One of WWII’s most stirring “Forgotten Fights” took place in May 1942 at the North African desert outpost of Bir Hacheim (also Bir Hakeim.) In this encounter, German and Italian forces under the command of Germany’s “Desert Fox,” General Erwin Rommel, faced off against Free French forces, including African colonial troops, under Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig. The French fought hard for two weeks before finally giving way, allowing Rommel’s forces to continue their advance toward the Suez Canal. Even in tactical defeat, however, the French had won a significant strategic victory.
As May began, approximately 90,000 German and Italian troops, including 560 tanks, faced about 110,000 British, British imperial and allied troops and 840 tanks along the Gazala Line in Libya south and west of the important port of Tobruk. Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, commanding the British Eighth Army, deployed Koenig’s 4,000-man 1st Free French Brigade at the Gazala Line’s southern end, some forty miles deep in the Sahara Desert, at a desolate, crumbling old fort at Bir Hacheim.
Koening’s command was a hodgepodge, consisting of French Marines, Foreign Legionnaires, and soldiers from French African colonies such as Senegal, Madagascar, and what is now Central Africa. Though lacking tanks and much heavy equipment, Koenig’s men were tough warriors determined to prove their worth against a foe that had rolled triumphantly across mainland France just two years earlier. The Foreign Legionnaires included many refugees from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, equally determined to avenge the loss of their homelands.
On May 26, Rommel sent Italian forces in a frontal attack against the Gazala Line. But this was merely a feint. While the Italians demonstrated, the Desert Fox led the 15th and 21st Panzer divisions and the Italian Ariete armored division south into the desert, defeating British armored units and arriving before Bir Hacheim on May 27. Surmising that the French would be pushovers, Rommel continued onward with his German divisions and left the Italians to deal with Bir Hacheim. That, as it turned out, was a costly mistake.
Italian tankers, brave but operating flimsy, obsolete equipment, immediately assaulted the French positions. Although they penetrated the wire in some spots, however, Koenig’s well-dug in forces knocked out 32 tanks and drove off the attackers. Rommel meanwhile continued north, destroying other British outposts and completing the encirclement of Bir Hacheim.
Victorious in small unit actions but unable to entirely unhinge the Gazala Line, Rommel fumed at Koenig’s continued grim resistance at Bir Hacheim. When the Free French commander brushed off a surrender demand, Luftwaffe fighters and bombers began mercilessly bombing and strafing the tumbledown fortress. Rommel also ordered his artillery to pound the French positions, and, pulling back his German troops from their advanced posts further north, sent them and Italian infantry and tanks to attack Bir Hacheim day and night. Koenig’s Legionnaires had constructed their positions well, however, and despite growing shortages of ammunition, and especially water, the French held on.
By the end of the first week of June, Koening knew that his men were near the end of their tether and radioed for permission to break out of the encirclement and withdraw. That permission was denied, for the British, anticipating the final destruction of the Gazala Line, were preparing fall-back positions at El Alamein in Egypt. Koenig dutifully returned to the fight as his men, under constant bombardment in blazing heat and subsisting on thimblefuls of water, beat back one attack after another.
On the night of June 10-11, knowing that Bir Hacheim’s fall was imminent, Koenig ordered a breakout under cover of darkness. At first the French tried to withdraw in formation, but as the Germans discovered the movement the retreating garrison broke up into groups of a few men and individuals. Over the next couple of hours, they grappled the Germans and Italians in hand to hand combat. Incredibly, the majority of the surviving garrison broke out to safety. Just as incredibly, General Koenig was driven out of the fortress by Susan Travers, an Englishwoman assigned to the French medical detail as an ambulance driver. “It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark,” she later remembered. “My main concern was that the engine would stall.” Her bullet-riddled Ford safely carried the duo back into British lines. Travers would later be formally admitted to the Foreign Legion.
Rommel said of Bir Hacheim that, “seldom in Africa was I given such a hard fought struggle.” The courageous defense of the desert outpost seriously upset Rommel’s plans for victory in North Africa. Although he would shatter the Gazala Line and capture Tobruk, the British gained valuable time to prepare their defenses at El Alamein where, several months later, the tide of the war in Africa would finally turn.