World War II: Vichy Military Collaboration--Syria (1941)


Figure 1.--This is a Free French check point in Damascus in July 1941 after the British and Free French seized Syria fron the Vichy authorities. DeGualle assured the British that the Vichy garrison would come over to the Allies with little resistance. In fact, they put up a determined resistance and took heavy casualties.

After the fall of France. French authorities in Syria, recognized the authority of Vichy Government. This included a military force totling about 40,000 Legioneers and Muslim soldiers backed by 90 tanks and prepared fortifications. Admiral Darlan provided logistical support to the Germans and Italians in efforts to support the Rashid Ali revolt in Iraq. This was a clear violation of Vichy's neutrality. Syria located in the Eastern Mediterranean was of some strastegic importance. The British feared that Vichy would allow the Luftwaffe to establish air bases in the country. This would have threatened the British position in Egypt as well as provided a jumping off point to seize the oil fields in Iraq. Churchill thus ordered Wavell after putting down the Iraqii Revolt to seize Syria. Degualle assured Wavell that the Vichy garison would come over to the Free French with little resistance. They did not.

King Faysal

King Faysal of the Hashemite family, seeing the opportunity provided by World War I, launched the Arab rebellion against the Turks. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) played a major role in the success of the revolt. A British Army under Allenby aided by the Arab Army decisecely defeated the Turks in Palestine (1918). Faysal attempted to estanlish an Arab government in Damascus. While he failed, he succeeded with Britgish support in setting up a government in Bagdad for Iraq.

French Occupation (1920)

French forces clashed with King Faysal's Arab forces at the battle of Maysalun (1920). French forces proceeded to occupy Syria when the League of Nations approved a mandate for France.

Vichy

The NAZI Blitzkrieg in the West resulted in the defeat of France. Withdrawing from the pledge to the British not to sign a separate peace, the French signed an Armistace and and a new government was set up at Vichy nder World War I hero Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain. The terms of the peace divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones. This gave the NAZIs direct control three-fifths of the country. This included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast from which attacks on Britain could be lsaunched. The rest of the country was administered by Vichy.

French Authorities in Syria

After the fall of France. French authorities in Syria, recognized the authority of Vichy Government. This included a military force totling about 40,000 Legioneers and Muslim soldiers backed by 90 tanks and prepared fortifications. Admiral Darlan provided logistical support to the Germans and Italians in efforts to support the Ali revolt in Iraq. This was a clear violation of Vichy's neutrality. Syria located in the Eastern Mediterranean was of some strategic importance. The British feared that Vichy would allow the Luftwaffe to establish air bases in the country. This would have threatened the British position in Egypt as well as provided a jumping off point to seize the oil fields in Iraq.

Syrian Jews

Jews have a long history in Syria. At the time of World War II there were about 30,000 Jews in Syria, although accounts vary. There were three major Jewish communities in Syria. Kurdish-speaking Jews were centered in Kamishli. Jews of Spanish ancestry were concentrated in Aleppo. Jews desended from the original eastern Jewish community lived primarily in Damascus and were referred to as the Must'arab. The status of these Jews changed radically with the fall of France (June 1940) and the formation of the Vichy Government. Syria and Lebenon (administered as part of Syria) were only two Vichy controlled colonies around the Mediterrean. Vichy also controlled Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Vuchy's 1940 anti-Jewish regulations were extended to all these jurisdictions. The Vichy regulations involved a range of persecution and denial of of rights. Committees for Aryanization were established and the citzenship of French Jews was revoked. Camps were established abd many Jews internened. The pattern differed somewhat in each jurisdiction with Tunisia adopting particularly harsh regulsations in 1941. The Vichy High Commissioner in Syria, Henri Dentz, was planning to open concentration camps, but the British and Free French forces seized control of Syria before he was able to do so. [Stillman, p. 146.] About 1,350 Syrian Jews escaped to Palestine in a complicated operation as part of the Aliyah effort. The Jewish community in Syria gained only a brief respite from persecution. After Syria achieved independence, the government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine. Other regulations and severely restricted Jewish schools, especially Hebrew instruction. Attacks against Jews increased and Arab groups organized boycotts against their businesses. When the partition of Palestine was announcede in 1947, Arab mobs in Aleppo destroyed the 2,500-year-old Jewish community. Jews were killed and more than 200 homes, shops and synagogues were ransaked and burned. Jews began fleeing to Israel illegally. The attacks were the result of mon action, but the authorities took no real effort to stop them. The Syrian Government did, however, expand its official persecution of Jews, adopting many of the rgulations used by the NAZIs. The movement of Jews were restricted. Jews caught trying to reach Israel could be executed are sentenced to hard lasbor. Jews were restricted from many occupations, including the civil service and banks and were prohibited from obtasining telephones and drivers licenses. The Government seized Jewish bank accounts. A new road to the Damascas airport was routed over the Jewish cemrentary. The Goverment also seized Jreish schools and converted them to schools for Muslims.

Greece and Crete (April-May 1941)

The German campaign in Yugoslavia and Greece had been brilliantly executed (Aporil-May 1941). The British had lost a fith of their expeditionary force. The Germans then staged an airborn assault on Crete (May 20). While ultimastely successful, it proved very costly.

The Afrika Corps (May 1941)

Rommel arrived in Libya and in 12 days had retaken the territory lost by the Italians.

Iraq Revolt (May 1941)

Sensing British weaskness, Rashid Ali staged a pro-German coup (May 5) and seized control over much of the country. Ali decided to attack the principal British base in Iraq, the Habbaniya air base. This was a real threat threat to the British position and threatened access to the oil fields in northern Iraq which were supplying fuel for the British Medeterrean fleet and the 8th Army. It was also a vital link in the air link to India. Churchill insisted that the British commander of the 8th army, Archibald Wavell, prepare a forceful response. The British rushed bombers and fighters to the air base and a small infantry force was rushed in. An invasion force was assembled in Palestine and Indian forces dispatched to Basra. Luckily for the British, the Germans were as unprepsared for Ali's coup as they were. German planners were struggling with the demands of Barbarrosa and the attack on Crete as well as inserting Rommel in Libya, were slow to react. In addition the Turks adamently refused transit permission, determined to remasin neutral. The Germans did manage to get some limited forces to Ali, primarily through Syria, but the British managed to secure Iraq before any masjor intervention was possible. The Iraqis did not improve their position when they shot down Major Axel von Bloomberg who the Germans had dispatched to coordinate military assistance. [Porch, p. 577.]

German Strategic Decession

It seemed to some German strategists that the British position in the Mediterrean was colapsing. Admiral Raeder suggested a major effort in the Eastern Mediterrrean. [Frst, p. 645.] Hitler had been forced to postp[one Barbarossa to secure his southern flank, a situation that had been unexpectedly created by Mussolini. He was not prepared to deviate further from his primary objection, the destruction of the Soviet Union.

Allied Occupation of Syria (June-July 1941)

The German also worked on infiltrating Vichy authorities in Syria. It is not clear how successful they were, but intelligence reports concerned the British. [Barnett] British Chiefs of Staff were concerned about the indeed the motives of General Dentz, the French High Commissioner in Syria, and his willingness to abide by the the Franco-German armistice agreement. De Gaulle and other Free French leaders wanted to occupy Syria before the Germans did so. The hard pressed British in Egypt were concerned about diverting forces for a Syrian campaign. [Jackson] The British Army and Free French forces entered Syria from Iraq and Lebanon and Syria from Palestine (June 8, 1941). The Vichy forces resisted . The Gerans transported Vichy reinforcements to Salonika, but the Turks refused to llowcthem to transit and with British naval forces conrolling the seas, sea transit was not possible. Luftwaffe air support was limited by the range of available air craft, although theLuftwaffe did bomb Haifa to interdict oil supplies. Unlike Free French claims, the Vichy Forces refused to come over to the Allies. The British had to bring reinforcements had to be brought from Egypt. The British and Free French seized Damascus (June 17). Cut off without hope of resupply and without air cover, Dentz requested an armistice which was quickly signed (July 12). There were substantial Vichy (6,000) and Allied (4,600) losses. After the Allies were in firm control, few in the Vichy garison were willing to join the Free French. The Free French gained less than 1,300 recruits. [Porsch, pp. 580-81.] Vichy and the Germans used the invasion as propaganda, stressing the number of Vichy casualties.

Syrian Independence

France attempoted to retain control of Syria after the war. Nationalist groups staged a new revoly in 1945 and made continued occupation a costly undertaking. The French finally decided to evacuate (April 1946). A republican government that had formed during the mandate period seizred control.

Sources

Barnett, Correlli. "The Blunt Battleaxe." The Desert Generals (New York: Berkeley. 1960).

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage, 1974), 845p.

Jackson, W.G.F. "British Tactical Mistakes." The Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943 (Mason/Charter: New York, 1975).

Porch, Douglas. The Path to Victory: The Mediterrean Theater in World War II (Farrae, Strausand Giroux: New York, 2004), 796p.

Stillman, Norman. The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991).






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Created: 5:46 AM 11/21/2004
Last updated: 2:08 PM 10/31/2018