Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Bir Hakeim - A Guest Post

Readers of this blog would be familiar with Ravi Rajagopalan. Ravi is a very dear friend, a brilliant guy, with an incredible array of interests and knowledge. His cover drive might not have the silken grace of a David Gower, but that's the worst you can say of him. As you might have gathered from comments on my previous post, he is a military buff too and he was motivated enough by my take on El Alamein to write a guest post. As you will see, much better content, much better prose and much better pictures than I am ever capable of. So here is the story of Bir Hakeim , as told by Ravi.

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 8th Army 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”.


gils said...

feels like reading a transcript of COMMANDO comics :) semma writeup.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Ramesh - thank you for having me on your blog. Its an honour. Cheers

Asha said...

just last week a teen from an international school here died because he did not score better marks in his SA1(mid term), he felt disappointed and took the extreme step.

Today's pampered younger generation used to the comforts of life take extreme steps when they don't get what they ask for.

A lesson there for such children and many similar elders here. That of The fighting spirit, it now seems to be a quality of the past.

Enjoyed reading the post. The first paragraph i almost armchair travelled to Paris with such beautiful narration and the succesive paragraphs i visualized the events unfold.

Thank you for such an edutaining post.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@gils - nandri machi! Achtung Schweinhund podarathu thaan micham!

@asha - glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for reading it!

TMM said...

Wonderful. Perhaps one of you (Ramesh/Ravi) must write a post on the famous "Mosquito"- deHavilland DH.98s and their invaluable role in the North Africa theatre. Fuselage constructed entirely of wood, possibly the fastest plane of that era,a beautiful inverted V12 "Gypsy" engine producing 425HP (and todays muscle cars from Chevy/Ford produce as much power), the mossie was a marvel. At one point in time in my career was associated with a company that inherited the deHavilland and produced some brilliant regional turboprops - The Bompardier Dash 8s had the same DNA as the mossie. After many years post decomissioning, the first mossie was reconstructed and restored about a month back, and guess what, flew out of Ardmore airstrip, 7km from home in Auckland. Needless to say, being part of that moment of history being re-created was joy!

J said...

loved your style of storytelling. These stories of remarkable bravery from ordinary men should not be forgotten. And the bit about Rommel caring for the injured soldiers is also a reminder that while it is so easy to see people as good or bad, it is all grey, isnt it.

Venkat said...

Aha, like beautifull Pont De Bir Hakiem bridge connects one side with other, your beautifull wiriting bridge this generation minds to those period. i gues 1st guest post on this blog right?

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Thanks again for the kind comments and for reading.

@TMM: Thanks - must look into it. I used to fly in Dash 8s in China but did not make the link to the mossie!

@J: Many thanks! War is the worst thing possible but it exposes the best side of a person at times - equally the worst as well.

@Venkat: Many thanks. I am glad you enjoyed the piece!

Vishal said...

Oh Wonderful... perhaps JP Dutta will be benefitted by reading these last two posts, when he gets ready to write a script next time.

I must convey that last post on El Alamein would have been definitely incomplete without this one.

Having said this, the real message must not get lost as pointed by several of the readers! :)

Sandhya Sriram said...

Ravi, you are such an amazing combination of knowledge and literature. my god, the writing was almost like poetry. and the content was so thought provoking.

these stories are very inspiring. and it feels really nice when these are brought out in such eloquent style.

Congrats Ravi. You should really write more.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - He's superb writer. He even tried his hand at blogging. Its just that he's so so busy that he doesn't write. In his old age, he will surely write more :)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Vishal: Thanks very much! I have often felt real life is very interesting in itself. Film-makers have made countless movies about El Alamein but the one Ramesh pointed to is actually the best of them and is interesting for a very curious reason: It tells the story from an Italian viewpoint. British propaganda has succeeded in creating an impression that Italians were cowards and wimps. Actually they were good soldiers and in El Alamein they fought a superior force with great skill and courage before losing.

@Sandhya: thanks very much for those very kind words. I am really touched.

@Ramesh: Once again thank you. Its a honour to blog with you and I am happy I was able to satisfy your readers.

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