The 'Battle of Bir Hakeim' was fought between Axis and Free French forces at Bir Hakeim, an oasis in the Western Desert area of Libya to the south and west of Tobruk, during the 'Battle of Gazala' (26 May/11 June 1942).
The 1st Free French Brigade, under the command of Général de Brigade Marie-Pierre Koenig, defended this position from 26 May to 11 June against Axis forces of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' commanded by Generaloberst Erwin Rommel. The Axis forces captured Tobruk 10 days later. However, the delay imposed on the Axis offensive by the defence of Bir Hakeim influenced the cancellation of 'Herkules', the planned Axis airborne operation against Malta. Rommel invaded Egypt, slowed by British delaying actions until the 1st Battle of El Alamein in July, where the Axis advance was stopped. Both sides used the battle for propaganda purposes, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, declaring the Free French to be the 'Fighting French'.
At the beginning of 1942, after its defeat in western Cyrenaica during 'Theseus', the British 8th Army under the command of Lieutenant-General N. Ritchie faced the Axis troops in Libya about 30 miles (48 km) to the west of the port of Tobruk, along a line running from the coast at Gazala, south for about 30 miles (48 km). Each side built up its supply stocks for an offensive to forestall their opponent and General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command, hoped that the 8th Army would be ready by May. British codebreakers tracked the despatch of convoys to Libya with reinforcements and supplies for the Axis forces as the British offensive on Axis shipping to North Africa was neutralised by Axis bombing of Malta and forecast that the Axis forces would be the first to attack.
As the 8th Army was not ready to take the offensive, Ritchie planned to fight a defensive battle on the 'Gazala Line'. Auchinleck’s appreciation of the situation to Ritchie in the middle of May anticipated either a frontal attack on the centre of the 'Gazala Line' followed by an advance on Tobruk, or a flanking move to the south, looping around the end of the 'Gazala Line' and then thrusting toward Tobruk. Auchinleck saw the former as the more likely, with a feint on the flank to draw away the 8th Army’s tanks, but Ritchie favoured the latter. Auchinleck suggested that British armour be concentrated near El Adem, where it would be well placed to meet either threat.
Since the 'Crusader' offensive late in 1941, the 8th Army had received US-built M3 Grant medium tanks with a 37-mm gun in a turret and a 75-mm (2.95-in) gun in a starboard-side hull sponson. The latter could penetrate the armour of the opposing PzKpfw III Ausführung H and J medium tanks and the PzKpfw IV battle tank models at between 650 and 850 yards (590 and 780 m). The frontal armour of the Grant was thick enough to withstand the 50-mm PaK 38 anti-tank gun at 1,000 yards (915 m) and the short-barrelled 50-mm KwK 38 gun of the PzKpfw III at 250 yards (230 m (250 yd). The first 112 of the new British 6-pdr (57-mm) anti-tank guns had arrived and been allotted to the armoured divisions' motor brigades.
At the meeting of Axis leaders at Berchtesgaden on 1 May, it was agreed that Rommel should attack at the end of the month to capture Tobruk. The Panzerarmee 'Afrika', which was known to the Italians as the Armata Corazzata 'Africa', was to pause at the Egyptian border while the Axis forces took Malta in 'Herkules', and Rommel was then to invade Egypt. The Panzerarmee 'Afrika' had finished converting to the up-armoured PzKpw III Ausf. H and had received 19 PzKpfw III Ausf. J tsanks, known to the British as the Mark III Special, with the long-barrelled 50-mm KwK 39 gun. Four PzKpfw IV Ausf. G (Mark IV Specials) with long-barrelled 75-mm (2.95-in) KwK 40 guns had also arrived. The Abwehr German military intelligence service had broken some British military codes and late in 1941 penetrated Black, the code used by Colonel Bonner Fellers, a US military attaché in Egypt. The British divulged much tactical information to Fellers, who unwittingly reported it to the Axis as well as the US government.
Attacks by the German and Italian air forces on Malta reduced its offensive capacity, and some supply convoys from Italy reached the Axis forces in North Africa with fewer losses. Until May, Axis monthly deliveries to Libya averaged 60,000 tons, less than a smaller Axis force received from between June and October 1941 but sufficient for an offensive. The 900-mile (1450-km) advance to Gazala succeeded because the port of Benghazi was open, reducing the transport distance for about one-third f the supplies for the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' to 280 miles (450 km). The planned capture of Malta would not alter the constraints of port capacity and distance, but protection convoys and the use of a large port close to the front would still be necessary.
'Venezia' was the Axis plan of attack, and was conceived on the basis of an armoured force making a deep southward flanking advance around the 1st Free French Brigade holding the Bir Hakeim 'box' at the southern extremity of the 'Gazala Line'. On the left of this movement, General de Divisione Giuseppe de Stefanis’s Italian 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' was to neutralise the Bir Hakeim 'box'. Farther to the south, Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision and Oberst Eduard Crasemann 15th Panzerdivision were to advance through the desert, move east and then wheel to the north behind the 'Gazala Line' to destroy the British armour and cut off the infantry divisions in the line. The most southerly part of the attacking formation, a Kampfgruppe of Generalmajor Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision was to advance to El Adem, to the south of Tobruk, cut the supply routes from the port to the 'Gazala Line' and hold the British troops at Tobruk by a ruse involving the use of aircraft-engines, mounted on trucks, to raise dust and thereby simulate the presence of a major armoured force.
The 90th Afrikadivision contained an unusual regiment. The Germans had combed the French Foreign Legion in French North Africa and impressed some 2,000 German légionnaires into German service. Germans had been urged by the Nazi régime not to join the Foreign Legion and those who did so were given a rough reception as unpatriotic elements, being classified Wehrunwürdig/999 (unworthy of military service/999), the numerical suffix being used for units formed of such men. Though not condemned in a court, these men were assigned mainly for political reasons. The bulk of these ex-légionnaires were formed into the 361st Infanterieeegiment 'Afrika' (mot), also known as the 361st Verstärktes Afrikaregiment (361st Reinforced Africa Regiment).
The rest of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Ettore Baldassare’s Italian XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato, Generale di Brigata Arnaldo Azzi’s 101st Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste[, was to open a gap in the British minefield to the north of Bir Hakeim, near the Sidi Muftah 'box', to create a supply route to the armoured force. Rommel anticipated that having dealt with the British tanks, he would have captured El Adem, Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh by the fall of night, and later the Knightsbridge defensive 'box', about 25 miles (40 km) to the north-east of Bir Hakeim. The Axis tanks would thus be in a position on the following day to thrust to the west against the rear of the 8th Army defensive boxes between Gazala and Alem Hamza, meeting the eastward attack by the Italian forces of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Benvenuto Gioda’s X Corpo d’Armata and the XXI Corpo d’Armata. By this time late in May, the Axis forces comprised 90,000 men, 560 tanks and 542 aircraft.
Between Gazala and Timimi, just to the west of Tobruk, the 8th Army was able to concentrate its forces sufficiently to turn and fight. By 4 February, the Axis advance had been halted and the front line had been stabilised from Gazala on the coast, some 30 miles (48 km) to the west of Tobruk, to the old Ottoman fortress of Bir Hakeim, 50 miles (80 km) to the south. This 'Gazala Line' was a series of defensive boxes each accommodating a single brigade, laid out across the desert behind minefields and wire, watched by regular patrols between the boxes. The Free French were in the south at the Bir Hakeim 'box', 13 miles (21 km) to the south of Brigadier C. W. Haydon’s 150th Brigade 'box', which was 6 miles (10 km) to the south of Brigadier L. L. Hassall’s 69th Brigade 'box'. The line was not evenly manned, with a greater number of troops covering the coast road, leaving the south less well protected by men, but deep minefields had been laid in front of the boxes.
The length of the British line made an Axis attack round its southern flank more difficult to supply. Behind the 'Gazala Line' were the Commonwealth Keep, Acroma, Knightsbridge and El Adem 'boxes', sited to block tracks and junctions. The box at Retma was finished just before the Axis offensive but work on the Point 171 and Bir el Gubi 'boxes' did not begin until 25 May. By the time late in May, Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division was dug in nearest the coast, with Major General W. H. Ramsden’s 50th Division to the south and the 1st Free French Brigade farthest left at Bir Hakeim. The British armour, in the form of Major General H. Lumsden’s 1st Armoured Division and Major General F. W. Messervy’s 7th Armoured Division, waited behind the main line as a mobile counterattack force, Major General H. B. Klopper’s South African 2nd Division garrisoned Tobruk and Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division was in reserve. The British had 110,000 men, 843 tanks and 604 aircraft.
The fortress at Bir Hakeim had been built by the Ottomans and later used as a station by the Italian camel corps to control movement at the crossroads of two Bedouin paths. The wells had long been dry and had been abandoned, but Indian troops reoccupied the site and build a strongpoint surrounded by 50,000 mines. The fortification was approximately a pentagon pointing to the north, measuring about 2.5 by 3 miles (4 by 4.8 km). On 14 February, the 150th Brigade was replaced as the occupier of the 'box' by the 1st Free French Brigade, which was part of Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps. With a combat strength of 3,000 men and a rear echelon of about 600 men, the latter based 15 miles (24 km) to the east behind the line, the brigade comprised the 13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère, an established unit and the backbone of the Free French, and the 2ème Demi-Brigade Coloniale, a fresh combination of two battalions of new volunteers.
The 13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère had been formed to fight in Finland but was first initially used in the Norwegian campaign and became the first unit to the join the Free French movement in England. It was a veteran of the fighting in Italian Eritrea and French Syria against Vichy French forces. The half-brigade was reinforced by about 1,000 légionnaires and two officers of the defeated 6ème Régiment Etranger d’Infanterie, which now constituted the brigade’s third battalion. By the middle of May, the perimeter and central areas of the 'box' had been honeycombed with 1,200 trenches, foxholes, gun emplacements and underground bunkers, deep camouflaged hides for vehicles and supply dumps. The interior of the 'box' was divided into zones, each the responsibility of a unit, with Koenig’s headquarters near the centre at the crossroads. The V-shaped anti-tank and anti-personnel minefields were patrolled by the 3ème Bataillon de Légion Étrangère in 63 Bren Gun Carriers of three squadrons. The patrols moved along lanes in the minefields, paying particular attention to the area north to the Sidi Muftah 'box' at Got el Ualeb, held by the 150th Brigade.
At 14.00 on 26 May, the X Corpo d’Armata and XXI Corpo d’Armata began their frontal assault on the central portion of the 'Gazala Line'. A few elements of General Ludwig Crüwell’s (from 29 May General Walther Nehring’s) Deutsches Afrika Korps and the Italian XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato participated, and during the day the bulk of the Deutsches Afrika Korps moved to the north to give the impression that this was the main attack. After dark, the armoured formations turned to the south in a sweeping move around the southern end of the 'Gazala Line'. Early on 27 May, the main force of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika', the Deutsches Afrika Korps, XX Corpo d’Armata motorizzato and the 90th leichte Division, passed round the southern end of the 'Gazala Line', exploiting the British minefields to protect the Axis flank and rear. The 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' was held up for about one hour by Brigadier A. A. E. Filose’s Indian 3rd Motor Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, which was dug in about 3.7 miles (6 km) to the south-east of Bir Hakeim.
The 15th Panzerdivision engaged Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade, which had come south to support the Indian 3rd Motorised Brigade and the 7th Motorised Brigade. The Germans were surprised by the range and power of the 75-mm (2.95-in) guns of the new M3 Grant tanks, but by a time late in the morning the 4th Armoured Brigade had withdrawn toward El Adem and Axis armoured units had advanced more than 25 miles (40 km) to the north. Their advance was stopped at about 12.00 by the 1st Armoured Division in fighting which was mutually costly. On the right, the 90th leichte Division forced the 7th Motorised Brigade out of Retma east toward Bir el Gubi. Advancing toward El Adem in the middle of the morning, armoured cars of the 90th leichte Division overran and scattered the advanced headquarters of the 7th Armoured Division near Bir Beuid. Messervy was captured, removed his insignia and persuaded the Germans that he was a batman, and then escaped with several other men to rejoin the division. The 90th leichte Division reached the area of El Adem by the middle of the morning and captured several supply dumps. On the following day, the 4th Armoured Brigade moved on El Adem and forced the 90th leichte Division[/e[ to fall back to the south-west.
On 27 May, the 15th Panzerdivision, 21st Panzerdivision, the rest of the 90th leichte Division and the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' began their planned large encircling move to the south of Bir Hakeim. The Indian 3rd Motor Brigade was surprised at 06.30 on 27 May and overrun at Point 171, 4 miles (6.4 km) to the south-east of Bir Hakeim, by the 132o Reggimento Carri of the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' and some German tanks, losing about 440 men and most of its equipment. The 7th Motor Brigade was then attacked at Retma and forced back to Bir el Gubi. The 4th Armoured Brigade advanced in support and collided with the 15th Panzerdivision: the 8th Hussars were destroyed and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment lost many tanks. The British inflicted considerable losses in return but then retired to El Adem.
After overrunning the Indian 3rd Motor Brigade, the medium tanks of the 8, 9 and 10/132o Reggimento Carri moved to the north-east of Bir Hakeim and the 9/132o Reggimento Carri's 60 tanks changed direction toward the fort, reaching Bir Hakeim’s minefield and barbed wire at 08.15, charged and lost 31 of its tanks and a self-propelled gun. Some 10 tanks got through the minefield and were knocked out by 75-mm (2.95-in) anti-tank guns, causing 124 Italian casualties. The remnants of the 9/132o Reggimento Carri then retired to the main body of the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete', which moved to the north in the direction of Bir el Harmat at about 12.00 in accord with Rommel’s original plan.
On 28 May, Air Vice Marshal A. Coningham’s Western Desert Air Force made a maximum effort to attack Axis columns around El Adem and Bir Hakeim, but in the poor visibility accidentally bombed Bir Hakeim and its surroundings, misled by the Italian tank wrecks around the position, and Koenig then despatched a detachment to destroy the wrecks to avoid any more such errors. A Free French column was sent to make contact with the 150th Brigade, stationed farther to the north, but after a few hours Italian artillery forced the column to retire: even so, the Free French column destroyed seven half-track vehicles. On 29 May, the detachment of Capitaine Gabriel de Sairigné destroyed three German tanks, British air attacks intercepted two raids by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka single-engined dive-bombers, and fighter-bombers attacked Axis supply lines to the south and east of Bir Hakeim. On 30 May, 620 men of the Indian 3rd Motor Brigade, captured by the Axis and then released in the desert, reached the fort and added to the 243 prisoners already there, thus making more acute the water shortage already a major factor in the 'box'. The detachment of Capitaine Lamaze, at the request of the 7th Armoured Division, sealed the breach opened the day before by the Axis tanks in the minefields. Led by Colonel Dimitri Amilakhvari, the legionnaires were ambushed but managed to retreat with the help of the Bren Gun Carriers of the 9th Company Messmer.
On 31 May, during a two-day sandstorm, 50 supply trucks of Capitaine Dulau’s 101st Transport Company reached Bir Hakeim with water and took the Indians, prisoners and seriously wounded back to the British lines. A raid by the Messmer, de Roux and de Sairigné detachments, led by Amilakhvari, destroyed five tanks and an armoured vehicle repair workshop. The Panzerarmee 'Afrika' had been forced to retreat to the west into an area to the north of Bir Hakeim, which became known as 'the Cauldron', having attacked the 150th Brigade’s 'box' since 28 May. During the day, the Western Desert Air Force lost 16 aircraft, in the form of 15 fighters and one bomber, as 15 in combat with Axis fighters and one to anti-aircraft fire, the worst daily loss of the battle. The Luftwaffe lost nine aircraft. On the western side of 'the Cauldron', the 150th Brigade was overrun late on 1 June despite British relief attempts. The Axis troops which had been trapped gained a supply route through the 8th Army’s minefields to the north of Bir Hakeim, and during the morning of the following day the encirclement of the fort was resumed by the 90th leichte Division, 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' and three armoured reconnaissance regiments of Generale di Brigata Arturo Torriano’s 17a Divisione 'Pavia'. At 08.00 German troops approached from the south and Italian forces advanced from the north. Two Italian officers arrived in the lines of the 2/13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère at 10.30, asking for the capitulation of the fort, which Koenig refused.
From 10.00 on 2 June, both sides exchanged artillery fire but the French light guns were out-ranged by the German medium guns, and the fort was bombed by German and Italian aircraft. Ju 87 dive bombers raided Bir Hakeim more than 20 times, but the French positions were so well built as to be almost invulnerable. The British were unable to reinforce the French, who repulsed the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete''s attack, but on 2 June the Western Desert Air Force established an easily observed bomb line around the fort and concentrated on the area with fighter patrols and fighter-bomber attacks. The sight of scores of burning vehicles helped to maintain the morale of the defenders, who harassed Axis communications around the fort, as did the 7th Motor Brigade and the Indian 29th Brigade, which were in the vicinity. On 4 June, fighters and fighter-bombers of the Western Desert Air Force disrupted Ju 87 attacks and bombed Axis vehicles, blowing up an ammunition wagon in view of the French, but losing seven aircraft. Koenig signalled Coningham with the message 'Bravo! Merci pour la R.A.F.' which elicited the reply 'Merci pour le sport.'
From 5 to 6 June, the Western Desert Air Force flew fewer sorties at Bir Hakeim, concentrating its efforts instead on the support of the Knightsbridge 'box', and at about 11.00 on 6 June the 90th leichte Division attacked with the support of pioneers to try to clear a passage through the minefield. The German pioneers got to within 880 yards (800 m) of the fort after breaching the outer minefield, and during the night managed to clear several passages into the inner perimeter. German infantry gained a foothold, but the Free French troops, fighting from foxholes, dug-outs and blockhouses, maintained a great volume of small-arms fire, which forced the Germans to take cover. 'Aberdeen', the attempt to destroy Axis forces in 'the Cauldron', began on the night of 4/5 June but was a total failure. Ritchie considered withdrawing the Free French from the fort to release the 7th Motor Brigade, but decided to keep possession and on 7 June, four raids by aircraft of the Western Desert Air Force were flown against the Germans in the minefields. That night, a last convoy approached the fort and Aspirant Bellec got through the German lines in thick fog to guide the convoy in. The Germans used the fog to prepare a final assault: tanks, 88-mm (3.465-in) guns and pioneers formed in front of the fort.
On the morning of 8 June, after the defeat of 'Aberdeen', Rommel released part of the 15th Panzerdivision and the Kampfgruppe 'Hecker' for the siege. Rommel led an attack from the north, approaching as close as possible in thick fog, with artillery firing directly against the fortifications. The Luftwaffe made constant attacks, including a raid by 45 Ju 87 dive-bombers, three Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bombers and 10 Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined heavy fighters escorted by 54 fighters. Just before 10.00, the attack began, aiming at a low rise which would overlook the Free French defences. The Chadian and Congolese troops of the 2ème Bataillon de marche de l’Oubangui held despite heavy losses and in the afternoon, another 60 Ju 87 dive-bombers attacked the perimeter and an attack was made all round the northern defences. An ammunition dump was blown up and the perimeter forced back. Koenig reported that the garrison was exhausted, had suffered many casualties and was down to its reserve supplies, and requested greater support and a relief operation. The Western Desert Air Force made another maximum effort, flying a record 478 sorties, and during the night Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighter-bombers and Douglas Boston twin-engined attack bombers dropped supplies to the garrison. The Western Desert Air Force lost eight fighters, three of them to Italian Macchi C.202 single-engined fighters, and two bombers, while the Luftwaffe lost two aircraft and the Regia Aeronautica one.
On the morning of 9 June, 20 Ju 88 bombers and 40 Ju 87 dive-bombers, escorted by 50 Bf 110 and Bf 109 fighters, attacked Bir Hakeim. The Germans waited for the rest of the 15th Panzerdivision to arrive as German artillery and aircraft bombarded the fort. Then a two-pronged attack struck the perimeter. Italian infantry fought alongside the Kampfgruppe 'Wolz', the German and native infantry of the Sonderverband 288 of the 90th leichte Division, elements of the reconnaissance and infantry units of the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision, and the 11 tanks of the Kampfgruppe 'Kiehl'. The objective was Point 186, the top of a gentle rise in the ground which acted as a fire-control position for the garrison. A few skirmishes occurred between the 66o Reggimento fanteria of the 101a Divisione 'Trieste' and the men commanded by Lieutenant Bourgoin, whose unit was down to hand grenades alone. Major Jacques Savey’s 1/Bataillon d’Infanterie de Marine (Coloniale) offered a determined defence but the Free French soldiers were forced back, despite reinforcement by Capitaine Lequesne’s 22ème Compagnie Nord-Africaine.
During the afternoon, to the south near the old fort, Oberstleutnant Ernst-Günther Baade led two battalions of the 115th Schützenregiment into the assault: in a sanguinary advance, the regiment established itself within 220 yards (200 m) of the fort by the fall of night. At 13,00, as 130 German aircraft bombed the north face of the fort, the German infantry and the 15th Panzerdivision attacked behind an artillery barrage. The attackers breached the line of the 9ème Compagnie and the central position of Aspirant Morvan, but the situation was restored with a Bren Gun Carrier counterattack. Many aircraft of the Western Desert Air Force were unserviceable and the effort for the day was therefore much reduced, but two Hurricanes dropped medical supplies. Diversions attempted by columns of the 7th Motor Brigade and the Indian 29th Brigade were too small to have much effect. In the afternoon Messervy, commanding the 7th Armoured Division, signalled that a break-out might be necessary, and Koenig requested Western Desert Air Force protection for an evacuation at 23.00 that night. The request was made at too short a notice and the garrison had to wait until the night of 10 June for a rendezvous to be arranged by the British to the south.
During 10 June, the Free French hung on and suffered many casualties; with only 200 of its original 20,000 75-mm (2.95-in) rounds and 700 mortar bombs left, another attack on the northern sector against the lines of the 22ème Bataillon de Marche de l’Oubangui and the 3/13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère was contained by a counterattack delivered by the Messmer and Lamaze units, supported by Bren Gun Carriers and the last mortar bombs. In the afternoon, the biggest air attack of the siege, a raid by 100 Ju 87 dive-bombers dropped 130 tons of bombs. The last rounds of ammunition were issued and bodies searched for spare cartridges. Rommel predicted that Bir Hakeim would fall during the following day but resisted pressure to attack with tanks, fearing that many would be lost in the minefields.
As darkness fell, Free French sappers began to clear mines from the western face of the fortress, heavy equipment was prepared for demolition and two companies were detailed to stay behind to disguise the retirement. A rendezvous was arranged with the 7th Motor Brigade, which ran a convoy of lorries and ambulances to a point 4.5 miles (7 km) to the south of the fort. Mine clearance by the sappers took longer than expected, and it was possible to clear only a narrow passage, rather than the 220-yard (200-m) corridor which had been planned. Vehicles went astray and the ambulances and walking-wounded left the perimeter 75 minutes late at 20.30, Koenig put the fort under the command of Amilakhvari, the Foreign Legion commander, and left the fort at the head of the column in his Ford, driven by Susan Travers, an English nurse, the only female member of French Foreign Legion and one of several women, mostly British, present at the siege.
A flare rose and the Axis troops nearby opened fire. The guide of the headquarters column became lost and was blown up three times by mines. When Koenig caught up with the main column, it was blocked by troops of the 90th leichte Division and he ordered a rush, regardless of the mines: Lamaze, Capitaine Charles Bricogne and Lieutenant Dewey were killed in the mêlée. The reception was organised by the 550th Company of the Royal Army Service Corps, who drove lorries and guided extra field ambulances, with inexperienced rear-area crews, escorted by the 2/King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the 2/Rifle Brigade on either side. The ambulances became separated in the dark but were found and guided to the rendezvous. The commander of the 3/13ème Demi-Brigade de Légion Etrangère was captured but most of the 1st Free French Brigade managed to break out, reach Bir el Gubi, then withdraw to Gasr-el-Arid by 07.00 on 11 June. About 2,700 of the original 3,600 men escaped, this figure including some 200 wounded, and during the day British patrols picked up stragglers.
The Free French occupation of Bir Hakeim had lengthened the Axis supply route around the southern end of the 'Gazala Line', caused the German considerable losses and given the British more time to recover in the wake of their defeat at 'the Cauldron'. From 2 to 10 June the Western Desert Air Force had flown about 1,500 sorties and lost 19 fighters over the fort, against about 1,400 Axis sorties in which 15 German and five Italian aircraft had been shot down. The 7th Motor Brigade ran four supply convoys into Bir Hakeim between 31 May and 7 June. Free French morale was raised by the 1st Free French Brigade’s performance in the battle, in which a victory had been badly needed to show the Allies that the Free French forces were a of major utility and could therefore contribute to the war against Germany. The term Free French was replaced by Fighting French, because the battle had shown the world that a revival after the defeat in 1940 was under way, and Général de Brigade Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement, used it to undermine co-operation with the Vichy French régime.
It has been estimated that at Bir Hakeim the 1st Free French Brigade lost 141 men killed, 229 wounded and 814 taken prisoner, and the loss of 53 guns and 50 vehicles. The British lost 86 aircraft shot down by aircraft and 24 brought down by Flak. The Axis losses were 3,300 men killed or wounded, 227 taken prisoner, 164 vehicles destroyed and 49 aircraft shot down. The Regia Aeronautica lost 21 aircraft, eight of them in air combat. It has been argued that the Axis forces took 845 men prisoner at Bir Hakeim, of whom a mere 10% were French. Adolf Hitler ordered that captured German political refugees were to be killed, but this order was ignored by Rommel.