33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne
|Type||Infantry brigade, later reclassified as division|
|Size||7,340 men (February 1945)|
The Waffen Grenadier Brigade of the SS Charlemagne (German: Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS "Charlemagne") was a unit of the Waffen-SS formed in September 1944 from French collaborationists many of whom were already serving in various other German units. Named after the 9th-century Frankish king, it superseded the existing Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism formed in 1941 within the German Army (Wehrmacht) and the SS-Volunteer Sturmbrigade France (SS-Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Frankreich") formed in July 1943, both of which were disbanded the same month. It also drafted in French recruits from other German military and paramilitary formations and Miliciens who had fled ahead of the Allied Liberation of France (June–November 1944).
After training, the Charlemagne Brigade was reclassified as a division as the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) (33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS "Charlemagne" (französische Nr. 1)). It had 7,340 men at the time of its deployment to the Eastern Front in February 1945. It fought against Soviet forces in Pomerania where it was almost annihilated during the East Pomeranian Offensive within a month. Around 300 members of the unit participated in the Battle in Berlin in April–May 1945 and were among the last Axis forces to surrender.
Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism
The Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (French: Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme, or LVF) was a unit of the German Army (Wehrmacht) formed shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 by a coalition of small far-right political factions within Vichy France. Although its supporters were more explicitly supportive of Nazi ideology and close collaboration with Nazi Germany than the Vichy regime itself, the German authorities remained skeptical of incorporating French soldiers and limited the unit's size significantly. In spite of this, it only succeeded in including 5,800 recruits between 1941 and its disbandment in 1944. It was also kept at arm's length by the Vichy regime. The LVF participated in the Battle of Moscow in November–December 1941 but suffered heavy casualties and performed poorly in combat. For most of its existence,it was confined to so-called "bandit-fighting" operations (Bandenbekämpfung) behind the front line in German-occupied Byelorussia and Ukraine. The Tricolor Legion (Légion Tricolore) formed in France with Vichy support was later also absorbed into the LVF. In early 1944, the unit again took part in rear-security operations. In June 1944, following the collapse of Army Group Centre's front during the Red Army's summer offensive, the LVF was attached to the 4th SS Police Regiment.
SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France
The SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France (SS-Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Frankreich") was formed in July 1943 as the first French formation permitted within the Waffen-SS. It was led by SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Marie Gamory-Dubourdeau who had formerly served in the Foreign Legion. It attracted around 3,000 applicants in German-occupied France many of whom were existing members of the collaborationist paramilitary Milice or university students. The official requirements were that the recruit had to be "free of Jewish blood" and between 20 and 25 years old. The approximately 1,600 men of the Sturmbrigade were attached to the 18th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Horst Wessel and sent to Galicia on the Eastern Front. In heavy fighting against the Red Army, 7 officers and 130 men were killed, while 8 officers and 661 men were wounded.
The LVF and France Brigade were disbanded in September 1944 in the aftermath of the Allied Liberation of France. Their soldiers were folded into a new unit created the same month called the Waffen Grenadier Brigade of the SS Charlemagne (Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS Charlemagne). Joining them were French collaborators fleeing the Allied advance in the west, as well as Frenchmen from the German Navy, the National Socialist Motor Corps (NSKK), the Organisation Todt and the detested Milice security police who had fled ahead of the Allied forces. SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg was appointed to command the division, while Edgar Puaud, who had commanded the LVF, was the nominal French commander. The two main infantry regiments were designated as the 57th and 58th Regiments. Members of the LVF were the nucleus of the former and Sturmbrigade formed the core of the latter. The LVF also manned the artillery battalion, the headquarters company and the engineer company. In February 1945, the unit was officially upgraded to a division and renamed to SS Division Charlemagne. At this time it had a strength of 7,340 men.
Pomerania, February–April 1945
The division was sent to fight the Red Army in Poland, but on 25 February it was attacked at Hammerstein (present-day Czarne) in Pomerania, by troops of the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front. The Soviet forces split the French force into three pockets. One group with Puaud was destroyed by Soviet artillery and a second group tried fighting its way back westward, but by 17 March all had been captured or killed in action. A third group commanded by Krukenberg survived. It was evacuated from the coast by the German Navy to Denmark and later sent to Neustrelitz for refitting.
By early April 1945, Krukenberg commanded only about 700 men organized into a single infantry regiment with two battalions (Battalions 57 and 58) and one heavy support battalion without equipment. He released about 400 men to serve in a construction battalion; the remainder, numbering about 350, had chosen to go to Berlin. On 23 April the Reich Chancellery in Berlin ordered Krukenberg to proceed to the capital with his men, who were reorganized as Assault Battalion (Sturmbataillon) Charlemagne. As the men assembled at the Marktplatz of Alt-Strelitz, a black Mercedes approached fast. As the car went past the column of men, Krukenberg and several other officers quickly stood at attention, recognising Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, who had just come from a private meeting with Count Folke Bernadotte at the Swedish consulate in Lübeck to offer surrender terms to the Western Allies. The SS men were disappointed that Himmler did not stop and instead sped on past.
Berlin, April–May 1945
Between 320 and 330 French troops arrived in Berlin on 24 April after a long detour to avoid advance columns of the Red Army. The SS men noted that the first night in Berlin was unnaturally quiet. On 25 April, Krukenberg was appointed the commander of (Berlin) Defence Sector C which included SS Division Nordland, whose previous commander, Joachim Ziegler, was relieved of his command earlier the same day. Charlemagne was attached to Nordland. The arrival of the French bolstered Nordland whose two regiments had been decimated in the fighting. Both equaled roughly a battalion. The Frenchmen walked from West to East Berlin, to a brewery near Hermannplatz. Here fighting began, with Hitler Youth firing Panzerfausts at Soviet tanks belonging to advance guards near the Tempelhof Airport.
Supported by Tiger II tanks and the 11th SS Panzer Battalion, men of Charlemagne took part in a counterattack on the morning of 26 April in Neukölln. The counterattack ran into an ambush by Soviet troops using a captured German Panther tank. The regiment lost half of the available troops in Neukölln on the first day. It later defended Neukölln's Town Hall. Given that Neukölln was heavily penetrated by Soviet combat groups, Krukenberg prepared fallback positions for Sector C defenders around Hermannplatz. He moved his headquarters into the opera house. As SS Division Nordland withdrew towards Hermannplatz, the French under Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fenet and some attached Hitler Youth destroyed fourteen Soviet tanks; one machine gun position by the Halensee bridge held up Soviet forces for 48 hours.
The Soviet advance into Berlin followed a pattern of massive shelling followed by assaults using house-clearing battle groups of about 80 men in each, with tank escorts and close artillery support. On 27 April, the remnants of Nordland were pushed back into the central government district (Zitadelle sector) in Defence sector Z. There, Krukenberg's Nordland headquarters was a carriage in the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station. Fighting was very heavy and by 28 April 108 Soviet tanks had been destroyed in the southeast of Berlin within the S-Bahn. The French squads under Fenet's command accounted for "about half" of the tanks. Fenet and his battalion were given the area of Neukölln, Belle Alliance Platz, Wilhelmstrasse and the Friedrichstrasse to defend. On 28 April, the Red Army started a full-scale offensive into the central sector. Charlemagne was in the center of the battle zone around the Reich Chancellery. French SS man Eugene Vaulot, who had destroyed two tanks in Neukölln, used Panzerfausts to claim six more near the Führerbunker. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by Krukenberg on 29 April. Vaulot was killed three days later by a Red Army sniper. Second Lieutenant Roger Albert-Brunet destroyed four Soviet tanks by Panzerfaust on 29 April 1945. He was awarded the Iron Cross 1st class by Krukenberg. During the fighting, Fenet was wounded in the foot. The Soviets forces drove what was left of the battalion back to the vicinity of the Reich Aviation Ministry in the central government district under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke. For the combat actions of the battalion during the Battle in Berlin, Mohnke awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross to Fenet on 29 April 1945.
After Hitler's suicide on 30 April, the unit's men were part of the last defenders in the area of the bunker complex. By the evening of 30 April, the French SS men serving under Fenet had destroyed another 21 Soviet tanks. On the night of 1 May, Krukenberg told the men that were left to split up into small groups and attempt to break-out. Reduced to approximately thirty troops, most French SS men surrendered near the Potsdamer rail station to the Red Army. Krukenberg made it to Dahlem where he hid out in an apartment for a week before surrendering to Red Army troops.
Having escaped out of Berlin, Fenet with a small remainder of his unit surrendered to British forces at Bad Kleinen and Wismar. Some of the Frenchmen, such as Fenet, were turned over to the Soviet Army. Twelve who had been turned over to French authorities by the US Army were shot as traitors. Fenet was allowed to be treated for his foot wound at hospital. He was then returned to a Soviet POW camp and a short time later released. Most of the rest who made it to France were apprehended and sent to Allied prisons and camps. Fenet was arrested upon his return to France. In 1949, Fenet was convicted of being a collaborator and sentenced to 20 years of forced labour, but was released from prison in 1959.
- SS-Oberführer Edgar Puaud (?? August 1944 – February 1945)
- SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg (February 1945 – 25 April 1945)
- SS-Standartenführer Walter Zimmermann (25 April 1945 – 8 May 1945)
- Christian de la Mazière, a former member of the SS Division Charlemagne interviewed at length in the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
- Waffen-SS foreign volunteers and conscripts
- Sigmaringen enclave, a short lived Vichy government in exile active from September 1944 to April 1945
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- Media related to 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) at Wikimedia Commons