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|SS Division Charlemagne|
|Active||1941–1944 (as LVF), 1944–1945|
|Engagements||World War II|
The 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) (German: 33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS "Charlemagne" (französische Nr. 1)) and Charlemagne Regiment are collective names used for units of French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during World War II. An estimated 7,340 to 11,000 men served in the unit at its peak in 1944. The unit's members participated in the final days of the Battle in Berlin in the area of the Führerbunker and were among the last Axis forces to surrender.
The original French unit in the German Army was the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (French: Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme, or LVF). The LVF was also known by its official German designation, the 638th Infantry Regiment. The LVF was mainly recruited from Pro-Fascist Frenchmen and elements among French prisoners of war. The LVF received 13,400 applicants, but many were weeded out and 5,800 were placed on the rolls. The LVF while in France wore a French army style khaki uniform and on their collar was their battalion number below an inverted chevron or the LVF emblem. Outside France they wore the standard German Army uniform with only a shield on the right upper arm with the colors of the French flag with the word France or LVF to distinguish it. By October 1941, there were two battalions of 2,271 men which had 181 officers and an additional staff of 35 German officers. They fought near Moscow in November 1941 as part of the 7th Infantry Division. The LVF lost half their numbers in action or through frost-bite. In 1942, the men were assigned to rear-security operations in the Byelorussian SSR (Belarus). At the same time, another unit was formed in France, La Légion Tricolore (Tricolor Regiment) but this unit was absorbed into the LVF six months later.
The LVF's French commander, Colonel Roger Labonne, was relieved in mid-1942, and the unit was attached to various German divisions until June 1943 when Colonel Edgar Puaud took command. The LVF operated in Ukraine during this period. In early 1944, the unit again took part in rear-security operations. In June 1944, following the collapse of Army Group Centre's front collapsed under the Red Army's summer offensive, the LVF was attached to the 4th SS Police Regiment.
A new recruiting drive in Vichy France attracted 3,000 applicants, mostly members of collaborationist militia (Milice) and university students. The official requirements were that the recruit had to be "free of Jewish blood" and between 20 and 25 years old. This formation, known as the 8th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France, was led by a former Foreign Legionnaire SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Marie Gamory-Dubourdeau. The approximately 1,600 men of the Sturmbrigade were attached to the SS Division Horst Wessel and sent to Galicia. In heavy fighting against the Soviet Red Army, 7 officers and 130 men were killed, while 8 officers and 661 men were wounded.
In September 1944, a new unit, the Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS Charlemagne, was formed out of the remnants of the LVF and French Sturmbrigade, both of which were disbanded. 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. SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg was appointed to command the division, while Puaud 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 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. 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 commanded by Krukenberg survived. It was evacuated from the coast by the German Navy to Denmark and later sent to Neustrelitz for refitting; the second group with Puaud was destroyed by Soviet artillery and the third group tried fighting its way back westward, but by 17 March all had been captured or killed in action.
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.
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 the 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, one-hundred eight 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.
Fenet, who was now wounded in the foot, withdrew with the battalion to the vicinity of the Reich Aviation Ministry in the central government district under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke. For the success of the battalion during the Battle in Berlin, Mohnke awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross to Fenet on 29 April 1945.
On 28 April, the Red Army started a full-scale offensive into the central sector. Fighting was intense, 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. After Hitler's suicide on 30 April, the unit's men were part of the last defenders in the area of the bunker complex.
Reduced to approximately thirty troops, most French SS men surrendered near the Potsdamer rail station to the Red Army. Having escaped Berlin, Fenet with a small remainder of his unit surrendered to British forces at Bad Kleinen and Wismar. Most of those who made it to France were apprehended and sent to Allied prisons and camps. In 1949, Fenet was sentenced to 20 years of forced labour, but was released from prison in 1959. Eleven or twelve were known to have been shot by the French authorities as traitors.