During our years in Paris – which now seems an eternity away both in terms of time as well as memory – the Seine was a constant presence in our lives. We could see the river from our bedroom window over the Parc de Passy. At night the big tourist boats would come sliding close to the banks, with strong searchlights focused on the posh apartment complexes on the 16th Arrondisement. We were in one of these posh complexes but set at a height, so we never had our privacy disturbed. Seeing the boats, my daughter would always be tempted to sing these lines taught to her in her play school:
Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière, la rivière
Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière au bord de l’eau
Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière, la rivière
Bateau sur l’eau
Touni est tombé dans l’eau, plouf
But I digress. The bridge closest to us over the Seine was the Pont du Bir Hakeim. Most early mornings I would run from our home in Rue Lyautey down to Porte d’Auteuil, and run back via Avenue Mozart, cut into Rue de Passy, run all the way down and turn right to go down to the Passy Metro station. It was a daily ritual for me to walk on the bridge at the end of the run, and then walk back home.
The bridge itself is a beauty. It has a road at one level, and the Line 6 railway line on the second level on top of an iron bridge. 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 see it, the sight of the Tower will never fail to make you sigh at its sheer beauty, silhouetted in the morning sun.
This is the Pont du Bir Hakeim.
Midway between the two banks, there is a small island called the Ile aux Cygnes (Island of Swans). It has a small garden and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. On a nice summer evening I would take my daughter over there to play and gawk at the swans. Where the bridge opens out to the island there is a small balcony.
On the balcony is a plaque.
The balcony is popular with lovers and dawdlers alike and everyone ignores the plaque. But that plaque tells a very important story and explains why this bridge has this funny foreign name.
Bir Hakeim used to be an oasis in Libya, now completely vanished from the map. At one time, when there was water, it was a desert fort during the days when the Ottoman Empire covered these desert tracts. It was also one of the last outposts of civilization before the desert began – a vast empty sea of sand stretching thousands of miles south almost to the Atlantic Coast.
France fell to Germany in 1940, and most French forces were disarmed and told go home. When Charles de Gaulle escaped to London and made his famous speech over BBC on June 14, 1940, asking all Frenchmen to resist, there were a select few who heeded his call, who refused to accept the apparent finality of defeat and occupation, and decided to fight on. They became the Free French.
War in North Africa began as soon as the French surrendered, when Italy declared War on the Allies. The British, who controlled Egypt, attacked Libya, which was an Italian colony. After the Italian 10th Army was destroyed by British and Allied forces, the Germans stepped in, and the vaunted Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel took charge of the fighting in 1941.
Egypt controlled access to the Suez Canal, and that made it a German target. There was also the question of oil. British Commonwealth forces consisted not only of British divisions, but also Indian, South African, and Australian Divisions. It also had the First Free French Division which consisted of former French Army soldiers, some Foreign Legionnaires, some Spanish mercenaries and pretty much anyone who wanted to fight the Nazis.
Taking over from the apparently feckless Italians, Rommel scored some stunning successes. He was going for Cairo, for the Suez Canal. The fighting stuck closer the coast, where the fortresses were and where tanks could operate.
By May 1942, Rommel was pushing the British towards Tobruk from the west. Tobruk would have been an important staging point to begin the offensive on Egypt, and for the Commander In Chief of Commonwealth forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, losing Tobruk was out of the question. This is where the story of Bir Hakeim begins. It lies south of Tobruk, and expecting the Afrika Korps to approach Tobruk from the West and South, it had significance.
Until this time, the Free French had not made any impression. They had important symbolic value but not as a serious fighting formation – there were too few of them and they had no equipment of their own. General Auchinleck did not expect too much from the Free French. Whether it was because he fully expected the Germans to roll over the French or because he valued their symbolic significance, he assigned the defence of Bir Hakeim to the French.
The Commander of the Free French Division was General Henri Koenig, a colourful man. His friend and alleged lover, a British woman called Susan Travers, was also in the Free French fighting as a Foreign Legionnaire – but assigned to drive the General. She was with him in battle.
General Koenig knew that the Germans also did not think too much of the Free French, and that the Afrika Korps would attack Bir Hakeim as soon as they learnt that the French were defending it. Expecting a full fledged attack, he prepared as best as he could, laying minefields and hidden explosives and preparing fortifications. He had about 3600 men under arms – vastly outgunned and outnumbered.
The assault began on the night of May 26, with the Italian armored regiments in the lead. Successive waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the French positions. German tanks soon joined the Italians. 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. Notwithstanding these challenges, the French stood firm, sometimes taking the attack to the Germans, and defending their position doggedly and with great courage.
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.
By June 10th fresh German forces surrounded Bir Hakeim and it was clear that the position would not survive. General Koenig realized that his position was untenable. He then did something remarkable. He asked wounded French soldiers to man defensive positions and to continue to fire on the enemy. The territory behind Bir Hakeim towards Tobruk was very heavily mined. He and the rest of his troops essentially drove through the French minefield in a daring move to escape north towards British positions – General Koenig’s transport had Susan Travers at the wheel. Men and vehicles were lost but the vast majority made it through. Out of 3600 men, some 2700 survived. Among them were ambulances with the wounded. Through June 10 and 11th British patrols looked for and picked up those lost in the desert. It was a heroic escape.
On the night of June 11, German forces broke through to Bir Hakeim, only to find a couple of hundred wounded Frenchmen. The battle was expensive for Rommel – not only had the campaign to take Tobruk been delayed by three weeks, he lost nearly 3,300 dead and wounded, and 164 tanks and vehicles taken out by accurate French anti-tank weapons.
Hitler was enraged and apparently he ordered Rommel to execute the French POWs. History says that Rommel ignored the order and made every effort to treat the Free French POWs honourably, as befits an enemy in war.
Tobruk did fall to the Germans, and this episode by no means marked a turning point in the war. That was to come much later, when in the Second Battle of El Alamein, the new British Commander of the Commonwealth forces – known as the Eighth Army – General Bernard Montgomery famously beat Rommel’s Afrika Korps in an epic battle. That marked an inflexion point not only in North Africa but for the rest of the War. So why is Bir Hakeim important?
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. Less than 4,000 Frenchmen held off 45,000 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. It indicated to all Frenchmen that their independent heart was still alive, beating somewhere in the sands of North Africa.
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 never ceased to fight”.