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1941: Great Britain is fighting for its very existence. France has surrendered and installed Marshal Pétain, an ageing reactionary, as head of a hostile new government at Vichy. The Allied outpost in Egypt, and the Suez Canal—its strategic jewel—are threatened on both sizes. To the west, Rommel is rampaging through North Africa. To the east, the Germans are arming rebels a 1941: Great Britain is fighting for its very existence. France has surrendered and installed Marshal Pétain, an ageing reactionary, as head of a hostile new government at Vichy. The Allied outpost in Egypt, and the Suez Canal—its strategic jewel—are threatened on both sizes. To the west, Rommel is rampaging through North Africa. To the east, the Germans are arming rebels and fostering an uprising in British Iraq. Churchill’s cabinet is reeling after disastrous campaign in Greece. There are fears of a German takeover in Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon, where a languishing French colonial army may fall in line with the Nazis. Churchill orders a disgruntled General Wavell to take the offensive, assuming that the French will not put up a fight against an Allied show of force. The only troops available are a division of Australians, the 7th: untested recruits, digging ditches in the Egyptian desert. This is the story of how the 7th Division came to fight against the Army of the Levant—Australia against France—in the rocky hills of Lebanon and the barren wastes of Syria. Contrary to Churchill’s expectations, the French resisted viciously. The Australians won the war, but at the price of more than 400 young men, sons of Anzacs who had fought to defend France in the trenches of the western Front. The British were embarrassed, the campaign was forgotten, and the Australians who fought were dubbed ‘the silent men.’ No contemporary Australian historian has studied the conflict. British and French accounts exist, but fail to do justice to the Australian contribution. Through interviews with the veterans, archival records, and on-the-ground research, this book seeks to understand a neglected campaign and give it a proper place in Australian history.


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1941: Great Britain is fighting for its very existence. France has surrendered and installed Marshal Pétain, an ageing reactionary, as head of a hostile new government at Vichy. The Allied outpost in Egypt, and the Suez Canal—its strategic jewel—are threatened on both sizes. To the west, Rommel is rampaging through North Africa. To the east, the Germans are arming rebels a 1941: Great Britain is fighting for its very existence. France has surrendered and installed Marshal Pétain, an ageing reactionary, as head of a hostile new government at Vichy. The Allied outpost in Egypt, and the Suez Canal—its strategic jewel—are threatened on both sizes. To the west, Rommel is rampaging through North Africa. To the east, the Germans are arming rebels and fostering an uprising in British Iraq. Churchill’s cabinet is reeling after disastrous campaign in Greece. There are fears of a German takeover in Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon, where a languishing French colonial army may fall in line with the Nazis. Churchill orders a disgruntled General Wavell to take the offensive, assuming that the French will not put up a fight against an Allied show of force. The only troops available are a division of Australians, the 7th: untested recruits, digging ditches in the Egyptian desert. This is the story of how the 7th Division came to fight against the Army of the Levant—Australia against France—in the rocky hills of Lebanon and the barren wastes of Syria. Contrary to Churchill’s expectations, the French resisted viciously. The Australians won the war, but at the price of more than 400 young men, sons of Anzacs who had fought to defend France in the trenches of the western Front. The British were embarrassed, the campaign was forgotten, and the Australians who fought were dubbed ‘the silent men.’ No contemporary Australian historian has studied the conflict. British and French accounts exist, but fail to do justice to the Australian contribution. Through interviews with the veterans, archival records, and on-the-ground research, this book seeks to understand a neglected campaign and give it a proper place in Australian history.

27 review for Australia's War with France: The Campaign in Syria and Lebanon, 1941

  1. 4 out of 5

    JD

    The book is about the role of Australian troops who fought in the Syria-Lebanon campaign against the Vichy French forces, it was expected to be a walkover but the Australians fought some hard battle and probably suffered some needless losses. Though the book covers the campaign mostly from an Australian perspective, the role of the other Allied troops are also covered. But, though I always like a bit of background to events, the author uses about a third of the book (excluding refences and index) The book is about the role of Australian troops who fought in the Syria-Lebanon campaign against the Vichy French forces, it was expected to be a walkover but the Australians fought some hard battle and probably suffered some needless losses. Though the book covers the campaign mostly from an Australian perspective, the role of the other Allied troops are also covered. But, though I always like a bit of background to events, the author uses about a third of the book (excluding refences and index) to give the political background of the region and campaign which made it hard to get through the first part. Still recommended reading about a forgotten campaign if you can get through the politics.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul W

    The Allies campaign in Lebanon and Syria in June and July 1941 is an almost forgotten element of the history of World War 2. Overshadowed by the momentous impact of Operation Barbarossa as Nazi Germany embarked on its epic and ultimately fatal invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Exporter was a campaign which pitted erstwhile allies against each other in an embarrassing conflict that both parties were eager to avoid and then forget. As James points out, the war “was not one of those where the The Allies campaign in Lebanon and Syria in June and July 1941 is an almost forgotten element of the history of World War 2. Overshadowed by the momentous impact of Operation Barbarossa as Nazi Germany embarked on its epic and ultimately fatal invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Exporter was a campaign which pitted erstwhile allies against each other in an embarrassing conflict that both parties were eager to avoid and then forget. As James points out, the war “was not one of those where the two sides could engage with pride, not even a sense of adventure. For most it has only been an inevitable consequence, a dark annex to the fall of France in 1940.” (p324) For Wavell, the Levant was a distraction from the strategic threat from Rommel’s forces bearing down in the Western Desert, the impending fiasco in Crete following Churchill’s misguided decision to send primarily Australian troops on a forlorn campaign in Greece, and the growing disquiet in Iraq. Wavell, knowing his limited forces, sought a political solution in the Levant. Churchill, spurred on by de Gaulle, insisted on military action. James provides an informative account of the lead up to Operation Exporter. The trigger for the Allies renewed interest in resolving the situation in the Levant was the ‘Protocols of Paris’ which gave Germany the right to establish military bases in the French Empire. This enabled the belated shipment via Syrian airfields of limited German aid to the Iraqi army to support its coup against the King and Britain. This had highlighted the strategic threat posed by potentially hostile Vichy French forces at the back door of the Allies forces in Egypt and the Middle East. The Free French wanted the ‘liberation’ of the Levant to be led by French troops, obsessed by suspicions that the British had designs on French colonial territory. The Free French naively believed that their forces could simply advance into Syria unopposed by the Vichy French. Wavell, more realistically, knew that the majority of French officers in the Levant saw de Gaulle as a traitor and hated the Free French far more than they hated the Germans. The Vichy French had purged their ranks of Gaullist elements. James highlights that in the absence of strong British support, which Wavell was not in a position to supply, the Free French action “would be ineffective and likely to aggravate [the] situation.” James highlights the interfering role that Churchill played. Despite telling Wavell that “everything must now be centred upon destroying the German forces in the Western Desert”, Churchill ordered Wavell to find a force to invade Syria or be relieved of his command. James highlights that although often misrepresented as an Anglo-French affair most of the soldiers doing the fighting were neither British or French – but instead came from across the globe. The Vichy French forces comprised local troops from Lebanon and Syria, North African troops from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, West African troops from Senegal, the international troops of the French Foreign Legion (including some Australians!) as well as French soldiers fighting for the Vichy France regime. The Allied forces also included local troops from Syria (the Circassian cavalry), West African troops from Senegal, equatorial African troops from Chad and French soldiers fighting for the nascent Free French, as well as Indian and British troops. But the majority of the troops, who did “9/10 of the fighting”, were Australians. James highlights the complexity added to the Allies campaign by the involvement of Free French Foreign Legion forces. When they encountered the Vichy French Foreign Legion forces, they paid respect to the ‘unwritten but unbreakable rule that Legion does not fight Legion’ and ‘took no further part in the campaign.’ (p238) The Allied campaign got off to a bad start when General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson was appointed as commander. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister, found it "difficult to identify the qualities that justified Wilson’s high rank.” Blamey, the Commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, and recently appointed Deputy Commander of Allied forces under Wavell, concluded that Wilson’s “grey matter is not quite adequate”. James brings Wilson’s incompetence to life with the anecdotes he relates. Wilson’s plan – prosaic and poorly conceived - was to reach Damascus and Beirut on the first day with a three pronged advance which divided his forces. As James notes, ‘Dentz and his generals had not assumed that the British would do something quite as pedestrian as attack with three parallel columns along the three rather obvious geographical routes. Surely two were feints...’. During the planning, ‘Wilson dealt at considerable length upon a plan to capture Jsir Banat Jacub (the Bridge of Jacob’s daughters), an important crossing over the Jordan River’ before he was told: “Sir, this bridge is in British territory. I have had a standing patrol on it for the past year!” (p114) The Jewish Haganah guides they engaged did not know the area, could not speak Arabic and could not drive. The British commandos fared no better: one landed behind Australian lines; another was overpowered by the Vichy French prisoners they had captured, and were themselves made prisoners. Wilson’s ability to direct this campaign was compromised by his leadership style. Wilson conducted the campaign from luxurious surroundings at a suite at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, with a staff that continued to take weekends off; and he displayed a continuous indecision as to whether Damascus or Beirut should be the primary goal.’ (p326-7) As an aide noted, “After the first week the decision was arrived at that fighting the battle from the King David Hotel was not the way to do it.” (p199) When the Vichy French launched successful counterattacks, the ‘very meagre resources’ that had been allocated to Operation Exporter, limited the Allies ability to respond, and saw the campaign drag out. Having handed responsibility for the campaign to the Australian’s after the poor first week, Wilson re-emerged at the end to have a ‘detrimental effect on the [Allied] war effort’, agreeing during the armistice negotiations to a clandestine protocol that allowed “an entire enemy army…to return on enemy ships to German-controlled territory” (p307) Pleasingly, James narrative does not just focus on the Allied forces. He has a rich description of the Vichy French forces under General Dentz, their limitations and their missed opportunities. With ninety tanks to the Allies none, had Dentz’s columns ‘pushed on further at Merdjayoun, Kuneitra, and Ezraa, he may have cut the Allied force off inside Syria and achieved an improbable and brilliant victory. As it was, his commanders halted and consolidated their gains…’ (p327) The campaign in the Levant was fought in relentless heat, across steep gorges, hills and stony ground – conditions which favoured the defence. James illustrates this campaign with a range of informative and descriptive maps showing the geography and the troops deployed. James tells this story with an engaging balance of military, geographical, political and personal information. Through this, his narrative helps readers unfamiliar with the campaign appreciate the conditions in which the battles were fought. James concludes that the Allies under Wilson ‘managed to neglect a fairly impressive array of the most important principles of warfare: their force was not concentrated; their command lacked unity and continuity; their resources were misused; and they reinforced failure rather than success.’ (p326) An engaging book on an important but overlooked campaign in the Mediterranean in World War 2.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Frumenty

    This is a good solid history of a little war about which most readers will never have heard. Over a number of weeks a comparatively small force of Vichy French troops, predominantly North Africans, put up an unexpectedly spirited defence of French colonial territories in the face of a (numerically) vastly superior Allied force consisting of Australian, British, Indian, and Free French contingents. The book is evidently intended for an Australian reading audience; the 1st appendix is an Australian This is a good solid history of a little war about which most readers will never have heard. Over a number of weeks a comparatively small force of Vichy French troops, predominantly North Africans, put up an unexpectedly spirited defence of French colonial territories in the face of a (numerically) vastly superior Allied force consisting of Australian, British, Indian, and Free French contingents. The book is evidently intended for an Australian reading audience; the 1st appendix is an Australian Roll of Honour (no other nation's dead are listed), and though significant events of the campaign are meticulously related, the experiences of Australian officers and soldiers are given particular prominence. The more I read of war, the more I'm thankful to have had the good fortune to have been passed over by history, narrowly: to this day I remember my relief when I learned that my birth-date wasn't among those which had come up in the (1972) conscription ballot ("A pity, it would have made a man of you!" said one unsympathetic workmate). As it turned out, that must have been the last Australian conscription ballot, so I presume those whose birth-dates did come up were subsequently never called upon to serve. We habitually praise acts of selfless courage by individual soldiers, such as one who single-handedly overcomes the crew of a machine-gun nest with only bullets and a bayonet. I don't think I ever had it in me to have acted thus, lacking not only the courage, a military virtue, but also the sheer savagery necessary to carry through such an assault, which I cannot see as virtue whichever way I look at it. Tales of military heroism tend to inspire pride in the breasts of compatriots, but reading them I sometimes feel a little troubled to be deriving entertainment from events that are, by any rational standard, utterly ghastly; there is plenty of tough fighting in this book, material to provide lots of this sort of rather dubious gratification. The maps are neat and clear, and there are good black and white photos, particularly of the senior officers on both sides. The illustrations appear close to relevant text, instead of (as is still quite a common practice) all bunched up in the middle of the book; I assume that this improvement is something for which we have to thank modern digital markup technologies. Even with the excellent maps, my eyes tend to glaze over a bit after reading the umpteenth account of troop movements and engagements in complex terrain, which must be understood to comprehend the tactical and combative merits of the adversaries. It was quite a relief to get near the end of the book where one reads of the political machinations that necessarily followed the Allied victory; the Vichy French lost the campaign but negotiated a very advantageous armistice, and for the sake of appearances the Allies gave the Free French much more credit than their poor showing in the fighting deserved.

  4. 4 out of 5

    The Book Grocer

    Purchase Australia's War with France here for just $10! A history book from an Australian perspective that covers a war with France about which many people are lacking in knowledge. Full of detailed maps, archival information and interviews. Elisa, Book Grocer Purchase Australia's War with France here for just $10! A history book from an Australian perspective that covers a war with France about which many people are lacking in knowledge. Full of detailed maps, archival information and interviews. Elisa, Book Grocer

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Slipper

  6. 4 out of 5

    Alister Mcdonald

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jake

  8. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Ash

  9. 5 out of 5

    norman kable

  10. 4 out of 5

    Big Sky Publishing

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary OKeeffe

  12. 5 out of 5

    'Aussie Rick'

  13. 4 out of 5

    John

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

  15. 4 out of 5

    Hany

  16. 5 out of 5

    Krzysiek (Chris)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ros

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dimitri

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ann

  20. 5 out of 5

    Bill

  21. 5 out of 5

    Terry Wilson

  22. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis

  23. 5 out of 5

    Michael J. Kelly

  24. 4 out of 5

    Martin Fegan

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dipanjan

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jorel

  27. 4 out of 5

    Erik Empson

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