On 26 May 1942 German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel launched his offensive in Libya with the intention of capturing the Allied port of Tobruk and pushing on to Egypt. This would keep the British at bay so the Italian Army and Navy and German Paratroops could capture Malta in Operation Herkules, which was in the final stages of preparation. The PanzerArmee Afrika feinted along the coast road, and sent the Afrika Korps with most of the German and Italian panzer and armored divisions around the south of the British Gazala line.
The Allies fortified the Gazala Line after stopping Rommel’s Riposte in response to their over-extension during Operation Crusader the winter before. After months of digging in and preparing to renew the offensive, the British, Commonwealth, and other Allied troops defended brigade sized defensive boxes or sand forts reinforced by mines and barbed wire along the forward edge of the battlefield. These boxes ran from the coast road along the Mediterranean south into the desert with the areas in between patrolled by the garrisons. The box furthest south was held by the Free French at the oasis near Bir Hacheim.
Up to this point in the war the Free French were still tainted by the surrender of France two years before and the Vichy French collaboration with the Germans. The determined Vichy defense of Syria and Lebanon the previous summer especially stung. Additionally there were few purely ethnic French formations in the Free French units (most surrendered in 1940) and the majority were French colonial troops or Foreign Legionnaires, considered unreliable or freebooters by the other Allies. The Battle of Bir Hacheim would change all that.
The Free French consisted of two battalions of Legionnaires, a colonial battalion from Central Africa, one battalion from Indochina and the French Pacific possessions, and a motley crew of Arabs, Bedouins, and French sailors and marines. The Free French box at Bir Hachiem suffered the brunt of Rommel’s attack. The fort of Bir Hacheim was the only position preventing Rommel from flanking the entire British line. Rommel expected the fort to fall in one day, but General Marie-Pierre Koenig’s Free French brigade at Bir Hacheim disillusioned him of that notion. The British just north fell back, and Rommel ended up sending the bulk of his five best and most powerful German and Italian Divisions at the French. The German attacks repeatedly bogged down in the face of tenacious French resistance and options for maneuver were limited by what Rommel came to call the “mine marsh” of Bir Hacheim. For sixteen days, Koenig’s Frenchmen held off the best Rommel could throw at them and gave the British to the north the needed time to prevent themselves from being encircled and counterattack.
Only overwhelming firepower from German Stuka dive bombers and a lack of ammunition forced the evacuation of the fort on 10 June. During the escape, the only female French Foreign Legionnaire in history, the Englishwoman Susan Travers, was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre and the Legion’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. She reconnoitered a gap in the Axis encirclement which allowed more than 2/3rds of the French strength, including equipment, to escape back to Allied lines to fight another day.
The Battle of Bir Hacheim lessened the stigma of the French defeat in 1940, delegitimized the Vichy French regime, and proved that Free France was a real partner in the Allied fight against the Germans.