To Honour A Past

Author: Lieutenant General MS Shergill, PVSM, AVSM, VrC (Retd)

Period: April 2005 - June 2005

To Honour A Past

Lieutenant General MS Shergill, PVSM, AVSM, VrC (Retd)


The First World War

With passage of time, a world ever on the move and beset with many a problem; nations tend to forget past associations particularly those when in their hour of dire need they received much needed assistance to stave off the very worst that can happen to a nation – a defeat in war. France has been at the epicentre of both the world wars of the twentieth century. They were never the cause but the effect on them was very grave. On each occasion, they received from India, unstinted support particularly from the army. This is not a polemic or plea in support of an issue in France presently, the Pagri or turban which is worn by Sikhs but a catalogue of events to serve as a reminder of the contribution of our troops for the cause of France. 

On 28 June 1914 a Sunday, the Feast of St. Vitus was being celebrated in a small town little known to the outside world, Sarajevo. Shots were fired here to assassinate the Grand Duke Ferdinand and his wife which soon were to reverberate around the world. Coalitions were formed and by middle July, it was apparent that a war unlike any witnessed by mankind was going to erupt. By 27 July, Sir Edward Grey the Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, failed in mediating a peace. He remarked : “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall never see them lit again in our time”. On 3 August 1914 the guns boomed to herald The Great War or the First World War.

The Germans had aimed not at taking Paris but enveloping the Allied left in a vast encirclement movement and destroying the French and British Armies. But their advance was slowed down by a stubborn resistance and at last it had been stopped and turned at the Marne; by the skin of their teeth the French and British had staved off utter disaster. Then came the race to the sea, and both reached the sea at Nieumpoort. With a stalemate looming, the Germans flung in heavy assaults to break the line, which held, just by the thinnest of margins. It was in this milieu in end September 1914 there arrived at Marseille the first units of the Indian Army.

For our troops to land on foreign soil was unique moment. They all hailed from small villages of the sub-continent. None had seen the sea or the ships on which they were to travel. In effect, crossing the seas was taboo, ‘kala pani’ something mysterious and beyond normal comprehension. They took all this in their stride and enjoyed the voyage despite the roll and pitch of the ship and for some the inevitable mal de mer. 

They arrived to a rapturous welcome. This can best be described in the words of Brigadier Sir John Smyth, Baronet, VC, MC, who was then a Captain with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, now 2nd Battalion The Sikh Regiment :

The 15th Sikhs were among the first Indian troops to arrive in France and the excitement and enthusiasm were tremendous. The men, none of whom had ever been out of India before, were rather dazed as we marched through the street to our camp. The ranks were soon broken by the cheering crowds and one could just see the heads of the men bobbing about amid an excited sea of French faces. The railing round our camp were black with people all day long. The Sikh is a cleanly person and gets under a pump at every opportunity no matter how cold the weather or the water. After the dusty march they took down their hair and beards and set about having a good wash. This absolutely brought the house down and there were delighted shrieks of “Voila les femmes Indiennes”. All these attentions became rather embarrassing after a time and we were glad when we moved to Orleans where we were supposed to undergo a period of training and acclimatisation.

By the time the troops had arrived in France, winter was setting in with all earnest. Whilst troops from other countries were not only used to the climatic change, they were well clad too. In their hasty departure from India, our troops had departed with what they possessed. Sir John Smyth goes on to record :

It was now October and starting to get chilly. But we were still only clad in our thin Indian drill uniforms. There was a great shortage of uniforms at home and we had to go all through that bitter winter in our drill. However, the men soon got an issue of warm underclothes, gloves, comforters and balaclava hats. They didn’t quite understand the under clothes at first and on the day these were issued, I came out of my tent just in time to prevent the Subedar Major ‘walking out’ clad only in a thick pink vest and a long pair of pink pants!

The troops sent initially to France were two infantry divisions each, with four field artillery brigades1. Within days, they were in the ‘line’ bearing the full brunt and responsibility with the French and the British.

It is not the purpose to catalogue the entire war in France but to merely provide vignettes of the selfless service of our troops. When not in the trenches, the men lived in barns and outhouses of French farms. They soon made themselves at home with the French peasantry who came to prefer them to any other troops, including their own. This was occasioned by the sheer innate good manners and courteous conduct of our soldiers who never stooped to pilferage or stealing. Observing the French peasants daily life, they identified with them, their hard work, poverty and simple ways. During their four year stay in France they never experienced any problems with the French population.

This extraordinary relationship was exemplified by the citizens of Chartres, who presented to the 7th (Meerut) Cavalry Brigade (now 2 Armoured Brigade), with the Fleur-de-Lis emblem embroidered in their Abbey, as a token of their esteem for the gallant actions fought by the Brigade. This emblem, the red lily on a golden background was adopted as the formation sign of the Brigade (Figure 1).

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Figure 1 : Fleur-de-Lis. Iris flower, heraldic lily, 
royal arms of the French monarchy before 1789

The advent of the machine gun and massed artillery coupled with inept generalship, led to what could be called a carnage or slaughter house, the scale of which was unprecedented in warfare. One example will suffice. The 1st Battalion of the 9th Bhopal Infantry was among the first units to arrive in 1914. The same year in October they fought an extremely gallant action at Neuve Chapelle still wearing their tropical uniforms. For three days without food and water, they held the ‘line’ at the cost of 11 officers and 262 men. Another 200 men were lost in a stupendous bayonet fight at Festubert five days later. Despite these terrible losses the battalion remained in France until the spring of 1915, helping to restore the British line after the first German gas attacks. They then sailed to Mesopotamia and served there till the end of the war. Of the original Battalion who set out from India, only 15 returned to see their homeland again. 

What did the enemy or the Germans think of Indian troops? We have evidence from a letter written by a German solider, which was printed in the Frankfurter Zeitung :

Today for the first time we had to fight against the Indians and the devil knows those brown rascals are not to be underrated. At first we spoke with contempt of the Indians. Today we learned to look on them in a different light – the devil knows what the English had put into those fellows. With a fearful shouting thousands of those brown forms rushed upon us. At a hundred metres we opened a destructive fire which mowed down hundreds but in spite of that the others advanced … in no time they were in our trenches and truly those brown enemies were not to be despised. With butt ends, bayonets, swords and daggers we fought each other and we had bitter hard work.

By the end of the war 1,38,000 Indian combatants had fought in France. No one can read of the doings of these men in those years without wonder at the courage, endurance and self sacrifice displayed amidst the horror, folly and cruelty of war.

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At the end of each war, professional armies study and take out a balance sheet of what occurred. This would include aspects of training, equipment, tactics, so that improvements can be implemented. Then come the embarrassing or negative issues in the form of desertions or worse, mutinies. 

Historians have declared the American Civil War as the first modern war. Desertions during this war amounted to 287,000 in the Union Army and 105,000 in the Confederates. By the middle of this war, more than 5,000 troops were deserting each month. There were only two instances of desertion amongst our troops in France. A Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (now Junior Commissioned Officer) and 14 Afridi Pathans from the 59th Rifles (Frontier Force), went over to the German trenches. The other was again of a few Afridi deserters from the 40th Pathans (affectionately called ‘Chalis Chor’), In comparison, desertions were rife in the German, French, Austrian and Italian armies and in droves amongst the Russians.

The very worst black mark against any army, is that of mutiny. The French commanders on the Aisne in 1917, the Italian, Russian and Austrian commanders too faced this problem at various periods. Near the end of the war, German units could not be relied upon as they were in a state of open revolt. To quell such instances, the abhorrent British Army practice of being ‘shot at dawn’ was still in vogue, a subject that ruffles feelings till today; this was unheard of in the Indian Army. Never once was there a murmur of a mutiny and never once did a unit permit the muffled drums to sound La Chamade.

The Battle Honours earned by our troops in France are thus:

FRANCE AND FLANDERS, 1914-1918

LA BASSE 1914, GIVENCY 1914, MESSINES 1914, ARMENTIERES 1914, YPERS 1914-15, NEVUE CHAPELLE, ST JULIEN, AUBERS, GHELUVET, FESTUBERT 1915, SOMME 1916, MORVAL, BAZENTIN, DELVILLE WOOD, FLERS-COURCELETTE, CAMBRAI 1917, LOOS.

The war ended with Germany having to sign a humiliating treaty. In 1919, the League of Nations was formed, a precusor to the present day United Nations. A rosy optimism was in the air, the war to end all wars had been played out, a lasting peace was in the offing.

The Second World War

It was only 20 years since the Versailles Treaty had been signed, that a resurgent Germany was ready to assert her role on the world stage. On 3 September 1939, Poland was smashed with Soviet participation for their own ends. Great Britain declared war on Germany, as did France. The world waited with bated breath as to what was to follow. Slowly yet steadily, Germany built up its forces on the French frontier and left the Soviet Union border, an ally now, to be thinly held.

As the dawn mists, promising the bliss of a lovely spring day, spread from the rivers of France across lush meadows and blossoming orchards, a terrible storm was to burst upon the land. After eight months of the ‘phoney war’ or ‘sitzkreig’ (sitting war) as the Germans called it, and just five weeks since British Prime Minster Chamberlain’s comfortable assertion – “Hitler has missed the bus”; the German blitzkrieg was launched towards the West. It was 10 May 1940 and Operation Gelb (Yellow) had been put into effect.

In 18 days, the British Expeditionary Force had been swept back to Britain from Dunkirk with the loss of all equipment. France was occupied, a collaborative French government installed in the South of France at Vichy and German troops had marched down the Champs Elysee. Humiliation was complete. During the entire war, the only counter-attack of some worth had been launched by a weak Tank Brigade commanded by a very tall colonel, Charles de Gaulle. He escaped to London and there raised the banner of revolt against the acquiescent Vichy government by forming an alternate government in exile of the Free French with the Cross of Lorraine as their rallying standard. An appeal was broadcast to their colonies to seek their mandate and assistance to free their country from German yoke. Italy now declared war on Britain and France. This declaration was to enlarge the scope of the war on all sides of the Mediterranean.

In North Africa, between December 1940 and February 1941, the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division between them destroyed 10 Italian divisions capturing a staggering number of prisoners and equipment; to sweep forward 800 kilometres to Benghazi, in Libya.

On 6 February 1941, far away in Berlin, General Erwin Rommel was summoned to see Hitler. He was given command of a mechanised force consisting of the 5th Light and the 15th Panzer Divisions. ‘The Afrika Korps’ had come into being. By mid March they disembarked in Tripoli.

Between April 1941 and early May 1942, there was an ebb and flow in North Africa in the fortunes of the two opponents. Those with a sense of humour dubbed this to and fro movement in racing parlance as the ‘Benghazi Stakes’ or ‘Mersa Matruh2 Handicap!’ The Eighth Army had by May consolidated a defensive position to be known as the Gazala Line. This line stretched nearly 50 miles north to south. The line was held by strong points which were connected to each other and covered by extensive anti-tank minefields. Unless Rommel wished to attack head on from the west, the other option was for a wide outflanking stroke from the south of the last strong point. This was the strong point of Bir Hacheim. Behind the strong points were the two armoured divisions, two tank brigades, with a few infantry brigades.

To occupy Bir Hacheim, an abandoned Italian fort in ruins, was the task allotted to the Premiere Brigade Francaise Libre (1st Free French Brigade), who arrived there on St Valentines Day, 1941. The Brigade was commanded by Brigadier General Marie – Pierre Koenig. He was affectionately known among his men as ‘le vieux lapin’, the old rabbit. The Brigade consisted of: 13th Demi – Brigade, Legion Etrangere (Foreign Legion), their Commandant being Dmitri Amilakvari a Georgian prince and a polygot of French colonial troops to include: Africans, Tahitians, Bretons, Moroccans, Algerians, Lebanese, Mauritians, Madagascans, Germans and Spanish. They ranged from dedicated career soldiers to settlers, all having answered the rallying call of Charles de Gaulle. The garrison total was 3,723 men, two Spearettes (nurses from the Spears hospital at Gaza, named after Lady Spears thus known as Spearettes) and a chauffeuse for the general.

Due east of Bir Hacheim there was a wide gap in the British defences as they believed that Rommel would strike West to East along the coastal road. As time went by, this gap gnawed in the minds of the planners and it was decided that this must be occupied with despatch. It was thus on 25 May 1942, in the late afternoon, that the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was ordered to occupy defences in and around Point (Pt) 171. Pt 171 was a low, insignificant feature in the middle of open, hard desert with scattered patches of scrub. 

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was a battle hardened formation which had earned their desert sores many a time over. They were well aware of Rommel’s capability and had taken a hard knock at the battle of El Meikili a year earlier. They were commanded by Brigadier AA Filose an ex-Commandant of 18 (KEO) Cavalry. The Brigade consisted of: 18 KEO Cavalry, 2 Royal Lancers (Gardners Horse), 11 Prince Albert Victor’s Own (PAVO) Cavalry and 2 Indian Field Regiment.2

Working without a break, they prepared their defences and gun pits. The ground was hard and the toil telling. It must be noted, that this was a Motor Brigade who had no tanks. Their anti-tank guns consisted of an amalgam of 2 and a few 6 pounder (pdr) guns, derisively known as ‘peashooters’.

Rommel had not been idle. This energetic Swabian was all over the battle front, watching, listening to reports and in particular those from his reconnaissance patrols. He would travel in his identifiable Mammoth, a large lorry captured from the British and now his mobile command post. He had realised that Bir Hacheim was the most exposed and isolated sector of the enemy front. An early capture of Bir Hachiem would allow him total claim South of Tobruk, speed up his communications and remove a threat to his right flank. He would thus make the entire Gazala Line untenable as he would be in their rear.

On the night of 26 May 1942 he moved. Going forth were: 21 Panzer Division, Ariete (Italian) Division, 15 Panzer Division and the 90 Light Division. The route was marked by kerosene filled lamps. Water and food for seven days had been issued. There was a bright moon and 13 kilometres per hour was achieved on a compass bearing. To assist in navigation, Bir Hacheim was lit up throughout the night by Luftwaffe flares as a landmark. There was one halt for refuelling. At 4 am, 27 May the approach march was over having covered 50 kilometres. It was time for a quick rest and refit to be ready for the battle ahead.

Rommel had gathered his near entire tank force in this sweeping movement following the German Army doctrine of – ‘Einbruch und Durchbruch (penetration and breakthrough). General ‘Hurrying’ Heinz Guderian had put it in simpler language – ‘Klotzen nicht Kleckern’ (boot them, don’t spatter them). For once, the Germans would be moving in an almost South to North direction. In the main, they were constantly looking eastwards towards the sky to see enemy aircraft which made a posture of the right hand to extend towards the head to cover their eyes being called ‘Der Deutsche Blick’ (the ‘German Glance’), a parody on ‘Deutsche Gruss’ (the ‘German Salute’). The setting was perfect for the tank gunners.

On the afternoon of 26 May, British air reconnaissance had reported a large Axis column of tanks and other vehicles moving towards the centre of the Gazala Line. By nightfall, some enemy was reported to be south west of Bir Hacheim but this was not confirmed. In retrospect, this proved to be fatal.

The first intimation that the 3rd Motor Brigade had of the enemy’s approach was from the South African Armoured Car Regiment, who were in contact with the enemy. Their report was sketchy as it was now dark. On this short message, the Brigade sent out their own patrols.

Captain RC Frisby of 7 Indian Field Battery (Sikhs), with an escort from 18 KEO Cavalry went into no man’s land. Very soon, he discerned and heard the unmistakable rumble of tanks in large number. He reported this on the radio, to be informed that what he may have observed would be the South Africans. Stung by this retort, he went closer to a tank column, found a gap in their midst, popped in and joined the column and drove along with them. Now he observed the German helmets and the partially smudged formation sign on the tanks, the famous ‘Palm Tree’ of the Afrika Korps. When leaving the column, he was observed and there was much shouting and firing but he made his getaway at the gallop to his own lines.

About the same time, Brigadier Filose had come forward to admonish Capt Frisby for exaggerated reporting, when other reports started pouring in from all sides. Not one but five columns had now been identified. The Brigadier’s only comment was, “Oh my God.”

Picture (map)

27 May 1942, was a day many were to remember for a very long time (Map 1). As the sun rose, 18 KEO Cavalry reported observing 80 to 90 tanks and 600 vehicles in a laager. 2 Lancers reported another large concentration of tanks in front of them. In plain terms, the setting was: 21 Panzer Division was a little west of 18 Cavalry, the Italian Ariete Armoured Division was south-west of the 2 Lancers perimeter. 15 Panzer Division east of the Italians and the 90 Light Division a little further east of them. Confronting the entire might of the Afrika Korps and an Italian Armoured Division was the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade without a single tank with them! They had not been even 48 hours in the battle zone. 

On the given signal, the German attack commenced. Captain AS Naravane (later Major General) was manning an Observation Post (OP) and asked for fire support. A little later, a voice on the telephone asked him how far the tanks were from him. He replied 200 metres, to which came the last message- “in that case, goodbye and good luck!”

Wave after wave of tanks now appeared, their guns belching fire. Within an hour, Pt 171 and its surroundings resembled a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. On a day when gallantry was legion, it will be difficult to pick amongst so many who distinguished themselves but mention has to be made of some.

A Daffadar of 2 Lancers tried to stop a tank by jamming a crowbar between its tracks, having done so; he was shot and killed by another tank nearby. The gun position officer (GPO) of E Troop, 4 Field Battery, Lieutenant Ronald Macdonald Lumsden, took on the enemy tanks. He received a machine gun burst in his knee. Being taken back for treatment on a gun tower, an enemy shell killed him. It is just two years since he stood on parade at the nascent Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun to receive the Sword of Honour as the best all round Gentleman Cadet. His body was never found.

7 Field Battery bore the brunt of the Panzer attack. This was a Sikh battery. They were standing by their guns in the same manner as their forefathers did in the six battles against the British (Mudki, Ferozeshuhur, Alliwal, Sobraon, Chillianwalla and Gujarat). Then the artillery of the Sikh army had been trained by General Claude Auguste Court who was educated at the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris and General Paulo Martolome Avitable, a Neopolitan, who served under Marshal Joachim Murat, King of Naples. Standing behind the battery with complete sangfroid was a tall, slim, handsome major, PP Kumaramangalam. The Panzers were to be engaged at ‘open sights’. The German tanks were now a thousand metres away. 

The first wave of tanks swept past the OP position and so too the second. The Free French from Bir Hachiem started to shell the tanks in vain, the Afrika Korps was on a roll, their objective was Tobruk way to the North and nothing was going to stop them, least of all the ‘pea shooters’ and the field guns.

Lieutenant Corcoran observed that his Sikh gun layer was killed, he pushed his body off into the gun pit and took on his duties. He too was killed. His body was later found lying on top of his gun crew, the last to perish. They were all covered and buried in the gun pit in a communal grave. Havildar Mohan Singh, Gun Number One, similarly met his death sitting on the gun controls. Havildar Tara Singh was critically wounded in like fashion. The last German tank this troop destroyed had been stopped a mere 10 metres from their guns. 

The Free French were observing this unequal contest with awe and admiration. It was only two days ago that this Brigade had come in their vicinity, which they had called the Anglo-Hindu Brigade. They fully comprehened and realised the sacrifice this Brigade was undergoing. On 25 October 1845 in Crimea the British Light Cavalry Brigade charged the Russian guns at Balaclava. The charge of the Light Brigade has gone into song, poetry and myth. Observing that charge from a nearby hill, the French General Bosquet remarked- ‘C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre’ (it is magnificent but it is not war). The actions of 2 Indian Field Regiment were the same in reverse. With a fortitude unequalled, the gunners stood by their guns without flinching, whilst Rommel’s might sliced through them. The Free French could very clearly observe the Panzers go past this Battery with the Sikh gunners still manning their guns, if alive.

18 KEO Cavalry was now in the thick of it, they have no chance. To assist them, an anti-tank troop portee from 11 PAVO Cavalry moved to their depth. They carried out this movement as if they were on a parade ground with textbook panache in full view of the enemy. Withdraw in front of the advancing Panzers, stop, engage the tanks and then withdraw again. Carriers of 18 KEO Cavalry arrived under command of Regimental Daffadar Major (RDM) Asghar Ali from the brigade headquarters and met the Panzers head on. It was a gallant but hopeless charge. They were all hit and set on fire.

18 KEO and 11 PAVO Cavalry were as good as finished except for one last act of defiance. Admiral Sir Walter Cowan had ‘attached’ himself to 18 KEO Cavalry when they were in the perimeter of Tobruk. He had rejoined them now. He was standing in the middle of the Panzers, engaging passing tanks with his revolver! An Italian tank commander parked his tank near the 75 year old Admiral and asked him to surrender. The Admiral raised his revolver and fired, a miss, he fired again, a click, the revolver was empty. The Italian climbed down and assisted his prisoner gently towards the rear. The war in North Africa was characterised as the ‘Gentlemen’s War’ where there was great respect for survivors and the wounded. The Germans called it –‘Kreig Ohne Hass’ (war without hatred).

It was all over in the space of three hours. The German tank commanders swept through the riddled brigade. Some shook their heads in disbelief at this extraordinary feat of arms. Others raised a hand in salute at the vanquished who were in huddles or lying wounded or dead. There was a great deal of Freemasonry amongst good armies where gallantry is acknowledged with no regard to borders, caste and creed. 

Apart from the dead, 18 officers and 670 Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers and men of the Brigade were taken prisoners of war, which included the three Commandants of the Cavalry Regiments. Major PP Kumaramangalam, with an officer from 18 KEO Cavalry, returned to the battlefield a few days later to salvage the guns of the Regiment. In all, 16 guns were salvaged. A month later in June, whilst operating with his battery as a ‘Jock’ column, he was taken prisoner of war. 

What did the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade achieve? A total of 80 tanks were destroyed or put out of action. Of these, 56 had been destroyed by 2 Indian Field Regiment. They had also imposed of great value, caution on the Afrika Korp. This was a serious check on Rommel’s ambition to race to the North. Most importantly, the brigade prevented the isolation of the 1st Free French Brigade at Bir Hachiem which was to be a thorn in the flesh for Rommel in the days ahead.

General Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief, Eighth Army sent a message to the brigade commander, “I wish to tell you how proud I am of 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. Your courage and sacrifice on that day (27 May) did much, I feel, to break the force of the enemy.”

Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister said in the House of Commons “The full brunt of the enemy’s actual advance to the East of Bir Hacheim was taken by 3rd Indian Motor Brigade Group, which was overborne by sheer weight of metal, but not until after it had inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and seriously impeded his advance.”

Having witnessed the destruction of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, the Free French at Bir Hacheim were under no delusion about their fate. What they did not know was how badly Rommel wanted to destroy and evict them from Bir Hacheim. Rommel had told the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and the Trieste Motorised Division that it would take them ‘only 15 minutes’ to crush the French. The Eighth Army, after doing their own calculations, signalled to the French that they could and must last eight days so that they could regain lost ground. In the event, despite being out numbered 10 to one, the Free French Brigade held out for 15 days. The heroics of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade had put a spanner in the works in the German timetable, which lent tremendous heart to the Free French.

A message had come over the radio from London. They were no longer to be known as the Free French, but as La France Combattante (the Fighting French). Though the name never really stuck but the honour was appreciated by the besieged.

Over the next few days there was intermittent fighting. Instead what they could witness was an endless convoy of German lorries and tanks circling Bir Hacheim out of range to the south before heading north, slopping round behind Allied lines. This lull was the calm before the storm. The Italians then struck with full vigour. This was expected and the Free French were ready for them. The bitter fighting lasted 30 hours when the Italians quit the field. 

On 1 June the enemy offensive resumed in earnest. Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer Mark IVs bore down from the northwest. By 2 June, Bir Hacheim was completely encircled. Suddenly a white flag was seen hoisted on a vehicle approaching the perimeter. Two Italian officers had arrived demanding the unconditional surrender of the garrison. They were informed it was not in the military traditions of the Foreign Legion to surrender.

At 8 am, 3 June, two captured British orderlies crawled on their stomachs into the encampment. They had brought an ultimatum signed personally by the Desert Fox, Rommel. The French replied by opening fire on all enemy vehicles within range. 

At night, some of the French could listen to Lord Haw-Haw, the English-speaking German propagandist with his traditional- ‘‘Germany calling, Germany calling’’ to inform the garrison that it was only a matter of time before ‘‘the miserable desert rats of Bir Hacheim are routed.’’

On 4 June, the Eighth Army sent a message “Excellent work. Hold fast. All the best. All will be well.” General Koenig may well have been reminded of 8 September 1855 when General Patrick MacMahan stormed the almost impregnable Malakoff fortifications in the Crimea, clambering over the battlements at the head of his troops declaring: ‘J’y suis, J’y reste’ (here I am, here I stay). Koenig and the Free French had dropped anchor and nothing was going to move them out.

Once more, Rommel sent surrender terms, delivered by three German officers who arrived at the gate at 4 am. “We wouldn’t dream of waking our general at such an hour,” the French guards told the officers and sent them away. In retaliation, Rommel sent in his best tank corps, the 90 Light Division.The intensity of the siege can best be comprehended by the shell fire. The French gunners fired more than 40,000 shells. More than a 100 Stuka dive-bombers and 40 Junker heavy bombers flew 1,400 missions and pounded the French position with 1,500 tons of high explosive. To support the French, the Royal Air Force lost 70 aircraft.

8 June, was the worst day for the French. The day started with a fog, which once it lifted brought the Luftwaffe. Heavy artillery shelling followed and then the tank assault by the 15 Division, brought in especially for the kill. The purpose was clear, blast Bir Hacheim off the face of the earth.

On the morning of 9 June, General Koenig sent a radio message- “Water and ammunition virtually exhausted. Cannot hold out much longer”. As the sun set on the horizon, the silhouettes of the German and Italian tanks could be seen menacingly close. That night, Koenig sent another message to the Eighth Army – ‘‘We are surrounded. Our thoughts are always near you. We have confidence. Long live Free France’’. A few hours later permission was received for the garrison to abandon Bir Hacheim. The worst may have been over; the hardest part now lay ahead.

Brigadier Koenig’s plan to breakout was simple. It was to be a fighting breakout taking with them all the wounded, heavy arms and weapons. He was not taking the obvious route to the east but would breakout southwest taking the Germans and Italians by surprise. It was to be a backhanded slap to Rommel.

Midnight, 10 June, the breakout commenced. The column entered the cleared lane in the minefield and the race was on. The Germans realised someone was making a run for it and sent up flares and shelling started. Even after four hours of travel, the Free French were in the danger zone. An early morning mist covered the battlefield and by the time it cleared, there was no enemy in sight. In effect, the Free French Brigade had broken out but in the fog of war there were many a hair raising episode. It was a story of confusion, disaster and ultimately freedom. A young company commander, Pierre Messmer, had been left behind to give the impression that the French were remaining in their position. He was the last to leave.

Of the 3,700 men who had been at Bir Hacheim, 2,400 managed to cross enemy lines. More than half the vehicles and almost all the wounded soldiers, made their way to the rendezvous. It was feared that there may have been a rendezvous with death, instead it was a rendezvous d’honneur. 

At 8 am, 11 June the Germans and Italians attacked Bir Hacheim and were astounded to find it empty. Rommel admitted later, “seldom in Africa was I given such a hard-fought struggle.”

Plaudits for General Koenig and his men came thick and fast. British media compared Bir Hacheim to Verdun of the First World War. General Koeing was showered with decorations. Two of his soldiers presented him a toy rabbit and a toy lion, as he was now the ‘lion of Bir Hacheim.’ The message from de Gaulle read, “General Koenig, know and tell your troops that the whole of France is looking at you and you are her pride.” It was the first time that the French had fought on their own. They had restored the nation’s honour.

Aftermath

After being pulverised at Bir Hacheim, the remnants of 3rd Indian Motor Brigade were pulled back in stages. Rommel’s dash to Cairo had been stopped and hostilities came to a halt at the line of El Alamein. In the first week of July, the brigade was broken up. 2 Lancers went to Haifa, 11 PAVO Cavalry to the Suez canal, 18 KEO Cavalry and 2 Indian Field Regiment to Persia. The last two named were soon to form part of a new formation, 43 Lorried Brigade (now 43 Armoured Brigade). The old formation sign of the “Red Horseshoe” on a black background has gone forever. Very few know of its existence today.

Those who became prisoners of war faced a terrible five days and nights without food and water. Many died due to hypothermia and dehydration. The Italian captors were persuaded to release the men and retain the officers, as they too had no means to feed them. A long line of these men safely entered the haven of Bir Hacheim where they were received by the French and stayed with them and joined them in their breakout.

The officer prisoners were later interned in Italy. Amongst these officers, a number were to distinguish themselves in later life. Major Kumaramangalam received news in the camp that he had been awarded the DSO. The same day, in faraway Madras; his brother Mohan Kumaramangalam (later Union Minister) was sent to jail for anti-British activities. Two ends of the scale of British justice. Major Kumaramangalam managed to escape from the prison camp and was on the run for a few weeks when luck ran out and he was re-captured. He was to become the Chief of the Army Staff later. His troop commander, Lieutenant Tikka Khan rejoined 2 Indian Field Regiment when Italy surrendered and their camp was liberated. He took part once again in another distinguished battle of Letse in March 1945 in Burma. On the creation of Pakistan, he went to their army and become the Chief of the Army Staff.

Lieutenant Sahibzada Yakub Khan, 18 KEO Cavalry, a scion of the Rampur family, spent his time in captivity learning languages to become an accomplished linguist. He became Pakistan’s Chief of General Staff, as also Foreign Minister. Captured in another sector was a dashing, ebullient young captain, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, destined to be Pakistan’s Commander-in-Chief and later President of Pakistan.

The 1st Free French Brigade was pulled back to Cairo to rest and refit. There was a change at the higher echelons of Eighth Army with the arrival of General Bernard Montgomery. They took part in the battle of El Himeimat but no big battles came their way for the rest of the North African campaign. They saw service throughout the campaign in Italy at the end of which they sailed from Naples to land on the soil of southern France. News then arrived that the French 2nd Armoured Division under General Leclerc had entered Paris. The Swastika was removed from the Eiffel tower, General de Gaulle cried, ‘Vive Paris!’ and the next morning he proclaimed the Fourth Republic.

Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig, hero of Bir Hacheim rose to become General and later Minister of Defence. He died in 1970 and in 1974 was elevated posthumously to the rank of Field Marshal. Commandant Dimitri Amilakvari who went into battle wearing a dark green cloak with shrapnel holes obtained in Norway, was killed a year later. He led his men, as he always did, wearing the kepi and refusing to wear a tin helmet out of respect for the great First World War French General and ‘Father of the Legion’ Paul Rollet, who did likewise. This dashing Georgian prince had repaid his debt to his adopted country in blood. Last to leave Bir Hacheim, the young company commander Pierre Messmer, was to be a future Prime Minister of France. 

Today

One of the most prestigious institutions in France is what was Hotel des Invalides or now Les Invalides. This was founded in 1670 by Louis XIV for superannuated or disabled soldiers.

A part of the building is now a military museum. Within that is a section devoted to Bir Hacheim. On display in glass cases are memorabilia of the battle. Photographs, a tattered military pennant bearing the Cross of Lorraine. There is also, a sun faded toy lion given to Koenig by a grateful soldier. It is nostalgia personified and leaves many a visitor misty eyed. The old Grenelle Bridge has been re-named Bir Hacheim, so too a metro in the shadow of Eiffel tower. Bir Hacheim is now part of French legend. Yet, is there something missing? There is not a whiff or a whisper of the Anglo–Hindu Brigade who were smashed so that the Free French could carry on their struggle. France has forgotten their erstwhile comrades who played their part so as to enshrine French valour for all time.

On 11 November 2004 in a small military cantonment of the Punjab 2 Armoured Brigade celebrated their Centenary. The highlight was a tank parade. As the tanks and armoured personnel carriers went past the podium, their guns turned gracefully to the right and dipped in salutation to the Chief of the Army Staff. Time seems to have stood still as Indian’s oldest formation went past. For those of us fortunate to belong to the Fleur de Lis fraternity, it was a proud moment to savour and reflect upon. Long ago, gentle hands in an Abbey at Chartres embroidered the Fleur de Lis, which is still worn with immense pride. We have not forgotten our association with France.

———————————————————————-

Lieutenant General MS Shergill, PVSM, AVSM, VrC is a former Director General of Mechanised Forces.

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