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Bir Hakeim (or occasionally Bir Hacheim) is a remote oasis in the Libyan desert, and the former site of a Turkish fort. During the Battle of Gazala, the 1st Free French Division of General Marie Pierre Kœnig defended the site from 26 May-11 June 1942 against attacking German and Italian forces directed by Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel.
The old Turkish fortress was later a route station for the Italian camel corps. The wells at the place had long been dried out and it was abandoned until British troops occupied it and built a strong point against the advancing axis troops. The British troops were relieved by the 1st Free French Division, commanded by Général Marie Pierre Kœnig. The unit, created from several distinct groups fleeing the German's military occupation of France and Italy's invasion of the Basque Country. The small New Zealand, Free Polish and British Indian detachments in the fort would be added to its strength. It had 3,853 men and at least one woman, split into six battalions, each entrenched in to various defensive 'boxes' made up of landmines, wire and trenches guarded by machine guns and anti-tank rifles.
The German forces opposing them were reinforced by fascist Italians and flangeist Spanish. The inadequate Spanish and Italian Fiat L6/40 and M13/40 tanks would prove of little value to the Axis campaign, whilst the German Panzer IV tanks that did meet the task ahead of them with success. Rommel's tanks and cannon were stronger than their British counterparts, most notably the famous 88 mm (3.46 in) anti-tank gun. </span>
Rommel took the initiative and started his attack on the night of 26 May 1942. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, the rest of the 90th Motorized Infantry Division, and the Italian Trieste and Ariete Divisions started the large encircling move south of Bir-Hakeim as planned, whilst other support forces moved to the north. The British Indian armoured units, taken by surprise, reacted in an improvised and unorganized manner at the attack and took heavy casualties, unlike the well dug in Free French. Learning about the enemy moves, General Kœnig awoke his men and ordered them to take their battle positions. North of Bir Hakeim, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade had been annihilated, and two weakened British brigades, the 4th and the motorized 7th Armoured, were forced to retreat to Bir-el-Gubi and to El-Adem, leaving Bir-Hakeim completely isolated and cut off.
Italy would launch an attack on the morning of the 9th, but was quickly driven off due to the inferior quality of their tanks.
On the morning of 10 June, the heavy German and Italian bombings started up in earnest, and assault was launched against the Oubangui-Chari and 3rd Foreign Legion battalion lines, preceded by a raid of 100 Stukas on the fort. The tanks of the 15th Panzer Division nearly overpowered the sector, but a last ditch counter-attack supported by Free French and Free Polish Bren Carriers, anti-tank rifles and the last mortar rounds, eventually repulsed them. After another attempt the Axis forces delayed the attack to the next morning, not knowing that the defenders had run out of ammunition or that the camp's water tank had been ruptured by stray tank round the day before in otherwise failed Italian attack on the 9th.
A sharp surprise armoured thrust by several Vichy French Char B1 tanks that afternoon finally sent the Allied garrison in to full retreat, after much heavy and cruel fighting, as supplies of ammunition and water fell to crisis levels.
The Free French the organised a complex evacuation of the encircled forces in the morning of the 11th. All heavy equipment was not being removed sabotaged as the 2nd foreign battalion prepared to break through the lines to rendezvous with the British 7th Motorized Brigade, seven km to the southwest.
Free French Foreign Legionnaires made a diversionary attack on an Italian strong point destroying a , 12 June 1942.
Erwin Rommel had already received orders from Hitler, on June 6th, to kill all enemy soldiers regardless of if they were fighting, retreating or surrendering. Hitler just thought the Free French and Free Polish troops were politically motivated partisans rather than regular soldiers in exile so he though also hosted political refugees from Germany. When Rommel read the telegram he burned it and took Free French and Free Polish soldiers as regular POWs, since he appreciated there integrity, bravery and fighting spirit. These prisoners would be finally exiled to the USA.
This list of battles will end here, unless someone else wants to continue it or the main TL, if User:Germanyarmy 17 wishes.220.127.116.11 04:56, November 14, 2011 (UTC)
Causes of the conflict
Capturing and holding the old fort at Bir Hakeim was seen as a tactical necessity in the otherwise hot, flat, fetureless and totally unforgiving Libyan desert.
The Indian, Spanish and Italian troops were well suited to the heat and trench warfare was used to full effect slowing down the advancing tanks.
A wafer thin German victory