After the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, in addition to those nations allied to Germany, tens of thousands of volunteers from other occupied countries flocked to join the various expeditionary forces in order to participate in what promised to be an epic fight. Although not willing to return to a state of war following its defeat the year before, France, which had seen a large part of its territory invaded, now witnessed the birth of the so-called Légion des volontaires français (LVF) [Legion of French Volunteers]. The organisation was set up with the help of the German ambassador in Paris, with the aim of fighting on what was soon to become the Eastern Front. With the conviction that they were protecting their homeland from the threat of Bolshevism, many of the volunteers came from political parties that had sided with the Germans. Following an agreement with Hitler, units were formed of volunteers from the so-called ‘non-German’ countries, while those from ‘Germanic’ countries joined the Waffen SS.
From 1942 onwards, many wounded or reformed veterans decided to continue the fight and push their physical limits by joining the ranks of these various auxiliary groups, which were also open to younger recruits with no previous front-line experience. Indeed, despite Hitler’s invasion of his enemy’s land [Russia], many areas behind the front-line were still far from being pacified, forcing him to send new units to these areas to carry out such a task. The lengthening lines of communication in the East and Rommel’s African Front meant that Hitler was seriously struggling from a lack of man-power. This was to be filled, in part, by a massive recruitment of foreign labour, which was ready to flock to his banner and serve him in his propaganda war.
The commitments in the East meant a compulsory labour service was officially established in Germany, and the competition between the various paramilitary units to recruit on its behalf was fierce. The LVF was too politicised and had too much ‘French spirit’ for some. It was shunned by many young men, who preferred to admire the troops in their silver runes, which they saw as being more of an elite army facing down this ‘European creation’. In July 1943 they were finally allowed to join the SS, although not everyone was willing to go to the East to defend his ideals. After the defeat at Stalingrad, the decline of the Afrika Korps and the Battle of Kursk, the Wehrmacht was facing retreat on all fronts. There were those who believed that the struggle against anti-communism must now take place on home soil with the help of pro-German organisations.
According to Reichsführer Himmler, these foreign fighters against Bolshevism were more ‘trustworthy’, as they were made up of volunteers with a common ideal and following his numerous requests to Hitler that they be incorporated into his SS, his wishes finally came true in 1944. Amalgamated into a single unit that would fight on foreign soil until the last day of the war, these Frenchmen in German uniforms would follow the oath that they had sworn until its conclusion.
This article is a representation of the main units in which around 15,000 men fought side-by-side with the military forces of the Third Reich. It is not about Alsace-Lorraine, the region attached to Germany, which consequently saw many young Frenchmen forced into the different branches of the German Army and who were to suffer heavy losses on the Eastern Front. Nor is it about the French who fought with Mussolini, or those who were incorporated into Colonel Skorzeny’s Brandenburg German Special Forces unit. The same goes for those working in France as members of the Hilfpolizei (auxiliary police), as interpreters for the Kommandanturs and Feldgendarmerie, the secretaries at the recruitment offices or various German departments (SiPo, SD, etc.) as well as the numerous plain-clothed agents working for the Abwehr [German military intelligence organisation].
The Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF)
The LVF was created in Paris after being approved by Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1941, on the condition that the initiative would follow the collaborationist pro-German political parties, with no commitment to the French government, who instead preferred to keep its distance. These political groups were entrusted with recruiting volunteers for a new regiment in the German Army that was to fight in Russia. At the same time, anti-Communist White Russians arrived en masse from their motherland with the aim of fighting the Bolshevist Red Army.
The Deba camp near Krakow, in occupied Poland, was the chosen location for the training of the officially named Französischer Infanterie-Regiment 638, commanded by the French Colonel, Roger Labonne. The first contingent of 803 men and 25 officers arrived on 8 September 1941 to form the 1st Battalion, but a surprise awaited them; they learnt that they would have to fight whilst wearing a German Army uniform, the same uniform they had been fighting against for the past year and not the French Army uniform that had been promised them when they signed up. France was not at war with Russia and consequently the Hague Convention forbade them from fighting in their national uniform. This clause likewise affected the Spanish, Belgians, Danish and Dutch, who were also involved in the same struggle. A concession was made allowing them to wear a tricolour cloth badge on the right sleeve of their field uniform, thus distinguishing them from other soldiers. A second contingent of nearly 800 volunteers arrived on 20 September to form the 2nd Battalion. On 5 October the recruits were faced with a new challenge; they had to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, as was usual practice for the German Army. After several weeks of training, the 1st and 2nd Battalions set off for the front at the end of October. The legionnaires, divided into fourteen companies under the command of French officers, retained their flag and the use of weapons currently used by the French Army. By late November they were attached to the 7th Division of the 7th Bavarian Infantry Corps, commanded by General von Gablenz, and found themselves in the front-line facing the 32nd Siberian Division, near Djukowo, 70km from Moscow. Despite the exceptional cold and fatigue caused by severe hunger, they fulfilled their mission and were replaced by a German unit in early December. Nevertheless, a reorganisation of the unit was needed as a result of the missing, and dead, soldiers, as well as the incompetence that had been revealed at several levels, including management. A severe purge was carried out at the Kruszyna camp, in the General Government of Poland, and many ‘political’ soldiers took the opportunity to discharge themselves from the army and fight for their homeland once more. The 2nd Battalion was disbanded with all the men being put into the 1st Battalion and training began from scratch. Meanwhile, a third battalion had been in training at Deba since December 1941, and during all the years of its existence, the legion in the East would regularly receive new recruits from France.
In spring 1942 the two battalions of the LVF (1st and 3rd) were assigned to the Army Group Centre in the Steppes, although they were curiously sent to two different locations and therefore operated separately. From now on, the ‘Great Front’ was at an end and now their task was to fight the partisans behind the Reich forces. Meanwhile in France, the government carried out various upheavals to the LVF, including renaming it the Tricolour Regiment, but after initial success, the operation was denied by Hitler and it ended in failure. The volunteers in the East were not affected by these changes and were more preoccupied with the dangers that surrounded them, rather than what was happening at home. They witnessed the arrival of new comrades, including officers, who thanks to their previous military experience, were now put at the service of the Legion.
Since early 1943 the French government had funded an intense propaganda programme using meetings, posters and other publications to recruit new members to make up for the losses incurred. From its creation, some members of the Legion had seen their windows smashed by opponents to the new order, and those on leave often found themselves targets of snipers or attacks. The general public were more concerned with finding food to eat for themselves, rather than worrying about the fate of their sons in the land of Stalin. In October one of the most important figures in the story of the French volunteers, Colonel Edgar Puaud, arrived in Russia. As head of the entire Legion, his aim was to bring together the 1st and 3rd Battalions, who at this point were still fighting separately. He also started to put together a new 2nd Battalion which was to be attached to the other two, straddling the main road between Moscow and Minsk, in Belarus. However, the three battalions were still understaffed.
1944 was a turning point for the LVF, after the French maquis [rural guerilla band of French Resistance fighters] began to intensify their operations and a deal was made to combat the so-called ‘terrorists’ (supporters of General de Gaulle, who had been living in exile in London since 1940, communists, apolitical resistors etc.). In the East, the LVF continued to fight the Soviet partisans behind the 4th German Army, but by late June its fate had been decided; it was to return to France. A few hours before its departure, the Legion was gathered in the village of Bobr, near Berezina, when a counter-order arrived. Operation Bagration, in which 193 Russian divisions had launched an assault on ‘Fortress Europe’ in a gigantic offensive that was to sweep the Wehrmacht, had begun on 23 June. The legionnaires were now trusted with delaying the Soviets’ advance so that the German units who had been dispersed by the violence and speed of the attack would have a chance to regroup. The 1st and 3rd battalions were expected to stay put and hold their positions with just over 400 men. Assisted by an SS-Polizei unit and five Tiger tanks, they took up their position on a strategic bridge to stop the enemy from crossing, but instead of partisans, they now found themselves facing the Red Army. For forty-eight hours, one Russian attack after another was repelled, as the Tigers destroyed their tanks and the legionnaires pushed back the infantry. On the morning of 27 June, the French were relieved by another German unit, which would later be completely wiped out. Between forty and fifty enemy tanks (T34s and American Shermans) were destroyed during the fierce fighting. Soviet radio announced in a statement that units of the 2nd White Russian Front had run into resistance from two French divisions for forty-eight hours. For its part, the LVF, which had suffered around forty fatalities, began its retreat after the collapse of the Army Group Centre, the fate of which was linked to that of the rest of the German Army.
Now removed from the Eastern Front, the survivors from the fighting in Russia were grouped together at the Greifenberg Barracks, the LVF’s main base in Germany. Its depleted numbers were reinforced with new arrivals, volunteers who had served in other German units, loners arriving from Russia and soldiers returning from leave. By this time, large areas of France had been liberated following the Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June. For those soldiers far from home, no news of what had happened to their families was a blow to morale. Late August finally saw the departure for the SS training camp at Konitz, in northern Poland. The higher powers had decided that a new French SS brigade would be created and Himmler now declared that foreign volunteers would be poured into the Waffen SS. The last French unit to have fought on Russian soil was disbanded in order to form a new Waffen SS, who would train with their comrades from the SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade, as well as those who had been integrated into other German units. Unlike the officers, the plain legionnaires did not have a choice in the matter. Some of them refused on ideological or religious grounds, or by stating that they had signed a contract with the LVF, not the SS. These men were sent to concentration camps, where they would find fellow Waffen SS soldiers who had been sent there for indiscipline, dissent etc. Others would follow them there after a purge was carried out intending to keep only the best soldiers for this future SS division. The legionnaires in this division now had the benefit of three years combat experience, although many would fall in battle in Pomerania in early 1945, whilst others would end up in Berlin, defending Hitler in his bunker until the last days of the war. For many however, their last days were to be spent in captivity in the Soviet Union.
The Tricolour Regiment
On his return as head of the French government in the spring of 1942, Pierre Laval instructed his Secretary of State, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, to examine the possibility of taking over the existing LVF, but give it a new role. The idea was to absorb the Legion into a new unit, which would be engaged in theatres of operation where French interests, as well as those of its colonial Empire, were involved. It would be a part of the French Army, under the direction of General Bridoux, the Secretary of State for War.
On 22 June 1942, the first anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the central committee dissolved the LVF and renamed it the Légion tricolore (Tricolour Regiment). As well as a name change, there was also a personnel change in its 173 recruitment offices, and new faces appeared on its central committee. As well as fighting in the East, the Legion would now also fight in North Africa and other areas where the French Empire was threatened. Not only did this legitimisation mean that the Legion now found itself committed to several new engagements, most importantly it meant an influx of new professional soldiers. The unit was open to those serving in Vichy’s Armée d’Armistice and those serving in North Africa and recruits were chosen from men who wanted to fight, but who shared the views of Marshal Pétain, and not the party leaders who advocated collaboration. Prisoners were still not allowed to serve, but the prospectus declared that those born in France, were naturalised foreigners or were natives of North Africa, could join. Nothing was left to chance; there were ceremonies, parades, the creation of a new medal (la Croix de guerre légionnaire), a new emblem and even the taking over of social services to highlight the benefits of volunteering.
Despite the success of the operation, Hitler and the Wehrmacht high commanders refused to recognise the Tricolour Regiment and only accepted the LVF, which they did not want to see removed in favour of a new unit that they mistrusted. They feared that the Tricolour Regiment would lead to a larger French Army than the one agreed on in the Armistice, and one that might someday even turn against them. Benoist-Méchin resigned on 9 October 1942 having been excluded from the Government. The Anglo-Americans landed on the north African coast the following month and a unit christened the African Phalanx was set up by the government, which operated in the same spirit as the Tricolour Regiment. The government issued press releases inviting volunteers to sign up and work in its departmental offices, which would be directed from its assembly centre in Guéret. In the end only a few officers from the Tricolour Regiment participated in this new project after being sent to Tunisia.
Without completely abandoning the goals of the Tricolour Regiment, it was eventually dissolved by the government after a law enacted on 28 December 1942. Its resources were then divided between the recovering LVF and the African Phalanx.
The African Phalanx
Created out of the ashes of the Tricolour Regiment, the Französische Freiwilligen Legion, more commonly known as the Phalange africaine (African Phalanx), was a unit of volunteers sent to fight in Tunisia, which at the time was still a part of the French Empire
It all began on 8 November 1942 when Anglo-American troops landed on the coasts of Morocco and Algeria, in North Africa. Faced with this invasion, those French units loyal to Marshal Pétain fought for three days before signing an armistice on 10 November. The Minister of State, Admiral Platon, was sent on a mission to Tunisia to give government aid to the resistance, but this did not prevent the French Army in Africa from joining the Allies’ side on 15 November. Despite the armistice agreement of 1940, the Axis powers failed to inform the Vichy government that it was sending German and Italian troops to occupy northern Tunisia. As a result, the head of the French government, Pierre Laval, decided to create a voluntary force to reclaim this area, and which soon became known as the African Phalanx. The Tricolour Regiment’s recruitment offices were soon filled with eager men offering to join the fight. However, according to the Wehrmacht, problems with transporting the troops across the Mediterranean meant that when the troops finally arrived, they were no longer required. The German high command finally authorised the creation of an on-site fighting unit and six officers were flown to Tunis on 28 December 1942 to begin local recruitment.
The African Phalanx, known to the Germans as the Kompanie Frankonia, was symbolically integrated into the German Army in January 1943. It was attached to the 3rd Battalion of the 754th Panzergrenadier Regiment in the 334th Infantry Division of General Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Army. The Forgemol barracks served as the garrison while the Faidherbe barracks served as the depot. Both barracks were located in Tunis, along with the recruitment office, which opened on 1 January 1943. On 2 February a meagre company comprised of a number of Tunisians, departed for a two month training camp at Cedria-Plage, around 17km from Tunis. The Tunisians would later be removed from the company by the German authorities, who wanted to have closer control over them in other units. The recruits consisted of settlers, nationalist militants, students, NCOs and ‘free’ career soldiers.
The Phalanx was officially integrated into the 334th Division on 2 April 1943. After observing the French unit during combat exercises, the German Divisional Commander, Generalmajor Friedrich Weber, decided it was time for them to head for the Front. Dressed in German Infantry uniform, complete with German helmet and a blue, white and red rosette, the volunteers set off for their area of operations near the village of Medjez el-Bab, on the night of 8-9 April, where they relieved a German combat unit. Facing the five French sections, with a sixth remaining in camp to instruct the new arrivals, was the 78th Infantry Division of the British 1st Army. Their baptism of fire came on 14 April when the sector was heavily bombarded for two hours. On the night of 16-17 April an eight-man advance patrol was attacked by a detachment of fifty New Zealanders and Hindus. The French captured three prisoners as well as important documents. This action resulted in the 334th Division receiving its first citation and Generalmajor Weber was given three Iron Crosses to hand out in honour of the Führer’s birthday.
On the night of 22 April the English guns pounded the phalanx’s position, followed by an attack from the rear. American heavy tanks supported the English offensive and also attacked the Infantry. German smoke mortars then joined in and managed to stop the Anglo-American advance. The company and its many wounded retreated to its support positions and after twelve hours of fighting there were sixty missing soldiers, either dead or taken prisoner. The company was put into reserve on 25 April and under bombardment from the Allied forces, it retreated even further north over the following days before gathering on 6 May at the Faidherbe barracks in Tunis, with a fighting force of only sixty men. During the night, the company was disbanded on German orders. Due to a lack of resources, they were unable to withdraw to Italy and the Archbishop of Carthage granted protection to the soldiers and their families. When the Germans retreated, a small group of officers were evacuated to Italy by air. Back in Tunisia, those who had not been repatriated or had not managed to escape, were arrested by the French military. Some of these men were shot whilst others were integrated into French combat units and would later fight in France and Italy. A few months later, others members of the company were sentenced by the court in Algiers to varying degrees of punishment (death sentences as well as penal life sentences), including those who had been captured by the British.