The roots of the Syria-Lebanon Campaign were sown in the aftermath of the First World War. Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to govern Palestine and Jordan; France, meanwhile, was given one to occupy Lebanon and Syria.
With the fall of France in 1940, there were fears that the Vichy French authorities, nominally neutral but sympathetic to Germany, would allow German forces to use these French territories as a springboard to attack Palestine, Egypt and the Middle East. In May 1941 Admiral Darlan signed an agreement allowing German forces access to French bases in Syria. Against the backdrop of a pro-German coup in Iraq, it was essential for British forces to prevent the Germans gaining a foothold.
Under General Henry Maitland Wilson a plan was drawn up. Four lines of attack were envisaged – on Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, on northern Syria from Iraq, and central Syria, also from Iraq. What followed was a cucial campaign, which has been virtually overlooked in the history of the Second World War.
The campaign began on 9 June 1941 at the battle of the Litani river, the natural border between Palestine and Lebanon. By 15 June British forces were at Kissoue, on the outskirts of Damascus. In the fighting there Private James Hurst, from Southsea and of the Hampshire Regiment, was killed. On 22 June Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Greatwood, Commanding Officer of the 6th Raputana Rifles, an Indian Army unit, was killed Merdjayoun. On 11 July 1941 Private Frederick Swift, of the 2nd Battalion of the Queens Regiment, was killed during the advance on Beirut. He was 27 and from Stamshaw. On the same day Private William Kingswell, of the 2nd Battalion, Kings Own Royal Regiment, was also killed. He was 29 and from Southsea. All of these men are buried in Damascus War Cemetery, Syria.
A ceasfire was finally called on 12 July 1941, with British and Commonwealth forces in control of Syria and Lebanon. Many figures who would later go on to win fame took part in the campaign, including a certain Major-General William Slim, and a certain Lieutenant Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, who fought with 11 Commando at the Litani River. Mayne would later go on to command the SAS and win 4 Distinguished Service Orders.