Battle of Bir Hakeim ‘increased the Allies’ confidence in Free France’

With the outbreak of World War II two and a half years ago, the forces of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Free France fought back heroically from May 27 to June 11, 1942 at Bir Hakim, an oasis in the middle of the Libyan desert. Although this battle was technically a defeat, two weeks of fighting allowed General de Gaulle’s men to earn great 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 distinct place in the French collective memory of World War II, the Battle of Bir-Hakeim for its part is relegated to the background. For Parisians, today “Bir Hakim” means, above all, a metro station and a bridge.

However, this battle was instrumental in the FFL’s view, this “France at war, the only France, the true 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 exiles in London and the internal resistance had to face the shame of France’s surrender and choose the cooperation of the Vichy regimeAnd the after the collapse of the country.

For their part, the British had their best time repelling German invasion attempts during the Battle of Britain, from July to October 1940. After this victory, London’s strategy thereafter focused on fighting Fascist Italy in North Africa culminating in the Battle of Beda Vom in Libya in February 1941. But Adolf Hitler’s military high command soon responded by deploying its Afrikakor forces. 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 Hakeem marks, on paper, a new defeat for the Allies. But during these battles, the free French proved their worth, resisting “greater courage”, in the words of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons.

Most importantly, by inflicting heavy losses on Afrikacorps, UK and Commonwealth forces and General de Gaulle spoiled Rommel’s plans and allowed the British high command to regroup the Allied forces. Thus Bir Hakim’s heroic defense set the stage for a turning point in the campaign in North Africa, when British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery took command and defeated the “Desert Fox” in October-November 1942 at El Alamein, Egypt. This episode appears as crucial to the Allies as the Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) against the Soviets against the Germans or the Battle of Midway (June 1942) for the Americans against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Bir Hakeim, FRANCE 24 relives this historic moment with Edward G. Lengel, Senior Historian of the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas.

France 24: How does one reach North Africa in the Battle of Bir Hakeem ?

Edward J. Lengel: Tactically, the Axis forces have consistently defeated the forces of the United Kingdom since Rommel’s intervention in North Africa with the Afrikakorps in the spring of 1941. German equipment is much better, especially in terms of tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery. During the crusade in November-December 1941, the Axis forces inflicted five times greater losses on their enemies. Strategically, however, 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 daring Australian infantry ability to hold the strategic port of Tobruk in Libya. After the front line moved back and forth in the early months of 1942, it was finally established west of Tobruk on the “Ghazala Line” (a village on the Libyan coast, editor’s note), which extends south to the ancient fortress of Bir Hakim. This is where the British, led by Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, put themselves on the defensive and strengthened themselves. For his part, Rommel, still outnumbered despite reinforcements, prepared a coup to break the British line, capture Tobruk and advance into Egypt.

Rommel understands the fragility of the British defensive positions, which are arranged in “boxes” that do not adequately support each other. Simply put, he intended to hold the British along the Libyan coast with Italian infantry attacks, while using German and Italian shields to break through the British lines in the center and to the left. But it is remarkable that Rommel does not measure the importance of Bir Hakim. It allows German tanks to bypass the fort and leave it for Italian tanks to capture it. This is a big mistake.

General Oberst Erwin Rommel and General Fritz Baerlein in a command vehicle at Bir Hakeim. © Bundesarchiv – Zwilling, Ernst A. / Wikimedia

Why do the Free French Forces participate in Bir Hakeem and how important is their role compared to that of the British and Commonwealth forces? ?

Like Rommel, the British underestimated the liberation forces led by Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig at Bir Hakeim. Team Ritchie was stationed there almost after the accidente The Free French Brigade, which consisted of a combination of the Foreign Legion (including many refugees from Eastern Europe who had fled the Nazis) and colonial forces. But he does not realize the tactical significance of the fortress. In the end, Koenig’s men played a very crucial role in stopping the Axle’s advance. This is not to underestimate the brave behavior of British and other Commonwealth forces, but Bir Hakeem’s men are in a position to make a difference.

Three elements of the 1st artillery regiment were distinguished at the Battle of Bir Hakeim.
Three elements of the 1st artillery regiment were distinguished at the Battle of Bir Hakeim. © Wikimedia

If the number of dead and wounded Allied soldiers numbered in the hundreds during these battles, the same number came to thousands of men on the side of the Axis forces. What tactics and strategy explain the success of the Allies at Bir Hakim ?

To be fair, at the beginning of the battle, the defenders faced mainly the Italian troops, whose incompetence in the attack was well known. However, when Rommel realized that this situation was delaying his attack, he deployed the Luftwaffe, artillery, a large number of German tanks and infantry to take it. Despite everything, the defenders stuck. Although their tactic, consisting of operating from “hedgehog” positions (a military tactic to defend against a mobile armored attack, editor’s note), proved effective, it was undoubtedly the firm determination of the Free French that allowed them to stay for as long as they did.

French artillery position at Bir Hakim.
French artillery position at Bir Hakim. © Wikimedia

What was the significance of the Allied victory at Bir Hakim, especially in preparation for the victory of El Alamein in October-November 1942 and for the morale of the Free French Forces? ?

Bir Hakim’s defense seriously disrupts Rommel’s schedule. Although he ended up destroying the British at Ghazala, capturing Tobruk, and pushing his opponents into Egypt and El Alamein, the Battle of Bir Hakeem inflicted losses he could not afford and exhausted the participating forces. This certainly plays a role in the ability of the British to mobilize and hold Egypt. More broadly, although it did not play a direct role in thwarting the invasion of Malta, the Battle of Bir Hakeem greatly complicated Rommel’s strategic issues. More importantly, it proves essential in rekindling French pride after the defeats of 1940. It helps raise the profile of de Gaulle, who presents the event as a great French victory. It also increases the confidence of the Allies, hitherto nonexistent, in Free France. Therefore Bir Hakim should be recognized in France as a crucial link in the country’s recovery after the collapse of 1940 and in its rise as a great European nation.

The Free French vacate Bir Hakim.
The Free French vacate Bir Hakim. © Wikimedia

Article adapted from English Stephanie Troyer.

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