The River Seine cuts through Paris, dividing the city neatly between the elite and the hoi-polloi. Northwest of the city lie the salubrious environs of the 16th Arrondisement. The Passy metro station serves the inhabitants of this quarter, connecting Line 6 from the North to the 15th Arrondisement across the river over a double-decker bridge built in 1904. The beautiful wrought-iron columns of the bridge would be familiar to movie enthusiasts. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider are pictured walking separately and unknown to each other on the bridge one cloudy Paris morning in the opening sequence of “Last Tango in Paris”. As you start walking on the bridge towards the South, you cannot miss the spectacular rise of the Eiffel Tower on the left. No matter how many times you cross the bridge in a day, the sight of the Tower will never fail to make you sigh at its sheer beauty. You reach the Ile de la Cygnes (Island of Swans) in the middle of the river. The bridge widens out on the left hand side into a balcony popular with lovers. On the corner of the balcony is affixed a bronze plaque completely ignored by resident and tourist alike.
This is the Pont de Bir Hakeim.
Bir Hakeim has disappeared from maps today. It was an abandoned oasis and former Turkish fort south of Tobruk in the Libyan desert. South of Bir Hakeim lay one of the great empty stretches of sand in the Libyan desert impassable to man and beast. In 1942, with war having come to North Africa, it was the last of the points on a line drawn from the Mediterranean Coast south towards the Libyan desert west of Tobruk where the Allies girded themselves against General Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Italian Armed Forces. Tobruk was one in a line of ports which would be staging points for the Allies to try and hold off Rommel as he drove towards the Suez Canal in British-held Egypt to cut off the sea route to India and the Persian Gulf to the Allies.
France prepared for the Second World War with a strong Air Force and an impregnable set of defences along with Ruhr called the Maginot Line. In May 1940, after eight months of relative quiet, German forces attacked north of the Maginot Line driving west. By mid-May the British Expeditionary Force was encircled and heroically escaped through Dunkirk in Belgium on anything that could float. The Wehrmacht swung south and raced towards Paris. The French armies fought as best as they could but were defeated by superior tactics. Eight weeks after the Blitzkrieg began, in June 1940, France surrendered. The German Army entered Paris and marched down the Champs Elysees. General Charles de Gaulle escaped to England rather than surrender to the enemy.
Outside France, most French forces surrendered to the Germans once the homeland fell. Except for small groups of stubborn men. None so stubborn as General de Gaulle, who repeatedly called on the French to fight and pleaded with the Allies to take these small groups of men seriously, to take France seriously. With military losses mounting all over the world, there was no room for sentiment. Some French forces were allowed to fight alongside the Allies wherever they could be found. General de Gaulle had symbolic value and emotional significance, but no military value. He was tolerated.
In February 1942, Rommel began his drive towards Tobruk from the west. Facing him was the British 8thArmy under General Sir Claude Auchinleck, consisting of British, Australian, Indian, New Zealand, South African and (a few) Free French regiments. Large parts of the Libyan desert cannot support heavy trucks and tanks. The plan was to move along the coast as far south as possible, surround Tobruk and take it.
Bir Hakeim was allotted to a couple of thousand assorted French troops and Foreign Legionnaires. In overall command was General Marie Pierre Koenig – a colourful character. Knowing that the Germans would hit Bir Hakeim to take Tobruk from the south, he prepared as best as he could, laying minefields and hidden explosives and preparing fortifications. He had about 3000 men, and was vastly outnumbered.
The assault began on the night of May 26, with the Italian armored regiments leading the attack. Successive waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the French positions. German tanks soon joined the attacks. The attacks were non-stop, the fighting was hand-to-hand at places. Water was short – a situation made worse when Indian POWs released by the Germans in the desert a few days before wound up at Bir Hakeim needing medical assistance. General Koenig kept his position resupplied as best as he could, and he held off the Germans.
Rommel now turned his full attention to Bir Hakeim by the first week of June, realizing that he had a serious problem with his supply lines if he did not take the position. Respectful emissaries were sent to General Koenig under white flag, offering fair terms if they surrendered. The emissaries were respectfully spurned. The fighting resumed with renewed ferocity. Fresh German forces now surrounded Bir Hakeim and it was clear that the position would not survive.
General Koenig realized he was done for. He then did something remarkable. He asked wounded French soldiers to man defensive positions and to continue to fire on the enemy. The rest of his troops essentially drove through the French minefield in a daring move to escape north towards British positions. Men and vehicles were lost but the vast majority made it through. General Koenig was driven by Susan Travers, a British woman serving in the Foreign Legion in Bir Hakeim!
On the night of June 11, German forces broke through to Bir Hakeim, only to find a couple of hundred wounded Frenchmen. They had been delayed by three weeks. History says Rommel ignored an order to kill all prisoners and ensured these brave men were treated well in captivity.
Tobruk did fall to the Germans. The German forces did reach El Alamein, to be met by General Montgomery, the new commander of the Eighth Army, who then famously “hit Jerry for six”.
The significance of Bir Hakeim is that France was able to tell the world its spirit was not dead. The fighting soul of France was alive and well. The easy contempt with which some Allied commanders treated the French due to their spectacular defeat turned to grudging respect. About 3000 Frenchmen held off 45000 German and Italian troops. By delaying Rommel for three weeks, the French ensured that the British were able to reinforce their positions east of Tobruk. And ultimately, it contributed to Rommel’s defeat.
The plaque at the Pont de Bir Hakeim is simple and moving.
“At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has not ceased combat”.