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~ LITANI RIVER RAID ~

9/10 JUNE 1941

The raid on the Litani River raid was a courageous attempt to capture a key bridge from the Vichy French, in the then Palestine, before they could blow it up in the face of advancing Australian forces. The fortunes of war, for some Commandos, found them captives and then captors in the spread of just a few hours!

Background Plans & Prep. Action Outcome Correspondence Further Reading Acknowledgments

Background

The Litani River raid was in support of a much greater effort to occupy Vichy French controlled Syria. C Battalion's (11 Commando) original 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 aid the progress of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade as it passed through the area. The action took place in Palestine now the Lebanon.

General De Gaulle had been pressing for an invasion of Vichy French Syria for some months but Wavell's resources were seriously stretched in North Africa, Abyssinia, Greece and in the defence of the islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. However a pro-Fascist revolt in Iraq led by Raschid Ali threatened the RAF's vital airfield at Habbaniyah. The prospect of losing the airfield and an undertaking by Admiral Darlan, Vichy France's Foreign Minister, to make facilities in Syria available to the Germans, prompted Churchill to agitate more forcefully for Wavell to occupy the territory. Wavell was preoccupied with the deteriorating situation in Crete but he warned General Wilson, GOC Palestine and Transjordan to prepare for such an operation.

This was to be a large-scale operation in three separate thrusts. The main body comprising the 7th Australian Division would advance towards Damascus and Beirut from Palestine, the second and third forces would move on Palmyra and along the Euphrates respectively - both from Iraq. The Brigade taking the coastal route to Beirut faced a major obstacle in the form of the River Litani just north of Tyre. The river flowed from east to west through a narrow gorge.

Plans & Preparations

The original objective assigned to C Battalion "Layforce" (11 Scottish Commando) was to land on two beaches to the north of the River Litani and one to the south, seize and hold the Qasmiye bridge over it until relieved by 21 Australian Infantry Brigade. The landing was planned to occur almost simultaneously with the Australians crossing the Syrian frontier. This timing would give the Commando the opportunity to capture the bridge by surprise before the French could blow it up, even if, as suspected, it was prepared for demolition. [Photo; HMS Glengyle courtesy of Stewart Main of the Blair Mayne Association].

The Battalion was engaged on garrison duties in Cyprus when urgent orders came through for them 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 arrived at 1700 hrs on the same day at Port Said having completed the passage at 25 knots.

They boarded HMS Glengyle and made ready for a dawn landing on June 8. Glengyle duly sailed from Port Said at 1200 hrs on June 7 with HMS Hotspur, HMS Iris and HMS Coventry as escort. As planned the Glengyle arrived off the mouth of the Litani at about 0038 hrs on 8 June. The Battalion embarked in the Assault Landing Craft (ALCs) at 2350 hrs and they were all launched by 0100 hrs. At 0130 hrs the operation was cancelled by Captain Petrie RN on the advice of Lt. Potter RN (Senior Beachmaster) and Sub-Lieutenant Colenut, RNVR, a Palestinian Policeman from Haifa. Potter and Colenut had reconnoitred the beaches on June 7, and Colenut was very familiar with the coast in the area of the Litani River. It was their earnest opinion that the ALCs would broach or even capsize on the beach and the troops would stand no chance of landing successfully.

C Battalion's officers passionately but vainly argued that the gain of surprise against the enemy, and the crucial synchronisation of the raid with the advancing Australians, was paramount and worth the risks envisaged. The Glengyle returned to Port Said with some very disgruntled passengers still onboard arriving there at 1500 hrs on June 8! The nature of the hastily convened meetings during the journey can be imagined. The upshot was that the Glengyle performed a nautical U turn leaving Port Said again a few hours after her arrival! This time she was escorted by H.M.S. Ilex and H.M.S. Hero. En route the original plan was modified to land all forces north of the river and this time it did not include the taking of the Qasmiye bridge. Keyes' main fighting "X" party was instead to land north of the river close to the post at Aiteniye Farm. Having taken this post he was to take the redoubt on the north bank of the river from the rear. "Y" Party, led by the Commanding Officer, Lt Col. Dick Pedder, was to act as the reserve party to support "X" Party, landing some distance to the north of Aiteniye Farm. The third "Z" party, was an additional reserve landing even further north.

Action

On the morning of June 9 Glengyle's ALCs were lowered at 0300 hrs with the beach being hit at about 0420 - 0450 hrs. The setting moon was behind the men and the first glow of the rising sun far to the east was to their front. These were not the most advantageous circumstances 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. Their radio equipment was rendered useless by water contamination when one 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 and was just over 2 miles to the north of the main Litani river. Captain More's mission was to block enemy reinforcements and supplies reaching the area of conflict from the north. This would primarily be achieved by capturing and holding the Kafr Badda bridge during the critical period.

They experienced 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 then took a stray sub-section of 1 Troop, from Pedder's centre party under the capable Sgt. Terry, and captured four 155mm guns and a motor transport (MT) pool. Captain Glennie arrived from the south with part of 8 Troop (also part of Pedder's Y Party) and helped to defend the MT pool area now including 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 their eventual withdrawal - first 4 Troop and then 10 Troop. No effective action could be taken to impede the progress of these vehicles because of the flat nature of the surrounding terrain - they could simply drive around any obstacle placed in the road and light weapons were ineffective against them. However the enemy's two pounders inflicted heavy casualties on the French prisoners who were under guard at the MT pool.

That night some of the party (10 Troop) headed east and then south towards the Australian lines and successfully retired from the fighting area by a high level route. In the meantime Captain More, with a small group comprising Capt. Glennie, Lt Parnacott , Lt Eoin McGonigal and part of 4 Troop - about 23 ORs), retreated under heavy but inaccurate enemy fire towards the mouth of the River Litani. Their aim was to link up with force Y, receive a briefing on the progress of forces X and Y and 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 three ORs wounded. Their position was hopeless so they successfully surrendered to the French forces manning the post 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 with stiff resistance. For a time the barracks in the area were captured but the French recovered 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 head for the river. After some action the group surrendered to the superior French forces.

The southern "X" group, under Major Keyes, landed south of the river and their target beach. 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 borrowed a boat and some men from the Australians and during a lull in the French artillery barrage managed to get Lieutenant Eric Garland and 6 men of 2 and 3 Troop across the river at 1000 hrs. They were later reinforced by Captain George Highland and another 6 men after a delay caused by another artillery barrage. Highland took the surrender of the redoubt at about 1330 hrs. Garland managed to subdue a sniper at great personal risk and also turned around and a captured 25mm A/T gun in the redoubt and silenced a 75mm field gun overlooking the river that had been responsible for the heavy shelling during the crossing. 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."

The bridge at Qasmiye had been 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, as the Australian advance continued, the French Commander handed over his post at Aiteniye Farm to Captain More. The captives once more became captors! 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. These would almost certainly have been less had X group not landed to the south of the river. Much of Keyes' effort was concentrated on reaching the ground north of the river where, according to the plan, he should have been from the outset. A spit of sand which, from the sea, was indistinguishable from the adjacent beaches, obscured the mouth of the river. 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 but only went to the north from a point 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 was later with 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. Terry later joined the SAS.

 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

[The photo above of the graves of some of the fallen at Latani River was provided by Stewart McClean of The Blair Mayne Association. The inscription reads; 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.]

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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