Bir Hacheim

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Free French Foreign Legionnaires “leap up from the desert to rush an enemy strong point”, Bir Hacheim, 12 June 1942.

Hakeim

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The 1st French Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Marie Pierre Koenig, was formed in December 1941. It consisted of the 13th Demi-Brigade and several naval infantry battalions. These Fusiliers-Marins provided a bit of color, as the sailors retained their red pom-pom naval caps and the chief petty officers wore their peaked caps. Assigned to the British XIII Corps, the 1st Brigade was posted to the “box” at Bir Hacheim at the left end of the Gazala Line in Libya.

Attacked by the Italian Ariete Division and elements of the German 90th Light Division on 27 May 1941, the 1st Brigade held, despite continuous combat and constant Luftwaffe attack. On 11 June it was ordered to withdraw, breaking through to British lines. Bir Hacheim was the defining battle for the Free French. Prior to it, British support had been lukewarm. However, after the brigade withstood German Afrika Korps assaults longer than any of the Commonwealth “boxes” on the Gazala Line, there were no longer any doubts that the Free French would fight and fight well.

By the time of the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, Free French units were fighting with the British 7th Armoured Division, 50th Infantry Division, and the Long-Range Desert Group. The 1st Free French Division was formed 1 February 1943 for the campaign in Tunisia under Koenig, who was now a major general. After a brief resistance to the Allied landings on 8 November 1942, eight divisions of the French North and West African Armies went over to the Allied side. The XIX Algerian Corps under Major General Alphonse Pierre Juin fought alongside the British First Army in Tunisia, although Juin refused to take orders from the British commander. Additional political problems arose when some elements of the Free French forces refused to associate with the North African ex-Vichy troops.

Legion Defence

The high point for the 13th DBLE and for the entire Legion during WWII: its crucial role in the defense of Bir Hacheim between May 27 and June 10, 1942. Anchoring the southem tip of the British Gazala line, Bir Hacheim was a nine-mile, six-sided box position on a vast plateau, hot as a skillet and blasted by wind and sand. Making up a third of the Free French garrison under the command of General Pierre Koenig were Amilakvari and 957 men of the 13th DBLE. Prince Dimitri Amilakvari of Georgia Russian Revolution at 11 and joined the Legion at 20. “Amilakvari is the Legion,” said Colonel Raoul Magrin-Vemerey . Disdaining to trade his kepi for a helmet, Amilakvari was always immaculately turned out. He believed that “when one risks appearing before God, one must be properly dressed.” Among them were German Jews and leftists fleeing Adolf Hitler, as well as a future premier of France, Pierre Messmer. Koenig’s British driver, Susan Travers, who was enlisted on the spot, would be the only woman ever to serve in the French Foreign Legion. Arriving at Bir Hacheim on February 14, 1942, the Legionnaires and other Free French spent three months digging 1,200 trenches, gun pits and command posts and laying minefields and then waited for the inevitable blow to fall.

The digging paid off; General Erwin Rommel first sent in Italian armor In less than an hour, 33 tanks were blown up in the minefields, blasted almost point blank by Legion gunners (one of the German Legionnaires alone took out seven tanks) or put out of action by Legionnaires shoving grenades through their visors. The stunned Italian commander said after his capture, “We were told we could crush you in 15 minutes.” Rommel outnumbered the Free French by over 10-to-1, but it took him almost 15 days to occupy Bir Hacheim. Amilakvari was always in the thick of it with kepi and cape, as the fighting grew as fierce as the 120-degree heat.

Rommel threw in armor, infantry and combined assaults. The Legionnaires in return “opened fire again with undiminished violence,” Rommel wrote, then countercharged on foot and in open Bren gun carriers. Messmer destroyed 15 German tanks. Lieutenant Jean Deve, a World War I veteran and former railway man, threw himself at German armor to the very end. On the final day he was last seen with his nearly severed head dangling over the side of his carrier. One philosophic Legionnaire who had been his comrade at Narvik said, “We’re the men whose boot prints fill with shells.” German artillery kept on shelling Bir Hacheim. Dive bombers flew 1,400 sorties, unloading 1,500 tons of explosives. The defenses the Legionnaires had helped to build were good ones. Only 14 Legionnaires were killed and 17 wounded during the heavy siege. For the Legion, though, Bir Hacheim was a continuation of its private civil war. One of the Afrika Korps units most remorselessly assaulting Bir Hacheim was the 361st Infantry Regiment, composed of German ex-Legionnaires repatriated, many of them willingly, under the 1940 armistice that Adolf Hitler had forced on Petain.

British command finally authorized a nighttime breakout. The Free French went out in vehicles and on foot. Susan Travers later recalled her adventures in driving Koenig and Amilakvari: “Shells were falling around us like rain and sudden, violent explosions tore the night, showering our car with burning metal…. The wounded who could walk were ordered to get out and continue on foot to lessen the weight of the vehicles picking their way through the mines. From starting off as a reasonably well-planned evacuation it had become a shambolic flight.” Soon on their own, Koenig, Amilakvari and Travers came within yards of a German camp and shot off into the darkness, with German gunfire behind them.

The last stragglers out of Bir Hacheim reached British lines three days later. Covering the flanks of the pullout had proved more costly for the 13th DBLE than the siege: 11 killed, 32 wounded, 37 captured. One of the captured, a Sergeant Eckstein, had an arm amputated just hours before the breakout, but he refused to ride. Luckily, his German nationality went undetected, and he survived captivity.

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