As World War II inched toward crucial turning points in 1942, British, Commonwealth and Free French forces mounted a heroic defence of their positions at Bir Hakeim, an oasis in the Libyan desert, from May 27 to June 11. While technically a defeat, the two-week battle nevertheless won tremendous respect for General Charles de Gaulle's Free French - and helped set the stage for the famous British victory at El Alamein, which months later turned the tide of war in the West. FRANCE 24 looks back at the Battle of Bir Hakeim, 80 years later.
While Charles de Gaulle and his exiled Free French forces have a cherished place in France's collective memory of World War II, the Battle of Bir Hakeim has receded into the background. Ask the average Parisian what Bir Hakeim is and they will tell you that it is a metro station - right next to an iconic bridge over the Seine with the same name.
Yet the Battle of Bir Hakeim played an invaluable role in boosting the pride of the Free French forces - the morale of "the France that fights, the only France, the true France, the eternal France", as de Gaulle called it in his renowned speech at the Hotel de Ville upon the Liberation of Paris in August 1944.
The Allies had gone through a dark period before. The Free French exiled in London - and the Resistance waging their heroic struggle within France - had to grapple with the ignominy of France's capitulation and subsequent collaboration upon the precipitous collapse of the French military in May 1940.
In contrast, the British had seen their finest hour as they repelled the Nazi attempts to invade - with the Royal Air Force defeating the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain from July to October 1940. Following this victory, British strategy focused on fighting fascist Italy in North Africa. A series of British victories culminated in the destruction of the Italian 10th Army in the Battle of Beda Fomm in Libya in February 1941.
But the German high command acted decisively to rescue their Italian ally's collapsing North African campaign, deploying the Afrika Korps in the immediate aftermath of Beda Fomm. Led by Erwin Rommel - arguably Hitler's most militarily astute general, nicknamed the "Desert Fox" - the Afrika Korps soon turned the tide against the British.
A year after Rommel stepped in, Bir Hakeim was another Allied defeat - on paper. But the Free French proved their worth, resisting with the "utmost gallantry", as Winston Churchill told the House of Commons at the time.
Even more importantly by inflicting serious losses on the Afrika Korps, the British, Commonwealth and Free French forces made a mess of Rommel's strategic plans, allowing the British high command to regroup Allied forces.
In this way, the doomed, heroic defence of Bir Hakeim facilitated a pivotal moment for the Allies - when the legendary Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery took charge and Rommel finally met his match at El Alamein in October-November 1942. This proved decisive in the Western Allies' fight against Germany, as Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) did for the Soviet Union and Midway (1942) had for the US forces fighting Japan in the Pacific.
To take a closer look at the Battle of Bir Hakeim, FRANCE 24 spoke to Dr Edward G. Lengel, chief historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas.
How did events in the North African theatre and decisions by military high commands lead to the battle taking place at Bir Hakeim?
Tactically, Axis forces had defeated British Imperial forces again and again since Rommel's intervention in North Africa with the Afrika Korps in the spring of 1941. German (not Italian) equipment was far superior, especially in terms of tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery. In Operation Crusader in November-December 1941, Axis forces inflicted losses five times heavier than their own. Strategically, however, the Axis remained in a difficult position in the spring of 1942, thanks to their extended supply lines, British retention of Malta, and especially the ability of intrepid Australian infantry to hold on to the critical port of Tobruk. After the lines surged back and forth in the early months of 1942, they finally settled just west of Tobruk at the so-called Gazala line, anchored in the south at the old fort of Bir Hakeim. Here the British, under Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, settled down in defensive positions while building reinforcements while Rommel, though reinforced and still outnumbered, prepared a stroke to break up the British line, capture Tobruk and push into Egypt.
And the more short-term context?
Rommel recognised the frailty of the British defensive positions, which were arranged in so-called boxes that did not adequately support each other. Very simply stated, he intended to hold the British along the Libyan coast with attacks by Italian infantry while using his German and Italian armour to break through the British centre and left. Oddly, though, Rommel did not adequately recognise the importance of Bir Hakeim, and so he allowed his German tanks to bypass the fort and left it to his Italian armour to capture it. Big mistake.
Why were the Free French forces involved at Bir Hakeim and how significant was their role in the Allied victory compared to that of British and Commonwealth forces?
Just as Rommel underestimated the Free French at Bir Hakeim under Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig, so did the British. Ritchie posted the Free French brigade, which consisted of a hodgepodge of Foreign Legionnaires (including many Eastern European refugees who had fled the Nazis) and African colonial troops, there almost as an afterthought. But then, he also didn't recognise the fort's tactical importance. As it turned out, though, Koenig's men played an absolutely critical role in holding up the Axis advance. That's not to understate the brave conduct of other British and Commonwealth forces, but the men at Bir Hakeim were positioned to make a difference.
The number of Allied soldiers killed or wounded was in the hundreds, while the same figure was in the thousands for Axis soldiers. What tactics and strategy explain the Allied success at Bir Hakeim?
To be fair, in the early part of the battle the defenders faced mainly Italian forces, whose ineptitude in the attack was well known. Once Rommel recognised that the post was holding up his overall attack, however, he deployed the Luftwaffe, artillery, and significant German tank and infantry forces to take the position. Still, the defenders held on. While their tactics in working from well-concealed "hedgehog" positions were effective, however, it was arguably mainly the raw determination of the Free French that allowed them to hold on for as long as they did.
How consequential was the Allied victory at Bir Hakeim - notably, in building up to the victory at El Alamein and in boosting the morale of the Free French forces?
The defence of Bir Hakeim seriously disrupted Rommel's timeline. Although he would eventually all but destroy the British at Gazala, capture Tobruk, and drive his opponents into Egypt and El Alamein, the contest at Bir Hakeim imposed losses that he could ill afford and exhausted the troops involved. It did play a role in the British ability to reassemble and hold in Egypt. More broadly, while it had no direct role in the cancellation of the invasion of Malta, Bir Hakeim deeply complicated Rommel's strategic problems. Most important, it was vital in rejuvenating French pride after the defeats of 1940, helped to elevate De Gaulle who treated the event as a great French victory, and increased Allied confidence - hitherto non-existent - in the Free French. Bir Hakeim should be recognised in France as a critical moment in the country's recovery from 1940 and resurgence as a great European nation.