Bir Hakeim is an oasis in north-east Libya. During the Second World War, the eponymous fortress served as one of the most important strongholds of the Free French Army against General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. In May 1942 around 3700 soldiers of the 1st Free French Brigade faced over ten times the amount of German and Italian troops, besieging the fortress. It was crucial that the French hold the fort long enough to slow down the advance of the Panzer Korps, whose goal was to capture British-held Tobruk, the strategic port to the northeast.
What followed was a real David versus Goliath battle, with the Free French desperately holding out against the Axis troops. Eventually they saw no other option but to break out of the fortress during night-time and quite literally making an incredibly dangerous dash for it.
By the early summer of 1940, the French had suffered a humiliating defeat as the battle of France had lasted for a mere six weeks before the Germans marched into Paris. As the war progressed, French operations in theatres outside of Europe continued. A brigade from the Free French Legion was deployed to the British 8th Army in North Africa.
Two years after the taking of France, the war theatre in North Africa reached a critical point. The 13th First Free French Demi-Brigade, under the command of General Marie-Pierre Koenig, held themselves up in the fortress of Bir Hakeim, in the Libyan desert. Now, a German and Italian offensive against the British army in the area led to the Battle of Gazala. The so-called Gazala Line consisted of a series of dense minefields linking a number of fortresses that were designed to withstand massive enemy attacks for multiple days.
The goal of the Axis powers was to capture the strategically located port of Tobruk. General Erwin Rommel figured that instead of doing the obvious, namely attacking the northern line of defence, he would launch a decoy attack in the north and instead concentrate his main attack on the southern line, against the Fortress of Bir Hakeim, manned by Koenig’s troops.
The 3700 men stationed in the fortress were going to have to fight off the much larger Afrika Korps. The defenders of the fort weren’t all native Frenchmen by the way. There were many soldiers from French Equatorial Africa, a battalion from Tahiti and Syria, and even some German political refugees that decided to join the French Foreign Legion in the wake of the Nazi party overtaking Germany. Besides Koenig, another noteworthy commander was the emigré Russian prince, Lieutenant-Colonel Amilakvari. He was a Georgian that had fled the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually joining the French Foreign Legion in 1924. A truly mixed bunch.
Manning the ruined fortress, located at the southernmost point of the British 8th Army’s defensive line in the Western Desert, the Legion was facing a force nearly ten times the size of their own.
As you can see on this map, the fortress of Bir Hakeim was surrounded by minefields, forcing the Germans to attack the fort at certain positions. The French positioned their heaviest artillery and most robust defences in these pockets. Furthermore, Koenig, a veteran of the First World War, had ordered his troops to dig a network of shelters and trenches. These were large enough to house all 3700 men manning the fort.
Now, in the grander scheme of things, the French and British weren’t sure where Rommel would concentrate his main attack. But if Rommel did decide to take his Afrika Korps to attack the Gazala Line from the south, Bir Hakeim would become the centre of defending Tobruk from the Axis powers.
On May 26th Rommel launched his attack, a bit east to Bir Hakeim. The Axis powers overran the Indian Motor Brigade that manned a box several miles to the east without too much trouble. The Axis now rapidly advanced towards the east. It seemed that Bir Hakeim would in fact become the main battleground against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The First Battles
As the Legion was manning the fortress, Koenig sent out several patrols in order to keep an eye on possible advancing German troops. On May 26th he received word from one of those patrols that a large German force, consisting of both Panzers and Infantry, was approaching the fort. It would turn out to be the Italian 102nd Ariete and part of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, manoeuvring themselves in preparation of the imminent attack against the French.
The Italian division consisted of 220 light and 50 medium tanks. On the early morning of the 27th a small part of this division attacked, unsupported by any infantry. Evading the minefields, they charged into the corridors in between them, exactly as the French had hoped. They charged directly into the 50-odd 75mm anti-tank guns positioned there. Now, the French allowed the Italian tanks to come as close as 350 metres to the fortress. Then, they unleashed a barrage of fire onto them until every last tank was forced to a standstill.
Nevertheless, ten Italian tanks managed to break through the defences. Legionnaires now jumped onto the tank hulls as soon as they could, firing into the sight slits at point-blank range. That day, the Italians lost 32 tanks and over 100 men. The legionnaires now dashed forward to capture the crew of Italian tanks. However, barely any were alive – most died from the impact of the anti-tank guns, exploding mines, or the inferno on the battlefield.
Over the next four days, heavy fighting concentrated itself to the northeast of Bir Hakeim against the British. The French defenders enjoyed relative quiet. The British 8th Army seemed to have gained the upper hand, and General Koenig was ordered to send a motorised column to the west – across the desert – in order to besiege and seize Ronda Segnali, a position held by the Italians. Unfortunately for the French, Rommel anticipated on their actions. As the more significant battle for the Gazala Line was continuing, Rommel himself began to direct his attention towards the small French unit holding Bir Hakeim.
From their perspective, it was clear: if they didn’t capture this small thorn in their side, they were prone to have their supply lines cut off, or even worse: suffer an attack from behind. A massive artillery and aerial bombardment should quickly solve the issue of this slight annoyance, Rommel figured. The German 90th Light Division and Italian Trieste Division were ordered south, in order to surround Bir Hakeim. As they were moving into their positions, the French were subject to the immense noise of dozens of Stuka bombers approaching. Fortunately, the underground shelters of the fort could house the entire garrison – it really did save their life: the Stuka’s bombed the Fort, wave after wave, chipping away at its defences. The Stuka bombing raid was only the beginning of a much larger offensive, however.
On the morning of June 2, the men in Bir Hakeim were surprised that instead of a Stuka raid, two Italian officers approached the battered fortress with a white flag hoisted. Koenig went to meet them, and the Italians requested he’d surrender with all his troops. Koenig refused to do so – and the day after it wasn’t the Italians but Erwin Rommel himself that came to visit the fort. He didn’t impress Koenig, who once again refused to surrender. As a response to the refusal of surrender, Bir Hakeim once again became the target of German and Italian artillery shelling. The aerial bombardments stagnated, however: in the air the Stukas were surprised to meet Hawker Hurricanes of the Desert Air Force. They were quickly routed, leaving Bir Hakeim relatively unscathed from aerial assault. Fortunately for the French Legion in the fort, the British managed to resupply them with water and ammunition during the night: they weren’t completely isolated.
Four days after the initial request for surrender, Bir Hakeim was once again subjected to an extensive artillery bombardment. Following the barrage, an infantry attack was launched against the southernmost strong point of the fort. The infantry had to traverse over open ground, however and was rapidly mowed down by machine-gun fire from the fortress. Attempting to launch the second wave of an infantry assault, these men too were mowed down with relative ease.
The situation inside the fort started to deteriorate, regardless of the fact they managed to fend off the attackers. On June 8 the last convoy smuggling water into the fortress managed to get through – but from now on the water was rationed. Considering the heat, combined with the continuous shelling, it certainly was taking its toll.
The next waves of infantry attacks were supported by heavy tanks. Bir Hakeim’s defences were being chipped away at. An observation post was overrun, and in some areas where Axis forces managed to break through the lines of fortifications, hand-to-hand combat broke out. All the french could do was counterattack as best as they could.
During the night of June 9, Koenig did something radical: he started planning for a breakout. He saw that as the only viable option for survival. The next day, the fort was once again subject to infantry charges and enemy tanks that tried to strong-arm their way into the fort. The French did receive aerial support from Hurricanes, picking off Axis infantry. The situation became more desperate by the hour, however. Heavy fighting continued far into dusk and Koenig decided that this night was the night they’d attempt to break out of the fortress.
That night, small scouting troops were sent out in close proximity of the fortress to clear out the minefields. There wasn’t much time, so only the mines that could pose a problem for the colonne about to leave were swiftly dug up. Now, initially, to safeguard them from the Stuka bombings, trucks had been stored underground inside the fort. These were now dug out and placed in position. The French climbed into the trucks, which formed a long row of silent silhouettes in the night. And then, the defenders launched a series of machine-gun fire at the Axis positions. It masked the sound of the engines that started roaring, ready for the break-out.
The legionnaires of the 13th Demi-brigade led the breakout. The trucks had to follow them in a line, as the sappers had only been able to clear a narrow corridor of mines. The Axis powers, realising what was going on, shot flares in the air, illuminating the Allied convoy trying to get through their own minefield. Machine gun fire opened against the column. In turn, the drivers of the truck panicked. The trucks, all neatly lined up, ended up in a traffic jam, making them ideal targets for the Axis machine guns. Quite literally sitting ducks to the Axis machine gun assault, the line of trucks was stranded in the middle of their own minefield. Several trucks tried to leave the column and drive to safety, only to trigger the mines that detonated and blew several trucks to pieces. Some men charged at the Axis machine gun nests, many of them mowed down as a result. It was a nightmarish spectacle.
In a last-ditch attempt, Koenig ordered the Bren gun carriers to give the Axis powers hell. They managed to blow a hole in the Axis lines, upon which Koenig now ordered his trucks to speed through it. His own car was riddled with bullets, yet he made it into the open desert without being wounded. Together with the trucks that managed to get out of that hell-hole, they now drove to the west of Bir Hakeim, linking up with the 8th Army.
In the end, a bit over 2500 French had managed to escape the siege of Bir Hakeim in an incredibly daring breakout. Around 140 had lost their lives. The breakout had a big impact on the French morale, with Churchill and de Gaulle praising the operation. Even Hitler had to admit that “After the Germans, the French are the best fighters”.