World War II was raging, and France fell to the Germans. But in the midst of the Saharan Desert, the Free French were still fighting.
This was where their country needed them most — at a remote, crumbling fortress known as Bir Hakeim.
Bir Hakeim sat at the southernmost tip of the Gazala Line.
On one side of the line were 90,000 Germans and Italians under the command of Erwin Rommel. On the other side sat 110,000 Allies who were doing everything they could to stop the man often referred to as “The Desert Fox.”
Approximately 4,000 Free French fighters under the command of Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig had been sent to the barren outpost with the task of holding it against all odds.
They had no cover and no concealment, zero tanks, little hope of resupply, and minimal heavy equipment.
But they would still fight.
On May 27, 1942, thinking that the Free French would be an easy fight, Rommel dispatched the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions along with the Italian Ariete armored division to quickly quell Bir Hakeim as he pushed on further.
He wasn’t counting on their resolve. Koenig knew that his men had zero hope of successfully holding their position unless they dug in.
Over a thousand trenches and dugouts were placed throughout the area. A heavily laid minefield was placed around where attacks were likely to come from.
As the tanks rolled in, that minefield would save their lives.
A total of 31 Axis tanks were taken out on the first wave of the attack by the mines alone. Anti-tank guns took care of the remainder until the Axis realized they needed to withdraw and regroup.
Rommel threw everything he had at Bir Hakeim. He surrounded the region, sending wave after wave of his men.
But all they found was an early grave. The defenders of Bir Hakeim held on.
Artillery was brought in to rain a constant barrage, but the Free French wouldn’t budge.
The Free French Fight On
The Luftwaffe was brought to strafe and bomb these men. And they remained.
It was here that a trick was devised.
The men of Bir Hakeim had no water supply and must have been running out. So, the Germans released a large number of Allied POWs, sending them toward the men of Bir Hakeim.
This stretched the fortress’ water supply even further but they continued to fight.
Eventually, the men could not fight any longer. The British had refused to give Koenig permission to withdraw from the region, but by June 10, Koenig decided they had to make their escape anyway.
Under cover of darkness, Koenig’s men made their escape. But they were discovered. What was initially an orderly retreat quickly turned into every man for himself as the Free French found themselves in hand-to-hand combat.
The majority of the original 4,000 were able to successfully withdraw from the area, though the Battle of Bir Hakeim was a loss for the Allies.
Though the position was lost, the fighting by these men gave the Allies all the time they needed to successfully retreat from Egypt.
The time delay also made it virtually impossible for Hitler to take the island of Malta, a vital supply point for Europe.
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