In an effort to bring forth some facts regarding the historical Axis intrigues in Vichy Levant in May and June of 1941 and also the particulars leading to the Allied invasion of the Vichy Levant in June 1941, here are some excerpts from and commentary about a journal article entitled “The Background to the Syrian Campaign, May-June 1941: A Study in Franco-German wartime relations.” The article is written by Jafna L. Cox of the University of Toronto and published in the journal History (Vol 72, #236) Oct. 1987.
From the fall of France until very early May 1941 Nazi German and Vichy French relations were those of the dominant victor to a conquered and subjugated nation whose ultimate fate was not yet ripe for final resolution. From Hitler’s and Ribbentrop’s perspective, there was no reason for haste in doing any binding significant bilateral agreements with Vichy France. The much more serious pending diplomatic maneuvers with Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, and even regarding some kind of hoped for negotiated peace with the English/USA bloc compelled Nazi Germany to stiff any special deals with her, leaving the Vichy French pie wholly available for slicing up and giving away, or for now held hostage pending a peace with the frustrated Allies.
In the spring of 1941, instead of an amphibious/airborne invasion of Britain, Hitler opted for what some call a peripheral strategy against the British in the Balkans, in Libya, and throughout the central and eastern Mediterranean basin. “The Fuhrer was once again ready to exploit temporarily Mediterranean developments when they offered themselves cheaply. Because there was a slight chance that the revolt in Iraq might succeed, and because in the meantime it threatened to provide the British with major difficulties, Hitler decided to intervene directly by bringing military aid to the rebels. It was evident, however, that the only feasible supply route to Iraq was by air through [Vichy] Syria.” (p. 436).
Vichy France did not have to freely conduct negotiations with the Germans with the apparent aim of a general improvement of its relations with Nazi Germany; in May 1941 Vichy could have “washed her hands” by simply waiting for a “diktat” from Hitler, which in hindsight might have been the best policy. However, Vichy French principal “Darlan apparently felt that Vichy was in a position to assist the Germans in making considerable gains [in diplomacy] at little expense.” First, Darlan was summoned to Paris on May 3 by German Armistice Commission head Abetz “who revealed that the Germans were prepared to [finally] renew [bilateral] negotiations.” The issue at hand was “helping Iraq obtain the weapons needed in its struggle against the English. France could eventually allow German planes destined for Iraq to land in Syria.”… “Darlan was eager to comply. But having been kept at arms-length for so long, he resolved to secure a number of concessions…”
[regarding occupied France, French p.o.w.’s, demarcation line passage, and guarantees for the French empire at the end of the war]. Although these French demands were heady, “Berlin wished to act quickly [and] negotiations began at once. Agreements embodying the French demands were signed on May 6.” ( The previous quotes from pp. 439-441).
As a result of these preliminary Vichy French-Nazi Germany negotiations at Paris, “the first German planes arrived at Narab, near Aleppo, on 9 May. Over the next two weeks some 106 planes passed through Syria on their way to Iraq. These included 66 fighters and 40 transports. They landed at Damascus, Palmyra, and Aleppo, and then went into action in the Habbaniya area of Iraq. Syrian ports and railways were also placed at the disposal of the Germans. The first trainload of aviation fuel, arms and ammunition reached Mosul on 13 May. In all, four trainloads of war material crossed the border before the destruction of the bridge near Tel Kotchek put an end to rail traffic.” This war material had to be railed through Turkish territory, but Vichy alibis were given and accepted by the Turks, and all ignored by the Allies at the time. (p. 442).
By May 15th, Anthony Eden informed the House of Commons about the Axis intrigues in Vichy Levant and “warned the Vichy government of the consequences. That same day the RAF attacked German planes on the ground at Palmyra, Rayak, and Damascus. They also commenced a thorough bombing of the Syrian airfields which continued until the end of the month.” By May 19th, the British Chiefs-of-Staff instructed Wavell to “be prepared to move into Syria at the earliest possible date.” (This paragraph from p. 443).
Meanwhile, as the month of May progressed, Darlan had quite bitten the bait of enhanced collaboration with the Nazi Germans, by then having actually realized some preliminary but perhaps minor German concessions through the earlier Levant negotiations. But to an humbled and prostrate Vichy France these were “the first important concessions which the French had obtained since July 1940.” In a sensational subsequent event that likely only further compromised and isolated Vichy France, Darlan was feted with a showy invitation to meet Hitler at Berchtesgarden on May 11-12. (From p 444).
All this May 1941 fascist Vichy French and Nazi German diplomatic schmoozing and carousing led to further “new negotiations … begun in Paris” on May 21 “to formalize the agreements [concerning the Levant] reached earlier in the month. Following six days of discussions, three agreements were signed [eg., on the 27th]; these were the so-called Paris Protocols. Concerned essentially with military questions in the Middle East, they represent the point at which the Vichy regime came closest to entering the war on the Axis side. The first protocol dealt with Syria and Iraq. It gave the Germans access to the French airfield at Aleppo, to Levantine ports, and to any communications necessary in further aid to the Iraqi rebels; three-quarters of the Vichy military supplies stored in Syria were to be ceded to the Rashid Ali government. The other protocols allowed the Germans to use the Tunisian port of Bizerte, and gave them right of passage through Tunisia in order to supply Rommel’s army; eventually a German submarine base was to be built at Dakar. German concessions were similar to those promised three weeks earlier.” (From pp. 445-446).
But events in Iraq put an end to these cloudy Vichy dreams and contrived diplomatic card castles. “British forces had been moving quickly in Iraq and by 19 May they were only 60 kilometres from Baghdad. On 31 May the Iraqi rebels asked for an armistice. With the trouble in Iraq cleared up and a number of British units freed it was possible once again to contemplate the situation in Syria. Failure in Iraq caused the Germans to be cautious about becoming involved in the Levant. … On 4 June Keitel ordered all German personnel to concentrate at Aleppo airport and to evacuate the country quietly. By the following day virtually all the Germans had gone and only a few largely damaged German transports remained.” (p. 447).
On Jun 8 1941 British and Free French forces attacked Vichy France. “London justified its action in a government communique [published in the Times] which stated that ‘The Vichy government, in pursuance of their policy of collaboration with the Axis powers, have placed air bases in Syria and Lebanon at the disposal of Germany and Italy and have supplied material to the rebel forces in Iraq.’” (p. 448).
So, “to the Axis, [Iraq and the Levant] seemed an inconsequential strategic loss. For the French it meant the end of their empire in the Levant. More importantly, …the fall of Syria effectively brought Franco-German relations to a standstill. Simply put, there no longer existed any tactical motivation for maintaining a conciliatory attitude towards the French. Not that the Germans ever ever really expected to abide by their agreements. Only three days after the signing of the Paris Protocols, the German Foreign Minister resolved not to apply them. The collapse of Rashid Ali in Iraq removed any reason for the Germans to fulfill their part of the agreements; the Vichy defeat in Syria provided the excuse to renege on the accords.” (p. 451).