1942 Bir Hakeim (in english)
Bir Hakeim An account of the fighting that occurred between 27 May and 11 June, 1942
The author of this diary was with us at Bir Hakeim. He relates true facts. It constitutes a genuine eye-witness account of this major historical battle.
And this is, to us, the great merit of his work.
The author also deserves credit for winning us over thanks to his modesty, his passion for truth and his charming sense of companionship.
“Little by little, invincibly, Fighting French emerge from the ocean that relentlessly tried to cover them, and the world thus recognizes France. When, at Bir Hakeim, a ray of renascent glory came to caress the bloody forehead of her soldiers, the world recognized France.”
“General Koenig, hear this and tell your troops : the whole of France is watching you and you are her pride.”
General de Gaulle
“The First Free French Brigade successfully withdrew from Bir Hakeim during the night of June 10.
In view of the continuous and severe engagements that the brigade had to lead for sixteen days, the losses were light.
It is of common knowledge that the enemy’s plans foresaw the fall of Bir Hakeim on May 27 after the “Ariete” division’s assault. These plans were thwarted thanks to the splendid resistance put up by the garrison which repelled the enemy, inflicting them with heavy losses.
During this first attack, the First Free French Brigade very likely destroyed no less than 70 tanks belonging to the Axis powers. Moreover, this unit inflicted severe losses in men and material on the German and Italian forces. Last but not least, it liberated from enemy hands more than one thousand of our men who had been captured.
For more than two weeks, this force were compelled to fight against the German 90th Light Infantry Division and the Italian “Trieste” Motorised Division, repelling numerous attacks from German and Italian tanks, and made it impossible for the enemy to carry out their plans.
The United Nations should be grateful and admiring to the First Free French Brigade and their valiant General.”
This is how, in a special communiqué, the British High Command of the Middle-East theatre paid tribute to the victorious resistance put up during fifteen days by the First Free French Brigade at Bir Hakeim. With General Koenig in command, this brigade withstood vastly superior enemy forces for two weeks of continuous fighting ; threatened with being annihilated and summoned three times to surrender, the First Brigade defended, to the bitter end, the position it had been assigned and escaped the surrounding enemy at the last minute, fighting its way out through the enemy lines for several hours, and rallying the main body of the Allied Forces with part of its material.
For fifteen days, the whole world followed the course of the Battle of Bir Hakeim and admired the heroic and strong resistance of the French, resistance which largely contributed to halt the advance of the Axis Forces.
The First Brigade arrived in Libya in December 1941 ; for the first time after the campaigns in Gabon, Eritrea, and Syria, the Free French Forces were involved on a theatre of major operations against German and Italian Forces ; these forces were commanded by General Rommel, then chief of the Afrika Korps ; the First Brigade was to confront powerful adversaries and it was the focus of attention ; the British Command would be able to form an opinion about the military value of the Free French Forces ; as to the enemy command, they thought, and Berlin and Rome radios announced it too : we will put an end to this and annihilate those French troops who dare come and fight against us. At Bir Hakeim, from May 27 to June 11, the First French Brigade gave its answer : a victorious one. Entrusted with a mission, the brigade carried it out to the bitter end, without failing, thus writing a magnificent page of military history ; this battle may have revived hope in the hearts of French people who, less fortunate than their compatriots at Bir Hakeim, had to undergo the presence of the invader on the soil of their homeland without being able to fight it in arms.
THE BATTLE OF Bir Hakeim
It lasted fifteen days, from the morning of May 27 to the first light of dawn on June 11. It can be divided into four stages :
From May 27 to May 31 : The enemy attacked Bir Hakeim with an armoured division ;
From May 31 to June 2 : The detachment braced itself to pursue the enemy in retreat and some of its elements initiated this pursuit
From June 2 to June 10 : The enemy, with its two divisions, circled Bir Hakeim and, through repeated and heavy assaults, vainly sought to seize the position.
On the night of 10 to 11 June : The detachment evacuated Bir Hakeim by breaking through the encircling enemy lines, and rallying the main body of the Allied Army.
TUESDAY, MAY 26 :
For a few days, we have been expecting an enemy offensive. At Bir Hakeim, we were ready and waiting for this offensive, and morale was high. Since the detachment had embarked on the campaign, things had been quite calm on the Libyan front. In Halfaya, the surrender of the German garrison deprived the French Forces of the opportunity of fighting. For three months, one at a time, the various units took part in column operations during which several of us certainly had the opportunity to stand out, though engagements remained sporadic ; what we wanted was full scale battle. At Bir Hakeim, our wishes are likely to be satisfied. The base is located in the extreme south of the Allied defence lines which are established at right angles to the coast near Gazala. They are made up roughly of a system of strongholds covered and linked by minefields that stretch up to Bir Hakeim. From Bir Hakeim, a second minefield has been extended on a line heading North-East. The base therefore lies at the tip of a kind of “V” drawn by two lines of minefields.
Bir Hakeim is the pivot around which a movement via the south can be carried out. As long as Bir Hakeim holds out, it will be quite difficult for the enemy to make such a movement and above all to make the most of a success. Besides, in the event of a British counter-attack, Bir Hakeim is regarded as the turntable of any manoeuvre by armoured units. The French have pride of place.
Bir Hakeim has been said to be an oasis, a place planted with palm trees, a site of sources. This is inaccurate. The Libyan desert, from the coast to a few hundred kilometres inland, is a barren plain of soil and stones, barely undulating ; in places, this plain is covered with short shrubs ; in the spring a few wild graminae and some flowers grow there ; in April, everything is already burnt by the sun, and the plants take on the light ochre colour of the soil ; at Bir Hakeim, the soil, slightly sandy, is incapable of feeding even this meagre vegetation. The spot where we are would not even have a name on the map if there did not exist a well providing water which could seem abundant to a tribe of Bedouins for a few weeks. A few days with several thousands of men on the spot were enough for this well to be dried-up for good. In a desert which is one of the most deprived places on earth, Bir Hakeim is particularly inhospitable. In a region swept by wind-blown sand, Bir Hakeim is especially harsh, the soil completely lacking the vegetation that contributes to fix the dust in some ways.
When the breeze is light and the atmosphere in the vicinity is clear, Bir Hakeim disappears in sand whirls.
Since February, the detachment has settled down on the spot, and day after day, constant work improves the defence system. This defence was mainly planned to counter an attack by armoured elements. It consists of a network of minefields whose whereabouts will be defended by artillery fire. These minefields delimit a pentagon of about two miles by two. This plain area is Bir Hakeim.
If you stand in the middle, you can see the flat immensity of the desert stretch around you, with a few undulations delimiting distant crests of about three to four miles on the horizon. In the plain, one can make out the anchor posts upon which the tightened barbed wire marks the edges of the minefields. The minefields are areas of ground covered with mines laid out at less than one metre apart.
These mines are made up of a charge of explosives packed in a metal box the size of a plate ; this box is placed in a hole and covered with soil ; after a few weeks, the soil becomes flat again and there is no way the mine can be detected. The mines are intended to stop trucks, armoured cars or tanks, and explode when a vehicle weighing more than 440 pounds drives over them. They are therefore harmless to a man on foot. Minefields around Bir Hakeim were planted according to a carefully established plan, with salients and depressions designed to funnel enemy vehicles along certain routes.
The wire fences surrounding the minefields offer no protection against an Infantry attack ; their only purpose is to indicate where the minefields are so that the drivers of our own vehicles can avoid them.
As to the inner part of Bir Hakeim, it is an area of almost flat ground on which the different units are divided. For almost four months, the men have been working hard to dig out holes and most vehicles are half sunken into the ground. Next to personal tents, everyone has dug out a narrow and deep trench that will provide excellent shelter against shelling. Some units live completely underground, as they have dug and set saps which have the advantage of being more impervious than the tents when the sand whirls rise in the air, which happens approximately three days a week.
The garrison is composed of four Infantry battalions, of which two are from the French Foreign Legion ; a third white Colonial battalion is formed with units of the Naval Infantry and others from New Caledonia and the Pacific Islands ; the fourth one is a black Colonial battalion of tirailleurs from French Equatorial Africa. An artillery regiment has the use of four batteries of six 75mm guns. Other 75s are divided up between the various units and are used as antitank guns, as well as 47mm guns. A battalion of Naval Fusiliers who ensure the defence against aircraft were provided with Bofors a few days ago to replace their old-fashioned weapons. The marines have been training hard to handle their new guns. The English Officer who gives a class on this is to have them take an exam tomorrow.
In addition to these elements, the detachment comprises engineering units, transmission units, a Medical Group, a light surgical ambulance and various services.
In the afternoon, our light columns who patrol the desert in the west noticed unusual activity in the enemy camps. Around 4 p.m., there were reports of two heavy columns coming from the north-west and apparently heading towards Bir Hakeim. Our own advanced elements fought to retreat and were driven back, under enemy pressure, to the area surrounding the base.
Was this the attack ? At Bir Hakeim, we were waiting for it without exultation, but with calm concentration ; the men of the First French Brigade would be glad if it happened ; we were looking forward to fighting. Everyone knew that the brigade had a place of honour and that the Allied Command trusted us. We would do anything to be worthy of this trust.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 27 :
All night long, we heard engine sounds. From all sides there came reports of enemy columns moving forward. As a precaution, the doors that opened onto the base had been mined. They were rather “chicanes” than doors, narrow and staggered passages created in the minefields. There were three of them : the first one in the East opened onto the track leading to El-Adem and Tobruk, where the rear echelons of the detachment were positioned : train, Supply Corps, supply services. The second one led to a track turning westwards to Mechili and Msous. The third one, in the North-West, led to a crest on which an observation post had been established for artillery firing. Last night, a fourth entrance had been created in the North. It gave access to the area called “V” zone, situated in-between the two big minefields which ended up at Bir Hakeim. This new entrance would ease the exit of our patrols whose assignment was to keep watch over the “V” zone and to prevent the enemy from any mine-clearing operation and its columns from moving forward through the minefields.
A liaison officer from an Indian detachment took refuge at Bir Hakeim. He had been unable to find his unit which had violently been attacked by enemy forces. He confirmed that the enemy had taken the offensive on the whole front. Its columns had crossed the minefields in one spot and were advancing towards El-Adem. At Bir Hakeim, we could feel that the attack was impending. Everybody was at their post. At 8, there were reports about a large cluster of tanks in the South. We could not tell yet if they were friends or enemies, and we had been ordered not to fire. But now the tanks were setting off, dark spots moving forward in the plain, raising a dust plume behind them.
There was no more room for doubt.
It was 9 a.m., and we could clearly make out seventy tanks in battle formation advancing along the minefield on the west side of the camp. The tanks were now firing at the base with all their guns ; once in front of the east entrance, they made a quarter turn to the left and charged straight at the defences.
At that moment, the antitank guns started firing. Eighteen of the heavy armoured vehicles were blown apart by landmines, and having endured more or less damage, were finished off with 75mm shots. The engagement went on in a fury for more than an hour. The attackers were Italian M13 tanks. Several of them were equipped with 75mm guns. One after the other, the tanks stood still, getting hit by shells that pierced their armour and exploded inside. Whirls of smoke rose from the tanks which had been brought to a halt. A thick dust had covered the zone where the engagement was taking place. At some point, thirty tanks moved forward simultaneously ; the first anti-tank shots were fired when they were at a distance of 400 metres, the last ones were fired when some tanks were only a few metres away. The soldiers of the French Foreign Legion went out and captured the enemy soldiers who were abandoning the tanks that had been set ablaze ; some of them were rolling on the floor to extinguish the flames from their clothing.
Six tanks managed to break through the inner defences of the base. One of them was fifty feet away from the fighting post of an officer commanding a Foreign Legion unit. A 47mm shell fired by the tank crossed the officer’s shelter without hitting him. He burnt his pennant for fear it might fall in the enemy’s hands, while his men rushed forward, attacking the tanks in a furious hand-to-hand combat. The soldiers of the French Foreign Legion threw incendiary grenades, and climbed on the tanks, gunning down the occupants through the vision slits. Within a few minutes, the six tanks were put out of action. The Italian Colonel who commanded them was held prisoner. Although he was injured, this officer, who had fought very bravely, had changed tank three times during the combat. He told us that, the day before, our advanced elements, while withdrawing, had destroyed three of his regiment’s tanks. Having lost thirty-two tanks, the enemy fell back at around 11.30. A staff-sergeant of the Legion had destroyed seven tanks on his own with the 75mm gun he commanded. At some point, a shell casing had jammed inside the gun. Without taking into account how dangerous this was, one of the gunners had extracted it by inserting the ramrod into the tube and striking it with a hammer.
The prisoners were questioned. We learnt that the assault had been led by the Italian “Ariete” division. Several of the soldiers who had fallen into our hands were wounded. They were sent to the infirmary where they received treatment.
That afternoon, a convoy of Italian vehicles came up to the “chicane” on the Mechili track. Much to their surprise, the drivers met French guards. According to the offensive plans, Bir Hakeim was supposed to have fallen that morning. A number of the Italian officers who had been captured expressed their admiration to the way the base had been defended ; they could not believe it when they heard that the strength at Bir Hakeim only amounted to one detachment.
THURSDAY, MAY 28 :
In the morning, we realized that Bir Hakeim had been encircled on three sides and that communications with the bulk of the British Forces had been cut off. However, the enemy did not repeat yesterday’s costly attack. It confined to isolated incursions with a few little groups of armoured vehicles, but without managing to surprise the vigilance of the defendants, whose drive and offensive spirit have not in any way been worn out by yesterday’s engagements, much to the contrary. They went into battle, and they made sorties today during which they set fire to all of the tanks that had been put out of action the day before ; moreover, they completed short-duration strikes which allowed to capture several prisoners.
FRIDAY, MAY 29 :
The situation, similar to yesterday’s, persisted all day long. During a sortie, a detachment burnt eight armoured cars. Another detachment of the Foreign Legion attacked a group of seventeen tanks and set fire to five of them. The other twelve fled to the North.
In the afternoon, a troop of men came to the south-west “chicane” . There were about six hundred of them, Indian soldiers whom the Germans had captured two days before. As they could not give them water nor provisions, and their own supplies being difficult, the Germans had liberated and abandoned them in the middle of the desert. The poor men were exhausted after such a long walk. They were welcome with open arms and immediately received rations of water and provisions, as well as blankets. It is worth mentioning that enemy prisoners were treated in the same way as the men of the detachment as far as water and food were concerned. And yet we were actually besieged and our reserves were not quite plentiful. With much courtesy, the general had the captured enemy officers informed that he regretted, under the circumstances, not to be able to ensure them relative comfort.
SATURDAY, MAY 30 :
The enemy had fallen back. Its attack had been stalled by the defence of the First French Brigade. It had abandoned on the field forty-three tanks whose charred shells formed a real graveyard around the east entrance, and some of which lay a few yards from the gun muzzle which had destroyed them, and which had remained in its position ; besides, the enemy had lost eight armoured cars, numerous vehicles, and left 180 prisoners into our hands. The defeat they had suffered in front of Bir Hakeim had contributed to momentarily prevent them from carrying out their plan of attack which aimed at bypassing the British defence line to the South.
On the detachment’s side, the losses were so light that they seemed hardly believable : they amounted to three slightly wounded men.
SUNDAY, MAY 31 :
General Rommel seemed to have intensified the withdrawal movement initiated the day before. His forces had been brought back to the west of the line of minefields between Bir Hakeim and Gazala.
The Allied Command was taking steps to pursue the enemy, and the First Brigade had been ordered to move forward as soon as its rear echelons arrived. The latter had already come back near El-Adem, on their former site, which they had left under enemy fire on the morning of May 27.
Some British troops were supposed to come and relieve the detachment whose mission consisted in taking over Rotunda Segnali, 50 miles away to the west, in the direction of Mechili. A few English officers had come to discover the defensive site. At lunch, in the mess, they related how the French had aroused admiration in defending Bir Hakeim in such an outstanding way.
Tonight, the supply convoy which, two days before, had left the site where the rear echelons were stationed arrived. That day, Bir Hakeim was still encircled and the passage of this convoy could have been a difficult and hazardous operation. Thanks to the enemy’s retreat, the line of trucks that brought ammunition, provisions and water, arrived without mishap. The convoy would set off again at night, with the wounded men and the prisoners.
MONDAY, JUNE 1 :
At dawn, a column headed west. It was moving towards Rotunda Segnali.
Today, we had the visit of General de Larminat who congratulated the garrison for its brilliant resistance to the enemy. The General knew Bir Hakeim well for he had stayed there several weeks while the division was organizing the defence of the site and some elements carried out column operations in the direction of Mechili under General Koenig’s command.
He must have been pleased to see the excellence of the defence system, in which conception he had personally taken part.
During the day, Bir Hakeim was the target of German dive-bombers who were probably seeking to avenge the defeat suffered by the Ariete division and the forty-three tanks the charred shells of which strew the plain to the west of the camp. Stukas in particular paid the detachment a visit, throwing 1000lb bombs which created huge sixteen-to-twenty feet wide craters in the ground. Two of these bombs framed a truck, the body of which and everything that was inside got twisted and ripped up by the explosion. The frame and the engine, which were underground, for the vehicle was parked in a hole, did not suffer any damage. Interestingly, the engine was started by the moving air.
The Naval Fusiliers, instead of taking their final exam, had the opportunity to show that the lessons had been useful. Four of their Bofors accompanied the column and there, at Bir Hakeim, the others, through heavy and well-aimed fire, prevented enemy aircraft from flying low enough to choose their targets with precision.
At 6 p.m., while we were raided by twenty-four Stukas, one of them swooped directly at an anti-aircraft defence gun ; although they were getting directly attacked, the seven Naval Fusiliers who were manning the gun went on firing. The Stuka was only 200 yards away and dropped its bomb ; the gunners should have thrown themselves to the ground, however, standing upright, as Marines who were used to fighting on the deck of their ship where there is no possible shelter, they continued firing at the plane which was climbing back up. The bomb fell six inches away from the gun ; the gunners were blown apart by the explosion, and the tube was twisted. The carriage, which was underground, and the four wheels that carried it, were intact.
Relentlessly the light brigades patrolled around Bir Hakeim ; the desert was quiet, but there was something weird about this quietness. The desert did not have its usual aspect. Was it because of the abandoned material ? Of the German and Italian vehicles that were hardly damaged and had been left there ? or was it the network drawn on the ground by the fresh caterpillar tracks of the tanks ? The silence and quietness of the desert seemed, on June 1st, full of threat, and deceptive. One could vaguely feel close presences ; the marks of the engagement had not yet gone down in the past ; the atmosphere was that of an interlude.
In the evening, the column arrived in Rotunda Segnali where there was only one light enemy brigade. Once attacked, the brigade beat the retreat. During the engagement, an enemy tank was destroyed. A few weeks before, the plateau of Segnali was occupied by considerable forces, and defended by batteries of heavy artillery ; on June 1st, it was practically abandoned ; mobility and frequent movements were one of the characteristics of war in the desert. The column crossed the minefields surrounding the Segnali position without losing any of its vehicles.
During the night, the order that had been given to the brigade to move forward was cancelled by a counter order : remain at Bir Hakeim and resist from that position.
TUESDAY, JUNE 2 :
At around 9.30 A.M., a very heavy enemy column of more than a thousand vehicles with tanks and armoured cars was reported coming from the North-East.
For the second time, General Rommel had taken the offensive. The order had just been given to close the doors as soon as the first German armoured cars loomed over the crest to the west of the camp. Nearby, a British convoy had come to a halt since morning ; some of the English trucks rushed towards the east entrance ; six of them could go through on time and find refuge in the camp ; the rest of the convoy was captured by the enemy armoured cars whose projectiles were already falling over the base, rising a little yellowish-grey cloud where they landed. At Bir Hakeim everybody was in their fighting position ; would the enemy launch a tank attack again ? With the fresh memories of their success the week before, the detachment men were perfectly confident in the outcome of a new engagement. Actually, no tank loomed, but a car with a white flag instead. Two Italian officers got out of it and asked to be received by the commander of the defensive site. They were taken to the Headquarters. General Koenig got out of his tent, holding a rush stick in his hand. Perfectly stiffened to attention, one of the officers talked in Italian, a language unknown to the general, who understood only a few words : “Rommel… circumdati… exterminate… capitulare”. This was enough to understand what this was about. On behalf of General Rommel and of an Italian general, whose name General Koenig could not make out, the mediators summoned Bir Hakeim garrison, which was encircled, to capitulate. In the event of resistance, the garrison would be annihilated. General Koenig answered, in a courteous but firm tone, that there was no way the detachment would surrender without fighting.
“You are great soldiers”, answered, still in Italian, one of the two mediators, who were taken back to the camp door where they got back in their car.
One hour later, the first 105 shells were falling on Bir Hakeim, and the heavy sound of their explosion mingled with the sharp snap of the 75s firing on the cluster of vehicles that settled to the west in the direction of Bir Scerrara and El-Igela, most of them with sufficient distance to remain out of reach of French guns. From a few points on the crest, columns of black smoke rose into the sky, attesting to the precision of the artillery fire which relentlessly attacked all enemy vehicles that ventured too close.
At around 1 p.m., a rather strong southern wind started to blow and Bir Hakeim disappeared under sand clouds. It was becoming impossible to adjust artillery fire due to the low visibility, and we all spent the day tensely waiting, until 7 p.m. when we could hear the sound of aircraft engines. There were thirty of them wheeling in the sky, unable to spot their lost target through the spiralling dust. They eventually found it after looking for twenty minutes and the din of heavy bombing started. Probably incited by this, the enemy artillery woke up and bombed until nightfall.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3 :
The dawn was only just breaking when, eluding the surveillance of enemy posts, the column which had been sent to Segnali came back to Bir Hakeim without being hit by a single shot. The day before had not been that easy. We were told that, in a dreadful weather, with the sandstorm reducing visibility to less than a few yards, the Colonel commanding the column had received a telegram enjoining him to get back to the base. It took the column several hours to return across the minefields, and at dusk it was still thirty miles away from Bir Hakeim when the wind dropped, which allowed the enemy aircraft to spot it and violently attack it. Twelve Messerchmidt 110s swooped to attack our vehicles with machine-guns, but a piece of anti-aircraft defence, manned by Naval Fusiliers who were using their Bofors against enemy aircraft for the first time, shot down one of their planes. The eleven aircraft came back, this time hedge-hopping, and concentrating their fire on our guns. A second plane was hit immediately. It banked and fell. Its wing touched a nearby aircraft, which fell in turn ; and one of them exploded mid-air.
The planes were flying so low that an engine skimmed the gunners’ heads ; they were sprayed with hot oil. A few yards away, the plane wing that crashed into the ground cut a truck into two pieces. For the third time, the Messerschmidts renewed their attack : a fourth plane was hit and fell in flames. The enemy had learnt its lesson ; it backed away, but its attack had cost the column dearly, with dead and wounded men, and several vehicles on fire.
Around 7 a.m., the Colonel who was in command of the column came to report on his mission to HQ. He passed by in his sidecar, on which the badge of the battalion under his orders had been painted : a coconut tree and mountains that conjured up the Pacific Islands, which he and his men had left a year ago. The soldiers who saw him greeted him and expressed their joy. They knew that along with the column there were twelve 75 mm guns and that these guns had come back and would be an invaluable help in the forthcoming battle.
At 8 a.m., two British soldiers presented themselves at the west entrance. Captured the day before, they had been sent back to Bir Hakeim by the Germans so as to bring a message from General Rommel. To make sure that it would be transmitted, Rommel had made two copies given respectively to each of the two soldiers.
The message was written on telegram paper. It was in German and had been signed by Rommel himself. Here is the text :
An die Truppen von Bir Acheim (sic)
Weiterer Widerstand bedeutet nutzloses blutvergiesen. Ihr werdet dasselbe Shicksal erleiden, wie die beiden englischen Brigaden in Got Ualeb, die vorgestern vernichtet wurden.
Wir stellen den Kampf ein wenn ihr weisse Flaggen zeigt und ohne Waffen zu uns darüber kommt.
Rommel, General Oberst
To the troops at Bir Hakeim
Any further resistance will only serve to spill more blood to no avail. You will suffer the same fate as the two British detachments that were annihilated at Got el Ualeb two days ago.
We shall cease fire when you raise the white flag and come forward unarmed.
General Koenig’s response was quick to follow. The French guns immediately opened heavy fire on all enemy vehicles coming at close range.
At the same time, the General gave a general order to all Unit Commanders, the content of which they had to communicate to their men.
Here is the text :
- We must now expect serious attack from all quarters (aircraft, tanks, artillery, infantry). It will be powerful.
- I repeat my orders and my certainty that all of you will carry out your duty without faltering, as is required of you, even if you are cut off.
- Our task is to hold the ground, whatever the cost, until our victory is complete.
- This order must be clearly conveyed to all ranks, and men.
- And good luck to you all.
Headquarters, June 3, 1942, 9.30 a.m.
This time, everybody understood that the situation was serious. The time had come for us to do our duty without faltering ; all were determined to accomplish their task with all their heart and all their might. This long-awaited opportunity to face the German enemy had arrived ; the men had come from far and wide to live this moment. The occasion had long been waited for to be able to confront the real enemy, the German enemy that these men had come to meet from far and wide, crossing continents and encountering danger and adventure. No snobbery, no nervousness ; instead, calm resolve and a quiet courage. Commanded by a chief in whom they had absolute trust, fighting in a defensive site that had been precisely and judiciously prepared, with, as far as possible, nothing left to chance – (the weak points : lack of heavy long-range artillery, no barbwire fencing against an infantry attack, for due to lack of material, the command could not solve this) – the Free French Forces 1st Brigade knew the time had come for them to show their worth. Everybody was determined to fight to the end rather than retreating or surrendering.
There were artillery exchanges all day long. The number of enemy guns increased, and so did the range of their calibres. There were 75s, 88s, 100s and 105s. The aircraft made sure to pay Bir Hakeim a visit. There were five strikes by Stukas during the day. One could recognize them from afar by the drone of their engines which was deeper than that of the British aircraft and made a familiar intermittent rattling noise.
A few minutes later, we could see them flying in a V, their greenish-white wings almost touching. They were making a turn so as to position themselves with their backs to the sun. Then it was the snapping noise of the anti-aircraft guns whose tracer shells left pink trails in the sky, and all of a sudden the enemy aircraft swooped with an ever louder engine roar. Two hundred yards away, we could see the bombs falling out like pearls shining in the sun. Their trajectory could be more or less located and, according to the place, we would fall flat in the trenches, or we would see, a few seconds later, high columns of dust and smoke rise from the ground. We were deafened by the din of the explosions which played the bass lines in the chorus of guns and machine guns still firing at the Stukas now gaining altitude again and flying away as fast as possible.
Many times too we could hear the more high-pitched engine noise of the British fighters. There was continual toing and froing between them and the Stukas. But today, around 5 p.m., ten minutes after an allied aircraft visit, the Stukas came to bomb us as the British were returning over Bir Hakeim. Dive-bombers were defenceless against fighter planes. We saw the twelve Stukas swooping and trying to escape by flying low and side-slipping. Seven columns of black smoke which rose five minutes later over the western crests proved that the Kittyhawks had done a good job and that more than half of the German pilots would never again see the airfield from which they had taken off for the last time. A few of the English fighters came back, flying low over Bir Hakeim ; waving their helmets with outstretched arms, the French soldiers showed their satisfaction and greeted the Allied pilots.
THURSDAY, JUNE 4 :
After the display of the Kittyhawks, our anti-aircraft defence proved to the enemy pilots that raids at Bir Hakeim were not an easy option. From 6 to 8 a.m., four waves of Stukas successively came to bombard the base. On their fourth visit, while the Stukas were swooping in, one of them got hit by a shell and exploded in mid-flight. We could see a huge flame extended by two long pink streaks, which were the signal rockets, and the debris of the smashed plane swirled and fluttered down as soot-sparks. Only recognizable pieces, the rear wing flaps, which were burning and throwing out greenish flames, fell to the ground first.
Very high in the sky, a parachute which had been forced to open by the explosion was floating down slowly with the pilot’s seat. The bodies of the pilot and his companion had crashed into the midst of their plane’s smouldering chunks. Both of them were buried by a group of their prisoner compatriots. One of them fainted during the ceremony.
At 9 a.m., new visit : twelve more Stukas ; our anti-aircraft defence shot one down, which crashed beyond the camp. In the afternoon, Italian planes came. One was hit and caught fire. The pilot desperately tried to pull his aircraft straight up but it was ablaze and plunged vertically, trying a useless chandelle, and crashed to the ground.
There were artillery exchanges all day long, as the day before. General Koenig, quite calm, told one of his officers : “If General Rommel hopes he can drive us into capitulating by such means, he will have to wait a long time”.
The British General, in command of the 30th Corps, sent the following telegram to the detachment :
“Excellent job, hold out, congratulations, everything is going to be fine”.
In the first days we felt concerned, partly because of the threat of enemy strike, but above all because of the unpleasant feeling of being encircled, but now we were in very high spirits again. Aircraft and artillery bombing caused relatively minor losses ; an English detachment was forming several light columns somewhere in the South-West of Bir Hakeim. The general feeling was clearly optimistic.
Nevertheless, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the enemy command was hurriedly preparing for attack with all means available. And General Rommel was already there. We knew this, first because the ultimatum was signed by him, and then because one of the Englishmen who had brought this ultimatum had seen a captured British officer about to appear before him. It was likely that Rommel would personally command the attack on Bir Hakeim.
North of the base, our patrols found it harder and harder to cover the V zone in-between the minefields. One of these patrols, which had managed to reach a spot that the Germans had cleared of mines to set a passage, had noticed a great deal of activity. The officer in command of the patrol reported to the General that he had seen two 155 mm towed guns moving eastward. We would probably hear their voice tomorrow, and maybe that of a few others as well. At the same time, the enemy infantry, backed up sometimes by tanks, sometimes by towed guns, conducted a reconnaissance mission to estimate the defence of the base and to find out its most vulnerable spot.
FRIDAY, JUNE 5 :
Several events to report tonight. First, a British convoy succeeded in breaking through enemy lines. Some trucks have brought much needed ammunition, for the reserves wear out rapidly at the rate work is done by our guns, which must continuously deliver interdiction and harassment fire all around the base.
Then, around 3 a.m., the sky, to the North, was set ablaze with flaming lights and the ground started to shake so much that some believed there was a massive attack of tanks on our base. A great battle of armoured units was taking place and lasted until dawn.
Eventually, at 4 a.m., General Rommel attempted intimidation again. As one officer amusingly pointed out, the rating of the detachment had clearly improved.
After relying simply on mediators to “issue” a warning, the enemy had then progressed to sending “envoys” with a missive signed personally by General Rommel. They now sent a “plenipotentiary” whose job it was to negotiate the surrender of our base. This plenipotentiary was a German officer who presented himself at the east entrance. A soldier of the French Foreign Legion who was in fact a German was on guard duty there. He first asked the plenipotentiary, quite roughly and in German, what he wanted. “Is there somebody who speaks English here ?” asked the plenipotentiary very politely and in English. “I do”, replied the officer who was in command of the post, “and the General gave the order not to receive any enemy envoy. Now please go away.” Quite nervously, the German officer took a piece of paper out of his pocket and rapidly read the contents substance of the message aloud, in English. Maybe General Rommel was afraid that the commander of this Bir Hakeim garrison, who had been displaying such incomprehensible stubbornness, might not have understood the first warnings, the first one spoken in Italian, and the next one a written warning in German. After reading his message, the officer jumped back in his car, did a very awkward U-turn, and drove over a mine which blew up. Through the dispersing smoke from the explosion, we could see the officer getting out of the strongly damaged car ; he appeared to be unhurt and he then started walking back to the enemy without any further ado : “You’ve got three miles to walk, shouted the guard in German ; that will teach you to come and wake up people at this hour”.
At 7 a.m., the artillery bombing started again and today, the small calibre guns were joined by the 155 mm guns. Some officers from a battalion of the French Foreign Legion were leaving the mess after breakfast when they heard a roar and the shrieks of the schrapnell : “Another delayed-action bomb”, said one of them. A few minutes later, the same scene, but this time the roar had been preceded by a noise similar to that of a train rolling in the distance. Delay bombs were 220 mm shells. Bir Hakeim artillery, which consisted only of 75s, was unable to retaliate. But they were not inactive though, quite to the contrary. Their guns poured volley after volley. We could hear where the shots came from and a little while later where the shots rang out on the surrounding crests. All enemy vehicles which attempted to come close were instantly getting sniped at. Our guns were completely wiping out the enemy positions within a three-mile radius beyond the minefields. From quite some distance we could make out a great deal of activity and clusters of enemy vehicles, whose number was constantly increasing. Quite methodically the enemy gunners, who had excellent observation posts, had spotted our guns and gauged the distance and line of fire. Our guns were continuously being sniped at.
In this uneven exchange the French gunners fought with remarkable composure, regardless of the danger. Standing behind the guns, the commanding officers of the batteries, quite unflustered, shouted their orders through a megaphone to the gunners who tirelessly fired away in spite of the incessant explosions of large-calibre enemy shells around them. Often the Germans used delay bombs which exploded in a cloud of blackish smoke over the batteries which were sprayed with schrapnell. Yet the French 75s kept on firing, again and again.
The enemy had conducted several reconnaissance missions to the West and to the South. Backed up by a few tanks, its infantry had taken up position about a mile away from the minefield boundary, in front of the “fort”.
This “fort” was pompously marked “Ridotto” on Italian maps. In actual facts it was nothing more than a ruined shed, a building with a few rooms which, before the war, had probably been used to house an Askaris detachment very probably commanded by a European military officer whose task it was to patrol this part of the desert.
A bit of crenelation on the observation tower and a few barbed wire fences may have been useful to thwart hostile intentions from a few nomads ; in modern war operations, these defences are useless.
No enemy aircraft today
with the exception of one observation plane flying extremely high and probably working with the enemy artillery to gauge the distance and line of fire.
SATURDAY, JUNE 6 :
Today the enemy launched its first attack. It started at 11.30 a.m. with intense artillery preparation. After abundantly shelling the whole base with all calibres, the enemy guns concentrated their fire on the southern sector, and around 1 p.m., the infantry launched an attack in the direction of the fort. We could now hear the rattle of automatic weapons mingled with the whistle of the shells which continuously rained down from all sides. For the 105s and the 88s, it was impossible to make out the initial shot from the impact shot, however, for large calibres, we could clearly hear the muffled roar of the gun, then the long whistling sound and the explosion of the shell a few seconds later. The rumble of the battle continued ceaselessly ; the infantry detachment vainly attempted to push South in the plain but were hindered by the 75s and the mortars which must have inflicted heavy losses on the troops advancing over flat and open ground.
Exceptionally, the sky was grey and it was cold ; this was really lucky for the Germans.
At 5 p.m., the rumbling of the artillery suddenly ceased and a heavy silence spread over Bir Hakeim ; an impressive silence which seemed unreal. Ten minutes later, the din resumed as suddenly as it had stopped, and the sound of the battle raged violently again. The Germans had produced some white flags which gave them a ten-minute truce, and their ambulance drivers came to pick up the wounded men in the plain. Around 8 p.m., the Germans made another unsuccessful attack to gain a foothold on our base. But on all fronts they had been pushed back.
At the end of the afternoon, the presence of enemy columns was reported on the south-west crests. They were tightening their grip.
After such a day, the peace of the night felt wonderful. The artillery fell silent and only a few bursts of automatic weapons were to be heard from time to time. All around Bir Hakeim, a firework display of green, white, and red rockets continuously rose in the moonless but star-packed sky. Yet, although the night seemed quiet, in the dark the fighting was continuing, more silent, but also more fierce. Some patrols had to constantly watch the surroundings outside the minefields because the enemy detachments were attempting to get closer to clear a passage through the minefield to facilitate an assault. It was at night as well that water, provisions, and ammunition were distributed to the various units and shared out among the men. Thus, after a day of fighting, the night did not bring the furiously needed rest, and while the enemy could at any time line up fresh troops, Bir Hakeim defenders could never get rid of their fatigue.
SUNDAY, JUNE 7 :
While we could have expected a new attack, since it was Sunday, it was relatively quiet apart from the return of Stukas after two days of absence and the odd artillery shot. Increasingly numerous enemy clusters were setting up on the south-west crests. In the afternoon, twenty armoured cars, and then twenty tanks, pushed a sort of merry-go-round in the West, suddenly charging towards the camp, pulling up a mile away, and driving back, then rushing past the western face and firing with all their guns at the position. It was clearly a trick ; the Germans hoped that our anti-tank guns would open fire at the armoured cars, thus revealing the defence system. The enemy could have spared itself the trouble ; its demonstrations and its fire did not bring about any reaction from Bir Hakeim guns.
During the day, the patrols which were still operating in the “V” zone, in the North, had to come back to the fort. The siege was now complete. The Afrika Korps 90th infantry division and the Italian “Trieste” division encircled Bir Hakeim from all sides. Guns were positioned at the four points of the compass.
On the map of the Third Department of the General Staff Headquarters where enemy positions were marked in red and Allied positions in blue, Bir Hakeim, in blue, looked like the very little centre of a big red halo which surrounded it in widening circles ; outside the second red circle, a third blue semi-circle indicated that, from south to north, and eastwards, the Eighth Army contained the enemy thrust which seemed to concentrate its efforts on crushing the blue nucleus in its centre ; the efforts of the Allied Command to break through the red halo had failed ; with each passing day at Bir Hakeim, we could feel the noose tightening. This feeling of encirclement was unpleasant, however, in spite of the fatigue due to the engagements which had lasted twelve days, everybody’s energy and will to resist remained intact. It could not be long before the final assault ; the enemy had made preparations, positioned its batteries, and during the course of its previous attacks it had sited the easiest access sector : the north-west face.
Five German soldiers who were driving ambulances were captured this afternoon. They have been questioned by a General Staff Officer. Their morale is not very high. They are very young boys. They arrived in Libya in May and are suffering from the climate. One of them started crying. The other one said, obviously relieved : “For us, the war is over”. Their attitude was different from that of former prisoners, that of officers in particular, who displayed great arrogance, and claimed not to doubt Germany’s final victory. Generally, all were surprised to find French men and above all, to be treated in a perfectly correct way.
MONDAY, JUNE 8
A convoy arrived this morning at 4 a.m. The trucks were driven by French drivers from a train unit ; all had volunteered for this mission. The convoy had brought ammunition ; there were also two water tank trucks which made it possible to provide the detachment with water until June 11 on the basis of two litres a man a day. This is not a lot when you have to fight all day long in the hot summer sun in the desert. Water rationing is particularly hard for black gunners who are used to drinking a lot. Everybody had to give the mess one of the two litres they had been supplied with. There is one litre left, – four tin mugs of water, – to quench their thirst over twelve long hours. The shortage of water is starting to be felt by the Medical Corps which uses a lot of water to wash wounds. Soon it will become impossible to re-bandage as often as necessary.
Not only water is becoming scarce ; we will also have to save on ammunition ; we were expecting seventy trucks ; only thirty managed to break through after many hardships and being fired at by enemy posts. Tonight’s convoy will probably be the last.
A rather thick haze covers Bir Hakeim. What a reassuring sight to see all these large ghostly vehicles driving by in the fog.
7.30 a.m – The haze lifted and the attack had begun. Massive bombing by sixty Junkers 88s gave the signal while artillery fire was raging, and would not stop until the evening. The whole camp was being methodically subjected to intensive preparation. At 10 a.m, the infantry, backed up by tanks, attacks in the North-West. This assault was contained, and two tanks were destroyed. Squads of R.A.F. fighters repeatedly bombed and fired the enemy forces, triggering off violent anti-aircraft gunning. The bombs which burst into enemy lines sound sweet to the men’s ears while they endured a volley of shots due to the artillery insufficient range of fire. At 1 p.m., another bombardment by sixty Junkers 88s ; the bombardment showed that the attack had resumed ; some tanks managed to drive to the edge of the minefield ; two of them, which had been hit, were set ablaze, the others withdrew. Simultaneously, an attack against the fort was launched to the South ; it was contained. At 6 p.m., the sixty Junkers 88s came back for the third time ; the enemy launched one last extremely violent attack, but once again to no avail. The results of the day : our artillery lookout post in the North-West has been taken over by the attackers. Its defenders fought until the end and were killed on the spot. A tank was destroyed during the battle. The last twelve hours have been costly in ammunition and several of our trucks have been damaged, however the artillery covered itself with glory. After thirteen hours of uninterrupted enemy attack, a colonial infantry officer commanding the units positioned on the north-west face (comprising notably black gunners from French Equatorial Africa), arrived at the General’s Command Post, and, with his face covered in grey dust and his bright blue eyes shining strangely, declared as he entered : “I shall never again speak ill of any gunner”.
It has been a very hard day. Bir Hakeim’s ground is pitted with shell holes and bomb craters of all sizes surrounded by blackish marks left by the powder smoke ; chunks of shredded scrap metal are scattered all over. Several vehicles have had their sheet metal body shell or their bonnets pierced by shrapnel ; here and there twisted, fire-blackened shells of burnt-out trucks are still smouldering.
TUESDAY, JUNE 9 :
The artillery fire started again in the morning and the usual sixty-aircraft bombing occurred at 8.30 a.m. At 12.30, artillery preparation resumed ; the 75 mm batteries were more specifically targeted by large-calibre guns. At 1 p.m., a bomb attack by sixty Junkers 88s was the signal for a general attack on all fronts. Several tanks were backing up the infantry which was unable to advance ; except northward where, due to the loss of the lookout post, our artillery could not intervene effectively. The enemy was progressing, reinforced by ten tanks, and reached the minefield.
At times, the engagement became hand-to-hand combat. A Legion detachment had to intervene with Bren gun carriers ; an armoured car and a truck-mounted 77mm gun were destroyed and set ablaze. One more day during which the defenders of Bir Hakeim had held out without faltering.
At sunset, the sixty Junkers 88s came back and their bombs fell on a light surgical ambulance and on the Medical Corps even though they had moved aside to an area clearly marked by Red Cross flags. A bomb fell on the truck positioned in the operating theatre, destroying it. Another one onto a tent where twenty severely wounded men were lying. All of them were killed, their bodies torn to shreds, so much so that it was impossible to identify them.
In the afternoon, Koenig had the following message brought to the units :
“We have been performing our duty for 14 nights and 14 days. I demand that neither the officers nor the troop succumb to fatigue. With each day that passes, it will become harder and harder : this should not deter the Free French First Brigade.
Each and everyone of you, muster up your strength ! The most important thing is to destroy the enemy whenever he comes within firing range.”
Brigadier General Koenig
Commanding the First Free French Brigade
In the middle of battle, a quiet atmosphere reigned in the General’s Command Post. One phone call followed another at minute intervals, providing information about the progress of the battle. In a steady voice, full of energy and outward serenity, even in the most critical moments, Koenig gave his orders. Command was made difficult by the constant damage which rendered transmission services inoperative. Shells, bombs had cut the telephone wires that ran above ground ; relentlessly, under heavy bombing, the men of the Corps of Signals went and restored the lines. Meanwhile, motorcyclists ensured the connections, delivering the letters through the camp in the midst of exploding shells.
Despite everybody’s courage, at the end of the day, the forces of resistance were wearing thin. For a few days we had not been eating regularly. Whenever they could, the men opened a can of corned-beef which they ate with biscuits. The faces, gaunt and drawn, were marked by growing fatigue. Water reserves would be exhausted in forty-eight hours. The light surgical ambulance had been destroyed and the wounded could no longer be operated on.
At 5 p.m., the Allied Command had General Koenig asked under which conditions it would be possible to evacuate the garrison of Bir Hakeim as it had been supposed that it would hold out for ten days at most, and was actually holding out for fourteen days, and anyway its resistance was no longer essential for the general development of the battle plan. Evacuation that very night would have been desirable. For some technical reasons, it was to be postponed until the next day. General Koenig, forced to hold out for 24 hours more, requested maximum backup from the Royal Air Force and the British detachments stationed in the South-West.
SATURDAY, JUNE 10 :
The General decided, this morning, on the orders of the British Command, to evacuate Bir Hakeim tonight. The Germans launched violent attacks before noon. One of these particularly dangerous attacks was stalled by the action of the Royal Air Force gunners who, flying low, strafed the attackers. Bir Hakeim’s resistance must have exasperated the enemy. At 1 p.m., a hundred Stukas came and dropped 50 tons of bombs in one go on the northern sector of the fort. Huge columns of smoke and dust blackened the sky while the infantry was charging relentlessly in the North. Two tanks managed to break into the base. One of them was destroyed, the other one retreated. The enemy guns in the East had to finally cease fire on Bir Hakeim so as to counter the guns of the English detachment which was assailing them. However, from the North, the East and the South, the enemy artillery fire was as violent as before. All available weapons, all calibres were used, even indirect fire machine-guns and small-calibre anti-tank guns whose shells, designed to explode when they hit armour plate, ricocheted off the ground without exploding.
At 5 p.m., the order to evacuate the fort was issued. General Koenig ordered the garrison to break through the encirclement and force their way through enemy lines, with arms at the ready. Everybody was happy to hear such news. For eight days a great strain had been put upon our nerves. The impact of aerial bombing and the battle fatigue started to be felt and the stifling sensation of encirclement had become unbearable. We knew the sortie would be a risky and tricky operation, but this risk, we were all joyfully ready to take rather than falling into enemy hands or succumbing to a massive attack which would find the garrison deprived of the water and the ammunition that were essential to maintain the defence of the fort.
ON THE NIGHT OF 10 TO 11 JUNE :
Being encircled from all sides by the enemy whose lines are now positioned in some places no less than 300 metres from the outside edge of the minefields, the garrison of Bir Hakeim cannot leave the defensive site without engaging. It will have to force its way through enemy lines and across its own minefields through which a passage must be established. General Koenig ordered to clear a 200-metre wide passage near the Southern entrance.
Infantry will have to move ahead and make a breach in the enemy lines through which the vehicles will drive and then have to march on five fronts. The sortie will take place at 11 p.m. In silence, for alarm must not be raised, the detachment prepares to depart. At 6 p.m., one hundred and twenty Stukas carried out one last bombing raid and the infantry resumed its attacks until nightfall. Twilight gives way to night at Bir Hakeim. In several places, fires are glowing – burning vehicles. The horrendous dialogue between our artillery and that of the enemy carries on every now and then. More than two thirds of the damaged 75mm guns no longer work and the ammunition is almost completely finished. However, from time to time, the cracking sound of French guns could still be heard. A battery, of which three trucks out of four had been annihilated, kept firing with the last functioning gun in three directions successively. During this siege the 75mm had really earned its title “rageur”. At the end of fire, at around 10 p.m., there were only twenty-two shells left in reserve. Bir Hakeim nevertheless resisted to the bitter end, managing to fire 3000 shots a day on average.
As night fell, everyone was bustling about. The orders were clear : nothing must fall into the enemy hands ; anything that could not be brought along had to be destroyed. The trucks, the damaged cars were to be smashed, or disabled with sledgehammers. The jerry cans pierced with pick axes, because setting them alight would have raised enemy attention. Tents and their contents were shredded. Cooking equipment and the crockery in the mess smashed into pieces. Our glorious dead were buried and a cross raised on their grave. At around 10, with the engines ticking over, the vehicles lined up and went into position near the southern entrance through which the sortie was supposed to take place.
Nobody talks, nobody smokes. In the north-west sector, where the German outposts are positioned right next to our own trenches, two companies remain in place, so that the Germans believe that resistance is continuing.
Beside the lined up vehicles, the infantry now comes past on foot, about to force their way through enemy lines. At midnight, the first vehicles entered the cleared passage in the minefield. Out of time, the sappers had not been able to widen it as planned, and the vehicles could only advance in single line. The enemy lookout posts could now hear the engines. A green rocket rose, then a white flare, and a red rocket.
Bright spots lit up the sky. It was a burst of tracer bullets from machine-guns. On the vaguely whitish ground of the minefield, one could make out the line of vehicles which, in the pallid light of the rockets, looked like a line of ants on the sand. On that line converged beams of bright spots which resembled multi-coloured will-o’-the-wisps. Automatic weapons, Bredas, rapid-firing guns shot at the column. The initial silence had given way to the crackling guns, the bursting shells, the exploding mines which blew up the vehicles whose drivers got lost or tried to find a faster way by overtaking the column.
A few trucks had been set ablaze and the glowing flames lit up the line of vehicles in places. The infantry units had waded through the enemy posts. It was a strange melee with our soldiers fighting next to enemy soldiers here and there. We could recognize each other thanks to the headgear we wore : helmets for the French, peaked caps for the Germans. An officer charged at three Bredas successively with his Bren gun carrier.
He crushed two of them under the caterpillar wheels of the Bren, finishing off the gunners with grenades. While he charged at the third one, he got killed by a shell which smacked right into the side of the Bren gun carrier. At around 3 a.m., the lines occupied by the enemy formed a triple barrage of automatic weapons ; the column was progressing but slowly. It was obvious that it would be impossible for the sortie to take place as planned. Koenig ordered the Bren carrier guns to charge forward and the vehicles to dash after them. He himself charged first, showing the way forward. Behind the wheel of his car, there was an English female driver, the only woman to have lived through the siege and the sortie from Bir Hakeim. A certain number of vehicles passed by. The rest of the column followed more slowly. The trucks drove in a line. Every now and then, we had to come to a halt and enemy machine guns kept firing, and on the ground their tracing bullets drew a luminous network which, together with the rockets and the glowing blazes, was an incredible sight. Around the trucks men passed by on foot and threw themselves flat on the ground when a burst of bullets whistled by. As for the car drivers, who could not leave the wheel, they remained stoically at their post. In the night, we could hear the calls for help from the wounded men whom the trucks had to pick up, all of this in deep darkness. Little by little the column moved forward under heavy fire, heading to the exit of the minefield. There, the road was finally clear, and it was possible to rush through the last enemy barrage. A few miles further was the place of rendez-vous with a detachment of the English brigade which was positioned to the south-west of Bir Hakeim.
It was marked by three red lights.
Around 3 a.m., the two companies which controlled the fort in the North-West retreated, but the Germans still did not realize that there was no one left in front of them and that the fort had been evacuated. Only on the morning of June 11 would they enter Bir Hakeim after a massive air raid ; this quite in vain, for their bombs were falling on abandoned holes and half-charred carcasses of vehicles.
Day breaks. Quite a thick fog covers the ground. Many of us, having broken through enemy lines but unable to find the assembly point, for fear of being captured by German patrols, preferred to proceed south, then east, across areas where there is no enemy force. At 5, evacuation is complete.
SUNDAY, JUNE 11 :
Thirty miles south-east of Bir Hakeim, the elements of the brigade regroup. The air is so pure, the sky so blue, the desert so quiet and full of silence, that we wonder if we have really lived through these last days or if they were but a nightmare.
General Koenig has rescued from the encirclement by the German and Italian forces two thirds of the brigade’s strength, who bring back their wounded and part of their material ; all this thanks to a bold operation that was a success partly because the enemy was completely caught by surprise. But also, we will never pay enough tribute to the courage of those, many of whom sacrificing their lives, who relentlessly attacked the enemy posts firing at the column. They are the heroes of the fierce fighting that occurred on that dreadful night of 10 to 11 June. It can be said : General Koenig’s brigade, with arms at the ready, forced their way through deep and dense enemy lines. This concentration of enemy forces, which was carried out on the afternoon of Thursday, June 10, seems to indicate that the final assault by the Germans on Bir Hakeim was supposed to be launched on the morning of June 11. In that case, the garrison would probably not have been able to contain such an assault, because it was completely out of ammunition and water. The sortie was carried out at the very last minute, when it was still feasible. It was the crowning achievement of the valiant resistance put up at Bir Hakeim by the First Free French Brigade to an enemy superior in numbers and weaponry, for fifteen days and fifteen nights.
THE END RESULT
The High Command had planned that the defensive site of Bir Hakeim would hold out for ten days at the very most. Resistance actually lasted fifteen days. The garrison amounted to 3600 men. It was attacked by an armoured division, then by two motorized divisions, the German 90th division and the Italian “Trieste” motorized division. There was at Bir Hakeim a 75mm gun regiment. The enemy had at least fourteen batteries with 155mm and 210mm guns at its disposal. At Bir Hakeim there were no more armoured vehicles. Air defence was provided by 18 Bofors guns, twelve of which were manned by Naval Fusiliers and six by British soldiers.
The losses inflicted on the enemy were as follows : 50 tanks, 11 armoured cars, 5 mounted guns, 7 aircraft. The brigade captured 125 German prisoners, one of whom was an officer, and 154 Italian prisoners, nine of whom were officers.
The losses on the French side were as follows : 900 dead, wounded, missing or captured, 600 of whom during the fighting on the night of 10 to 11 June ; 40 75mm guns, 8 Bofors guns, 5 47mm guns, and 250 vehicles were destroyed.
Brigadier General KOENIG’s general Order
dated June 15.
GENERAL ORDER n°1
Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, and Soldiers of the First Free French Brigade :
You received the mission to hold the position of Bir Hakeim, the southern bastion of our defence in Libya, without faltering.
In fifteen days of nearly constant fighting, you decimated large enemy infantry forces, destroyed 50 tanks, 15 armoured cars and many vehicles of all kinds, shot down seven planes and, in the course of your sorties, captured 154 Italian and 125 German prisoners.
Enraged by your aggressive defence that thwarted their plans, the enemy continuously increased the forces intended to wipe you out and, in the last 3 days, stepped up their attacks with fresh troops and intensified their artillery fire ; their aerial bombing took on an unprecedented ferocity ; and the final attack, on the evening of the 10th, included six waves of twenty heavy bombers.
Three times was I summoned to surrender so as to avoid, the enemy said, your destruction. But I had faith in you. I courteously but firmly replied to the first summons with a refusal. I did not even other to answer the other two, and the enemy covered itself in ridicule.
For, once our mission was over, the General Officer commanding the Eighth British Army gave me the order to join his Army.
On the night of 10 to 11 June, with weapons in their hands, the First Brigade stormed the enemy siege lines, breaking through after a fierce four-hour battle. It returned with 75% of its men, weaponry and equipment, and 200 of its wounded men, leaving its positions behind intact.
Bir Hakeim is a French Victory.
I salute our dead, our brothers in arms fallen in battle whose blessed memory will support us in our future struggles.
Brigadier General KOENIG
Commander of the First Free French Brigade
General order addressed by Army General Catroux to the officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and soldiers of the Brigade when he visited them at Sidi Barrani on June 16, 1942
Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, Lance Corporals, Corporals and Soldiers of the First Light Division :
Under the command of intrepid General Koenig, for sixteen days and sixteen nights, you received, without faltering, the increasingly violent shock of the enemy. Each time, you stalled their assaults ; then, going out of/leaving your lines, you, in turn, attacked them, striking lethal blows at them.
Neither the tanks flow, nor the Stukas hurricane impaired your courage, and only when the Army Command formally ordered you to do so, did you abandon the position that had been entrusted to you.
You then withdrew with manly composure, warriors braving the attacks, forcing your bloody way through and refusing to surrender.
Soldiers of Bir Hakeim, with these memorable deeds, you have gloriously reopened the book of the sources of national pride, which had remained closed since the 1940 armistice, and on which France has, at all times, inscribed her soldiers’ claims to fame/ titles of glory.
The whole Universe can (now) read the name of Bir Hakeim in it, unknown until yesterday, and praise the courage of those who have made it famous. France revives the flame of its faith and hope with your heroism. Your British comrades lavish the signs of their admiration on you. And the enemy is aware of their defeat, which your long and firm resistance inflicted on the conceited plans they had in mind.
May you be honoured, you in whom, for the pride of France and the edification of the world, the spirit of Verdun has revived. And may your dead, who generously sacrificed their lives for the redemption of the Fatherland, be eternally glorified.
The Army General Commanding-in- Chief the Free French Forces in the Middle-East.
General de Gaulle
commends the Corps and Units below to be elevated to the Army Order, for the following reasons :
First Battalion of Naval Fusiliers (D.C.A)
Under the command of Capitaine de Corvette Amyot d’Inville, they distinguished themselves during the Libyan Campaign (February to June 1942).
They took part in all the mobile columns that harassed the enemy before the offensive of May 1942.
During the engagements at Bir Hakeim, from May 26 to June 12, 1942, having received new material, they showed excellent technical skills and splendid qualities of discipline and courage under fire.
For fifteen days, they defended the sky of Bir Hakeim. Raided several times a day by 60 to 100 enemy aircraft, they never ceased fire in the middle of the heaviest bombardments. They therefore suffered severe losses. They shot down seven enemy aircraft.
During the sortie by main force on the night of 10 to 11 June 1942, they saved a great part of their material, notwithstanding the barrages of the Infantry shooting.
2nd battalion of the Foreign Legion
Section of the 1st Anti-tank Company
Robust battalion which, with the 3rd Section of the 1st Anti-tank Company, under the command of Officer Cadet Malfettes, constituted the eastern centre of resistance of the Bir Hakeim position.
Under the command of Battalion Chief Babonneau, they were attacked on May 27, 1942 by an Armoured Brigade of the Italian “Trieste” Division, comprising at least seventy tanks ; they faced the attack with the greatest composure, let the enemy approach the shooting range of their anti-tank weapons, then during an engagement that lasted about one hour and thirty minutes, adjusted fire to stall the enemy attack, destroying 35 tanks, some of which had broken into the defence system ; they captured 75 enemy crewmen, among whom the Colonel commanding the 132nd Tank Regiment, and suffered only insignificant loss thanks to the fieldwork organization carried out relentlessly during the preceding months.
First Regiment of Artillery
Set up by Major Laurent-Champrosay SAY and under this field officer’s command, they drew attention to themselves during the Campaign in Libya (from February to June 1942).
They continuously provided the artillery to the mobile columns that relentlessly harassed the enemy before their offensive, and they obtained interesting results at that time.
They behaved admirably during the engagements at Bir Hakeim (from May 26 to June 11, 1942).
On May 27, they largely contributed to beat off the attack of an Armoured Brigade of the Italian Ariete Division ; then, despite much unfavourable fighting conditions, relentless and most powerful counterattack pounding, massive aerial bombing, and heavy weapons shots from the enemy’s infantry, they met without respite all of the Infantry’s demand of support, they never ceased harassing the enemy and stalling their attacks, in spite of heavy losses in men and material.
During the sortie by force on the night of June 10, 1942, they rescued a great part of their material, notwithstanding the barrages of the Infantry shooting.
Led by a Commander of great worth, they won the recognition and the admiration of the 1st French Brigade.
Marching battalion n 2
Great Native Unit made up in Oubangui Chari by Battalion Chief De Roux, ever since the F.E.A Troops rallied to fight.
Under the Command of this Field Officer, then of Battalion Chief Amiel, supervised by servicemen, civil servants, and settlers from Oubangui driven by a wonderful spirit, gloriously took part in all military actions of the Free French Forces in the Middle-East from May 1941 to June 1942. At Bir Hakeim, From May 26 to June 11, 1942, they relentlessly defended one of the most violently attacked sectors, they maintained their positions despite very heavy losses, and eventually succeeded in breaking through enemy lines and bringing back 60% of their strength when the withdrawal order was given.
Blacks and Whites from Oubangui, closely united, set a great example of patriotism and military worth during the 1941-42 Campaign.Navigation