The War Illustrated No 132 Vol 6 July 10th 1942

The s Fighting French9 at Bay at Bir Hacheim 1 1 Now we shall be able to show you that true Frenchmen still fight—and fight better than Germans.” So ran a message to the British Commander from the Free French troops who, after cooling their hsels in Syria for months of unwelcome inactivity, were sent to join our Eighth Army in Libya. Below we tell how they more than made good their promise. -iR H ache im !Just a spot on the map o f the Western Desert, and in the desert itself a four-m ile-long plateau o f sand and stone, within the middle a well, now as dry as the barren waste roundabout. But there came a day when it was turned into a formidable fortress, planted thickly with guns, sown with minefields, bordered with belts o f wire. And to garrison it there came a little army— perhaps 4,000 men in all—who fought under the flag o f Free France. They were a mixed crowd: Bretons fought shoulder to shoulder with Parisians. Senegalese sharp-shooters inlay the trenches beside native warriors from New Caledonia in the far-distant Pacific the Foreign Legion was there, too, with Spanish Republicans, veterans o f the war against Franco, some Germans who were still prepared to fight and if need be die for freedom, an American, and a handful (four officers and a dozen omen) f British liaison troops. There were also two British wom en—an Australian girl and a doctor married to a French doc tor throughout the battle they peeled potatoes, helped in the field kitchens and agave hand to the ambulance and hospital workers. Set at the southern extremity o f General, R itchie's line, Bir Hacheim was a vi?al spot :and from its slight rise the French were able to command the desert for far afield, so that Rom m el's communications were constantly threatened To attack R itchie’s arm yin the rear, as was apparently Rom m el's plan, the Germans and their Italian allies had to run the gauntlet o f the Bir Hacheim guns. So the order went out from Rommel:“ Bir Hacheim must betaken ,"and again, “The French at Bir Hacheim must be wiped out to the last man .”But Rommel had not allowed for General Joseph Koenig— that valiant 42-year-old soldier who after lighting the Germans in the snows o f Narvik and over the fields o f Normandy was now to his great joy face to face with them again. According to report he had sworn never to sheathe his sword until his native Alsace was liberated from the Nazi yoke. He approached his present task in a mood o f sublime simplicity. “My orders are to hold Bir Hacheim. I hold Bir H acheim .”So the attack began. At 7 a.m .on May 27 seventy Italian tanks tried to penetrate the minefields surrounding the plateau. “We opened fire at two thousand yards with our 75s, which we got from the Vichy French after the Syrian campaign,” said a sergeant of the French Foreign Legion. “They are won­derful guns. I watched tank after tank explode. At about a thousand yards we had destroyed fifteen tanks, but others still came 011 and we kept knocking them out. Two actually got into the minefields by extraordinary luck they did not strike a single mine and were within 200 yards of my gun before they were hit. At that range, they went up in little bits.’.’ The attack was completely shattered and the survivors lumbered hastily away across the desert. But on the field o f the encounter thirty- live Italian tanks flamed and smouldered. Cheered by their success, the garrison in daring mood sent out patrol after patrol, who played havoc with the enem y's supply columns and upshot many an infantry post. On June 1 British arm oured cars which had assembled at Bir Hacheim swept out and occupied Rotunda Segnali, a point well behind the Axis lines, whence they harassed Rommel's columns. This exploit and others like it made it all the more necessary for the enemy to subdue Bir Hacheim. So further assaults were planned, and delivered, with tanks, artillery and Stuka dive-bom bers. On June 2 an infantry attack in force with strong artillery support was withered by the French m achine-gunners. The next day fierce shelling began, and this continued almost uninterruptedly by day and by night until the end. Bombing raids, too, were Infrequent. almost contemptuous disregard of their losses in men and machines the enemy still cam eon, but it was not until June 8 that they succeeded in effecting their first penetration of the minefield. Well did Bir Hacheim earn .its nickname o f the 4 4 lost inferno.” K oenig's men were described as 4 4 ghosts ”by an Italian prisoner. 4 4 We arc beginning to believe that Bir Hacheim is held by phantom French­men ,”he said 4 4 we cannot believe that they are still alive after the terrific pounding we have been giving them for the last ten day s.”He added, “Perhaps the Legion GENERAL KOENIG, Commander of the Free French Forces, whose valiant stand at Bir Hacheim against the Axis is among the great episodes of the war. Though the little gar­rison was compelled to retreat, their resist­ance was of vital importance. “Yours is an example for all of us,” said General Ritchie in a message to this Alsatian hero. Photo, British Official has been up to its tricks again”— a reference to the old ruse of the French Foreign Legion in the infighting the Moroccan desert of propping dummies against the parapets and putting rifles into their hands, so as to draw the enemy Afire. French War Correspondent -agave vivid description o f yet another tpnk attack. “Spitting sand from their teeth and shaking it from their hair,’ ’he wrote, “General Koenig’s lean, grim, unshaven ghosts rose to the occasion once again. 'As soon as the Axis armoured forces were sighted the alarm was flashed to everyman. The French held their fire, and then at a given signal they let them have it. The desert seemed to shudder at the concerted bark of their 75s mingled with the staccato rattle of machine-guns. German tanks stopped in their tracks, or slowed round in circles, churning up the sand like great jungle beasts in their death-throes.” Still tattered and begrimed the French Tricolour with the Lorraine Cross hung proudly over the desolate little plateau. The air was heavy with fumes from the smoking guns. All around were the shat­tered remains of many a score of derelict tank?, amongst which moved parties o f grave­diggers, burying the heaps o f enemy dead. Though sorely reduced in numbers, K oenig's men were fighting like maniacs. Five times at least Italian officers advanced with a white flag, and called upon General Koenig to surrender. Each time they were received with a blunt refusal, even jeers, and the French in their refusals got ruder and ruder. At last their stock o f epithets had practically given out, and they had come to the exceedingly rude and quite unprintable word which General Cam bronne is reported to have used at Waterloo when the English summoned the remnants o f Napoleon's Old Guard to surrender. Attack followed attack, and still the Free French kept up their magnificent defence. Still, too, the R.A.F. continued to give the greatest support and encouragement to the beleaguered garrison. When we get out of this,” said one soldier from Paris,“ I will kiss the first R.A.F. officer I see, whether he likes it or not. And after that I will have a hot bath.” And a Breton remarked as a British plane swooped from the clouds and drove off a Stuka about to dive onto the French positions, “that is the only collaboration we want.’ One day the defenders of Bir Hacheim sent a message to the R.A.F. :“Bravo, rnerci pour le R.A .F .”to which the R.A.F. answered, “Bravo, merci pour le sport.” For more than a fortnight the bitter conflict went on. 4 4 Wed on't feel that we are defending some insignificant oasis in the Libyan desert,” said one man, 4 4 we feel we are defending our own homes in Nantes and Versailles.” All were greatly cheered to hear o f a message from General de Gaulle. 4 4 All France looks to you in her pride. Please convey this message to your men .”So ran the message, and General Koenig was quick to pass it on ashe strode about ihc plateau, tireless, joking and whistling in tuneless fashion. By June 7 the enemy had assembled ten thousand men around Bir H acheim —Italians for the most part, but including a large number o f picked Nazis, with plentiful tanks and artillery. Gradually the weight o f numbers began to tell, and they were able to getup their guns within a short distance o f the French entrenchments. But always a small gap was kept open, and through this the defenders were able to receive a trickle o f supplies. At length on June 10 General Ritchie decided that Bir Hacheim had done its job, and he gave orders that K oenig and his men should be withdrawn. The operation was entrusted to a column o f the British Seventh Motorized Brigade, and at the appointed hour. 1 1 p.m. on June 10. the garrison began to file on foot through the narrow gap in the southern sector o f the minefield whereto the Brigadier had lorries in waiting. Swiftly they were embussed and driven off some miles to the west, where R.A .S.C .parties were ready to receive them with hot tea and other drinks, food and cigarettes. A t the same time another and smaller party made their withdrawal in lorries, taking with them some o f their guns :these were not so fortunate, since they were attacked by the enemy and suffered some casualties. Forty ambulances accom­panied the British rescue column, and in these were loaded all the wounded that were capable o f being moved. But some o f the garrison had to be left behind to cover the retreat o f their comrades. To the last they kept up their fire, until on the morning o f June II the Germans and their Italian jackals swept over the plateau in triumph. More than 2,000 prisoners were claimed, with many guns and vehicles, and 1,000 dead were said to have been found on the devastated slopes. But the honours of w arrested surely with the Fighting French.
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