In the spring of 1945, The 3rd Hussars were stationed at Sidon on the Lebanese coast. They had returned from Italy immediately after Christmas, having absorbed a large number of reinforcements to replace those who had been repatriated on what was code-named Python, having served overseas for over four years.
We were part of 31 Indian Armoured Division. The Sherman’s had been left behind in Italy and replaced by Armoured Cars.
The initial retraining was on a strange miscellany of Humbers, Daimlers and a dreadful machine called an AEC, but in due course, these were replaced by brand new and lavishly equipped Staghounds.
The Staghound was a large and impressive vehicle, with a five-man crew, fast, reliable and with a good cross-country performance and a respectable range.
The organisation was exactly the same as we had been used to in Sherman’s, here Sabre Squadrons, each of four troops of three cars and a Squadron Headquarters.
With the end of the War in Europe, the demands for Syrian independence from the French Mandate increased and disturbances began. The French shelled Damascus, a Moslem Holy city, which did little to calm the situation and there was a distinct possibility that the remaining French Garrisons would be attacked and without their protection, the Christian minorities would be at risk. In June the 31st Indian Armoured Division was ordered into Syria to keep the peace and supervise the withdrawal of the French forces.
The Regiment was ordered to be responsible for a large area of the North East comer of Syria, south of the border with Turkey, with RHQ at Hasssetche. ‘B’ Squadron was at Qamichlye, with the area of responsibility from the border with Iraq, sixty miles to the east and Ras el Ain sixty miles west. With a frontage of over one hundred and twenty miles and RHQ fifty miles to the rear, communications were a little extended. As 2IC, I was sent to Derbassiye with a half- squadron of two troops, 1st Troop led by John Gent and 2nd Troop, with Sgt Webb.
We arrived at 1045 on 29 June. In addition to 1st and 2nd Troop, I had my own Staghound, a Fitters Halftrack, a Scout car, one 3 Tonner for petrol, a 15cwt, a water cart and one DR. I found there a section of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry RA who came under my command. They were a Subaltern, a Sergeant and 10 ORs in two Quads and an armoured 15 cwt. They had arrived at 0100hrs and at 0330hrs firing had broken out, both in the town and the French Barracks. They had driven all around the town with their lights on, and the firing had ceased.
Derbassiye was then a small town of about 5000 inhabitants on the border with Turkey. The French garrison was a Squadron of locally enlisted Cavalry, with a detachment at Amude, about 18 miles East, on the way to Qamichlye, both in Beau Gest type forts. The Squadron commander was also a Syrian.
We leaguered on the Northside of the town, between the Municipality and the Barracks and I went to see the Mudir -the head civil authority. I told him that my force was there to ensure that law and order were maintained and that there was to be no more shooting and no attack on the French Garrison. It was the duty of the Gendarmerie to prevent lawlessness and the British forces would assist them in his task.
The Mudir stated that the shooting the previous night had been started by the French. I then went to see the Commander of the French troops, Major Kassem. He was an extremely unprepossessing and grubby character, profuse in his declarations of loyalty to France. He said that he had repeatedly been provoked by the civil population and the Gendarmerie culminating in the affray that morning, which had been an attack on the Barracks starting with firing from the town.
The families of the French troops in the town had been molested and their property looted. It told him to bring all the French property into the fort to prevent further looting and provided transport and an armed escort to help in this. Kassem said that he expected further attacks, which would be resisted by the last man and the last round.
During the afternoon Lt Col Douglas Scott, who was commanding, arrived with Maj Dick Chilcott, ‘B’ Squadron Leader and the French Liaison Officer attached to the Regiment. He brought instructions for all French families and their baggage to be evacuated to Quamichlye the next day and for the detachment at Amude to be withdrawn.
Accordingly at 1830hrs 1st Troop was sent to Amude to protect them against the attack and prepare them for evacuation. I then warned the Mudir that there was to be no attack on the French that night, or at any other time and that I would not hesitate to use force to stop any such attempt.
The Mudir said that he had heard that Sheikh Misr of the Kikieh tribe was probably going to attack that night. Misr had a longstanding feud against Kassem, which had allegedly been started by Kassem, while drunk, shooting one of the Kikieh.
Misr was reported to be in Qaramaniye, a village about five miles to the west, with four hundred armed men. It seemed that it would be sensible to visit Misr and find out his intentions, so I set off for Qaraminiye in my Staghound.
On arrival, it was clear that the village was certainly full of armed men and Misr was on the flat roof of a house in the middle with about twenty companions.
It appeared that he was holding a final ‘O’ Group. It was pointed out to him, politely yet firmly, that the town of Derbassiye and its French garrison were under British protection, that we were there to help the Syrian government to maintain law and order and, consequently any attack on Derbassiye would be regarded as an attack on the British troops and treated accordingly. I pointed out the size and firepower of my Staghound, parked nearby and told him, which he almost certainly knew already, that there were others in the town and that it would be a matter of great regret to me if they had to be used in anger.
Misr was extremely courteous and friendly, a very welcome change from the attitude of most of the French and Syrian officials one had to deal with. He said that he was grateful to the British for intervening to see justice done and confirmed that it had indeed been his intention to attack the Garrison. However, he would respect my wishes and gave his word that neither he nor his brother Sheikhs would attack the town under British protection, much as they resented the presence of Kassem. He only asked that the Syrian situation be brought to a just ending soon, as it was difficult to keep in check the hatred his people felt for the French and Kassem in particular. He ended by inviting me to eat with him and included my crew in the invitation.
Clearly not to accept this would have undone most of the goodwill achieved, so I said we were delighted to be his guests and we all enjoyed excellent roast sheep and rice. I did keep thinking of what might be the findings of a Court of Inquiry, as to why I had left a fully equipped and armed Staghound unguarded in the middle of an Arab village. However, we were their guests, and with true Bedu hospitality, not a finger was laid on it. We drove back to leaguer and about midnight five or six shots were heard in the town. An Armoured Car patrol was sent out and the rest of the night passed peacefully.
30th of June
Water supply was a problem. All the wells were about 90ft deep and the water cart had to be filled by lowering a bucket on a long rope. As the railway station was just the other side of the Turkish frontier, we asked permission from the frontier post to use the station water supply. This small post was commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel and at this late stage of the War, Turkey was our ally. He was very friendly and charming but could not himself take the responsibility for allowing one 15cwt to encroach five hundred yards onto Turkish soil. However after two hours of conversation via two interpreters, indecision and refreshment, permission was granted, the matter having been referred to telephone to Higher Authority. Presumably, at least a General was needed for such an important decision.
During the day, lorries arrived to take the French families to Qamichlye and the convoy set off in the afternoon with an armoured car escort. Deputations of bearded priests in brimless top hats arrived. Filled with alarm for their own safety and that of their flocks, the Mudir effervesced with rumours of further attacks and a thoroughly truculent and unhelpful message was received from Kassem to the effect that my visit to Sheikh Misr the previous evening clearly showed that the British were pro-Syrian. Consequently, he would not hesitate to open fire on the town at any sign of unrest. I told Kassem that he was not to open fire unless his fort was about to be overrun by an attacking force and the Arab leaders in the town were told that there was to be no shooting and no return of fire if any came from the fort. During the afternoon the leaguer was moved to an airstrip on the southern edge of the town, where there were slightly fewer flies and considerably fewer smells. One armoured car was stationed by the fort during daylight and at night a continual patrol of the town was maintained.
1st of July
During the morning four nearby villages were visited three Moslem and one Christian. All the headmen said the same as Sheikh Misr and were told to remain peaceful and be patient. Interestingly the head of one village was not a man, but a tall and very fine looking woman. unveiled and with intense blue eyes. Circassian, perhaps, Crusader, Aussie, even Macedonian genes still showing?
On return to Camp, there was a further stream of communications from Kassem waiting, full of complaints that the Syrian flag was flying over buildings evacuated by the French and that the Syrians were occupying the Surete and other buildings which were French property. A mortal insult to La Vella France! The answer to these problems was to lock up and seal all evacuated French buildings, take an inventory of the contents, give one copy to the French and one to the Syrians, and cut down the flagstaff, so nobody could fly a flag. The town was again patrolled and the night passed peacefully.
2nd of July
The morning was spent in arbitrating overheated discussions as to whether the fort at Amude should be occupied by the Gendarmerie. The Syrians maintained that it was in their country, so they could do what they pleased with it; the French that although it had been evacuated, it was still French property, the Syrian Gendarmerie had no right there, while their insufferable audacity in hoisting the hated Syrian flag was a calculated insult deserving immediate reprisals. The afternoon started calmly but was interrupted by three lorry loads of Syrian Gendarmerie driving into the town at full speed firing their rifles in the air. Not an action best calculated to maintain law and order in an extremely trigger-happy situation. I pointed this out in strong language to their Colonel. Kassem was of course convinced that this represented the build-up for an all-out assault on the fort.
In the evening the detachment of Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry was ordered to rejoin their battery. I was very sorry to see them go, they had been a great help and also, losing them was a considerable reduction to my already very small manpower. That night the town was again quiet and even one or two cafes re-opened; a very encouraging sign of a return to normality.
3rd of July
The morning passed quietly, with the normal wrangles over flags and visits by the priests. By this time I was convinced that the Monastery had a telescope trained on the Squadron leaguer area. As soon as I got back from visiting anyone and told my crew to brew up, three black-robed figures would appear, hurrying over the intervening strip of desert. The poor men were undoubtedly very worried, with a centuries-old history of the massacre to add to their fears, but the same old alarmist rumours three or four times a day became tedious, particularly as they always turned up just as one was hoping for a few minutes peace in which to have a meal.
Miraculously I had just achieved this and was sitting down in the shade of my Armoured Car in the hope of catching up on some sleep when there was an outburst of firing from the fort. Rifles and machine guns were going merrily and the situation obviously required investigation. On arrival at the fort, the Syrian flag was flying, but instead of finding the loyal commander of the French garrison ling in a pool of blood, as I expected, he was swaggering around proclaiming loudly -if slightly ungrammatically -II Je suis Syrienne”.
The shots were merely a feu de joie to proclaim that Kassem had changed sides, presumable after a satisfactory financial agreement. Orders were immediately given that all arms were to be collected and a list of French property within the fort be produced. No arms were to be taken out of the fort. I left John Gent to supervise this, while I returned to the airfield. It will be remembered that the only way to communicate was with a tuned length wire aerial, so the Command Staghound was immobile. As I left the fort, five or six soldiers came up and said that they wished to remain loyal to France. I told them that they and any others of the same mind would be protected and taken to Qamichliye.
I appreciated that my tasks, in order of priority, were:
- To prevent bloodshed in the town and protect the Christian population;
- To protect the loyal French solders;
- To safeguard French property.
To achieve these I had a force of five Armoured Cars, one of which had to be static to keep in touch. I was told that I could expect no reinforcements for some hours, other than one more Staghound and two RASC 3-ton trucks to transport the loyal troops. A motorised Squadron of the Transjordan Frontier Force was on the way but was not expected to arrive until the next morning.
Between seventy and eighty rifles were collected into the armoury and a guard placed on the door and window. These included those taken from soldiers trying to smuggle them out of the fort. One deserter went over the wall and made a bolt over the broken country to the North towards the Turkish frontier. A few shots from Sgt Forder’s Tommy Gun in his direction made him drop his rifle, which was recovered. These were the only shots we fired during the entire operation; they were not aimed to hit but had the desired effect. Kassem, as might have been expected, said that he had no inventory of the French property in the fort or any record of the number of rifles. This could well have been true but in any case, it was clearly impractical at this stage to carry out a detailed search through the files.
By 1900hrs fifteen loyalists had been sent off to Qamichlye and a further thirty-five moved up to the Airfield. This was fine, but I then discovered that they owned their horses and like good cavalrymen, did not want to lose them. Thirty-five horses and men into two 3 Tonners doesn’t go.
There was about one hour of daylight left. It would clearly be impossible with my very limited force to protect at night the loyalists on the airfield, the barracks with its store of affils and the Christian Quarter in the town. I decided therefore to take over the fort, moving out the disloyal element with their horses and personal property and move in with the loyalists and all my own troops. From there I would be able to patrol the town while keeping the affils store and the loyalists guarded. Not unsurprisingly Kassem, the Mudir and the rest of the Syrian officials did not like this one bit, saying that it was now Syrian property and British Soldiers could not be allowed in. They were obviously disappointed by their failure to obtain all the arms, ammunition and property, but hoped to get them under cover of darkness. I replied that I would not hesitate to use force if there was any resistance, and by 2000hrs the last of those who had defected was clear.
While they were leaving there were two of my men on the gate to see that no affi1s were taken out. By 2145hrs the defence of the fort was organised, an armoured car patrol going on in the town and all was quiet. The usual evening static made communications impossible, even using a key, so I set off for Qamichliye to report events and get any information or orders.
Hand Over To TJFF
That was effectively the end of the story. ‘A’ troop of the TJFF arrived at 22.30hrs that night and the balance of their Squadron the next morning. ‘B’ Squadron concentrated at Hassetche and moved down to Raqqa, on the Euphrates to join the rest of the Regiment that afternoon.
By the time of the handover to the TJFF, no fewer than seventy-eight NCOs and Troopers had decided to remain loyal to France, out of a Squadron strength of 120. When one remembers that their commander had changed sides their loyalty in the face of all claims of race, religion and personal advantage cannot be praised too highly.
One must make allowances for the attitude of the French authorities. They were in a very difficult situation and naturally resented the presence of British troops, who were protecting them in what had been part of their own mandated territory. A lot of tact was essential in dealing with them.
A few days later the Regiment received an official complaint of my negligence and incompetence because not all the arms that should have been in the fort were subsequently handed over. Considering the disloyalty and venality of Kassem, an Officer of the French Army, it is surprising that everything did not go.
In fact, three-quarters of the arms and ammunition were saved. Had these fallen into the hands of the local population, there could well have been serious trouble. How accurate and up to date the records were is anybody’s guess; I would not have thought that Kassem was a meticulous administrator. I learned then that universal principle in peacekeeping operations; If both sides abuse you equally, you are doing pretty well.
Capt Dan Reade, 3rd King’s Own Hussars