Soldiers of the Légion des Volontaires Français, when still part of the Wehrmacht
Vichy France occupied a unique position in Hitler’s Europe. Neither a fascist ally nor an occupied state, Pétain’s France was relatively autonomous. Soon after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, a French legion was formed to fight on the Eastern Front. Thereafter, Vichy France supplied a steady number of volunteers to fight for Germany against the Red Army. Elements of the Charlemagne Division would also fight in Berlin in 1945.
After the defeat and occupation of France in May 1940, an armistice was declared in June between the French and German governments. France was split into two zones. The northern industrial region remained occupied and was placed under German administration. In the southern region, a collaborationist government had established itself in Vichy under the leadership of World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was 84 years old.
When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, it caused great excitement among French collaborationist political parties and paramilitary home-based formations. In response, the first recruiting centre was opened at 12 Rue Auber, Paris, with additional recruiting centres placed all over France. On 7 July, all the leaders of these parties met at the Hotel Majestic in Paris to create an anti-Bolshevik formation; and on 18 July 1941, the grandly titled Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolshevisme (LVF) was formally established.
Initially, the Vichy Government had enacted a law that forbade Frenchmen from enlisting into “foreign armies” to prevent them from joining the Free French forces of exiled General Charles de Gaulle. Since the LVF was a private affair, Marshal Pétain amended the law so there would be no barrier to Frenchmen enlisting in the LVF. Hitler approved, but stated that membership be limited to 15,000. However, the LVF received a total of only 13,400 applications and, of these, 4600 had to be refused on medical grounds and a further 3000 on “moral” grounds. Many came from the militias of the collaborating political parties, prominent among them the men from Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français, include Doriot himself. Eventually, 5800 Frenchmen were accepted into the LVF and trained at the Borgnis-Desbordes barracks at Versailles.
The recruits wore standard German Army uniforms and had the French national arm shield inscribed “FRANCE” placed on their right sleeve (the Germans made it clear that unless France actually declared war on the Soviet Union there could be no question of sending combatants to the front in French uniform). Colonel Roger Labonne, a 60-year-old military historian, assumed command of the legion.
On 4 September, the first draft of volunteers – 25 officers and 803 men – left Paris for Debica in Poland. On 20 September, a second contingent of 127 officers and 769 men, including Sergeant-Major Doriot, followed them to the same destination. By October 1941, the LVF comprised two battalions: 181 officers and 2271 other ranks, with a liaison staff of 35 Germans. The LVF was registered as the 638th Infantry Regiment of the German Army.
By the end of October, both battalions proceeded by rail to Smolensk and then by truck and on foot towards the frontline near Moscow, joining the German 7th Infantry Division near Golokovo. In early December, a third battalion of 1400 other recruits to the LVF was sent to the Debica troop training facilities. In February 1942, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were caught up in the Soviet winter counteroffensive. During the fighting, the 2nd Battalion was overrun by Soviet forces near Djunovo and virtually annihilated. The LVF lost half of its strength either due to enemy action or frostbite.
In March 1942, Colonel Labonne was recalled to Paris and relieved of his command. The LVF was pulled out of the frontline and for the next 18 months ceased to function as a unified formation but operated as two separate battalions – the 1st under Major Lacroix and the 3rd under Major Demessine – the 2nd having been virtually wiped out. The unit had no overall French commander and was employed on anti-partisan operations. During the summer of 1942, the 1st Battalion was subordinated to the German 186th Security Division and was deployed in anti-partisan activities, while the 3rd Battalion was southwest of Smolensk engaging partisans near Volost, where it suffered heavy casualties.
On 24 June 1942, the Controlling Committee of the LVF sent Prime Minister Laval a memorandum proposing that the unit be taken over as an official military force, be allowed to wear French uniforms, receive French decorations, be financed by the Ministry of War, and be made available for active duty “on any front where the national interest is at stake”. It further suggested that a new name, the Legion Tricolore, be adopted “to underline the stoutly national ideal which inspired the legionary unit”. These ideas were agreed four days later, the Legion Tricolore being financed by the Vichy Government and headed by Raymond Lachal, Pierre Laval’s right-hand man. The unit lasted only six months before being dissolved. Hitler did not approve. After all, if the LVF became a French-controlled unit what power would the Wehrmacht have to prevent it being withdrawn from Russia and brought back to France? Such a prospect could not be tolerated. The Führer decreed that the French volunteers must remain under German authority.
Former members of the Legion Tricolore were allowed to rejoin the LVF. By June 1943, after active recruiting and reorganizing, the LVF was refitted and prepared to serve under the German 186th Security Division at Smolensk.
Thus, at the end of December 1942, the Legion Tricolore was disbanded and its personnel transferred to the LVF. In June 1943, the 1st and 3rd Battalions were brought together under the 286th Security Division, and a reconstituted 2nd Battalion was added so that by the end of the year the LVF became a single regiment. It was commanded by Colonel Edgar Puaud, a regular soldier and former Foreign Legion officer who had spent most of his service career in North Africa.
In January 1944, the LVF was once again engaged in anti-partisan operations in Russia, in the forest of Somry. The operation was a success: out of the 6000 partisans estimated to be active in that region, 1118 were killed and a further 1345 captured. In April 1944, the 4th Battalion was added to the LVF from excess personnel from the disbanded LVF artillery detachment.
In June 1944, after the collapse of the German Ninth Army, the regiment found itself in the path of a major Red Army offensive (part of the massive Russian offensive codenamed Bagration). To stem the Soviet attack, a battalion of 400 Frenchmen under the command of Major Bridoux, plus various ad hoc German units, formed a battle group near Bobr, Ukraine. This unit fought so well that it enabled much of the Ninth Army to break out of a Soviet encirclement at Bobruysk. Withdrawn from the front, the regiment was regrouped at Greifenberg in East Prussia. In September 1944, the LVF ceased to exist. It found itself absorbed into the Waffen-SS (see below).
A small number (perhaps no more than 300) of Frenchmen succeeded in being accepted into the ranks of the Waffen-SS after 1940. They served mainly as private soldiers in the Wiking and Totenkopf Divisions rather than a national legion. It wasn’t until July 1943 that full nationwide recruitment began in France, with a Committee of the Friends of the Waffen-SS being established under the sponsorship of Vichy Propaganda Minister Paul Marion. The committee’s main recruitment office was located at 24 Avenue du Recteur Poincaré in Paris (where some 1500 applications were received), with regional offices distributed throughout the larger cities of France.
Volunteers were required to be “free of Jewish blood”, physically fit, and between the ages of 20 and 25. The initial recruits were drawn from members of Vichy youth movements, various collaborationist militias, right-wing politicals, plus a large number of university students.
Some 3000 applicants visited the assorted offices in the first few months. The first 800 volunteers were trained at Sennheim in Alsace, and following basic training another 30 were chosen as officer candidates and sent to the SS Junkerschule Bad Tölz. Another 100 were sent to specialized NCO training in Posen. In March 1944, 1538 French recruits, plus their officers and NCOs, were assembled at the Waffen-SS training ground at Beneschau near Prague. It was designated a sturmbrigade, and was commonly referred to as SS Sturmbrigade Frankreich.
In August 1944, the sturmbrigade was attached to the 18th SS Panzergrenadier Division Horst Wessel, and thrown into the fierce rearguard fighting against the advancing Soviets in Galicia. The new unit took heavy casualties, with 15 of 18 officers dead or wounded, and 130 dead and 660 wounded among the other ranks. Following its baptism of fire, the sturmbrigade returned to barracks for refitting and eventual amalgamation with the soldiers of the disbanded LVF.
The Charlemagne Division
By this date, much of France had been liberated by the Allies, giving Himmler the opportunity to combine the assault brigade, French Navy personnel and members of the LVF into a Waffen-SS grenadier brigade. By 1 September 1944, he had combined the remnants of Vichy military personnel into the SS Brigade Charlemagne. It consisted of 1200 former sturmbrigade soldiers, 2000 former LVF, 1200 former Kriegsmarine, 2300 former NSKK and Organization Todt members, and 2500 former Militia Police and new recruits.
In late 1944, these disparate elements were assembled for training at Lager Wildflecken, northwest of Frankfurt-am-Main. At Wildflecken, the volunteers were sorted out and assigned to their respective units. In February 1945, the brigade was formed into the 33rd SS Waffen Grenadier Division Charlemagne, but training was cut short when the “division” was sent to the Eastern Front.
On 25 February 1945, as the trainborne elements of Charlemagne Division pulled into the railhead at Hammerstein, Pomerania, armoured spearheads of the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front unexpectedly smashed into the division. The result was disaster, with the ill-trained French unit being split up into three battle groups. One group, commanded by General Krukenberg, made it north to the Baltic coast where it was evacuated to Denmark and sent back to refit at Neustrelitz in Mecklenberg. Another battle group, commanded by General Puaud, was cut to pieces by the Red Army soon afterwards. The third group, nearly wiped out at the railhead, conducted a fighting retreat west towards German lines, being destroyed in early March 1945.
At Carpin, Mecklenberg, the remnants of the Charlemagne Division – 1100 men – gathered to rest and refit. In early April, Krukenberg released the disillusioned and demoralized from their oaths of allegiance, which cost him a third of his men. On the night of 23/24 April, the remaining 700 were summoned to the defence of Berlin. Krukenberg organized a vehicle column, but because of enemy action and mechanical problems only 330 men were able to enter the northwestern suburbs of Berlin just hours before the Soviet encirclement of the city.
They were engaged immediately upon their arrival. They fought brief and bloody counterattacks at the Hasenheide and Tempelhof airfield, withdrawing back across the Landwehr Canal, and fighting through the district of Kreuzberg into the city centre. The Frenchmen continued to battle the Red Army until the general order of surrender announced by General Weidling on 2 May, when some 30 surviving Charlemagne members went into Soviet captivity near the Potsdamer station.
French Naval Volunteers
In February 1944, the German Navy began to appeal for French volunteers, the main recruiting office being at Caen in Normandy. But, as with other branches of the German armed forces, individual enlistment had certainly taken place before that late date, especially in the traditional coastal regions of Brittany and Normandy. Up to 2000 Frenchmen served in the German Kriegsmarine in World War II. In France, the German Navy also raised an indigenous naval police known as the Kriegsmarine Wehrmänner.
Another separate naval police unit of French volunteers was the Kriegswerftpolizei. This unit consisted of some 259–300 Frenchmen who assisted in guarding the important U-Boat base at La Pallice near La Rochelle in the Bay of Biscay. The Allied invasion of France in June 1944 does not appear to have deterred the German Navy from continuing its attempts to recruit Frenchmen. For example, the Journal de Rouen dated 29 June 1944, three weeks after the Allied landings, carried an advertisement urging young Frenchmen to join the Kriegsmarine. It stated: “To be a sailor is to have a trade, enlist today in the German Navy.”
Arab soldier in Greece late 1943, note “Legion Freies Arabien” sleeve shield
In May and June 1941, an unsuccessful German-backed uprising took place in British-occupied Iraq led by Rashid Ali el-Kilani. The Germans and many of the coup leaders fled to Greece and found themselves in a training camp at Sunion near Athens under the command of Helmuth Felmy and Sonderstab F (Special Staff F). Berlin decided to form an Arab-speaking unit for clandestine operations in North Africa – Battalion 845 of the German Army was born.
By April 1942, the battalion contained volunteers from Algeria, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq (Tunisians did not volunteer for frontline duties but offered their services as labourers and security troops). Some 400 Arabs living in occupied areas were drafted into a local force called Phalange Africaine, who were all incorporated into a new unit called the Deutsch Arabische Lehrabteilung (DAL). The unit first saw action on the coast of the Gulf of Hammamet where a British commando team landed to blow up the headquarters of the German Brandenburg commando unit. The Arabs fought the British for 48 hours, taking 3 casualties and inflicting 8 on the enemy.
In total, 6300 Arab-speaking volunteers passed through the ranks of the German and Vichy forces. The frontline Arab volunteers were issued with the Bevo sleeve shield, and the auxiliary Arab volunteers with a printed sleeve shield. These shields were made in very limited numbers, and are now one of the rarest of all volunteer sleeve shields.