The 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) and Charlemagne Regiment are collective names used for units of French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during World War II. From estimates of 7,340 to 11,000 at its peak in 1944, the strength of the division fell to just sixty men in May 1945.
They were one of the last German units to see action during World War II, when they participated in the defence of central Berlin and the Führerbunker. They were among the last to surrender during the final days of the Battle in Berlin.
The Charlemagne division was formed in 1944, combining troops serving in other French units of the German armed forces, as well as from the paramilitary Franc-Garde of the Milice. Its crest is a representation of the dual empire of Charlemagne, which united the Franks in what would become France and Germany. The Imperial eagle on the dexter side represents East Francia (Germany) and the fleurs-de-lys on the sinister side represents West Francia (France).
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 (Infanterieregiment 638). 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 chevon or the LVF emblem. Outside France they had to wear 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 anti-partisan duties 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 saw action in the Ukraine during this period. In early 1944, the unit again took part in anti-partisan duties. In June 1944, the LVF was called into action when Army Group Centre's front collapsed under the Red Army's summer offensive. The LVF was attached to the 4th SS Police Regiment and fought in a delaying action.
A new recruiting drive in Vichy France attracted 3,000 applicants, mostly members of collaborationist militia 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 was attached to the SS Division Horst Wessel and sent to Galicia. In heavy fighting against the 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 took command, while Puaud (now a Waffen-SS Oberführer) was the nominal French commander. The two main infantry regiments were Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS 57 and 58. Members of the LVF were the nucleus of Regiment 57 and Sturmbrigade formed the core of Regiment 58. 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 33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS "Charlemagne" (französische Nr.1). At this time it had a strength of 7,340 men. The Charlemagne 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 Oberführer 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 Sturmbataillon ("assault battalion") "Charlemagne". As the men assembled at the Marktplatz of Alt-Strelitz, a black Mercedes fast approached. As the car went past the column of men, Krukenberg and several other officers quickly stood at attention, recognising Reichsführer-SS 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 Soviet advance columns. The soldiers 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 the Nordland Division, whose previous commander, Joachim Ziegler, was relieved of his command earlier the same day. Sturmbataillon "Charlemagne" was attached to the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland. The arrival of the French bolstered the Nordland Division whose "Norge" and "Danmark" Panzergrenadier 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. The Sturmbataillon assisted in the defence of the district.
Supported by Tiger II tanks and the 11th SS Panzer-Battalion "Hermann von Salza", the Sturmbataillon 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 the Nordland Division 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 managed to hold 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, the Sturmbataillon Charlemagne was in the center of the battle zone around the Reich Chancellery. SS-Unterscharführer Eugene Vaulot, who had destroyed two tanks in Neukölln, used his 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 did not survive the battle being killed three days later. After Hitler's suicide on 30 April, the small number of men left in the Sturmbataillon were part of the last defenders in the area of the bunker complex.
Reduced to approximately thirty able men, most members of the Sturmbataillon surrendered near the Potsdamer rail station to Red Army soldiers. 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. 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.Colonel Roger Labonne (August 1941 - March 1942)
Majors Lacroix/Demessine (April 1942 - May 1943)
SS-Oberfuhrer Edgar Puaud (1 June 1943 - ?? August 1943)
SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau (?? August 1943 - 31 July 1944)
SS-Hauptsturmführer Erich Kostenbader (1 August 1944 - ?? August 1944)
SS-Oberführer Edgar Puaud (?? August 1944 - 28 February 1945)
SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg (28 February 1945 - 24/25 April 1945)
SS-Standartenführer Walter Zimmermann (24/25 April 1945 - 8 May 1945)
SS-Waffen-Grenadierregiment 57 (französisches Nr. 1)
SS-Waffen-Grenadierregiment 58 (französisches Nr. 2)
SS-Artillerieabteilung 33 (Artillery Battalion)
SS-Panzerjäger-Bataillon 33 (anti-tank Battalion)
SS-Pionier-Kompanie 33 (Engineer Company)
SS-Nachrichten-Kompanie 33 (Signals Company)
SS-Feldersatz-Kompanie 33 (Field Hospital Company)
SS-Nachschub-Bataillon 33 (Logistics Battalion)