French Volunteers in the Wehrmacht in WWII
French military history has a long and varied history that is both passionate and with varied tones of brilliant success and bitter failure. At no time in recent history has this been truer than during WWII when France was soundly defeated and soon after occupied by Germany.
The defeat of France in May 1940 was a tragic event that still ripples through French social and political life. The ensuing period between June of 1940 and May of 1945 saw Frenchmen volunteer for service in dozens of units and formations under the auspices of the German Wehrmacht and their related auxiliary services. The foreign volunteers of French origin that joined the German Wehrmacht or auxiliary forces were numerous, wide-spread, and uniquely colorful. With numbers in the tens of thousands, they were by far the largest single volunteer force from Western Europe that fought with Germany during WWII.
This article will detail the history of all those formations within the German Wehrmacht or auxiliary services of French origin that existed during WWII (for the history of the French Axis Allied or Collaboration forces, see those individual sections).
The French volunteer units and those organizations that included French volunteers that will be detailed here include the Légion des Volontaires francais Contre le bolchévisme (Franzosischer Infantry-Regiment 638, part of the 7th Infantry Division), Bretonishe Waffenverband der SS, Phalange Africaine, Brigade Frankreich, Legion Speer, NSKK Motorgruppe Luftwaffe, Organization Todt, Division Charlemagne, and many other unique and colorful units.
Légion des volontaires francais contre le bolchévisme
On June 22 1941, the very same day the attack of Germany against the USSR was announced, Jacques Doriot (1898-1945, Iron cross 1943), leader of the PPF, Parti Populaire Francais (French Popular Party, the most active of all the French fascist organizations) launch the idea of a Legion of French volunteers to help to fight the Red Army. On June 23, one of his political competitors, Marcel Deat, met Otto Abetz, the Ambassador of the 3rd Reich in France, to discuss the topic. Abetz reports to Berlin and receives on July 5 the telegram No. 3555 from the Counselor Ritter, confirming the approval of Von Ribbentrop.
This initiative coincides with the policy of the Reich who wishes to create volunteer units in several European countries. So, Berlin accepts to “engage French citizens in the battle against the Soviet Union”. But there are numerous limitations to this approval: Recruitment limited to the occupied zone, number of recruits limited to 15,000 (Figure never achieved). Hitler doesn’t want to find himself owing something to the French.
On July 6, a meeting takes place at the German Embassy in Paris. On July 7, a second meeting is held at the Majestic Hotel, HQ of the Wehrmacht in France. All the leaders of the French fascist and collaborationist groups are there: Doriot, Deat, Bucard, Costantini, Deloncle, Boissel, Clementi. That day, a Central Committee of the LVF is created with all the attendants being members. A recruitment center is set and Abetz offers for such the former offices of the… Intourist, the Soviet tourism agency, 12, rue Auber in Paris!
Immediately, the LVF is embarked on the Franco-French political competition, each collaborationist organization trying to lead the show, hoping to increase its own influence. The most successful are the MSR (Deat) and the PPF (Doriot), using extensively the “Anti-Bolshevik crusade” propaganda to which part of the French opinion is receptive. On August 5, the LVF is officially created as a private association. Fernand de Brinon, delegate of the Vichy government, accepts to be President of the support committee to which several influential people will adhere, such as Mgr. Baudrillart, Catholic cardinal.
From July 1941 to June 1944, 13,000 volunteers applied, but only about half of them will be accepted by the tough selection team composed of German military doctors.
The first unit reached Deba, LVF rear base in Poland, in September 1941. With those 2,500 volunteers, 2 battalions and regimental units are created. The first LVF commander is Colonel Roger Labonne (1881-1966), former commander of a French colonial army unit, the RICM. The LVF is registered by the Wehrmacht as the Franzosischer Infantry-Regiment 638. The volunteers have to wear a German uniform with a blue-white-red French shield on the right arm. The regimental flag is also blue-white-red and the orders are given in French. But all the volunteers must take an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and that creates several problems.
They will be pacified by Mgr. Mayol de Lupe (1873-1975, Iron cross 1942), the general chaplain of the LVF, celebrates a mass in the morning of the October 5, day of the oath. On November 5th, the Marechal Petain sends them a message: “Before your battle, I am happy to know that you don’t forget that you are holders of a part of our military honor”.The 2 battalions leave Deba on 28 and 30 October 41, the first battalion under command of Captain Leclercq, then of Commandant de Planard, the second one with Commandant Girardeau. They reach Smolensk from where they take the road to Moscow on November 6, walking in the freezing Russian winter. The heavy equipment is transported with great difficulties in horse-driven carriages. This trip is a tragedy: The uniforms and individual equipment are not fitted for winter temperatures, blizzard, and icy rains are blowing, one-third of the men are affected by dysentery. Before reaching the front line, the LVF lost 400 men, sick or getting lost.
They eventually reached the extreme end of the German front, at 63 Km from Moscow. The 639 Infantry Regiment is there joined to the Infantry Division 7 of General Von Gablenz.
On November 24, 1941, the 4 platoons of the 1st battalion are heading to the front line near the village of Djukovo. The regimental HQ reaches Golowkowo. The ground is frozen. After several days of waiting in horrible conditions, an attack order is given on December 1st in a horrible snowstorm, with temperatures that dropped 20 Celsius overnight, without winter equipment, with no Panzer support.
On the opposite side, the 32nd Siberian Division, well equipped, well trained, supported by heavy artillery. Dead and wounded French are spilling the ground; automatic weapons are blocked by the frost. At the medical post, Doctor Captain Fleury struggles to treat all the wounded, the sick, and the men with frozen members. After a week, the 1st battalion is almost dislocated and must be replaced. Lieutenants Dupont and Tenaille, the best platoon commanders have been killed by the same artillery shell, Captain Lacroix is severely wounded. More to the north, the second battalion is less afflicted by the battle, but as much by the climatic conditions. While the 7th infantry division remains on the front line, the whole 638 regiment is pulled out between the 6 and 9 of December. It lost 65 dead, 120 wounded, more than 300 sick or with frozen members. The reports issued by the German military inspectors are not sweet: “The men generally show goodwill but are lacking military training. NCO is generally good but cannot really be active, as their superiors are inefficient. The Officers are incapable and recruited only as per political criteria” (Oberstleutnant Reichet, commander of the 7th Division operational office).
Then came the conclusion: “The Legion cannot be engaged in combat. Improvement can only be obtained by e renewal of the officer Corp and a strong military training.”
The retreat was done in really horrible conditions, the men lost any confidence in their officers. The LVF is removed from the front line and regrouped in Poland to be severely re-organized and trained, 1,500 recruits being removed and sent back to France, including most of the officers.
Built with the arrival of new volunteers, the 1942 LVF will be tougher, more qualified, and more homogeneous. Its military efficiency will be based on an excellent NCO group.
Now organized in 3 battalions of about 900 men each, the LVF will be engaged in the rear of the front, fighting against Soviet Partisans. There, the LVF will apply some successful methods issued by the French colonial army. A new commander is appointed in June 1943: Colonel Edgard Puaud (1889-1945, first and second class Iron Cross, 44-45), former Foreign Legion officer, who is appointed as Brigade General. We will find him, again, at the head of the French Waffen SS Brigade and, later Waffen SS Division.
From July 42 till December 43, the 1st battalion (Commandant Lacroix, Captain Poisson, Commandant Simoni) is engaged at Borissov, Smolensk, Sirsch, Kotovo where 150 Legionnaires resist 1,000 Soviet partisans on May 22, 43, and Murovo. The 2nd battalion (Commandant Tramu) will be constituted only in November 1943. Its companies are operating around Michaelkovo.
The 3rd battalion (Captain Demessine, Commandant Pane) participates in June 1943 in the Kolmi operation. After tough fights against the Soviet partisans in the Briansk forest, the battalion is sent in the Mohilev area to fight the guerilla till February 1944. This is when Commandant Pane, generally considered as the best LVF officer, is killed. Those who came back alive from the Eastern Front will all praise the German soldier attitude. Let’s hear from them: “A German soldier weighs 5 or 6 Russians. The Soviet can win only when they have a huge numerous superiority” Francois Gaucher, 30 March 1944.
“We were all comrades. Those who were there were living and acting only in function of the life and the action of their unit. A Wehrmacht General could eat next to a Corporal the same ration he just got from the same Schwester with the same smile and the same “have a nice meal”.” Eric Labat in “Les places étaient chéres”, Paris, 1969. During spring 1944, the rupture of the central-eastern front will provide the LVF with an opportunity to redeem the failures of the 1941 winter. On June 22, 1944, the German front is horribly weakened by the assault of 196 Soviet divisions. While the Wehrmacht retreat everywhere, an LVF battalion, formed in a Kampfgruppe, is asked to cut the Moscow-Minsk road in front of Borrisov, near the Beresina River.
Lead by Commandant Bridoux, son of the Vichy war Minister, the Kampfgruppe is composed of 400 men, all veterans. Mgr Mayol de Luppe, 71 years old, is with them!
Their positions are equipped with MG42 machine guns, anti-tanks, 37 guns, and some Tiger Panzers. At dawn on this June 22nd, the Red Army launched a heavy infantry offensive, seconded by tanks. The battle will last until the 23rd at night. The Soviets didn’t pass. The LVF retreated as no more ammunition was available. 41 dead, 24 wounded but, on that opposite side, several hundred of deaths and about 40 destroyed tanks.
Two weeks later, exhausted and starving, the survivors are gathered at Greifenberg camp, in Pomerania. The Legionnaires discover there that their French comrades have been taken into the Waffen SS. Here is the end of the LVF history, as all the Legionnaires were incorporated into the French Waffen SS Brigade.
Bretonishe Waffenverband der SS “Bezzen Perrot”
In 1940, there was a rather strong Nationalist movement in the French Brittany, lead by the PNB (Parti National Breton, National Breton Party), seeking independence from “colonialist France”. The German occupation authorities will always have some sympathy for them, in spite of the heavy protest of the French Vichy government. But the French Resistance was also strong in Brittany. On September 4, 1943, Yan Bricler, Administrator of the Nationalist magazine Stur is assassinated in Quimper. On December 12, a communist group assassinates a priest, Jean-Marie Perrot, leader of the Catholic group of the PNB. Celestin Laine, an activist who organized several anti-French bombings in Brittany before the war, calls for revenge. With the help of the local branch of the Sipo-SD, he creates the Bezen Perrot (Perrot Group) registered by the Germans as the Bretonishe Waffenverband der SS. 80 volunteers only were recruited, wearing SS uniforms and the Celtic Cross as a distinctive insignia. They will be engaged in operations against the French guerrillas and resistance from March 44. Early August, as the Allied forces approach Brittany, some of them “disappear” while a group will join the German retreat up to Germany. They will be incorporated in some SD special units. When Germany surrendered, some, like Laine, managed to take refuge in Ireland, some remained in Germany, protected by German civilians, some were arrested.
Casualties: 38 dead from combat or assassination in Brittany, 9 executed after the war, such as Leon Jasson and Marcel Bibe.
21 Panzer Division
The 21st Panzer Division in 1944 had over 50 different soft skin types, most of them French, including Citroën, Laffly, and Renault trucks as well as Somua French tanks and Hotchkiss French armored vehicles. Logically, French mechanics were needed to maintain them. The 2nd Werkstattkompanie (logistics, reparation) is composed of 230 French volunteers. No national insignia.
The regiment, then division Brandenbourg, is a special unit of the Abwher, the Wehrmacht intelligence service. Intelligence, infiltration, sabotage, the underground fighters.
In 1943, 180 French men formed the 8th company of the 3rd Regiment, based in Eaux-Bonnes, near the Pyrenees mountains in Southwest France. Often Engaged in Southern France, imitating resistants (with captured radios) they captured many equipment’s/weapons deliveries and proceeded to many arrests.
This company has also been engaged against the resistance in the Vercors battle. They organized the glider attack usually said as being a Waffen-SS attack but the French witnesses have probably taken the “Brandenburg” arm patch for SS insignias.
The Kriegsmarine opened recruitment offices in several large seaports in France in 1943. Training courses in French are organized in Seenheim in Alsace. The volunteers are integrated into German units and don’t bear any particular national insignia.
93 officers, 3,000 NCO and men, 160 engineers, 680 technicians, and 25,000 civilian workers are accounted in a German report dated February 4, 1944, as serving in the Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient, and Toulon Kriegsmarine bases in France.
In January 1943, the Kriegsmarine started also to recruit about 200 French volunteers to protect the naval installations in La Rochelle, called the Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei “La Pallice”, under command of Lieutenant Rene Lanz, a veteran of WW1 and of the LVF. Possibly the same kind of units existed in Saint Nazaire and Bordeaux, not confirmed.
On June 30, 1944, the German Commander of La Rochelle gave them a choice between staying to defend the base or joining the French Waffen SS. The same attitude prevailed with other Kriegsmarine commanders in France during this critical period. About 1,500 French Kriegsmarine volunteers reached Greifenberg in Germany to be incorporated into the Waffen SS Division Charlemagne.
Founded on July 18, 1933, by Engineer Fritz Todt, genial organizer, the OT (Organization Todt) is in charge of the main infrastructure projects of the Third Reich: It started with the German Highway network, revolutionary at that time, then the blockhaus of the Siegfried line in 1938.
At the beginning of the war, the OT is reorganized as a military structure with uniforms, officers, and NCO. After F. Todt death, killed in an aircraft accident on February 2, 1942, the OT passes under Albert Speer’s command.
In France, the OT is in charge of the building of submarine bases and coastal fortifications, For the “Atlantic Wall”, it employed 112,000 Germans, 152,000 French, and 170,000 North African workers and technicians. About 2,500 French volunteers joined the armed Schutzkommandos, in charge of the protection of the construction projects, after training at la Celle Saint Cloud near Paris.
Those SK are wearing a feldgrau uniform with the NSDAP Svatiska armband.
End 1944, those French were dispersed up to some projects in Norway. Several hundred will reach Greinferberg in Germany and, from there, the Waffen SS Division Charlemagne.
The Speer Legion is created in 1942 and bears the name of the Reich minister Albert Speer, in charge of armament. Originally composed of Russian POW, THE Speer Legion in sent in September 1942 in the Atlantic Ocean military seaport for some non-combatant works. But at end of 1943, the Legion is militarized and monitored by the NSKK. At the same period, about 500 French were recruited, mainly as drivers for the Arbeitsamt. During the summer of 44, the Legion is engaged in Normandy and later in Italy. Some of the French Legionnaires will join the Waffen SS, some will be recruited by the Technishe Nothilfe, a technical group in charge of repairs for communication and transportation network.
NSKK (Nationalsocialistische Kraftfahrkorps) Motorgruppe Luftwaffe, a Luftwaffe logistic unit (drivers, engineers).2,500 French men integrated since 21st July 1942 to form the 4th NSKK regiment in Vilvorde, Belgium. NSKK Rgt 4 is monitored byAlsacian Volkdeutsche NCO and is first affected to the eastern front (Luftgau Rostov/Don) early 1943.
In 1944, the French of the NSKK are formed Kampfgruppen and are fighting the guerillas in Northern Italy and Croatia. Some are sent in Hungary and finally Austria against the Red Army. The son of Philippe Henriot, a prominent French collaborationist, is with them.
In July 1943, 30 young NSKK, lead by Jean-Marie Balestre, desert and join the Waffen SS.All, NSKK and Waffen SS will fight till the end in their units. Their complete history is still to be written.
The Allied forces land in French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942. Immediately, German and Italian reinforcement troops land in French Tunisia. On November 14, the idea of an “African Phalange” is launched in Paris with the support of the 3rd Reich Ambassador Otto Abetz. In December, German authorities approve the plan and the related logistic.
330 volunteers are recruited and instructed in the Bordj-Ceda camp, ending with the constitution of a 210 men Company, called Franzosische Freiwilligen Legion and incorporated into the 2nd Battalion, 754. PzG Rgt, 334. PzG Division, 5. Panzerarmee (von Arnim).
The Company is engaged on the 7th April 1943 in the Medjez-El-Bab area against British forces (78th infantry division), under command of Captain Dupuis. Its value earns it the congratulations of the German General Weber who distributes several Iron Crosses.
9 days later, allied forces launch a general offensive on the sector. The Phalange positions are destroyed by artillery and tanks fire. In one hour, the unit lost half of its men. However, the survivors resist and retreat in order. It is the end of the battle, allied forces are at the gates of Tunis.
The 150 survivors have the choice between “disappearing” or placing themselves under the protection of the Tunis Bishop. The officers are evacuated with the retreating Germans.
But most of the volunteers are arrested by the Gaullist troops entering Tunis. A dozen will be executed, other condemned to heavy jail sentences.
Amazingly, about 40 survivors of the Phalange, who had the luck to surrender to non-Gaullist troops, were incorporated in the Free French Army and fought well up to Germany.