~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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~ LITANI RIVER RAID ~

9/10 June 1941 in Vichy French Syria

The Litani River raid was, initially, a Commando operation to capture intact a key bridge in Vichy French Syria, just prior to the arrival of Australian forces sent in to occupy the country. However, the Commando's plans were changed and while the new objectives were largely achieved, the cost in lives was high. This is their story.

Background

The Litani River raid was in support of a much greater operation to occupy Vichy French Syria. C Battalion's (11 Commando) objective was to secure the Qasmiye Bridge on the lower reaches of the River Litani, 50 miles south of Beirut on the coastal road. This would help the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade to pass through the area as part of a larger invasion force.

General De Gaulle had been pressing for an invasion of Vichy French Syria for some months but the Commander of Middle East forces, Field Marshal Wavell, had other problems and priorities on his mind. His resources were already seriously stretched in North Africa, Abyssinia, Greece and in the defence of the islands in the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, other factors emerged that tipped the balance in favour of action in the east Mediterranean. A pro-Fascist revolt in Iraq led by Raschid Ali threatened the RAF's vital airfield at Habbaniyah and an undertaking by Admiral Darlan, Vichy France's Foreign Minister, to make facilities in Syria available to the Germans, prompted Churchill to agitate forcefully for the territory to be occupied. Wavell was still preoccupied with the deteriorating situation in Crete but he ordered General Wilson, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Palestine and Transjordan, to make preparations.

[Please regard these maps as illustrative only.]

The invasion of Syria was to have three distinct thrusts. The main body, comprising the 7th Australian Division, would advance northwards towards Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, while the second and third forces would move from Iraq to Palmyra and the River Euphrates respectively. There was a major obstacle for the Brigade, taking the coastal route to Beirut, in the form of the River Litani, just north of Tyre. The river at this point flowed from east to west, effectively blocking their route.

 

Plans & Preparations

The operation assigned to the Commandos was to land on two beaches to the north of the River Litani and one to the south, seize and hold the Qasmiye bridge until relieved by the 21 Australian Infantry Brigade approaching from the south. The landing was planned to occur almost simultaneously with the Australians crossing the Syrian border. The timing would allow the Commandos to mount a surprise attack and capture the bridge intact before the French could destroy it, even if, as suspected, it was prepared for demolition.

The Commandos were engaged on garrison duties in Cyprus when urgent orders came through to put to sea. They embarked on the destroyers HMS Ilex and HMS Hotspur and left Famagusta harbour at 0540 hrs on June 4. The destroyers made good time, arriving at Port Said at 1700 hrs, having completed the passage at 25 knots.

They boarded HMS Glengyle and made ready for a dawn landing on June 8. Glengyle left Port Said at 1200 hrs on June 7 with HMS Hotspur, HMS Iris and HMS Coventry as escorts. As planned, they arrived off the mouth of the River Litani at about 0038 hrs on June the 8th.

The Battalion had earlier embarked in Assault Landing Craft (ALCs) at 2350 hrs and all were lowered into the water by 0100 hrs on June 8th. However, at 0130 hrs, the operation was cancelled by Captain Petrie, RN. He had received disturbing information from Lt Potter, RN (Senior Beachmaster) and Sub-Lieutenant Colenut, RNVR, a Palestinian Policeman from Haifa. They had reconnoitred the beaches on June 7 and their observations, together with Colenut's local knowledge of the coast, gave rise to concerns about the troops landing safely. With the prevailing weather and tidal conditions, there was a high risk of the ALCs broaching or even capsizing.

C Battalion's officers passionately argued that the advantage of surprise against the enemy and the crucial synchronisation of the raid with the advancing Australians was paramount and worth the risks envisaged. It was to no avail and the Glengyle returned to Port Said with their very disgruntled passengers. Hastily convened, possibly acrimonious, meetings were held during the journey, resulting in the Glengyle performing a nautical U turn, leaving Port Said a few hours after arriving there at 1500 hrs on June 8!! This time she was escorted by HMS Ilex and HMS Hero.

[Photo; HMS Glengyle, courtesy of Stewart Main of the Blair Mayne Association.]

En route, the original plan was modified. All forces would now land north of the river and the capture of the Qasmiye bridge was no longer an objective. Keyes' main assault "X" party would now land north of the river close to the enemy post at Aiteniye Farm. Having neutralised this position, the redoubt on the north bank of the river would then be taken from the rear. "Y" Party, led by the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Dick Pedder, was to act as the reserve party in support of "X" Party, landing a mile or so to the north of Aiteniye Farm. The third, "Z" party, was an additional reserve landing a further mile to the north.

Action

On the morning of June 9, Glengyle's ALCs were lowered at 0300 hrs with landings around 0420 - 0450 hrs. The setting moon was behind the men and the first glow from the rising sun in the east was ahead of them. These were not advantageous conditions for an attacking force against an enemy in waiting.

The most northerly "Z" Party, led by Captain George More, landed almost due west of the Kafr Badda bridge. Unfortunately, their radio equipment was, by then, inoperable due to water contamination, when an ALC hit a submerged rock 80 yards from the beach in 5 feet of water. There was, therefore, no communication with the other parties until they linked up later in the action. The Kafr Badda bridge spanned a stream that was just over 2 miles north of the main Litani river. Captain More's mission was to block enemy reinforcements and supplies reaching the battleground from the north. This would primarily be achieved by capturing and holding the Kafr Badda bridge during the critical period.

They encountered some inaccurate small arms fire as they moved off the beach and crossed the coastal road. They quickly overcome enemy resistance and set up defensive positions on both approaches to the bridge. 10 Troop was placed on high ground to the north of the bridge, while 4 Troop was placed in a similar position to the south.

Captain More and Lt Parnacott, with a stray sub-section of 1 Troop from Pedder's centre party under the capable Sgt Terry, captured four 155mm guns and a motor transport (MT) pool. When Captain Glennie arrived from the south with part of 8 Troop (also from Pedder's Y Party), he helped defend the MT pool area which now included the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) and French POW's cage. The 155mm howitzers took no part in the action, mainly because 11 Commando (Z party) had cut the enemy's telephone lines! A good number of French prisoners were taken in these actions.

The Commandos held off the French for most of the day but a counter attack by enemy armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) forced the Commandos to withdraw - first 4 Troop and then 10 Troop. No effective action could be taken against these vehicles because the flat terrain would have allowed them to simply drive around any road blocks and light weapons were ineffective against them. However, two pound shells fired by the enemy inflicted heavy casualties on the French prisoners under guard at the MT pool.

[Photo; Portrait of Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes, son of Roger Keyes, posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Operation Flipper, Libya, 17/18 November 1941.© IWM (E 4732).]

That night, some of the party (10 Troop) headed east and then south towards the Australian lines and successfully retired from the battle ground by a high level route. In the meantime, Captain More, with a small group comprising Cpt Glennie, Lt Parnacott , Lt Eoin McGonigal and part of 4 Troop - about 23 ORs, retreated towards the mouth of the River Litani under heavy but inaccurate enemy fire.

Their aim was to link up with force Y, be briefed on the progress of X and Y operations and to support their efforts. They were later caught in the open by enemy machine guns (MGs) fire, barbed wire on the beach and friendly fire from the south. They suffered 8 casualties, including Lt Parnacott and 4 ORs killed and 3 ORs wounded. Their position was hopeless, so they surrendered to the French forces at Aiteniye Farm. The prisoners were taken inside the post, where they were quite well protected and decently treated. One of the party, L/Cp Tait, managed to evade the French by swimming south and making contact with Keyes' party at the redoubt.

The centre "Y" party, led by Colonel Dick Pedder, successfully landed about a mile south of More's party and about a mile and a half north of the Litani River. His was a reserve party to act in support of Keyes and his men. They headed inland over sand dunes and soon crossed the main Tyre to Sidon road. On reaching the higher ground, they met stiff resistance from the enemy. For a time the barracks in the area were captured but the French recovered the position and their snipers took a toll on the party. Colonel Pedder was killed and his officers became casualties. It fell to RSM Tevendale to regroup Pedder's party and to head south for the river. However, after further action against superior French forces, the group surrendered.

The southern "X" group, under Major Keyes, landed south of the river missing their intended landing beach, which was to the north of it. They worked their way north to a position opposite the redoubt on the north bank - the same redoubt they were, according to the revised plan, due to attack from the rear (north). They commandeered a boat and, together with some Australian troops, managed to deliver Lieutenant Eric Garland and 6 men of 2 and 3 Troop across the river at 1000 hrs, during a lull in the French artillery barrage. They were later reinforced when Captain, George Highland and 6 men, took advantage of a second lull in the artillery barrage to cross the river.

Highland took the surrender of the redoubt at about 1330 hrs and Garland managed to subdue a sniper at great personal risk. He also used a captured 25mm A/T gun in the redoubt to silence the 75mm field gun responsible for the earlier heavy shelling. It is said that he fired 7 rounds, 3 of which went cleanly through the embrasure of the gun emplacement! The wider action was later described by Laycock as a "Commando spirited" effort that "materially helped the subsequent action of the main body."

[Photo; After the demolition of the bridge over the Litani River, the 2/6th Field Company assisted by infantrymen built a pontoon bridge during the the night of 9/10th of June about 400 yards upstream of the demolished bridge, enabling men and vehicles of the 2/27th Infantry Battalion to cross.]

The bridge at Qasmiye was blown up on June 8, when the Australian advance guard was within 50 meters of it! After a night-time action in the vicinity of the demolished bridge, Australian sappers constructed a pontoon bridge. The next morning the Australian advance continued and the French Commander at Aiteniye Farm handed over his post to Captain More. The captives once more became captors! Captain More and his men rejoined the main body of the Commando under Major Geoffrey Keyes.

Outcome

The Battalion had acquitted itself well, achieving the objectives in the revised plan but at very high cost in terms of casualties. Had X group landed north of the river as intended, the casualties would have been lower, since the time and effort Keyes' expended reaching the north bank would have been used more productively elsewhere. A spit of sand, which from the sea, was indistinguishable from the adjacent beaches, obscured the mouth of the river and this may have contributed to the navigational error. In his report on the action, Keyes noted also that aerial photographs given to Pedder did not cover the mouth of the River Litani, stopping short about 1 mile north of Aiteniye Farm.

The War Diary's lists of casualties are detailed opposite.

Killed

Wounded

Wounded &
captured

Total

Officers: 

5

 1

1

ORs

40

 83

123

Total 

45

84

  1 

 130

This was about a third of its strength. Geoffrey Keyes subsequently took over command of the Battalion and by July 1, he and his men were back in Cyprus on garrison duty. MCs were later conferred on Major Keyes and Captain More and a bar to Lt. Garland's MC. RSM Tevendale and Lance Corporal Tait, received DCMs.

Sgt Terry later accompanied Keyes on Operation Flipper - the raid on Rommel's HQ. Only Sgt Terry and Bob Laycock, Layforce's CO, returned safely to British lines, after over 40 days in the desert. Sgt Terry later joined the SAS.

In this cemetery are buried the following 10 men of the 11 Scottish Commando killed in action at the Litani River on 9 6 41.

 

1 K Burton 
2 J Padbury 
3 J Lane 
4 D Woodnott 
5 W Gibbs 
6 C Burrows 
7 A Styles 
8 A Hamilton 
9 space
10 H Jones

[Photo of the graves of some of the fallen at Latani River was provided by Stewart McClean of The Blair Mayne Association.]

Correspondence

My father, Dennis Birch, ex 11 Commando, died in 2011. Whilst clearing out his house I found some interesting material including the attached 1948 letter from the Rt. Hon. Elizabeth Keyes, sister of Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes. (Cick here to open). My father often mentioned the raid on Rommel’s HQ and his involvement but otherwise spoke little of his time in North Africa other than to say that they were constantly moving backwards and forwards ‘up the desert’. Also in his belongings I found a copy of the Trobuk Truth from 1942, a newsletter distributed to the troops and a printed copy of Montgomery’s rallying speech. He kept these without really telling anyone.

 I'm not sure if he replied to Elizabeth Keyes but I've requested a copy of her book that was published in 1956 to see if my dad gets a mention.

 Best regards

 Tony Birch

Note: The book, called Geoffrey Keyes V.C. Of The Rommel Raid, is available for a few pounds through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Visit this website's "Books page" and click on the ABE icon.


I am editing and transcribing diaries of my uncle (Stuart W H Jones, 1921-2006) whose friend, Geoffrey Parnacott (Lt Geoffrey Alfred Henry Parnacott, 105607, York and Lancaster Regiment) died serving under Geoffrey Keyes in the Litani Raid 10th June 1941. I have a copy of a letter (no doubt many of its type) sent to Geoffrey Parnacott’s mother . I attach this in case it may be of use or interest.

May I congratulate you on a wonderfully informative site.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Charles Adams

 

Dear Charles,

My wife is the grand-niece of Geoff Parnacott. We helped to clear out the family attic last year and were privileged to find many mementos of Geoff, including the formal letter from King George, but it was touching to see the copy letter you posted of which we did not come across the original. It was remarkable to find that he was in such an elite unit although it added to the sadness of his loss at such an early age. His brother, Trevor, served with  the Artists Rifles in North Africa so kept up the family tradition, but sadly died in 2012. It is very good to find more information about Geoff – many thanks.

Congratulations on such a good website – a pleasure to find.

Regards,

Paul on behalf Felicity Waterman (nee Parnacott)

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

Litani River By Ian McHarg. The author served in Army Commando (59 Commando Royal Engineers) from 1984-1994. ISBN: 1907463380 / 1-907463-38-0. Further information at; www.litaniriver.com and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Litani-River-Ian-McHarg/dp/1907463380

Geoffrey Keyes, VC of the Rommel Raid by Elizabeth Keyes. Pub 1956 by George Newnes Ltd, London, WC2. 

Black Hackle by Graham Lappin - an historical account of No 11 (Scottish) Commando. 

Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. ISBN 0 356 08432 9 

Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1 

The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub 1961 by Collins

1000 Men at War - Story of the 2/16th Battalion A.I.F. by Malcolm Uren. WWII history of the unit led by Major General Stevens and raised in 1940 Western Australia to form part of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade. Traces the exploits of these 1,000 troops who embarked at Freemantle that year for service in the Middle East. Details their fighting in the Syrian campaign, the Kododa trail at Gona, New Guinea and Borneo highlighting their audacious heroism during the Battle of Shaggy Ridge.

Acknowledgments

We are indebted to Henry More of Los Altos, California, son of the late Captain George More, for his many, substantial and invaluable contributions to this account of the Litani raid. His detailed knowledge of the subject is beyond equal.
 

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