The fall of Damascus to the Allies, late June 1941. A car carrying the Free French commanders, General Georges Catroux and General Paul Louis Le Gentilhomme, enters the city. They are escorted by French Gardes Tcherkess (Circassian cavalry).
Free French Forces served abroad. Volunteers from Syria were formed into the 1st Marine (Naval) Infantry, which was attached to the British 7th Armoured Division. These troops assisted in the capture of Tobruk, Libya, in January 1941. In December 1940, Colonel Raoul-Charles Magrin- Vernerey (a.k.a. Monclar) formed the Brigade d’Orient of 1,200 men from several units of infantry (including the 13th Demi- Brigade) and a horse cavalry squadron. The brigade fought in Eritrea from January to May 1941, the cavalry unit making the last French cavalry charge in history (against Italian cavalry).
On 25 May 1941, Major General Paul Louis Legentilhomme formed the 5,400-man 1st Free French Light Division from several units of French Legionnaires, Africans, and Arabs. On 8 June, operating with British Commonwealth forces, the division invaded Syria, meeting bitter resistance from Vichy forces there. The campaign ended on 11 July. Of the 38,000 Vichy troops in Syria, 5,331 (including 1,000 Legionnaires) joined the Free French; the remainder were allowed to return to France. On 20 August 1941, the Light Division was disbanded; with additional reinforcements, it became several independent brigade groups, some of which remained in Syria for garrison duties.
Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, after World War I Syria became a mandate of France. Following the defeat of France by Germany in June 1940, Syria was controlled by the Vichy government headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, which appointed General Henri Dentz as high commissioner with a cabinet headed by Khalid al Azm. Pétain ordered Dentz to allow landing rights in Syria for German and Italian aircraft on their way to support Radhid Ali’s regime in Iraq.
On 8 June 1941, Allied forces commanded by British Lieutenant General Maitland Wilson that included the British Ninth Army, Australian, and Major General Paul Legentilhomme’s Free French Forces, along with troops of the Transjordan Arab Legion, crossed from Palestine into Lebanon and Syria. By 15 June, they had reached the Syrian capital of Damascus, which fell on 21 June. On 13 July, Dentz and the Vichy French surrendered and the next day signed the Acre Convention. The fighting had claimed 4,500 Allied and 6,000 Vichy French casualties.
Syria was then turned over to the Free French authorities. The French recognized Syria’s independence but continued to occupy the country, which was used as an Allied base for the rest of the war. Free French Commander General Georges Catroux became Syria’s Delegate-General and Plenipotentiary. French authorities declared martial law, imposed strict press censorship, and arrested political subversives.
In July 1943, following pressure from Great Britain, France announced new elections. A nationalist government came to power that August, electing as president Syrian nationalist Shukri al-Quwwatti, one of the leaders of the 1925–1927 uprising against the French. France granted Syria independence on 1 January 1944, but the country remained under Anglo-French occupation for the remainder of the war. In January 1945, the Syrian government announced the formation of a national army, and in February it declared war on the Axis powers.
Syria became a charter member of United Nations in March 1945. In early May 1945, anti-French demonstrations erupted throughout Syria, whereon French forces bombarded Damascus, killing 400 Syrians. British forces then intervened. A United Nations resolution in February 1946 called on France to evacuate the country, and by 15 April, all French and British forces were off Syrian soil. Evacuation Day, 17 April, is still celebrated as a Syrian national holiday.