Syria and Lebanon June 1941
After the surrender of France in June 1940, the French colonies of Lebanon and Syria passed into the control of the pro-German Vichy French government. The British saw these colonies as a threat to their interests in the Middle East and as possible areas from which the Germans might attack Egypt and threaten oil supplies from Iraq. On 7-8 June 1941, Australians of the 7th Division, along with British and Free French forces, striking north from Palestine, invaded Syria and Lebanon. The operation was supported by RAAF and RAF units and by British and Australian warships off the coast of Lebanon.
On 9 June, the Australians were involved in heavy fighting at the Litani River in southern Lebanon. Further intense action occurred between 11-27 June at Merdjayoun, Lebanon, where Australian and British troops attacked and counter-attacked Vichy forces. On 21 June, the Syrian capital of Damascus fell to a combined Indian, British, Australian and Free French force. Fighting, however, continued in Lebanon as the Allies struggled to take the important coastal centre of Damour. With the fall of Damour on 9 July 1941, the Vichy commander, General Dentz, asked for an armistice which was signed at Acre on 13 July 1941. Altogether about 18,000 Australian troops took part in the Syrian campaign.
'They were my best pals and I will do everything possible to find them'
Vic Houldcroft, a Staff Sergeant in the AIF Press Camp, was down in the coastal sector of the Lebanon when he heard that his friends, former journalists Kenneth von Bibra and Christopher Moody Walker, who had enlisted in the AIF, had been missing for four days. He set off in search of them.
On 24 June 1941 six Australians, including von Bibra and Walker, had been involved in an attack near a Free French machine-gun post known as 1322 in the mountains near Jezzine. Only one man returned from the attack. Vic Houldcroft, determined to find his colleagues, travelled to the Australian lines nearest 1322. At first refused permission for a reconnaissance due to heavy Vichy French machine-gun fire, he was able to join a burial reconnaissance party a day later, on 30 June. The burial party climbed up and down precipitous mountain slopes to 1322 where they found some bodies but not those of the missing men. Houldcroft searched 'every nook and cranny thoroughly to ensure that they had not tried to escape ... through the enemy's lines ... Although the Froggies must have watched me for 1/4 of an hour they did not fire on me.'
Houldcroft refused to believe that his two friends were dead. Instead, the inconclusive battle casualty lists encouraged him to believe that the French had taken the men prisoners. He persisted with his search but his attempts to revisit the site of the action were thwarted by enemy snipers and machine-gun fire. Remaining optimistic, Houldcroft planned to search the area again as soon as he could do so. 'Meanwhile', he wrote,'I urge you all to keep up hope. They were my best pals, and I will do everything possible to find them.' [From an undated report by Staff Sergeant Vic Houldcroft, Press Camp AIF. AWM PR0471 Item 4/4]
Their families also endured the suspense of the search. First notified that they were listed as 'believed wounded' and then as 'missing in action believed killed', their families were finally notified in November 1941 that the men were now listed as having been 'killed in action'. [NAA B883 VX29109 Kenneth Charles von Bibra]