morning of 21 June. [ Compton Mackenzie, p. 119]

Through the night of 19 June/20 June, the Indian defenders at Mezze had continued to hold out. 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 Mezze at 19.00 that evening to find it empty save for the dead. [Compton Mackenzie, p. 120]

By noon on 21 June, the Allied forces were in Damascus and the Vichy forces were retreating west along the Beirut road. [ Compton Mackenzie, p. 119]

Aftermath

On 21 June 1941, with the fall of Damascus, "Gentforce" accomplished its primary goal.

Bibliography

*cite book |author=Compton Mackenzie |authorlink=Compton Mackenzie |title=Eastern Epic |location=London |year=1951 |publisher=Chatto & Windus|pages=605 pages

References and footnotes

ee also

* Syria-Lebanon campaign
* Middle East Theatre of World War II


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