Fulfilment of a mission. Syria and Lebanon 1941-1944
Hardcover, dj, in-8, 311 pp., photos, index.
Serious differences between Britain and de Gaulle soon emerged over Syria and the Lebanon. De Gaulle and Spears held that it was essential to deny the Germans access to Vichy air bases in Syria from where they would threaten the Suez Canal. However, Wavell was reluctant to stretch his limited forces and did not want to risk a clash with the French in Syria.
The French in Syria had initially been in favour of continuing the struggle against Germany but had been snubbed by Wavell, who declined the offer of cooperation from three French divisions. By the time de Gaulle reached the Levant, Vichy had replaced any Frenchmen who were sympathetic towards Britain.
Having left the Middle East with de Gaulle on a visit to French Equatorial Africa, Spears had his first major row with the general who, in a fit of pique caused by 'some quite minor action by the British government', suddenly declared that the landing ground at Fort Lamy would no longer be available to British aircraft transiting Africa. Spears countered furiously by threatening to summon up British troops to take over the aerodrome and the matter blew over.
De Gaulle told Spears that the Vichy authorities in the Middle East were acting against the Free French and the British. French ships blockaded by the British at Alexandria were permitted to transmit coded messages which were anything but helpful to the British cause. Their crews were allowed to take leave in the Levant States where they stoked up anti-British feeling. They also brought back information about British naval and troop movements which would find its way back to Vichy. In Fulfilment of a Mission Spears writes bitterly about how Britain was providing pay for Vichy sailors who were allowed to remit money back to France. Their pay would, of course, be forfeited if they joined de Gaulle. However, his biggest bone of contention – one over which he frequently clashed with the Foreign Office and the Admiralty – was that a French ship, SS Providence, was allowed to sail unchallenged between Beirut and Marseille. It carried contraband 'and a living cargo of French soldiers and officials [prisoners] who were well disposed to us or who wished to continue the fight at our side'.
Presidential standard of the collaborationist Vichy Regime
De Gaulle and Spears held the view that the British at GHQ in Cairo were unwilling to accept that they had been duped over the level of collaboration between Germany and the Vichy-controlled states in the Levant. The British military authorities feared that a blockade of the Levant would cause hardship and thus antagonise the civilian population. However, Spears pointed out that the Vichy French were already unpopular with the local population – ordinary people resented being lorded over by defeated foreigners. He urged aggressive propaganda aimed at the Vichy French in support of the Free French and British policy. He felt that the Free French would be considered as something different as they were allies of Britain and enjoyed the dignity of fighting their enemy instead of submitting to him.
On 13 May 1941, the fears of de Gaulle and Spears were realised when German aircraft landed in Syria in support of the Iraqi rebel Rashid Ali, who was opposed to the pro-British government. On 8 June, 30,000 troops (Indian Army, British, Australian, Free French and the Trans-Jordanian Frontier Force) invaded Lebanon and Syria in what was known as Operation Exporter. There was stiff resistance from the Vichy French and Spears commented bitterly on 'that strange class of Frenchmen who had developed a vigour in defeat which had not been apparent when they were defending their country'.
Spears soon became aware of the poor liaison which existed between the British Embassy in Cairo, the armed forces, Palestine and the Sudan. The arrival in Cairo in July 1941 of Oliver Lyttelton, who was a Minister of State and a member of the War Cabinet, improved matters considerably. The Middle East Defence Council was also formed – a body that Spears would later join. (src: wiki, 20180718)