On the 26th June 1942 Rommel launched a surprise attack on the British line in the desert of Libya. Both sides had been preparing for an offensive but Rommel held a comparative advantage in the supply situation across the Mediterranean at the time.
The British ‘Gazala Line’ ran south from the sea in a series of ‘boxes’ – fortified and mined encampments within which the different British units were concentrated. After a diversionary attack in the middle of the line Rommel chose to outflank the line by running far south into the desert around the most southerly box and then north again. The most southerly box was at Bir Hacheim and was occupied by the Free French.
It was here that one of the few women right on the front line, Susan Travers found herself occupying one of the most exposed positions in the line. She was the driver for General Koenig the Free French Commander, a role she willingly undertook in order to be with him, as she was also his mistress. She now found herself in the centre of fiercely contested battle. As the greater part of the German desert army swept round the Bir Hacheim ‘Box’ it came under direct attack from a strong Italian tank force:
Our ordeal began on a moonlit night in may, when loud firing was heard in the distance just before dawn. In the north, the sky was suddenly ablaze and there were bright flashes of gunfire and explosions. An Anglo-Indian Hindu Brigade outside the wire had been overcome by a heavy tank attack and far superior numbers while guarding the periphery.
Half an hour later, the first of the enemy tanks rolled into view – eighty of them all advancing together, firing indiscriminately as they came, the squeaking of their tracks adding to the fearful cacophony now surrounding Bir Hakeim. They were immediately followed by an impressive number of trucks carrying infantry and artillery.
I retreated to my dugout, ramming my tin helmet onto my head, listening to the sound of distant landmines exploding under the caterpillar tracks of the huge metal monsters attempting to scythe their way towards us. Shells pounded as they landed nearby. Minutes before the main attack had begun, Amilakvari had appeared at the entrance to my little rabbit hole.
‘This is for you,’ he said, handing me his rifle and grinning broadly. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll need to use it , But I thought it might make you feel better’
The Italians were beaten off with heavy losses on this first day and the French unit at Bir Hacheim was to be renamed the ‘Fighting French’ by the British for their stand. It was a title they would earn many times over during the following days.