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Most who write about the Middle East in WWII appear to ignore the brief but bloody battle which took place in Syria from June 7 to July 12, 1941, culminating in the surrender of the Vichy French forces. In a series of fiercely contested battles, with great bravery shown on both sides, horrendous casualties were incurred. Australia alone lost more than 400 killed and 1,200 wounded.
When the battle ended, the RAAF crews went to Rayak airbase in Syria for rest and recuperation. While there, a little known but significant event concerning prisoners of war taken by the Vichy French, raised its ugly head. Covertly, these prisoners, including a number of Australians, had been shipped to Vichy France where they would have passed into German hands.
Churchill later wrote:
"When this distasteful incident was discovered and no redress offered, the Vichy French commander, General Dentz, and some of his senior officers were taken into custody as hostages. This had the desired effect and all prisoners were returned to Syria."
However, unknown to Churchill and other senior people, plans to take Dentz into custody were almost thwarted at the last minute when the General tried to flee the country in his private plane from Rayak airbase (which 3 Squadron and others were in the process of taking over).
In the prevailing confusion, when Allied and Vichy forces were sorting themselves out, escape would indeed have been possible... Except for the "Clifties" (souvenir hunters) in 3 Squadron who had zeroed in on the General's aircraft, rendering it totally unserviceable.
Suffice to say, Dentz remained very much on the ground while it was left to our somewhat bemused Allied Air Force commander to pardon his boys provided that the souvenired loot was returned with no questions asked.
Soon afterwards, an amazing collection of paraphernalia appeared including full dress uniforms, cockpit instruments, specialist tools, parachutes, survival kits (including "medicinal" brandy) and last, but not least, a gilded toilet seat!
True to his word, with honour having been satisfied all round, the commander pardoned his boys who, on a "high", repaired to the local estaminet where the vino flowed freely.
[See also the Harry Clare Collection of photos from Syria - including Rayak - and author Roy Fitzgerald's own story.]
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