Wednesday 16 November 2022

Mezzeh 1941 and The Allied Fight against Vichy France in Syria - Big Chain of Command

If ever there was a campaign that nobody wanted, it must be The British invasion of Vichy Syria and Lebanon. The French Governor of Syria and Lebanon wanted to avoid any belligerence. The British were over-stretched in the Western Desert and Greece. Berlin was preparing Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of Crete. But in April 1941, events overtook them all as the Iraqi nationalist Rashid Ali overthrow the British-supporting government in Bagdad, and requested help from the Axis powers. The only way to help the Iraqi nationalists was by air, via Vichy Syria. A trickle of support for Rashid Ali, accelerated the momentum of events in London, Cairo and Damascus. General Rommel, recent arrival in North Africa, caused London to fear German expansion into Syria. Vichy was equally concern, that Rommel’s command might be extended to the French colonies of North Africa, so they were equally determined to put a spirited defence. The only person who saw any benefit was General du Gaulle, who thought the Vichy military in The Levant would join his Free French movement.

Mosel 1941 - German BF110, sporting Iraqi markings.

General Wavell reluctantly agreed “Operation Exporter” which began on 7th June 1941. The German paratrooper invasion of Crete began on 20th May 1941, so it was not unreasonable that Vichy Syria might be next on the list. Vichy troops fought determinedly and counter attacked vigorously and de Gaulle’s assessment was immediately proved wrong. Extra British and Empire troops destined for the western desert, had to be diverted to bolster Operation Exporter at the expense of Operation Battleaxe - the relief of Tobrok. An armistice was agreed on 12th July in which the French forces surrendered with full military honours and all prisoners liberated. Most of the French forces opted for repatriation to France rather than join the Free French. The only positive outcome was securing Iraq’s vital oil for Britain. By now the German invasion of Russia had begun (22nd June 1941) and this politically difficult campaign was quickly forgotten about.


Today the village of Mezzeh, has long been absorbed in to Damascus City, but in 1941 it was a village a few miles south west of the city, centred around the junction of the Damascus - Beirut road with the road to British Palestine via Deraa. The plan was that the 8th Indian Brigade would lead the advance, opening up the route for the Free French forces onto Damascus. Neither the British or de Gaulle wanted a “French civil war”, as it was hoped that the Vichy army would join de Gaulle after the campaign.

Realising the utmost importance of the Damascus to Beirut road being cut at Mezzah, the Vichy forces counter attacked vigorously, the advance of the Free French was halted and 8th Brigade became surrounded in Mezzah. Eventually the defenders were overwhelmed by the French and surrendered, but the French lacked sufficient forces to exploit their victory and simply withdrew to Damascus. A reliving British force arrived the next day to find the village strewn with Indian dead and empty cartridge cases. It is the desperate fight by the second battalion of the 1st Punjab Regiment, that forms the basis of this game.

As their name suggests, the 1st Punjab was the most senior regiment in the British Indian Army with roots dating back to 1759. Their badge carried the hour “Assaye” where their antecedents fought under General Arthur Wellesley (later The Duke of Wellington), in 1803. The badge also shows a Chinese dragon for their service in the first Anglo-China war in 1840.

Order of Battle


Two platoons of French infantry with one supporting platoon of armour and artillery. The French also have a further platoon of local troops in reserve, which can be deployed starting on the second game turn. The French army is based around the CoC Blitzkreig 1940 supplement.

There has been some discussion on the CoC blog about the over-potency of French rifle-grenades, with which I agree. French rifle grenades are restricted to causing shock only.


Two Platoons of British infantry, based on the British in North Africa 1940-41 OoB from the Too Fat Lardies website.

The British troops have strengthened the village defences, so one building is designated a “Keep” per the British CoC Blitzkrieg 1940 supplement. This building and the surrounding wall counted as a bunker and as one of the British jump-off points.

Indian troops were noted to have made use of Molotov-Cocktails as improvised anti-tank weapons, so I have allowed inclusion of two tank hunter squads but limited to two cocktails per squad each.

How the game played – or not as the scenario designer expected.

The objective of the game was for the French to recapture the road junction in Messah, where the roads to Damascus, Deraa and Beirut meet.

Once the patrol phase had been completed the French command dice allowed for a rapid deployment of their two initial infantry platoons, which the French players took full advantage off. The British countered by deploying most of their forces withing the keep and its surrounding walled compound. However, the French support units were not lucky with their command dice and there was a delay before they arrived on the table. This delay allowed the British an opportunity to wear down the French infantry somewhat.


With the arrival of the delayed French support weapons, the fire fight at the keep intensified. There was a steady bombardment of the keep with French 75mm and 37mm shells along with rifle grenades and small arms fire. The bombardment was met by a determined British defense. Luck still seemed to elude the French because despite causing “shock” to the defenders the “bunker” status of the keep kept British casualties down. The French gunners were hoping for a dice roll of three sixes to knock down walls and buildings, but this never seemed to happen. Things were complicated by the British blinding the French 75’s with smoke and damaging a French armoured car with more of less accurate anti-tank rifle. You might not think an anti-tank rifle with an armour-piercing value of 3 is very useful, but when the targeted armoured car has a defence value of 1, the Boyes anti-tank rifle is a potent enough.

The French now had a bit of luck by rolling three sixes with their command dice, thus ended the first turn sooner than anticipated and without the need to wait for or use a CoC dice. The smoke cleared and reinforcements arrived in the form of another platoon of local Levantine troops. With these extra troops available for deployment, the British were now forced to deploy more of their troops in the village outside of the Keep complex, where they were more vulnerable. The French now concentrated much of their fire on one section of these more vulnerable British troops, including fire from their now unmasked 75’s and pressing forward with their most modern tank, a Renault 35 armed with a 35mm gun and better able to withstand the Boyes anti-tank fire. A critical point in the battle had arrived as the French finally managed to roll three sixes to knock down a compound wall and damage the building in which these British troops were defending.

French losses amongst their Senegalese, especially of NCO’s, had undermined their morale and these troops retired as their force morale was now zero. But they had done their work holding down sufficient British forces to allow a breakthrough opportunity by their comrades on the other flank. The Levantine forces now joined the fray and in a hail of bullets and shells the British defenders were cut down. Then the Levantine troops stormed the British position, there was only one combat effective defender left and he fled before the onslaught.

The French were now near the objective junction and the British deployed their last reinforcement section between the French onslaught and the junction objective. French Foreign legion troops that had been bogged down in the fire fight with the occupants of the Keep, now joined in with the general forward momentum of the French attack. The French had lost their armoured car by now but they simply deployed another tank from their seemingly inexhaustible pool of reinforcement, a rather ancient FT17 but good enough for the job.

Faced with the momentum of the French attack the British deployed their last reinforcements. But the French were now poised to over whelm these last British troops, outflank the keep and seize the road junction from another direction so we all decided to call the game over. It had been hard fought and though the French won, as the scenario designer, I had my doubts about this outcome on several occasions; I suppose that’s the way it should be.

Thanks to the players, Steve M and Steve H for commanding the Punjabis so valiantly and Rob, Matt and Colin for gallic flair and insouciance at the strength of the British initial disposition. Figures from various sources: British Gripping Beast and ….. French Perry and Artisan miniatures, vehicles were 3D prints, when painted up look just as good as more expensive options in my opinion. Photos thanks to Matt.


  1. A cracking game report. Nice to see actions in lesser-known theatres.

  2. Splendid write up, a very interesting bit of history & an enjoyable game t'boot!