Australian horsemen at home in the Kelly Gang

Name: Pat Reed
Date: 1941
Unit: C Squadron, 6th Division Cavalry
Location: Syria

The Kelly Gang was one of the most unusual Allied fighting units during World War II. Made up from an assortment of 70 or so men mainly from C Squadron, 6th Division Cavalry, they rode on captured horses in the Syrian campaign.

They were fighting against the Vichy French troops which, under the command of General Henri Dentz, had sided with the Axis forces. The Vichy French were well armed and trained, many being from the French Foreign Legion and backed by Senegalese troops.

The British felt it was essential to control Syria for a variety of reasons. If the Germans overran the country, access to the Suez Canal and Cairo would be controlled by them. They would also threaten vital oil supplies for the Allies.

The 6th Division Cavalry had lost many of its tanks in earlier fighting against the Vichy French, who had put up much greater resistance than expected. They had superior air power and bigger and better tanks plus an excellent knowledge of the terrain gained from years of operating in the region.

The Kelly Gang was formed to give much needed mobility over the rough terrain, much of which was unsuitable for tanks, and to provide protection on the flanks. It was the only Australian horsed cavalry unit to operate in action during the war.

The men (including Pat Reed of South Australia who provided the photograph of the Kelly Gang) were all experienced bushmen or former militia cavalry, under the command, initially, of Lt J F P Burt, who had shortly before taken over as CO of C Squadron, and, later, of Lt A B Millard, who had been second in command of C Squadron.

Although the unit was in existence for only a short time, about four weeks in June and July 1941, it carried out a huge amount of invaluable work. It covered the area from Bmeriq to Kafr Hamame, over country so rough that in some cases, patrolling was carried out on foot, while the mounts were left in the care of horse handlers.

Thirty-two horses, which had been used by the French cavalry, had been captured during fighting at Rachaya el Fokhar. On 22 June, Brigadier F H Berryman, who was then in command of the division's artillery, ordered that a troop be formed from the ranks of the cavalry to act as a roving reconnaissance screen in the hills. He wanted protection for his eastern flank and it wasn't hard to find experienced riders from among the Australian ranks.

After an arduous night-long ride to Bmeriq, the troops found the French saddles to be extremely uncomfortable and it became clear that more men and horses would be needed to enable two separate patrols to alternate in the difficult and tiring conditions. More captured horses were collected, new saddles were obtained and more bushmen were recruited for the unit.

The Kelly Gang carried rifles and Bren guns and roamed through the hills with pack horses carrying extra supplies. They gathered information and engaged the enemy, carrying out a number of raids and ambushes on Vichy French troops hidden in the mountain villages. They provided vital information on the location of enemy troops and artillery, kept incursions by enemy patrols to a minimum and at the same time protected the Allies' flanks.

The Gang came under heavy fire on at least three occasions and were surprised to find that the French horses were not the least scared of the shelling directed at them, having been well trained by the French.

Pat Reed was the cook for The Kelly Gang, so was not involved in the raids. However, that didn't mean he was out of danger.

"Once, in the truck which I shared with the fettler, we were the last to leave the camp site," Pat recalled. "The mounted troops had left earlier. One wrong turn took us towards the enemy. Having corrected that mistake we headed downhill.

"On meeting a group of English engineers, we were told the Vichy French had been landing shells behind us all the way down. We hadn't heard a thing.

"When we reached our next camp site, which was in a terraced valley, the enemy decided to shell us again, Pat Reed said. "The shells landed amongst the horses and mules lines but there were no injuries. Again the animals showed no sign of fright.

"After that was over, we had prepared dinner for the boys when a voice was heard from the top of an 80-foot cliff which we were against," he said. "There was an Arab with an unexploded shell in his arms, waiting to drop it down on us. We discouraged him."

The Kelly Gang was relieved on 3 July by members of B Squadron of the North Somerset Yeomanry and moved to the coastal region. Its members eventually returned to their more normal role in armoured vehicles.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australian horsemen at home in the Kelly Gang, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 19 June 2024,
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