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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hitler's Fighting Frenchmen


Hitler's Fighting Frenchmen
By Richard Landwehr
Since the end of World War II, all the participating nations have ignored one of its most significant and fascinating chapters. This is the documented story of the Frankreich Brigade and the Charlemagne Division - thousands of French volunteers who fought with the Waffen-SS from 1943 until "the last bullet" in May 1945.
The first French volunteer unit of the Waffen-SS was authorized by Marshal Pétain's Vichy government on June 22, 1943. Unofficially, SS recruitment of Frenchmen who wanted a crack at the British, the Bolsheviks or both had been ongoing since 1940 in the German-occupied portion of France.
Most of the earlier French volunteers had simply been assigned individually to German SS units, notably the Viking and Totenkopf Divisions. Many were of at least partial German extraction. Since July 7, 1941 French volunteers had been serving with the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) in the Legion des Voluntaires Francais contre le Bolshevism, or LVF. This was a full-blown combat regiment trained and equipped by the German Army to fight on the Eastern Front.
Until it was disbanded on September 1, 1944, the LVF saw action in the USSR both in the front lines and against rear area partisan guerillas. A total of 6,429 soldiers served in its ranks of whom about 400 were killed and 1,000 wounded. When the LVF disbanded about 1,200 of its members joined the Waffen-SS. Until 1943, the Waffen-SS had concentrated on recruiting "Germanic" foreign volunteers, leaving recruitment of other volunteers to the German Army. The French volunteers were initially considered "Latins" by the Waffen-SS leadership, but subsequently were reclassified to some extent as "Germanics" - those qualified to become full-fledged SS men.
The French SS Volunteer Grenadier Regiment was established on August 18, 1943, with the sanction of Adolf Hitler. At that time there were some 1,500 recruits on hand, 800 of whom were sent to the SS Germanic training Camp at Sennheim, Alsace. Other French volunteers were sent to specialty training schools and to the established SS academies for officer and NCO training.
By the end of January 1944 this regiment contained 2,480 French volunteers organized into two infantry battalions of four companies each, plus a headquarters staff company and signals, antitank, engineer and air defense platoons. On June 30, 1944, the regiment was officially upgraded to the 8.SS-Sturmbrigade Frankreich, or 8th French Assault Brigade; even though the overall strength now was listed at only 1,688 officers and men. Presumably volunteers still at various training institutes.
This new French brigade was ordered to form a battlegroup for emergency deployment on the Eastern Front. The main battlegroup consisted of 18 officers and 1,000 of other ranks organized into three infantry companies, a staff company and engineer squad, an anti-tank platoon and supply and medical sections. From August 10 to 15, 1944 the French SS Battalion was engaged in very heavy fighting against a Soviet advance force to the west of Sanok. The unit held its ground tenaciously while taking some 200 casualties.
Soldiers of the Charlemagne DivisionOn August 17 I./Frankreich, now with only 800 soldiers, was shifted to the south of Sandomir in the Weichsel (Vistula) River sector. They were given a 15-kilometer sector of the front to defend. Realistically, at least 10 times that number were needed for a protracted holding of an area this size. The inferno was unleashed August 20, when the Red Army launched a massive offensive all along the frontal sector.
The French SS were ordered to send their small anti-tank platoon (normal platoon strength numbering 40-50 men) to Radomysl. There its commander, 19-year-old officer candidate Henri Kreutzer, organized the defense of the town. Kreutzer held the record for the longest hand grenade throw in Europe (such competitions having been held) with a toss of 70 meters.
With his three anti-tank guns and the help of scattered German elements that he had incorporated into his command, Kreutzer's troops (totaling no more than a company - four platoons - in size) held off an entire Red Army tank regiment. Kreutzer was severely wounded in the fighting and was subsequently awarded the Iron Cross First Class. The rest of I./Frankreich was engulfed in a desperate hand-to-hand fight for the town of Mokre. This engagement lasted, almost without pause, for three days.
In the days that followed, the French SS troops stubbornly held all objectives assigned to them, but were slowly forced back as the German lines crumbled under the sheer weight of the Soviet onslaught. They reformed further to the west. On August 28 the remnants of I./ Frankreich were pulled from the front lines. They were drawn up in inspection before SS-Brigadeführer August Trabandt, commander of the 18th SS Horst Wessel Division.
There were only 140 French volunteers left out of the 1,018 who had arrived three weeks earlier. Trabandt profusely praised the conduct and sacrifice of the Frenchmen, and distributed 58 Iron Crosses, many posthumously. Their gallantry was immediately noted at Waffen-SS headquarters (Main Leadership Office) in Berlin. Plans were hurriedly drawn up to form a full division of these fighting French volunteers.
September 1, 1944 marked the authorization day for the creation of a French Waffen-SS Division, using for its cadre survivors from the LVF and the Frankreich. Initial divisional formation was to take place in the town of Greifenberg, West Prussia. For a short period of time, brigade status was maintained for the unit in case it would prove difficult to expand to division size. The division's title, "Charlemagne," was chosen over its closest competitor, "Jeanne d'Arc," on the grounds that Charlemagne was a genuine pan-European Germanic hero, while Joan of Arc was a more provincial figure invoking religious overtones.
A French national collarpatch featuring a sword-and-oakleaf motif was considered and rejected. While distinct collarpatch designs were proposed and often issued to different nationalities in the Waffen-SS, most of the non-German volunteers preferred to adopt the elite SS runic collar emblem if permitted to do so. Such was the case with the Charlemagne Division.
Soldiers of the division were also issued armshields in the French national colors, to be worn below the German eagle on the left tunic sleeve. The division also adopted an identification sign depicting a split shield with a Frankish eagle on the left side and three fleur-de-lis on the right.
The core elements of the new Charlemagne Division were to be two battalions from the old Assault Brigade, which were expanded into the Waffen-Grenadier regiments SS 57 and SS 58 respectively, later referred to as SS Grenadier regiments. This was done in autumn 1944 in the West Prussian military training area. Command of the new division was given over to SS-Oberführer (senior colonel) Edgar Puaud, a former colonel in the French Foreign Legion who had commanded the LVF in its later stages.
The Waffen-SS planners felt that the Charlemagne Division could be fully trained and assembled within six months, as most personnel were either fully trained or had previous military experience. However, the division was scaled down across the board due to shortages of both personnel and material.
On October 26, 1944 the Charlemagne Division was relocated from West Prussia to the more centrally located and modern military training camp at Wildflecken, Germany. Here it was joined by some 1,500 former members of the Milice (French Militia) who had retreated from France with the German Army a few months before. The Milice were a well-trained paramilitary force that had battled the French partisans and communist terror bands that had sprung up in France over the previous few years with Allied assistance.
The Milice were sworn into the Waffen-SS on November 11, 1944 in an impressive ceremony before various dignitaries, including the famous Belgian SS officer Gen. Leon Degrelle. He gave a speech to the assembled Charlemagne Division that day. Degrelle had helped recruit its volunteers during the late spring and early summer of 1944.
Following Degrelle's speech, a barracks of the more politically oriented French volunteers expressed their desire to join Degrelle in his own 28th SS Division Wallonien. Degrelle took these Frenchmen with him, along with their weapons and equipment. Unfortunately Degrelle had not bothered to inform their superior officers. The Charlemagne leadership was not overly delighted with this turn of events.
During the next few months, as the picture darkened ever more rapidly for Germany, the Charlemagne volunteers underwent a vigorous training program. They were sent to specialist training schools all over the Reich. By year's end Charlemagne's strength stood at a divisionally-undersized (but fit and ready) number totaling fewer than 7,600 men of all ranks. Every unit commander was a seasoned combat veteran.
In Berlin in early 1945 the commander of the Charlemagne Division, Oberfhr. Puaud, received assurance from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler that the French SS would not be sent to a front where they might fight fellow Frenchmen. In addition, they would fight under the French Flag and continue to fully practice their own religion, with Catholic military chaplains. Himmler asserted that there was no question but that France would regain its sovereignty after Germany's victory.
At the beginning of February 1945, the Charlemagne Division (in excess of 6,000 - the remainder still in training) was ordered to the hard pressed Pomeranian sector of the Eastern Front. Some of the unit commanders argued that they had not yet received adequate equipment. They were assured that they would be able to pick up needed supplies, heavy weapons and vehicles at the military depot at Hammerstein. This promise was made on the assumption that the front would remain stable.
The division was transported from Wildflecken in 10 or 12 troop trains. As this rail convoy reached Hammerstein, the Soviets launched a major area offensive. There was no time for the Frenchmen to re-equip at the nearby military camp. They had to be rushed into the line. Opposing the Charlemagne Division near Hammerstein were four Red Army infantry divisions and two tank brigades. Although Soviet units were usually understrength, they were still a formidable threat to the lightly armed French formation.
Fortunately the French were well supplied with Panzerfausts, the self-contained, handheld anti-tank weapon that was extremely effective at close range against enemy armor. In the violent battle that ensued, French SS volunteers literally shot the two Soviet tank brigades to pieces with Panzerfausts alone; destroying some 50 tanks. For the next few weeks, the Charlemagne Division would be continuously engaged against superior enemy forces in Pomerania.
On the night of March 3-4, 1945 the Charlemagne survivors were sent to defend the nearby town of Körlin with orders to "hold at all costs." At noon on March 4 a massive Red Army force hit Körlin from the southwest. The Frenchmen fought back desperately and were able to hold their positions throughout the day. But their situation appeared bleak. It was known that a Soviet advance force had almost reached Kolberg on the Baltic Sea. This would cut off all the troops defending the Belgard-Körlin area. On the evening of March 4 the Charlemagne Division was ordered to immediately relocate to the west, to avoid being trapped and annihilated.
On March 13 the bulk of the Charlemagne survivors under Brigfhr. Krukenberg reached the German Baltic port of Swinemünde. Despite their ordeal, they were in good spirits, and marched into the town singing French battle songs. It was a sight the beleaguered German citizens of Swinemünde never expected to see. Doubtless very few of them knew that there were Frenchmen serving in German uniforms. The French unit spent several days regrouping in western Pomerania. About 600 Charlemagne survivors gathered there. Many others would make their way to the cities of Kolberg and Danzig and simply be incorporated into the local defense forces.
What was left of the Charlemagne Division was then ordered to the town of Carpin in Mecklenburg, to the north of Berlin. The casualty totals for Pomerania could now be estimated. At least 4,800 Charlemagne men, dead and missing, had been lost in that onslaught. During the night of April 23-24 surviving Charlemagne volunteers, now numbering fewer than 330, were ordered to Berlin. After a hazardous journey, the Frenchmen arrived at Berlin's Olympic Stadium at 2200 hours on the 24th. The Frenchmen were assigned to remnants of the Nordland Division.
It was noted at the time that the Soviet advance into Berlin had been a very cautious one (further slowed by Red Army rapine) and that the slightest display of tenacious resistance would slow or stop them. At this stage of the war, the Soviet soldiers were less eager to risk their lives.
Nordland/Charlemagne headquarters were then established in the Berlin Opera House, before being relocated to a central subway station, due to the fierce Red artillery bombardment. Through April 27, the Soviet advance into Berlin had been somewhat tentative, displaying a pattern of massive shelling followed up by probing attacks led by small tanks. In almost all cases, the advance armored vehicles were promptly knocked off by the defenders. But the situation changed on Saturday, April 28. On that day an all-out effort to seize the heart of the city began. Soviet assault troops threw bridges over the canals and crossed in massive numbers into central Berlin.
The battle raged savagely and the remaining Charlemagne soldiers were in the middle of the action. Eugen Vaulot, who had destroyed two tanks in Neukölln used his Panzerfaust to bag six that had been advancing on the Reichschancellery/Führer Bunker. He was awarded the Knight's Cross by Brigfhr. Krukenberg in a candlelight ceremony, held in a subway station on the afternoon of April 29. Vaulot would be killed by an enemy sniper on May 2.
Three other members of the Assault Battalion Charlemagne would receive the Knight's Cross, on the evening of April 29. By this time, 108 Soviet tanks had been destroyed in the city's center; 62 of them by Charlemagne soldiers. These French survivors spent April 30 repelling flame-throwing Soviet tanks, which kept lumbering toward the Führer Bunker.
Adolf Hitler may have been surprised to learn that not all of his last personal defenders were Germans. In addition to the Frenchmen, a few Danes, Norwegians, Latvians, Swedes, Spaniards and Balkan ethnic Germans, along with Hitler Youth, policemen and middle aged to elderly Volkssturm (People's Militia) were among those who fatefully joined in the final scenes of bravery and pathos.
To the north of Berlin, SS Battalion 58 and other Charlemagne troopers who had not gone into the city conducted a fighting withdrawal to Schleswig-Holstein. Their objective was to reach Denmark and link up with the remains of Leon Degrelle's 28th SS Division Wallonien. But the British Army got in the way, and on May 2 the last Charlemagne commander, Stubaf. Boudet-Gheusi, attempted to surrender his command. Under a white flag, Boudet-Gheusi and his adjutant, (2nd Lieutenant) Radici crossed the Allied lines to speak with a British officer.
The officer flatly rejected any official surrender, stating that the Frenchmen had to be turned over to the Russians for "punishment." At that point the two French SS junior officers were disarmed and taken into custody. They were then placed on an armored personnel carrier and driven to the Soviet lines. Both managed to jump off en route and escape. Subsequently, Boudet-Gheusi would be forced to serve a long prison sentence in France. Radici was executed by France's postwar government.
Part of the Charlemagne Wildflecken Regiment had been incorporated into the new SS-Panzergrenadier Division "Nibelungen" in Bavaria. This division had been formed late in the war from all sorts of available personnel. There were many French SS officer candidates and other European volunteers in its ranks. These were probably the only French SS troops to fight against the western Allies; in late April and early May, 1945.
The Nibelungen Division surrendered to the Americans on May 9, two days after Germany's unconditional surrender at Reims, France. One would think this a much more preferable alternative for Waffen-SS volunteers than capitulation to the Red Army. But such was not necessarily the case. The Nibelungen POWs were severely abused by their captors. Many were beaten and even murdered in captivity.
The bulk of the Nibelungen survivors would go into the cruel and infamous "open air" POW camps described in detail in James Bacque's book Other Losses. They definitely were not treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. The soldiers of the Charlemagne Division had marched into history. Of the more than 10,000 French volunteers in the Waffen-SS, more than half had been killed or missing at the front, or would die in captivity.
Like tens of thousands of their European SS comrades, the French volunteers were drawn from all walks of life, from laborers to aristocrats. They strongly believed they were fighting for the preservation of European civilization, national integrity and the destruction of Communism. They literally fought to the last bullet, with few survivors having any regret about the course they took.

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