In 1941, Syria like Iraq and Persia was under German influence, and garrisoned by the hated Vichy French. The strategic concern at the time, was that Syria could be utilised by the Axis forces to mount attacks on Egypt. The RWY less one squadron was part of the 4th Cavalry Brigade and with the Household Cavalry and the Warwickshire Yeomanry were given the objective of the ancient and ruined city of Palmyra, one hundred miles from the Iraq border.
On 2I June 1941 the CO Lt Colonel Williams led the advance which was joined by a company of the Arab Legion, reaching Juffa, fifty miles inside Syria where a lone French aircraft escaped to warn the main Vichy garrisons at Homs and Palmyra. Arriving at the outskirts of Palmyra at 11 a.m. the CO briefed his squadrons overlooking the ruined city and the objective of Yellow Ridge the most prominent landmark occupied by dug in French machine guns. With no air support or artillery, numerous foot patrols were sent forward but progress was painfully slow against such a well-prepared enemy. Sheltering in slit trenches and suffering in the intense heat for twelve days, the Regiment’s vehicles were systematically destroyed. These relentless Vichy bombing attacks that followed from the air were difficult to counter with rifles and old Hotchkiss machine guns. Lt M. St J.V. Gibbs distinguished himself assaulting the hills but had to withdraw due to a combination of exhaustion and overwhelming opposition.
Trooper Ken Batt, in an interview with the author in 2018 recalled his orders from Sergeant Bannister ‘get up that hill and if you see anyone in front of you, shoot them.’ Lieutenant Kenneth Mcllwraith, a Canadian born liaison officer, was tasked to take a French prisoner back to Brigade HQ but his car was attacked and he and his batman were taken prisoner on 2 June by a French patrol. He was handed over to a French Foreign Legion officer and flown 145 km to Homs in an ancient biplane whose Gallic pilot was far more concerned with the cases of wine he was transferring than the welfare of his prisoners. From Homs he was flown to Greece and then onwards to Salonika. The conditions in which he and other British prisoners were held in a dockside warehouse were appalling but after five days he was moved to a passenger ship. Following the armistice between the British and Vichy forces on 14 July, Mcllwraith was transported through Germany to Toulon in southern France, again in horrific conditions and finally by sea to Beirut and Cairo. He re-joined the Regiment but missed the battle of El Alamein due to jaundice and desert sores, the crewman who replaced him was killed in the battle. Mcllwraith was clearly traumatised by these experiences because he rarely spoke about them after the war. Returning to the battle unfolding in Syria, by 26 June, the daily bombing and strafing had reduced as the RAF stepped up activity against the French airfields. Water was now rationed to a gallon a day but thankfully artillery support had arrived to turn the tide. Further attacks by RWY patrols and soldiers from the Essex Regiment were made on the prominent ridge overlooking the town and repeatedly repulsed but on 3 July the enemy garrison finally surrendered. By 29 June 1941, both A and C Squadrons could only muster seventy-eight fit men.
Somerset de Chair in his book The Golden Carpet described the air bombardment of the RWY:
South of Palmyra bluff John Morrison of the Wilts, who was to join me in Parliament a year later, told me he had seventeen vehicles under his command on the first morning and only four left including the water wagon, the next day; the rest were destroyed by air attack.
The regimental war diary records the whole of A Echelon destroyed by machine gunfire from the air. Following the fall of Palmyra, the Regiment prepared for an attack on Homms but the Syrian armistice intervened and the yeomen trekked northwards to Aleppo where the 4th Cavalry Brigade was concentrating. They bivouacked in olive groves north east of the town, where shade following the incessant heat and glare of the desert sun was most welcome, as was the abundance of fresh fruit after a diet made up of bully beef and biscuits for two months. The yeomen were allowed into Aleppo in the evening which was full of French soldiers, an odd sight as the French Foreign Legion had previously been the despised enemy at Palmyra.
Lt Col Stephen Keoghane is the author of Primus in Armis: An illustrated history of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, published in May 2020 by Fonthill Media. The author served as Regimental Medical Officer for 22 years.