Having consolidated his position in the middle of the British Gazala Line Rommel now turned his attention once again to the most southerly of the defensive ‘boxes’, at Bir Hacheim, held by the Free French. At the launch of his attack on the 26th May most of his troops had simply by-passed this position as they drove around the southern end of the line. The attack on the position itself had been rebuffed. Now he knew he had to neutralise the French before he could advance further.
Seldom in Africa was I given such a hard-fought struggle. The French fought in a skilfully planned system of field positions and small defence works – slit trenches, small pill-boxes, machine-gun and anti-tank gun nests-all surrounded by dense minefields.
This form of defence system is extraordinarily impervious to artillery fire or air attack, since a direct hit can destroy at the most one slit trench at a time. An immense expenditure of ammunition is necessary to do any real damage to an enemy holding a position of this kind
See The Rommel Papers .
Susan Travers was back in the front line with the Free French troops in Bir Hacheim, after briefly being evacuated and then returning with a munitions convoy. Officially she was driver to General Koenig, the French commanding officer but now she assisted in the tent that served as the Field Hospital:
[On] 1 June the enemy offensive resumed in earnest, with Stuka dive-bombers, and Rommel’s Panzer Mark IVs bearing down on Bir Hakeim from the north-west.
We gave as good as we got, firing back with our 75 mm guns and our anti-aircraft weapons. Even the mighty 40 mm Bofors guns were put to good use, despite the fact that the poor English operators were still waiting for official instructions on how to use them.
I shall never forget the insistent roll of gunfire on the horizon as I dug the general’s car out of the sand with my hands and started it to make sure it still worked after so many days of standing idle. It did and I was hugely relieved. My small role in the daily madness had been fulfilled.
The German and Italian losses were great in those early days, with legionnaires and colonials attacking their tanks with grenades and Molotov cocktails. Men would stumble from their burning vehicles in flames, desperately rolling in the sand. The suffering was appalling, and as all of us had the most enormous respect for those we were fighting we found it very difficult to watch helplessly.
Rommel was legend enough; his Afrika Korps had an almost mythical status. The Italians, too, were considered fearless and energetic although they had the poorest equipment. There was never any sense of satisfaction in watching others die; just sadness at the lunacy which had brought us all to this oven of a place.