Todcol in Syria, 1941


Well, Lard Island last night saw Robert Avery join us for a trip to Syria as column of the Royal Scots Greys bumped into the Vichy French.

The game was set, historically, a couple of days after the fall of Merdjayoun, as Todcol advanced north to Jisa el Burghaz to screen off Vichy forces in the central mountainous region. Three Allied columns had headed north at the outset, on the left one took the coastal road towards Beirut, on the right one headed up the plain towards Damascus, whilst in the centre one maintained communication between the two in the hilly country of the intervening mountains.

Needless to say this middle route was hard going, and after the fall of the central nodal point of Merdjayoun the Allied decided to withdraw most of their forces in this region and merely screen off any Vichy troops in the area. The Royal Scots Greys, who had just been converted from horse mounted cavalry to lorry borne infantry, were now sent northwards to under take this role.

Under their Colonel, Todd, they, along with elements of the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment - an armoured formation - moved up through tough, hilly terrain. Dispersing into a wide screen they felt the full weight of the Vichy counter-attack that recaptured Mardjayoun and threatened to push on into Palestine. It was this surprise action that I wanted to replicate.

The British had one squadron (Company) of the Greys mounted in truck. They had a troop of three Mark VIb light tanks and three Universal carriers mounting Vickers MMGs. Two Bofors guns provided support against what had up 'til now, been a strong Vichy presence in the air.

This force, commanded by Robert, Harpers and Biffo had no particular idea where they were going, but were just told to provide me with their order of march.

The French were in strength, with on full company of the Legion, a platoon of four R35 tanks and a platoon of Chasseurs Libanaise.

The table, all 6' by 7'6" of it, was essentially a winding road running north to south about 2' in from the western edge (6' in lenght). To the left of this the terrain was largely hilly, with a small village about 18" from the northern table edge. half way up the table a road branched off to the right, and headed, in a curving manner, off to the north-eastern corner. To the south of this road was a small olive farm, with a few scraggly groves, before more hills resumed. To the north was a central area of open terrain, before a large hill dominated the top half of the board, being around 5' by 3' in size, stretching from the north-east corner (where the road exited) almost across to the village on the road.

A dried up river bed ran along the southern side of the branch road.

The game started with three French blinds entering the table on the N.E. end of branch road - tucked tight in to the side of the large hill.

The British column being put on the table (not on blinds) along the main north south road as per the order of march given to me by the players. At the head of the column, in the village near the northern edge, was the tank troops. Stretching back down the full length of the road was the convoy of truck (all spaced as per the rules for fast or wheeled vehicles - it stretched some distance). A Vichy straffing had seen all of their men jump from their vehicles to find whatever cover there was, and they started the game in the dust next to their transport. Behind them the carriers and Bofors were still off-table. This was now going to be a test for them how quickly they reacted to the French threat.

The British began by attempting to get into some position of advantage, with their first troop running for the cover of an orange grove just to the south of the village. The tanks headed off road to the western edge of the big hill. Number two troop tried to get some cover in a road side drainage ditch and in some rocky ground just on the north side of the T-junction where branch road met main road. Three troops took advantage of some undulating ground to nip round the back towards the farm, with their leading sections jumping into the dried up river bed to the north of the farm, on the southern edge of branch road.

The French advanced with their tanks down the road. On the big hill their Chasseurs Libanaise headed for the summit. A platoon of the Legion headed south through the dried up river bed. Both sides were now jockeying for position having blundered into each other.

The first shots of the day came as the British second troop spotted the white kepis of the Legion moving down the river bed. Firing across the open ground they killed one man, and clearly really annoyed the Legionaries. The whole platoon lined the edge of the river bed and poured fire into the Jocks who enjoyed rather less cover in an 18" deep drainage ditch, and consequently suffered rather worse. However, this action was suffice to allow 3 troop to move round into the farm and occupy it and the olive groves without disturbance.

A second wave of French now followed the Lebanese troops up the hill, this was where the French main blow was planned to fall. Now the Lebanese Chasseurs opened up with their single Hotchkiss MMG on the British light tanks that were quite sensibly avoiding the better armed and heavier French tanks. It was to no avail, and the Australian tankers were quite happy to reply round for round.

The British carriers now arrived and moved into the olive groves around the farm, whilst the first Bofors dropped in a ditch by the road junction in order to counter the French tanks. On the big hill the French deployed their HQ troops, and quickly brought smoke down to mask the Bofors, as well as adding their three MMGs to the fire going in on the light tanks. One of which now pulled back to a hull- down position behind a rocky patch, its miniscule turret presenting the French tankers with a vaguely tempting target.

One French tank decided to leave the road, hoping to deal death and destruction amid the Australian light tanks, but the Bofors, thus far starved of a target, put paid to it's advance, first causing minor engine damage and then blowing the turret clean off.

On the right the Chasseurs Libanaise were to even the score, immobilising a Mark VIb with their MMG and then causing the crew to abandon it.

On the left the Legion in the river-bed attempted to rush across to the rocky slopes of the hill to the east of the farm, thereby outflanking the Jocks therein. A hail of fire from No. 3 Troop stopped them in their tracks and allowed the British to send one section up the hill to themselves bring enfilading fire down on the somewhat frustrated survivors of the first fusillade.

But now, with a cheer and cry of "Vive la France" down the western slopes of big hill swept two platoons of the Legion and the less enthusiastic Lebanese. In the orange grove Squadron Sergeant Major Corky Caldwell moved swiftly amongst his men, holding their fire until the enemy emerged into the open at the foot of the hill. Now fire sprang from the mouths of twenty odd rifles, and the front ranks fo the French went down in the crimson sand. A party of Senegalese troops set about two of the Mark VIb tanks, attempting to wrench off the tracks with their rifles and to fire into the vision ports, but the crews stayed calm, their turrets rotating as they fired into this seething mass.

Now up came the lead Australian carrier, its Vickers blazing into the mob, as more and more men fell for a France that some had never seen. High above them on the big hill, Capitaine Legume swung his machine guns to bare on the orange grove. Amongst the first to go down was SSM Caldwell, and his men felt his loss painfully. Where brave resistance had been their watchword they now sought cover where they could. Only those men unaware that their brave leader had fallen still continuing to put fire into the stalled French platoon.

With one Platoon decimated by fire, the second Legion platoon veered off to the right, into the village seeking shelter from British fire. Behind them came the Lebanese to secure the position. From the big hill a bugle call rang out as Legume called off further attacks, and the French now sought to consolidate their gains.

The position now stabilised with the British holding the junction and all ground to the south, whilst the French held the village and the big hill.

The French had failed to seize the important junction, their objective, the British had failed to move up to Jisa el Burghaz. An honourable draw.

Historically the action that took place on this terrain saw a Squadron of the Scots Greys face the Vichy counter attack alone, and without support they fled the battlefield, Merdjayoun falling later that day. This scenario allowed a bit more balance.

Hopefully Robert enjoyed his visit to Lard Island where we treated him to a delicious doner kebab with chilli sauce and green chillies (personally I like extra chillies and no lettuce - just onion, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumber). As a consequence he is probably in hospital as I type this.

Richard Clarke