Australia commemorates seventieth anniversary of liberation of Beirut
On 12 July 2011, many Lebanese will note the five year anniversary of the start of the 2006 ‘July war’.
But how many people will recall that, on that very same day, seventy years ago, another major conflict in Lebanon came to a close, as Beirut was liberated by Allied forces led by the 7th Division of the Australian Army?
On 12 July 1941, the Vichy French Forces that governed Lebanon at the time surrendered to the Australian general who led the invasion, Lieutenant-General Sir John Lavarack, and other Allied commanders. The Allied forces thus gained control of Lebanon, and absorbed many French fighting units into the Free French Forces that continued to fight alongside Australian, British, Czech, Indian and Arab Legion forces in the region.
As well as bringing to an end Lebanon’s involvement in World War Two, the liberation of Beirut, along with that of Damascus and ultimately all of Syria, directly led to the recognition of independence of both Lebanon and Syria, in 1943 and 1944 respectively.
The Allied offensive, known in military circles as ‘Operation Exporter’ or the Syria-Lebanon campaign, was deemed necessary after the French Mandates of Lebanon and Syria became part of Vichy France, following the military defeat of France by Germany. After Marshal Philippe Pétain proclaimed the Vichy Government, France signed an agreement with Germany that granted German access to military facilities in Syria.
The Allied campaign in the Levant was aimed at preventing Nazi Germany from using Lebanese and Syrian territory as springboards for attacks on the Allied stronghold of Egypt. At the time, Allied and Axis forces were fighting a major campaign further west in northern Africa, focused in parts of modern day Libya and western Egypt. Allied and Axis forces were also fighting throughout the Mediterranean, northern Africa and the Middle East, including in Iraq, which had come under the control of pro-German rebel forces following a coup d’état.
On 8 June 1941, Allied forces – comprising personnel from Australia and Britain, as well as Free French Forces and Free Czech Forces – commenced hostilities along four lines of attack. While other elements advanced on Damascus, on northern Syria and Central Syria, the Australian 7th Division advanced from Palestine on two axes: along the coastal road to Beirut; and further inland through the mountains. The Australians fought major battles along their advance, at the Litani River (9 June), in Jezzine (13 June), Marjayoun (19-24 June), and Damour (5-9 July).
On 10 July, as the Australians were on the verge of entering Beirut, Henri Dentz, the Vichy French Commander in Chief and High Commissioner for the Levant, sought an armistice. A ceasefire came into effect at one minute past midnight on 12 July. Later that day, the Armistice of Saint Jean d’Acre (also known as the Convention of Acre), was signed between the Vichy French forces and British forces on behalf of the Allied forces in the Middle East.
A hard campaign that had cost many lives on both sides was over. On 15 July, Australian soldiers entered Beirut, and the next day, the senior Allied generals staged a ceremonial entry into the city. Australian forces, along with British Commonwealth units, remained garrisoned in Beirut for several months after the surrender, establishing a stronghold for the remainder of World War Two.
The headquarters of the Australian 7th Division was established in Broumanna, with General Lavarack’s corps headquarters in Aley, and other Australian bases in Aamchit, Tripoli and Ain Sofar. While stationed in Lebanon, the Australian Army’s first-ever ski unit was raised and trained.
Evidence of the presence of Australian forces in Lebanon remains to this day, if somewhat faded. On the southern bank of the Nahr Al Kalb (Dog River), just north of Beirut, a bronze plaque describing the efforts of Australian troops in World War Two once featured on a cairn. The plaque was stolen for the value of the metal during the Civil War.
As evidenced by the presence of another inscription nearby, 1941 was not the first time Australian forces had fought in Lebanon. A stele from 1930 states that Australian forces participated in a campaign against the Ottoman Empire in 1918, during World War One. Australian troops fought alongside the British Desert Corps, French, Indian, and New Zealand forces, and “Arab troops of King Hussein [Sharif of Mecca]”.
Australian forces played a fundamental role in the liberation of Damascus in 1918. In fact, initially, too large a role. Having reached Damascus ahead of schedule, on 1 October 1918, the Australian troops withdrew from Damascus, to allow troops of Emir Faisal’s Arab Legion the honour of entering Damascus as the liberating force.
Other faded evidence of the Australian forces’ stay in Lebanon remain from that time too – notably, the now-disused railway line from Beirut to Tripoli. Several crumbling bridges and lone pillars still feature insignia of the Australian Imperial (later Defence) Force and engineering units that constructed the railway following the liberation of Beirut in 1941.
Fortunately for modern historians and photographic aficionados, another legacy of Australia’s role in the Syria-Lebanon campaign remains, in the form of photographs taken by pioneering war photographers. These include the photographs of renowned Australian photographers Frank Hurley (famous for having accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his famous ill-fated Endurance expedition to Antarctica in 1914-1916) and Damien Parer (one of Australia’s best-known combat cameramen).
To commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Beirut, the Australian Embassy will host a public exhibition of photographs of Australian and Commonwealth forces in Lebanon during World War Two, including the work of photographers such as Hurley and Parer.
In conjunction with the Mark Hachem Gallery Beirut, the Australian Embassy will present the exhibition in Beirut, followed by exhibitions in Tripoli, Zahle and Saida. The exhibition will open at the Mark Hachem Gallery in Beirut in late September 2011, with regional exhibitions to follow in October and November.
Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Lex Bartlem, said the Australian Embassy was proud to present an exhibition to commemorate the liberation of Beirut in World War Two.
“Australia is proud of the role it played in assisting the countries of the Middle East to reject totalitarianism and oppression during both World Wars,” Mr Bartlem said. “We are also very proud that we are today working alongside not only Lebanon and Britain, but also France and Germany, along with many other nations among our international friends, to assist the people of Lebanon.”
Mr Bartlem also noted that Australia’s Defence Forces have continued to play a proud constructive role in Lebanon and the neighbouring region in recent years, with personnel deployed as part of UNIFIL, UNDOF and UNTSO.