Fighting Vichy from Horseback

Fighting Vichy from Horseback

British Mounted Cavalry in Action, Syria 1941

Jonathan Washington

In 1941, as World War II raged, Britain sent horsemen into action. They were the flank guard and reconnaissance screen for Operation "Exporter" - the invasion of Vichy French-held Syria and Lebanon. The men and horses of 5th cavalry brigade proved astonishingly effective, even fighting off aircraft.
Date Published :
February 2023
Publisher :
Helion and Company
Language:
English
Series :
Wolverhampton Military Studies
Illustration :
66 b/w photos, 2 maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Paperback
ISBN : 9781915113764
Pages : 176
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : Not Yet Published. Available for Pre-Order
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$45.00

Overview
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This book starts with the story of a division that was never intended to fight; the British I Cavalry Division in World War Two. It was composed almost exclusively of yeomanry horsemen from Britain's Territorial Army - a force that had been ignored by Whitehall's military reforms since 1920. One of their only upgrades in the 20th century had been the upgrade from leather saber grips to rubber. When war came in 1939 the only plans that existed for them were to duly mobilize with horses compulsorily purchased from the civilian population. This combination of territorials and civilian horses of unknown pedigree impressed no-one at first. Even today, outside regimental histories and war diaries, its fighting contribution is barely credited. Yet in May 1941, an incongruous saga of deception, desperation and reinvention, saw British horsemen advancing into Syria on Operation "Exporter", with each patrol's point man nervously clutching his rubber-gripped saber. The leading patrols were soon under fire, and an entire regiment was swimming the Litani river, with some elements taking on aircraft.

Incredibly, by the end of the campaign, these horsemen had proved themselves so effective that the British had completely rewritten their doctrine for mounted cavalry. That the horsemen were able to adapt and overcome in 1941, mounted throughout the campaign as they were, is one of the most remarkable aspects of their saga. The fact that they were ever mobilized as cavalry is probably the second.

Ever since the reorganization of the reserve forces in 1920, the yeomanry had been theoretically destined for mechanization. When war broke out in September 1939 the vehicles and training had still not materialized and these yeomanry were fit for very little; over half the troopers were townsmen who had never ridden before joining in April 1939.  Any doubts the authorities may have had about the division's unsuitability for active service must have been confirmed by the odyssey of train, ferry and alcohol that saw the 7,800 horses and men out to Palestine, losing each other at various stages along the way. One stranded yeomen locked himself and his charger in a railway waiting room with brandy until help came. Yet this was the force that was ear-marked to garrison Palestine.

To Churchill's eyes they were an anachronism. He fumed about their very existence, fulminating that these regiments deserved a "man's part in this war". He personally took to task those responsible for still maintaining horsed soldiers. However his subordinates willfully deceived him and continued to maintain a cavalry arm to protect the northern border of Middle East command.

The story behind these clashing mindsets is as much a part of I Cavalry Division's story as their deeds in Syria. The historiography of cavalry and what they were capable of starts with the Liddell-hart paradigm, then David French and David Kenyon et al. But what drives it is the accounts of the men and their horses of whom so little was expected in 1939.

About The Author
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Jonathan Washington read history at the University of St Andrews. During this time he also served with the Scottish Yeomanry and the Queens Own Yeomanry. He went on to work in publishing in Edinburgh, Beirut and in Warwickshire, and to complete a MSc Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. Now in teaching, he lives in Warwickshire with his wife and three children. This is his first publication.

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