With the Second World War already raging for two and a half years, the forces of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Free France resisted heroically from May 27 to June 11, 1942 in Bir Hakeim, an oasis in the middle of the Libyan desert. Although this battle was technically a defeat, the two weeks of fighting nevertheless allowed General de Gaulle’s men to earn immense respect and contribute to the British victory at El-Alamein, Egypt, a month later.
While General de Gaulle and the Free French Forces (FFL) in exile hold a privileged place in the French collective memory of the Second World War, the battle of Bir Hakeim is for its part relegated to the background. For a Parisian, “Bir Hakeim” means today, above all, a metro station and a bridge.
However, this battle played an essential role in the consideration of the FFL, this “France which fights, the only France, the real France, the eternal France”, as De Gaulle spoke of it in his famous speech at the Hôtel de Ville, a few hours after the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944.
Before these battles in the Libyan desert, the Allies went through a dark period. The Free French exiled in London and the interior Resistance had to face the ignominy of the capitulation of France and the choice of the collaboration of the Vichy regime, after the collapse of the country.
The British, on the other hand, had their finest hours by repelling German invasion attempts during the Battle of Britain, from July to October 1940. After this victory, London’s strategy then focused on the fight against Fascist Italy in North Africa culminating in the Battle of Beda Fomm in Libya in February 1941. But Adolf Hitler’s military high command quickly reacted by deploying its Afrikakorps. Led by General Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox”, these German forces quickly turned the tide against the British.
A year after Rommel’s intervention, the battle of Bir Hakeim represents, on paper, a new defeat for the Allies. But during these battles, the Free French proved their worth, resisting with “the greatest gallantry”, in the words of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons.
More importantly, by inflicting severe losses on the Afrikakorps, the forces of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and General de Gaulle ruined Rommel’s plans and allowed the British High Command to regroup the Allied forces. The heroic defense of Bir Hakeim thus paved the way for the turning point of the campaign in North Africa, when the British field marshal Bernard Montgomery took command and defeated the “desert fox” in October-November 1942 in El-Alamein, Egypt . This episode appears as decisive for the Allies as the battle of Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) for the Soviets against the Germans or that of Midway (June 1942) for the Americans against the Japanese in the Pacific.
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Bir Hakeim, France 24 looks back on this historic moment with Edward G. Lengel, chief historian of the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas.
France 24: How does one arrive, in North Africa, at the battle of Bir Hakeim ?
Edward G. Lengel: Tactically, the Axis forces have consistently beaten those of the United Kingdom since Rommel’s intervention in North Africa with the Afrikakorps in the spring of 1941. German equipment is far superior, especially in terms of tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery. During Operation Crusader in November-December 1941, the Axis forces inflicted five times greater losses on their enemies. However, strategically, the Axis remained in a difficult position until the spring of 1942 due to their extensive supply lines, the British presence in Malta and above all the ability of the intrepid Australian infantry to hold the strategic port of Tobruk. in Libya. After the front line moved back and forth in the first months of 1942, it was finally established west of Tobruk on the “line of Gazala” (a village located on the Libyan coast , editor’s note), which goes, to the south, to the old fort of Bir Hakeim. This is where the British, commanded by Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, positioned themselves defensively and reinforced themselves. For his part, Rommel, still outnumbered despite reinforcements, prepared a coup to break the British line, capture Tobruk and penetrate into Egypt.
Rommel realizes the fragility of the British defensive positions, which are arranged in “boxes” which do not adequately support each other. Put simply, he intended to hold the British along the Libyan coast with Italian infantry attacks, while using German and Italian armor to break through the British lines in the center and to the left. Curiously, however, Rommel does not measure the importance of Bir Hakeim. It allows the German tanks to bypass the fort and leaves it to the Italian tanks to capture it. This is a big mistake.
Why are the Free French Forces involved in Bir Hakeim and how important is their role compared to that of British and Commonwealth forces ?
Like Rommel, the British underestimated the FFL under the command of Brigadier General Marie Pierre Koenig at Bir Hakeim. Lieutenant-General Ritchie stationed there, almost after the fact, the 1and Free French Brigade, which consists of an assemblage of foreign legionnaires (including many refugees from Eastern Europe who fled the Nazis) and colonial troops. But he does not realize the tactical importance of the fort. Ultimately, Koenig’s men played an absolutely crucial role in stopping the Axis advance. This is not to underestimate the courageous conduct of other British and Commonwealth forces, but Bir Hakeim’s men are positioned to be able to make a difference.
If the Allied soldiers killed or injured numbered in the hundreds during these battles, the same toll reached thousands of men on the side of the Axis forces. What tactics and strategy explain the Allied success at Bir Hakeim ?
To be fair, at the start of the battle the defenders mainly faced the Italian forces, whose incompetence in attack was well known. However, when Rommel realized that this position was delaying his offensive, he deployed the Luftwaffe, artillery, and a significant number of German tanks and infantry forces to take it. Despite everything, the defenders hold on. Although their tactic, which consisted of working from “hedgehog” positions (a military tactic to defend against a mobile armored attack, editor’s note), proved effective, it was undoubtedly mainly the firm determination of the Free French that lets hold on as long as they do.
What is the importance of the Allied victory at Bir Hakeim, particularly in the preparation for that of El-Alamein in October-November 1942 and for the morale of the Free French Forces ?
Bir Hakeim’s defense seriously disrupts Rommel’s schedule. Although he eventually destroyed the British at Gazala, captured Tobruk, and pushed his opponents back into Egypt and El-Alamein, the Battle of Bir Hakeim inflicted losses on him that he could not afford and exhausted the troops involved. This certainly plays a role in the British ability to muster and hold in Egypt. More broadly, although it played no direct role in aborting the invasion of Malta, the Battle of Bir Hakeim greatly complicated Rommel’s strategic issues. More importantly, it proves essential in the revitalization of French pride after the defeats of 1940. It helps to elevate De Gaulle, who presents this event as a great French victory. It also increases the confidence of the Allies, hitherto non-existent, in Free France. Bir Hakeim should thus be recognized in France as a crucial episode in the recovery of the country after the collapse of 1940 and in its resurgence as a great European nation.
Article adapted from English by Stéphanie Trouillard.