The 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.
The original French unit in the German army was the Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme (Legion of French Volunteers or LVF), also known by its official German designation, Infanterieregiment 638. The LVF was mainly made up of right-wing Frenchmen and French prisoners of war who preferred fighting to forced labor in Germany. The LVF fought near Moscow in November 1941. 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 Edgard Puaud took command. The LVF fought well on the Ukraine front against the Soviets. In June 1944, hours before the LVF's planned departure to France, it was called into action when Army Group Centre's front crumpled under the Red Army's summer offensive. On June 25, at the Bobr River, elements of the LVF under Major Bridoux fought for 48 hours against a Soviet assault. Supported by Stukas, five Tiger tanks and some SS-Police, they checked attack after attack in what is generally regarded as the LVF's most successful operation. Forty or more Soviet tanks were destroyed in front of the French position. Testimony to the ability of the LVF came from a Soviet communique which spoke of their forces being stopped by the sacrifice of "two French divisions".
Within a month, a new recruiting drive was begun in Vichy France. It attracted 3000 applicants, mostly members of collaborating militias and university students. This unit, the Französische SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade was led by a former Foreign Legionnaire, Obersturmbannführer Paul Marie Gamory-Dubourdeau. It was attached to SS Division Horst Wessel and sent to Galicia to fight the Soviet advance. It tenaciously held its ground, suffering heavy casualties.
In September 1944, a new unit, the Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS 'Charlemagne' (französische Nr.1), also known as the "Französische Brigade der SS" 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) and Organisation Todt, a construction unit and the Vichy French Milice. Some sources claim that the unit also included volunteers from some French colonies and Switzerland. Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg took actual command with Puaud (now an SS Oberführer) as nominal French commander.
The two main infantry regiments were Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS 57 and 58. Veterans of the Sturmbrigade were the nucleus of Regiment 57 and the LVF formed the core of Regiment 58. The LVF also manned the artillery battalion, the headquarters company and the engineer company. The reaction of the LVF to their transfer into the SS was mixed.
In early 1945, Oberführer Puaud received assurance from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler that his men would not be sent to the western front, where they might fight fellow Frenchmen. He was also told that they would fight under the French flag and continue to have Catholic military chaplains. Himmler promised that France would regain its sovereignty after Germany's victory.
In February 1945, the unit was officially upgraded to a division and renamed 33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS "Charlemagne". However, this division was severely undermanned with only 7340 men. The Charlemagne Division was sent to fight the Red Army in Poland, but on February 25 it was attacked while deploying from the railhead at Hammerstein (present day Czarne) in Pomerania by troops of the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front. Opposing the Frenchmen were four Red Army infantry divisions and two tank brigades. The lightly-armed French troops had not re-equipped prior to their departure, and they had no radios and few maps. The only bright spot for the Frenchmen was that they managed to stop the tanks with Panzerfausts.
On the night of March 3rd, the Charlemagne survivors were sent to defend the nearby town of Körlin with orders to "hold at all costs." At noon the next day, a massive Red Army force hit Körlin from the southwest. The French fought back desperately and were able to hold their positions throughout the day. The Division was ordered to immediately withdraw to the west, to avoid being trapped, and was broken into three battlegroups. Only the one with Krukenberg commanding, survived as they retreated to the Baltic coast, and were evacuated by sea to Denmark and later sent to Neustrelitz for refitting. Around 4,800 men had been lost. Oberführer Puaud was one of them.
On April 23, 1945, the Reich chancellery in Berlin itself ordered Krukenberg to the capital with his men, who were reorganised as Sturmbataillon ("assault battalion") 'Charlemagne'. Between 320 and 330 French troops arrived in Berlin on April 24th and were attached to the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, which Krukenberg was given command of.
Supported by Tiger II tanks and the SS-Panzer-Regiment 11 'Hermann von Salza', the Sturmbataillon took part in a counterattack on the morning of 26 April in Neukölln, a district in southeastern Berlin.
The Soviet advance into Berlin followed a pattern of massive shelling followed by assault using battle groups of about 80 men with tank and close artillery support. The fighting was very heavy and by April 28th, approximately 108 Soviet tanks had been destroyed in Berlin, 62 of them by the efforts of the Charlemagne defense.
On April 28th, the Red Army started a full-scale offensive into downtown Berlin. The battle raged savagely and the Sturmbataillon Charlemagne was in the middle of it. 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 during a candlelight ceremony on a subway platform on April 29th. Vaulot did not survive the battle.
Three other members of Charlemagne, two of them French, would be awarded the Knight's Cross, although only Vaulot actually received his decoration.
The French Charlemagne SS were the last defenders of Hitler's bunker, remaining at the bunker until May 2 to prevent the Russians from capturing the bunker on May Day.
Worn down to approximately 30 effectives, most were captured or escaped Berlin on their own or in groups. Most of those who made it to France were denounced and sent to Allied prisons and camps. For example, Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fénêt (*1919 in Ceyzériat - 2002), one of the last recipients of the Knight's Cross was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor and released from prison in 1959. Some were far less lucky and were shot upon capture by French authorities. General Leclerc was famously presented with a defiant group of 11-12 captured Charlemagne Division men. The Free French General immediately asked them why they wore a German uniform, to which one of them unwisely replied by asking the General why he wore an American one (the Free French wore modified US army uniforms). The group of French Waffen-SS men was then promptly executed without any form of military tribunal procedure. For their grave site see Third Reich in Ruins: Memorial Sites
Not all the survivors of the Division were as unrepentant as post-war Nazi apologists like Fénêt. In Marcel Ophuls' documentary The Sorrow and the Pity Christian de la Mazière, a surviving Charlemagne volunteer, is interviewed and asked why he joined the Waffen SS and whether he regretted having done so. He replied that he was raised in a rightist family, before the war read right-wing dailies full of alarming news about Communist atrocities in the Soviet Union and Spain and also fell victim to the racial intolerance prevalent at the time. He openly expressed regret for his actions and acknowledged the shortcomings of the cause he had fought for.
During their existence the units were known by various names including:
Französische Grenadier-Infantrie-Regiment 638 (Légion des Volontaires Français)
Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS Charlemagne (französische Nr.1)
33. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne (französische Nr.1)