Bir Hacheim

About this time a request came from Cairo for volunteers to go to the Western Desert and serve with the Fighting French. A good many men sent in their names. Twelve were selected. Of that number Tom Esten, George Tichenor, and Stan Kulak are dead; Alex McElwain is a prisoner of war; Arthur Stratton, LeRoy Krusi, and Lorenzo Semple were wounded. Alan Stuyvesant (in command of the group---he had not served with the AFS in Syria) was also captured. All ambulances were lost. The fate of the little group at Bir Hacheim forms one of the most heroic and tragic chapters in the story of the desert war.

Andrew Geer. Chapter Four. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army.MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.

The Gazala line was a series of "boxes," fortified areas linked and surrounded by minefields. Here, and as far back as Tobruk, the British, Aussies, South Africans, Indians, Gurkhas, Free French, New Zealanders, Poles, and many others---infantry, armor, engineers, and artillery---were concentrating for their own attack.

Scott Gilmore. Chapter Eleven. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.

The layout of the Gazala Line was based upon a series of infantry brigade group defensive 'boxes', sited in suitable areas of desert with some tactical significance. Each box was given a defensive perimeter of mines and wire, behind which the defending troops were dug in covered by their brigades' anti-tank guns and field artillery.

W.G.F. Jackson. Chapter Ten. The Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943. Mason/Charter: New York 1975.

Perhaps it would simplify the picture if the system of boxes as used by the Eighth Army at that time is explained. A box is a strong point two to four miles square. This square is surrounded with mine fields and barbed wire. From the rear of the box is a lane or lanes left open for the free flow of supplies and reinforcements. Inside this square is placed a fighting force with a full complement of guns---artillery, antitank, and anti-aircraft. Various boxes are linked with mine fields and are so placed that the artillery within will overlap the neighboring box. Thus, at the beginning of the battle, the British boxes and mine fields extended from the coast on the north to the southern flank at Bir Hacheim approximately forty-five miles. Casualties occurring in any of these boxes were evacuated to Tobruk. From there we transported them eastward. "Let me work in a box" was the cry of every man in the Field Service.

Andrew Geer. Chapter Six. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.

But Bir Hakim camp was most invigorating of all. And that to me was very important. For in Bir Hakim I found again the old spirit of the French Army of 1914-1918. Was it Koenig's doing? De Larminat's? Or was it that the handful of men who had cut themselves off from their nation were at last free, and had come in sight of their goal? They had fought their compatriots in Syria and gnashed their teeth, some had fought the Italians in Eritrea, now after months of waiting they were going to fight the enemy who had marched on Paris and turned a marshal of France into a coward. They were still only a handful of men, and at that a motley collection. Two battalions of the Foreign Legion, one regiment of Marines (Fusiliers Marins), one battalion of marine infantry, spahis, North Africans, blacks from the Pacific; but there was a spirit in them that made them alike and not like the men we had met in Lorraine. These men were tough, they were hard, they were aching for a fight and would know how to take punishment. They were like the poilus of 1914.

Mary Borden. Chapter 10. Journey Down a Blind Alley. New York: Harper & Bros, 1946.

Pictured in front of their dug-out inside the Bir Hacheim garrison are the members of the AFS section attached to the Fighting French Forces. This photo was taken just a few days before the tragic evacuation of Hacheim, and includes left to right: Arthur Stratton, Stanley Kulak, Lorenzo Semple, George Tichenor and Alexander McElwain.

Throughout the duration of our period in the desert, our work consisted chiefly of evacuating wounded and sick of the area in and around Bir Hacheim to Bir bu Maafes. As Bir Hacheim was the centre of operations, we used Bir Maafes as a reserve and repair point for such cars as were not needed at Hacheim. Of our twenty cars, we kept seven at Hacheim, ten at Maafes, and about three out with the French patrols which went out from time to time to contact the enemy.

AFS Letters, 1942-1945. No. 6., September 1942. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.

A radio message was sent to Bir Hacheim, calling for a relief column of ambulances. Alan Stuyvesant and all the rest of the AFS drivers started off at once that night, the night of 1/2 June. After a grueling drive across the desert they arrived at the rendezvous at seven in the morning. Heavy dust storms protected them from air attacks. The wounded were delivered in the relief ambulances which immediately started back to Hacheim. On the way, about fifteen miles from their destination, Stuyvesant had a flat tire. He insisted that the others go on, as they had wounded aboard. One of the Foreign Legion drivers they had borrowed, a Persian, remained behind to help him.

Meanwhile, entirely unknown to any of them, the Germans were moving heavy forces up to Bir Hacheim for a real full-scale attempt to take the stronghold, which was interfering with their communications. The other eight AFS ambulances slipped into camp just as the Germans started to shell them. Stuyvesant was not so fortunate. It seems (wrote Sample) that he was actually within sight of the camp when a German armored car rushed up and captured him.

AFS News Bulletin, No. 4, November 1942. Published by Members of the American Field Service in the Middle East.

It was the turn of Bir Hacheim. This fortress, once the left flank peg of the Gazala defences, was the last impediment to Rommel's resumed drive on Tobruk. For ten days under fierce attack, it now was assaulted by a major part of the Panzerarmee and the Luftwaffe. Once Bir Hacheim fell, Rommel would be able to roll up the Gazala line as far as Knightsbridge; Eighth Army would have to form a front parallel to its communications. Rommel therefore pushed on the attack in person. On the British side, nothing decisive was done either to relieve the fortress or evacuate it.

Correlli Barnett. Part IV. Chapter Two. The Desert Generals. New York: Berkeley. 1960.

Rommel had not suffered at all. He had repulsed and destroyed the expected British counter-attack on the Cauldron and was free to turn his attention on Bir Hacheim. He set 8 June as the target date for Koenig's destruction and set off personally to supervise its execution. Ritchie was in two minds as to whether Koenig should evacuate Bir Hacheim, but Auchinleck advised against this because it would release German army and air resources at a time when Eighth Army needed as much time as possible to reorganise after the Cauldron failure.

8 June was a grim but triumphant day for the Free French. The Luftwaffe reopened its attacks using over 100 aircraft, and the German artillery provided 90th Light's infantry with effective support. French resistance did not falter, but by dusk Koenig was forced to report his men were nearing exhaustion and eating their reserve rations. Ritchie issued a warning order to prepare for evacuation. Rommel, on his side, summoned 15th Panzer Division less its panzer regiment to reinforce 90th Light and ordered a new assault for 10 June. The air and artillery preparation for this assault went on during 9 June. 7th Motor and 29th Indian Brigade Groups forced 90th Light to turn and face them, relieving some of the pressure, but the German assault on 10 June, which was supported by Axis aircraft dropping about 130 tons of bombs, resulted in one German assault group gaining a foothold in the French positions. Ritchie authorised the evacuation that night. 7th Motor Brigade Group ran a large convoy of trucks to within five miles of the western perimeter of Koenig's Box ready for the break-out. 2,700 out of 3,000 Frenchmen reached safety, having created an epic which did much to re-establish the tarnished reputation of French soldiers. Koenig had bought precious time for Ritchie to regain the initiative, which he and Auchinleck talked about so much in their letters to each other, but proved so singularly incapable of achieving.

W.G.F. Jackson. Chapter Eleven. The Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943. Mason/Charter: New York 1975.

At 11 P.M. the 4 AFS ambulances slowly drove to the southwest corner of the camp, where the engineers had been cutting a passage through the minefields, and took their places in the line waiting to drive through the opening, a zig-zag passage about 500 yards long and up to 15 yards wide at its broadest point, flanked with loose coils of barbed wire. Tichenor was followed by Semple, then by Kulak and McElwain in one car, and finally by Stratton, all cars carrying as many wounded as they would hold. There was an agonizing delay before the column, led by General Koenig, started its flight for freedom. Then, just as they began to drive forward, a star shell burst directly over the concentration of men and vehicles, and the Germans opened fire with machine guns, rifles, and the light Breda antitank cannons. Miraculously, for the first 10 or 15 minutes the Germans' aim was universally high, but finally they got the range and slammed burst after burst of machine-gun fire into the ranks of men on foot as well as into the vehicles, until the whole scene was luridly illuminated by burning trucks.

George Rock. Chapter Three. History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956

The Goat has told you about that night we left. I found out from various men in the hospitals what happened to Tich. The last I saw of him alive was when I ran down the line of ambulances to see who wanted a half-bottle of gin I had extra. The Goat was o.k.; Tich said he only liked gin with lemons and ice and water. I finally got rid of it between Mac and Stan Kulak. Then our convoy started up again, and the fireworks began. They were shooting 20 m.m. Bredas from both sides of us, and from in front, so we drove through streams of fire. Anyhow, they were incendiary and tracer bullets, which was something, for you could see them coming. You could see the Bofors shells, too, flying low overhead. The grenades and trench mortars, the 50 m.m. canon shells, all burst with a noise and a flash, but they came blackly. It is horrible to be towed, and to have no control of your vehicle, but it happened too quickly for me to be afraid, just very busy. But I must have been terrified when the ambulance burst into flames, and I found that I couldn't walk or use my left arm and hand. Later on I counted thirty-five holes in me, and that doesn't include the pinheads. But I was very lucky, for the fragments had to go through the sheet metal wall between the motor and the driver's seat. I was reaching, futilely, for the emergency, for the brakes shot out, when the burst of explosive bullets hit the engine, so that bits and pieces went through my shoes and into my toes, and sprayed both legs and my hand, wrist, and forearms. But no bones and no joints were broken. The nerve was paralyzed for a couple of weeks. The doctor made the muscles jump with Galvanic action in the hospital. This was astounding.

AFS News Bulletin, No. 2., August 1942. Published by Members of the American Field Service in the Middle East, 1942-43.

The story of the sortie from Bir Hakim came to us in fragments. It was brought by the wounded, by the men who had followed Koenig down the narrow lane between the wire and fought their way through the German lines with hand grenades and bayonets, to fall and be picked up in the lurid confusion and loaded pell-mell into ambulances, trucks, anything that was handy. We had it from excited mouths that were twisted with pain, it came in gurgles as the blood spurted, in soft whispers and savage ejaculation and it sounded through the ether masks of the theater; it was a story of triumph.

The atmosphere in the hospital was tense on the eleventh. Wild rumors flew round the camp. The garrison of Bir Hakim had surrendered, had been overrun, had been killed to a man. But the wounded began to arrive in the early morning and soon all the hospital was filled with the sound of jubilant voices calling to each other from beds and stretchers; greetings, curses, shouts of defiance, and laughter and groans all mixed together.

[...]The reception tent was out of control. They wouldn't lie still. Each arrival was greeted with shouts, questions. They laughed while we dressed their wounds---they couldn't stop talking.

Koenig came in the afternoon. I saw him standing in the middle of the compound with General Catroux and went up to him. He was unshaved, his khaki beret was over one eye, he was laughing convulsively, he swayed on uncertain feet as he bowed to me, he looked slightly mad.

I took him across to one of the wards and as he entered the door of the tent a shout went up and the men rose in their beds. They couldn't all lift themselves up, and they couldn't all see him. Some had thick bandages over their eyes and some were encased in plaster. But it was as if all had leaped to their feet. And he went to them waving his arms and laughing and called them each by name and took their hands in his and all the tent was in a tumult of joy. It was the same in each ward.

I have become too accustomed to surgical wards filled with battle casualties to be easily moved; the visits of commanding officers have ceased to be events in our hospital life. But this was different from anything I had seen; this was not the visit of condolence of a general to men who had been sacrificed; it was a celebration. It was a meeting of friends who had waited a long time for the test that was to prove to them that they were what they claimed to be; now they had come through the test and had won the right to be called the fighting men of France. My eyes were wet as I watched the carnival of General Koenig with his wounded men.

Mary Borden. Chapter 11,Journey Down a Blind Alley. New York: Harper & Bros, 1946.

AFS Unit with the Fighting French after Bir Hacheim
University Ambulance No. 4

* * *

More about Bir Hacheim

Mary Borden. Journey Down a Blind Alley. New York: Harper & Bros, 1946.

I lived on the beach at Tobruk with the main part of the unit but went to Bir Hakim every few days. T. W. moved up there early in February and stayed, save for a week or two, now and then when Rosie relieved her, until the women were all ordered out at the end of May. Alan Moorhead states that there were two women in Bir Hakim during the final battle but I don't think that is true. There were four until the Germans launched their big attack. Nancy Smith, Madame Butherne and Kit Tatham-Warter of the Hadfield-Spears Unit and Susan Travers who was driving one of Koenig's cars. Madame Asquins had been there with her husband for a short time, but she didn't like it so they came back to Tobruk quite early.

All the valiant four were ordered out when the situation became very serious, much to their disgust. But Susan Travers got back. General de Larminat, who had established his H.Q. in the Solum region, sent her up with a letter to Koenig and once she got there she stayed until the end. She came out with the garrison on the night of June 12 driving Koenig's Ford van. He had had two cars damaged under him and was standing in the lane when she came along, so she drove him out. I went down the lane some months later. It was still clearly marked with wire because of the mine fields to either side and it cannot have been a pleasant drive with the Germans at the end of it machine-gunning the convoy by the light of the burning trucks. But I have been told that Susan was as cool as if driving down Caser el nil in Cairo and I am sure it is true. For she is an intrepid woman and the great admiration we all feel for her was T. W.'s one consolation. Furious at having been ordered out, and very envious of Susan, T. W. forgave her for doing what she would so have liked to do herself because she admired her so much.

AFS Letters, 1942-1945. No. 29, September 1944. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.

In retrospect, one realizes that the French resistance at Bir Hacheim perhaps made the difference, gave the British time to retreat and reform at Alamein. At the time, that was not apparent. The new armour that had, so slowly been brought from America around the Cape; had been destroyed at Knightsbridge; Bir Hacheim for all the heroism of its defenders had fallen; Tobruk with the bulk of its large garrison, with all its supplies, had been lost almost at once; Matruh had gone; the armies were streaming back in a seething mass towards the Delta; G.G.Q. at Cairo was burning its papers in preparation for evacuation. The British if they should be lucky, might retreat to Palestine, and hold out there for a time on supplies brought across the Syrian desert from the Persian Gulf. But it looked like a losing game.