The Battle of Bir Hakeim
At the end of May 1942, the Free French 1st brigade occupied the southern sector of the British 8th Army's deployment in Libya, facing German and Italian Axis troops. This was a key point on the extreme left of the position since it could prevent any potential encirclement from the south of Allied forces retreating in disarray from the defeat and the fall of Tobruk that had opened the road to Cairo for German tanks.
On 27 May 1942, the position of Bir Hakeim came under attack from the Italian "Ariete" armoured division and was engaged in fierce fighting that even reached into the interior of the stronghold. The enemy was driven back, leaving 40 tanks on the field.
From 1 to 10 June the position came under methodical attack and was completely surrounded by German and Italian forces in vastly superior numbers. General Rommel, in command of the enemy forces, exerted all his efforts to remove the obstacle barring his advance. General Koenig, commanding the French brigade, responded to an ultimatum from Rommel calling upon him to surrender, with the words, "We are not here to surrender".
Despite the most intense artillery fire and aerial bombardment, the brigade held off every enemy attack, gave not an inch of ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. The incredible boldness of a group of volunteers from the "Train" (transport corps) enabled a convoy of 30 lorries to reach the position under cover of night. By 10 June, however, supplies of water, food and ammunition were virtually exhausted. The garrison was given the order to retreat by the commander of the British 8th Army. During the night of 10 to 11 June, the brigade broke through the encircling enemy lines by sheer force, negotiating mine fields and bringing back its wounded and any equipment still usable.
By holding out for far longer than could have been hoped, in a feat which won worldwide acclaim, the Free French 1st Brigade had enabled the British 8th Army to withdraw in good order and had won the time needed to prepare for a reversal of the situation at El Alamein. For the French population labouring under German oppression, it confirmed their faith in their destiny and in ultimate victory. The Resistance inside France, under Jean Moulin and Christian Pineau, joined with Free France to create a single Fighting France.
The military cemetery on the site of the battle itself has been maintained in memory of those who fell. It is reached by a track, lined with crosses of Lorraine, that runs from El Adem.
Because of its isolation, the 182 bodies it once contained have been transferred to El Adem alongside the bodies of the first four French soldiers to fall at Cyrenaica on 21 January 1941, and those of the six men who lost their lives in the in the Khufra raid led by General Leclerc.