In the pre-dawn chill the sentries shifted in their positions and stared at the rocky hills and mountains beyond their position. The camp stirred to the familiar smell of horse feed and the jingle of a bridle as the men, adorned in their distinctive slouch hats, prepared for their early morning patrol. Before them lay the vast expanse of the Middle East. The desert, rock and sands of Syria.
The Middle East; desert, sand, horses and slouch hats invokes the images of the triumphant Australian Light Horse of World War One. It brings to mind images and memories such as the charge at Beersheba and the ride to Damascus. But this was not 1918, but 1941. Most of the men who mounted these steady beasts had not been born as the Light Horse had conducted the last great mounted campaign in military history. In the intervening years the horse had given way to sounds and throbs of diesel engines, to armoured plate and the crack of high velocity cannon. So what were these Australian horsemen doing in Syria, a generation on from the Light Horse and light years on in technology?
The “Kelly Gang” as this Light Horse troop came to be known was the first mounted Australian unit to see active service in the Second World War. They formed part of the 7th Australian Division AIF (2 Brigades) under the command of Major-General John Lavarack who were responsible for the coastal and central sectors of the British invasion of Vichy French held Syria.
Although vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the opposing Vichy French forces the operations that commenced on 6 June, 1941 were initially successful. By the 14 June the Australians had reached the line of Sidon –Jezzine- Merdajayoun. The French command reacted by assembling their superior armoured forces to counter-attack the advancing Australian units. The coastal thrust was brought to a standstill and Merdajayoun recaptured.
'The Kelly Gang Reborn: The first Australian mounted unit to see active service in the Second World War', has been published as:
Dean, P. J. (2003). The Kelly Gang reborn. Wartime, 24.