"This is going to be a mixed show," an Australian brigadier told a war correspondent at ancient Tyre last week, and no Australian brigadier ever said a fuller mouthful.
The first eight days of the British-Free French drive for Vichy-held Syria were a weird combination of Blitz and bicker, glad-handing and heavy punching, pushover and furious resistance. Australian bayonets were sheathed; Royal Navy guns blasted. Opposing Frenchmen kissed or killed each other. There was both soundtruck and aerial bombardment. But at week's end General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the mixed show's producer, could look at his opening week with some satisfaction.
If Sir Henry's show could be put over and kept running it would be a considerable satisfaction to the Allies. It would screen part of the Near East from the Nazis, give some spine to wobbling Turkey and boost the stock of the De Gaullist Free French who furnished the incidental music when they entered Syria with their band playing La Marseillaise.
Politically, the production was as loaded as a land mine, and there were two big reasons why Sir Henry was not staging it as the Nazis would: 1) to the Arabs Damascus is the "Pearl of the East" and had to be handled gently; 2) if French public opinion were sufficiently roused by the Syrian invasion, Vichy might be encouraged to loose its remaining fleet, particularly its submarines, against the British. A desire to urge Vichy to this step was believed to account for the Axis' not only keeping hands off Syria, but apparently withdrawing forces it already had there.
Sir Henry's campaign was divided into four main drives (see map): from the south, for Beirut and for Damascus; from the east, for Palmyra and for Aleppo (and Latakia). These objectives were to be taken if possible, said the British, "with a view to obviating needless strife and bloodshed."
To Beirut. Sir Henry reached north for Beirut (where St. George reportedly slew his dragon) with two columns. As his reach continued, the columns joined at Tyre, jabbed for three days at Sidon.*
At Sidon there was plenty of bloodshed. The Australians took it, lost it when Vichy's General Henri Fernand Dentz (who last year surrendered Paris) furiously counterattacked, took it again. While British naval units poured fire into Sidon, they were attacked by Axis bombers, and Nazis claimed a direct hit on a heavy cruiser. Vichy boasted it had dive-bombed two British destroyers and crippled them. Australian fighters shot down three German Junkers 88s with Italian markings, sent presumably from Dodecanesan Rhodes. After Sidon, the Australian troops pressed on up the coast to the outskirts of Beirut, at which the Royal Navy and the R.A.F. had slammed all week.
To Damascus. Three Allied columns pressed for Damascus. Kisswe (or Kissoue, Kisweh, Kesweh), the strong point south of Damascus, was no bargain either. Before it, the British lost eight armored vehicles, and were considerably pushed about in counterattacks. General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme, who is Free French General Georges Catroux's director of field operations, suffered a broken arm from a bomb dropped by a tricolor-bearing plane. There was, however, some comedy.