Following the capture of Merdjayoun on 10 June, the Australian 25th Brigade pushed on leaving detachments to hold the area. The Allied advance through Syria was over four separate routes, with little ability to shift troops quickly from one to another. The Vichy commander quickly realised he was facing far fewer troops than had been expected and, after a few days planning, took full advantage of the widely spread Allies to launch a series of sharp counter-attacks from 14-16 June 1941.
The Australian commander at Merdjayoun, Lieutenant-Colonel Monaghan, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike of his own. On the night of 14/15 June led his 2/33rd Battalion out of the town on a wide outflanking march to catch the French off guard. Unfortunately he inadvertently took his forces out of position and allowed the French to attack the town itself. As can be seen on the map below the Allied (mostly Australian) forces were set up along a line roughly parallel to Merdjayoun.
2/33rd Battalion moved to the east of the town to cover the two tracks/roads leading north (routes A and B on the map) but also Hasbaya and Fort Christofini – both of which were occupied by French troops. They were supported by elements of 6th Cavalry, Vickers machine guns from 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, AT guns from 2/2nd Anti-tank Regimen, Bofors AA guns from 47th AA Battalion and 10th Field Battery of 2/5th Artillery (25pdrs) situated in Merdjayoun.
A company from the fresh 2/5th Infantry Battalion was moved up to occupy Merdjayoun itself with troops from the Royal Scots Greys and Staffordshire Yeomanry picketing the ridge above the town. Further west 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion dug-in along the banks of the River Litani to protect the left flank.
I decided to bathtub the Allied order of battle and created a straight forward attack/defence game, based around the French counter-attack on 16 June.
Balate Ridge (north of the village)
One troop of eachRoyal Scots Greys and Staffordshire Yeomanry (dismounted acting as infantry)
Each comprising ten men including a Bren gun
One company of 2/5th Battalion Australian Infantry comprising
HQ (officer, NCO, RTO, two runners, Boys AT rifle team)
Three platoons each comprising ten men including a Bren gun
10th Field Battery
HQ – (officer, RTO, two runners)
Two 25pdrs and limbers, tows and crews
Junction of routes A and B (east of village)
HQ including a Forward Observation Officer of the 10th Field Battery (officer, NCO, RTO, two runners, Boys AT rifle team and FOO)
Three platoons 2/33rd Battalion Australian Infantry (each comprising ten men including a Bren gun)
Mixed battery 2/2nd Anti-tank Regiment (comprising 2pdr, crew and tow and 37mm Bofors portee and crew)
Vickers section 2/3rd MG Battalion (comprising Vickers MG and crew)
Ibels Saki (south of junction)
Elements 6th Australian Cavalry comprising
MkVI tank platoon (two Mark VI light tanks)
Carrier platoon (two carriers and eight men including a Bren gun)
One Hurricane sortie
Elements III/24th Colonial Infantry Regiment
One Infantry Company
Two groups Levant militia
Composite column of 6th RCA
Mixed tank platoon (R35 and Ft17)
One platoon M/c infantry
Two platoons 2/3rd 6th Legion Infantry (in lorries)
Montée 75mle1897 (2nd RA de Levant)
Two troops of Levant Spahis (mounted cavalry)
Composite Column 7th RCA
Mixed tank platoon (one R35, one Ft17 and one Ft17 75bis)
One platoon motorised infantry
Two troops 8th Algerian Spahis (mounted)
Two platoons Syrian Gendarmerie
Battery B 86th RAA (two 75mle 1897s)
One sortie from a Dewoitine D20
Our Enemies the French by Greg Novak (scenario published in Command Post Quarterly issue 1, winter 1993) GDW
Les Chasseurs d`Afrique by Sicard & Vauvillier (Historie & Collections)
England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy 1940-1942 by Colin Smith
Five Ventures by Christopher Buckley
Greece, Crete and Syria. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army. Volume II by Gavin Long – Chapter 20 (The French Counter-Attack)
Operation au Proche-Orient de l`Irak a la Syrie 1941 by Yves Buffetaut (Armes Militaria Batailles Magazine No. 50)
Invasion of Syria 1941 by Henri de Wailly
After Action Report
For this game we expanded our table which is now ten feet long and varies in width from four feet at the French eastern side to six feet at the Merdjayoun side. We played the game over three hrs (20 game turns). I played the Vichy and my lads Alex (21) and Chris (18) played the Allies. As always we used my time served version of Charles Grant`s ‘Battle’” rules.
The game began slowly with the Vichy infantry climbing up towards Balate Ridge and their columns advancing down both routes towards the waiting Allies. The colonial infantry struggled over the terrain, climbing the Balate Ridge under Bren and two inch mortar fire from the well dug-in British cavalry. The Vichy Hotchkiss and 80mm mortars found few targets initially among the sangers and slit trenches. The two columns were bracketed by the 25pdrs and then the lead vehicles were targeted by the dug in Australian AT weapons. As a consequence the militia/Algerian cavalry were forced to dismount and take cover rather than ride into concentrated Bren and rifle fire.
By turn eight the colonial infantry had reached top of the ridge, but were totally exposed to fire from the Scots Greys and the 2/5th infantry, which had moved out of the town up onto the lower ridge. The 25pdrs also added their fire. The ridgeline became a kill zone, forcing half the Vichy down into the westernmost valley, the rest unable to move forward or backward without exposing themselves to devastating fire.
The mobile columns suffered from 25pdr fire losing most of their armour but the infantry elements, supported by 75mm fire, slowly enveloped the Australians. The 6th Cavalry arrived on turn ten but almost immediately came under concentrated 75mm fire and lost both MkIV tanks in quick succession. Both sides received air support, but the two planes spent a couple of turns over the table in an inconclusive dogfight before heading for home.
Turns 16-20 saw the Vichy finish off 2/33rd and the 6th Cavalry, but without armour they simply did not have enough weight to threaten Merdjayoun as the game ended.
The Vichy forces did not have enough strength. The colonial infantry could not come to grips with the ridge defenders quickly enough. Perhaps in a re-run we will give them a couple of turns of early movement before dawn, or some off table flanking moves.
Article by Richard Baber.