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Tuesday April 15, 2003

by Claude Girard




"the Nation has tressailli pride by learning what its soldiers with General de Gaulle Bir-Hakeim" did



Since 1940 Germany seems to have become invincible in Europe and its allied Italy would like to imitate it in North Africa where Ethiopia, Libya and part of Somalia are already under its cut. But in December 1940, the British starting from Egypt surprise the Italians and put three their divisions out of combat, progress 750 km and occupy on January 22 the port of TOBROUK on the Libyan coast. Having attacked Greece and y also undergoing reverses, Mussolini calls Hitler with its help. At this point in time the United Kingdom, wanting to help the Greeks, dismantles as from March 1941 the face of Libya by taking 68 000 men there to send them in Greece.

Finally decided to help its Italian allies in Libya, Hitler sends a light division and a panzerdivision to them which form the base of Afrika-Korps under the command of General ROMMEL. This last carries out at once a war "flash" while sinking without leaving respite to the British forces and it reaches the doors of Egypt after the reconquest of Cyrénaïque, which is worth to him the nickname of "Fox of the desert".

This first offensive is stopped by the decision of Hitler to attack the U.R.S.S. June 21, 1941, the African face having become for Germany more secondary than ever. In November, the British counter-attack and after a battle of tanks which lasts one month, Rommel which cannot more fill the vacuums as men and materials, must give up Cyrénaïque.

But 18 days after having reprocessed, the "Fox of the desert" faces, lance its second offensive and, in 17 days, it reaches the zone of TOBROUK. After having moved back in disorder, the 8th British Army however succeeds in being restored on the line AÏN-el-GAZALA - Bir-hakeim.

Rommel could convince Hitler which it would quickly arrive at CAIRO and, beyond, to Suez Canal. It finally received in January 1942 its reinforcements requested with insistence (285 tanks and 11 battalions of infantry) and it will be able to launch its third offensive. It will know the failure because a "sand grain" came to be introduced into its man?uvre daring. It is the 1st Free French Brigade with Bir-hakeim.

We are in May 1942. At the same time, in Europe, the German army started a gigantic offensive which must give him the decisive victory by the catch of Moscow


The key position of Bir-Hakeim.

The Italian-German ones of the Rommel General, indeed, will find on their way the remainders of an old Turkish fort which was also a post of Italian meharists located at a crossing of tracks, with a dry well and a complete absence of vegetation where only snails lived. On the charts, this place bears the name of "Bir-hakeim".

It is in such "a paradise" that the 1st Free French Brigade (B.F.L.) from General KOENIG received the order to settle in February 1942, in order to flank in the south the 1st South-African Division and the 50ème British Division which cover the port of Tobrouk. More in the East of this device the 2nd Free French Brigade is which protects with the 5th Indian Division the aerodrome from EL ADEM where are consisted of the deposits for a future British offensive.

General RITCHIE, ordering the 8th British Army, knows in an unquestionable way that the Rommel General prepares with an offensive and it awaits his attack definitely more in North towards Ain-el-Gazala on the Mediterranean coast from where share until Bir-Hakeim broad band of more than one million mines which protects its line of defence vis-a-vis the West.

The allies have the advantage of the number: 125.000 h. against 113.000 h., 500 guns against 350, 740 tanks against 570 and 700 planes against 500. But the British tanks are far from being worth those of Afrika-Korps and the arrival of 200 American Grant tanks does not compensate for the difference, more especially as the Germans have a very effective gun of 88 m/m against the armoured tanks. On its side British aviation is clearly outclassed by Messerschmitt 109 G German and Breda Italian.


The device and the order of battle of the 1st B.F.L.

The 1st B.F.L. is split in two parts:

One, under the orders of the Koenig General, occupies the position of Bir-Hakeim which is enclosed by a band mined in the shape of V manpower are approximately 3.700 men with 63 tracked light machines "Brenn-gun carriers" [ 1 ], 466 automatic weapons, 20 mortars of 81 mm, 18 Bofors guns against planes of 40mm and 24 guns of 75mm. It is necessary to add 55 anti-tank guns of 25mm, of 47mm without forgetting of the 75 "arranged" in Syria by engineers of Arts and Métiers which made them suited to their mission anti-tank device.

The units on this position are:

- the Staff of the 1st B.F.L.
 -  2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 13th Half-Brigade of the foreign Legion.
 -  the 1st Battalion of Royal marines (D.C.A.)
 -  the 1st Battalion of Marines to 3 Companies (B.I.M.)
 -  the Battalion of Pacifique(B.P.1)
 -  the Battalion of N°2 Walk of Oubangui-Chari.(B.M.2)
 -  the 1st Artillery Regiment.
 -  the 2è North-African Company with 6 Sections.
 -  the 1st Company of the Genius.
 -  a Company of Transmissions.
 -  the 101e Company of the Car-sleeper train.
 -  a Light Mobile surgical unit.

The other part, under the command of the head of squadron THOREAU, in the area of EL ADEM, includes/understands the Services, the Levels and the shops repair as well as a hospital of countryside and the vehicles of the Train which will ensure by twice the supply of the position and will intervene at the time of the exit of sharp force.

Since February, the life on the point of support is devoted to the organization of the ground to resist an attack of the enemy. The position is girdled of 50.000 mines of Egyptian manufacture of which "whimsical susceptibility" causes the death of the defenders unlucky person! Underground shelters dug under two meters of sand will make it possible to be protected from the blows of the enemy. While waiting, they ensure a certain freshness.

Between the 15 and on May 20, the British Command makes known that the attack of the enemy is imminent. The 1st B.F.L. then is informed that it will have to hold, encircled, 2 days at best, 10 days at worst while waiting for the decisive counter-attack!


Rommel passes to the attack.

So "scattering the enemy", Rommel launches on May 26 at 14 hours a frontal attack to north in direction of Ain-el-Gazala with 4 Italian divisions. At 20 hours towards the south, it makes start its mass of man?uvre which must, by taking Bir-Hakeim like pivot, to circumvent the first line of resistance of the Allies.

The following day May 27 at dawn, of the patrols of the 13th D.B.L.E. announced German armoured tanks to the east of the position. Suddenly to 9 hours, two waves of 80 Italian tanks of Ariete Division pass to the attack. Anti-tank guns and the artillery of the 1st B.F.L. in destroy 32 (of M.13 Italian of which some armed with guns of 75)Le lieutenant-colonel ordering this 132ème Tank regiment is done prisoner.

May 30, a convoy of supply of 50 trucks of 101ème Co Car, escorted many armoured cars arrives at Bir-Hakeim and the reserves are then reconstituted at 7 days.

Being found in difficulties, as well in North as in the south, but in front of an enemy who seems to him undecided, Rommel estimates to have time necessary for the execution of a new plan with Bir-Hakeim like zone of support and deposits. It thus should take at all costs Bir-Hakeim whose minefields will make a line of fixing in the event of failure. It is thus with Italian division Trieste and the 90e German Light Division, reinforced with 3 armoured regiments of recognition which it invests the position.

On his side, the Ritchie General wants to counter-attack the enemy armoured tanks driven back with the minefield and it gives the order to the 1st B.F.L. to leave its position to deliver "empty" Bir-Hakeim to Rommel, but the French do not have sufficient means of transport in the place to evacuate it and, moreover, the position is already encircled.

June 2 about midday, a motorized detachment appears in the east and a vehicle carrying a white flag is detached some with 2 Italian officers who are led near the Koenig General to propose a rendering to him. They essuient a refusal and the 2 officers must return to foot, bus meanwhile their driver had made half turn with the vehicle.

June 3 towards 9. 30, 2 English drivers released by the Germans bring the written following message of the hand of ROMMEL:

"With the Troops of Bir-Hakeim.
Any prolonged resistance means useless bloodshed. You will undergo the same fate as the two English brigades of Got-el-Oualeb which were destroyed before yesterday. We cease the combat if you hoist the white flags and if you move towards us, without weapons.
ROMMEL, General as a Head "

The Koenig General then addresses to the garrison his GENERAL ORDER:

"We must expect from now on a serious attack, all average compounds (aviation, tanks, artillery, infantry) It will be powerful.
I renew my orders and my certainty that each one will make its duty without weakening, in his place, half-compartment or not of the others.
To explain well that with very graded and man.
And good luck with all.


The seat.

The seat starts, it will last 8 days. Stukas, Ju 88 and 21 groups of artillery bludgeon without stop the position. In the days which follow more than 40 000 shells large gauge and the loading of 1400 bombers try to crush the resistance of the French. June the 3 and 4, all the attempts at attack of the enemy are stopped, but two German battalions arrive at less than thousand meters of the positions.

June 5, a German officer presents himself in front of the lines and invites the French to go.
Its vehicle jumps on a mine by making half turn.

June 6, Rommel resorts to an attack by north starting from a peak which limits the sight of the defenders of Bir-Hakeim. It makes come from the troops of elite and the guns planned for the head office of Tobrouk, mainly the famous guns of 88 m/m which will draw at direct sight on the fortified camp.

June 8, the hell breaks out. But English aviation intervenes and the German attack is stopped. Rommel written on its log book: "?.Malgré its corrosive this attack was stopped by the fire of all the weapons had besieged." However, water starts to miss, the ration day labourer of 1,5 liter will make it possible to hold only until the 10 and the English aviation which tries to supply by air the position makes it without much success.

Le 9 juin, les Stukas et l'artillerie allemande passent une nouvelle fois à l'attaque. Les Germano-Italiens montent à l'assaut en formation serrée et réussissent à pénétrer dans la partie nord du dispositif, mais une charge de 3 sections de Brenn-carriers les obligent à décrocher. Par contre, le groupe sanitaire est définitivement détruit et 15 blessés graves sont tués par le dernier bombardement.


La sortie de vive force.

Le commandement allié lui ayant fait savoir que la résistance de Bir-Hakeim n'a plus une importance primordiale, le Général Koenig estime qu'il ne pourra tenir que jusqu'au 10 juin, car le 1er R.A.C. n'a plus qu'une unité de feu et les mortiers environ 50 coups par pièce. De plus, les réserves d'eau sont épuisées. Il décide donc que la garnison tentera une sortie de vive force en emmenant ses blessés dans la nuit du 10 au 11 juin.

Un passage de 10 mètres de large sur 100 de long est pratiqué dans le champ de mines du sud-ouest et tout ce qui ne peut être emporté est détruit. Deux compagnies du bataillon de marche N° 2 restent sur place. Les véhicules sont rangés en colonnes par deux et devant eux les hommes qui nettoieront les lignes ennemies pour permettre leur passage. Le débouché est fixé à minuit, mais le bruit alerte l'ennemi qui lance des fusées éclairantes, les Brenn-carriers de la Légion doivent alors effectuer de véritables charges pour ouvrir le passage. Les camions flambent et l'ennemi concentre ses tirs sur ces torches où des hommes sont brûlés vifs. On voit le capitaine MESSMER (futur Ministre des Armées) et le capitaine LALANDE (futur Gouverneur militaire de Lyon) porter un fusilier marin blessé. La colonne motorisée commence cependant à s'écouler par rames de 10 à 15 véhicules.

Vers 4 h du matin, les deux compagnies du Bataillon de Marche N° 2 après avoir réussi à décrocher arrivent elles aussi à la porte du champ de mines. Après avoir traversé les lignes de feu et les positions des batteries ennemies une partie de la garnison de Bir-Hakeim trouvera une centaine de camions et des véhicules sanitaires qui l'attendent, protégés par une colonne blindée britannique.
A 7 h 30, les éléments de recueil récupèrent plus de 2500 hommes. Le siège et la sortie de vive force ont coûté à la 1ère B.F.L. 130 tués, 204 blessés et 814 disparus.


La victoire échappe à Rommel.

Voulant enlever Bir-Hakeim coûte que coûte, le Général Rommel fait venir en renfort la 15ème Division de Panzers, car il n'a pas été renseigné sur ce qui s'était passé au cours de cette nuit apocalyptique. Après un bombardement aérien massif, lorsque son infanterie d'assaut pénètre dans la position, elle ne trouve que quelques blessés qui font encore le coup de feu.

Rommel, qui vient d'être promu Maréchal, s'empare alors rapidement de Gazala et de Tobrouk, mais la Luftwaffe ne peut plus intervenir sur les colonnes alliées qui se replient, car ses réserves en carburant ont été épuisées par les 1400 raids de bombardement sur Bir-Hakeim dont il escomptait la chute au plus tard le 27 mai. Le retard de 15 jours dans sa prise fut fatal à l'offensive allemande. Regroupée sur la seconde ligne de défense autour d'EL ALAMEIN, l'armée britannique ne pouvait plus être détruite.

La résistance acharnée de la 1ère Brigade Française Libre à Bir-Hakeim fut bien le "grain de sable" qui enraya définitivement l'avance de l'Afrika-Korps vers le canal de Suez. [2]

© Claude Girard, Farac-Info Juin 2002

[1] les Brenn-gun carriers sont des engins chenillés légèrement blindés de fabrication anglaise.

[2] Bibliographie. Plaquette sur BIR-HAKEIM du général B. Saint-Hillier, numéro spécial de la Revue Historique des Armées.(1981) Journal de marche du colonel de Sairigné. Livre d'or de la Légion étrangère.





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