I Was There! - 'Now It's Hell in Bir Hacheim'

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 134, Page 126, August 7, 1942.

A few hours before General Ritchie gave the order to evacuate Bir Hacheim on June 10, a French correspondent sent this last message from the beleaguered garrison. We reprint it by courtesy of La France Libre.

Now it is hell. A short time ago a strange, unreal silence hung over this grim, battle-scarred little plateau – a silence broken only by the groans of the enemy wounded who, under the protection of the white flag, the Germans are removing from the outskirts of the positions held by Koenig's "ghosts" for fifteen days and nights of mounting fury.

But for the last half-hour artillery and bomber aircraft have been relentlessly, nerve-rackingly pounding our defences. The last attack, which was flung back with severe loss to the enemy – and with some loss to ourselves – surpassed all others in ferocity.

Artillery, dive-bombers, infantry and tanks – the enemy gave us everything he had. The first wave of tanks blew up on the minefields laid by our engineers at great danger to themselves. The next wave was nailed to the ground by our 75s, which for days on end have been barking death and destruction and which are largely responsible for transforming Bir Hacheim into a cemetery of tanks.

I should say some 50 to 100 enemy tanks litter the battlefield – grim hulks which resemble the skeletons of prehistoric monsters.

Rommel – who has latterly been signing the notes calling on Gen. Koenig to surrender – flung more and more metal into the attack, and though his losses grew proportionately greater, some of the tanks broke through our defences and rolled right up to our guns.

When our guns were overrun, it was man against tank. At one post held by the Foreign Legion a German tank scored a direct hit at 20 yards. The officer commanding the post – a calm young man from Saint Cyr – burnt his regiment's standard so that it should not be captured, and then called on his men to attack. With incendiary grenades in their hands, they flung themselves on the tanks like infuriated hornets.

There are some things I can never forget:

The légionnaire who, with blood streaming from his face, climbed on to a German tank and emptied his revolver through an aperture, killing all the occupants.

The sergeant-major who destroyed seven tanks.

The gun crew who, when a shell stuck in the breach of their cannon at the height of the battle, gambled their lives by knocking the shell out with a hammer.

In less than two hours Koenig's men destroyed 37 tanks. Somehow, incredibly, the attack was repelled. The Germans and Italians retreated, seemingly appalled by the blind fury of the defenders.

That moment will always live in my mind. The tanks withdrawing, screening the fleeing infantry. On the ground a ghastly chaos – a mingling of shell craters, dead and wounded Frenchmen, Germans and Italians.

In that moment of victory no cries of triumph, only the indescribable expression of defiance of the blackened, exhausted French.

Since then, and up to 30 minutes ago, there was that uncanny silence.

Now they are pounding us again, and hard. The shelling and bombing are rising to a crescendo. We are straining our eyes to see what they are preparing in the darkness beyond our lines...

At this point the message broke off.

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