Battle of Bir Hakeim

Battle of Bir Hakeim is part of Battle of Gazala. The latter is a very important battle in North Africa during World War 2. Free French forces were responsible for defending Bir Hakeim in this battle. With outstanding performance, the forces delayed the Axis forces offensive, making Free French forces that were in charge of very minor tasks become the most successful Allies forces in this battle.

After Free French was defeated in 1940, Charles de Gaulle established the Free French movement. He led his troops to continue fighting overseas along with the Allies. Before Battle of Gazala broke out, the 1st Brigade of the Free French forces was deployed at the left wing of the defense of the Allies. The brigade had only a total of 3700 people. The French army commander was Marie-Pierre Kœnig. In this force, the French Foreign Legion accounted for one third, those came from French colonies accounted for one third and the remaining troops came from French mainland. As the Allies occupied Syria and Lebanon controlled by Vichy France, this French army was able to make use of weapons seized in there, therefore most of its equipment was French style and maintained the typical characteristics of the French army. Moreover, the British also supported a part of the weapons. At that time, the force was under control of the British 7th Armored Division. Because the Germans took circuitous tactics from the right-wing of the Allies to attack, so the Free French forces were first attacked. Although the French army was attacked by the enemy, it still held the position. But in less than a day after the battle started, its superior the 7th Armored Division had been occupied by the Germans, thus the French not only became isolated, but also was unable to get rescue.

The French Army’s location was very important, because if the location could not be occupied, Rommel’s forces deep into the enemy lines would be cut off supply lines, unless the Axis could open a channel between the French and the adjacent British 70th Infantry Division. But this area was fully laid mines by the Allies the Italian Army 132nd Armored Division met another brigade of the 7th Armored Division while advancing and took just a few hours to defeat it and killed and captured the enemy forces of more than 1500 people with the losses of their own less than 100 people. After that, the division got close to the French positions from the rear. Although the original plan of Rommel did not include this area, some of the Italian Army still launched an offensive. It is reckoned that the Italian Army was affected by the previous comparably easy victory and hoped to win again. But the Italian Army was unexpectedly tenacious blocked and lost dozens of tanks and then stopped the attack. The war broke out on May 26 when the supplies of the French army could only last up to 10 days. Fortunately, on May 31 a supply convoy arrived, not only bringing the supply of resources, but also transporting wounded and captured to the rear. The Axis forces eventually wiped out the British 150th Infantry Brigade to the north of the French army and opened up the supply routes and it also disconnected the last contact of the French army with the outside world and made it completely surrounded by the Axis forces.

Although it was an isolated stronghold surrounded, the location of the French army was very close to the supply lines newly opened by Rommel, so it caused a not small threat. After the elimination of 150 Infantry Brigade, Rommel sent armored division each from the German and Italian Army attack Bir Hakeim. In the morning of June 2, the Germans and the Italians attacked from two directions simultaneously of north and south. As the Axis forces held a great advantage, so it persuaded the French to surrender. But the defenders rejected this proposal. Free French forces would not surrender easily. They were in a position different from forces of other countries. Because the universally recognized legitimate government of France was Vichy France. If Free French surrendered and then be forwarded to Vichy, there would be risk of being sentenced to treason. Free French leader Charles de Gaulle was sentenced in absence to death by Vichy government. Although the Axis forces launched offensives for continuous days, the French Army successfully held the position. Their ammunition, food and water could only support till June 10. The French army eventually resisted till the last day when the supplies were completely consumed and in the evening of June 10 broke out towards the direction of southwest and eventually most of them broke through the encirclement with only 800 people captured, including the wounded withdrew. Eventually about 75% of the French troops successfully retreated from Bir Hakeim.

Excellent performance of the French army won some time for the Allies. Although the Allies finally were repulsed back to Egypt, if the French army was defeated at the beginning of the battle, the failure suffered by the Allies would probably be more disastrous and Rommel would be more likely to completely defeat the Allies troops in the next battle.

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