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Click on this text to watch a 4 and a half minute video:Berlin 1945: French Division Charlemagne (Fenet , De la Mazière)...

One of the last Waffen-SS units to hold out defending Adolf Hitler’s bunker in Berlin was comprised entirely of Frenchmen.

 

 

The 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) and Charlemagne Regiment are collective names used for units of French volunteers in the Wehrmacht and later Waffen-SS during World War II.

 

From estimates of 7,400 to 11,000 at its peak in 1944, the strength of the division fell to just sixty men in May 1945. They were one of the last German units to see action in a pitched battle during World War II, where they held central Berlin and the Führerbunker against the onslaught of Soviet infantry and armor. Knowing that they would not survive should Germany be defeated, they were among the last to surrender in the brutal house-to-house and street-to-street fighting during the final days of the Battle in Berlin.

 

Its crest is a representation of the dual empire of Charlemagne, which united the Franks in what would become France and Germany. The Imperial eagle on the dexter side represents East Francia (Germany) and the fleurs-de-lys on the sinister side represents West Francia (France).

 



 

 

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), the 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. SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg took actual command with Puaud (now an SS-Oberführer), as nominal French commander.

 

Defence of Berlin

 

In early April 1945, Krukenberg now commanded only about 700 men organized into a single infantry regiment with two battalions (Battalions 57 and 58) and one heavy support battalion without equipment. He released about 400 men to serve in a construction battalion; the remainder, numbering about 350, had chosen to go to Berlin and conduct a delaying action against the approaching Soviet Army.

 

On 23 April the Reich Chancellery in Berlin ordered Krukenberg to proceed to the capital with his men, who were reorganized as Sturmbataillon (“assault battalion”) “Charlemagne”. Between 320 and 330 French troops arrived in Berlin on 24 April after a long detour to avoid Soviet advance columns. (The French SS men had been attempting to cross the Falkenrehde canal bridge which was blown up under them by men of the Volkssturm who thought they were a Soviet column). Sturmbataillon “Charlemagne” was attached to the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division “Nordland”.

 

The arrival of the French SS men bolstered the Nordland Division whose “Norge” and “Danmark” Panzergrenadier regiments had been decimated in the fighting. Both equaled roughly a battalion. SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg was appointed the commander of (Berlin) Defence Sector C on 25 April. This command included the Nordland Division, following the dismissal of its previous commander, SS-Brigadeführer Joachim Ziegler on the same day.

 

The soldiers noted that the first night in Berlin was unnaturally quiet. They heard people dancing and laughing, but no sounds of fighting were audible except for the occasional distant sound of Soviet artillery.They walked from West to East Berlin, to a brewery near the Hermannplatz. Here the fighting began, with Hitler Youth firing Panzerfausts at Soviet tanks belonging to advance guards near the Tempelhof Aerodrome. Soon some members of the Sturmbataillon joined the Hitler Youth in tank hunting sorties.

 

Supported by Tiger II tanks and the 11th SS Panzer-Battalion “Hermann von Salza”, the Sturmbataillon took part in a counterattack on the morning of 26 April in Neukölln, a district in southeastern Berlin near the Sonnenallee. The counterattack ran into an ambush by Soviet troops using a captured German Panther tank. The regiment lost half of the available troops in Neukölln on the first day. It later defended Neukölln’s Town Hall.

 

Given that Neukölln was heavily penetrated by Soviet combat groups, Krukenberg prepared fallback positions for Sector C defenders around Hermannplatz. He moved his headquarters into the opera house. As the Nordland Division withdrew towards Hermannplatz the French SS and one-hundred Hitler Youth attached to their group destroyed 14 Soviet tanks with panzerfausts; one machine gun position by the Halensee bridge managed to hold up any Soviet advance in that area for 48 hours.

 

The Soviet advance into Berlin followed a pattern of massive shelling followed by assaults using battle groups of about 80 men in each, with tank escorts and close artillery support. On 27 April, after a spirited but futile defence, the remnants of Nordland were pushed back into the central government district (Zitadelle sector) in Defence sector Z.

 

There, Krukenberg’s Nordland headquarters was a carriage in the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station. Fighting was very heavy and by 28 April, approximately 108 Soviet tanks had been destroyed in the southeast of Berlin within the S-Bahn. Sixty-two of those were destroyed by the efforts of the Charlemagne Sturmbataillon alone, which was now under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fenet. Fenet and his battalion were given the area of Neukölln, Belle Alliance Platz, Wilhelmstrasse and the Friedrichstrasse to defend.

 

Fenet, who was now wounded in the foot, remained with his battalion as they withdrew to the vicinity of the Reich Aviation Ministry in the central government district under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke. For the success of the battalion during the Battle in Berlin, Mohnke awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross to Fenet on 29 April 1945.

 

On 28 April, the Red Army started a full-scale offensive into the central sector. Fighting was intense, the Sturmbataillon Charlemagne was in the center of the battle zone around the Reich Chancellery. SS-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 the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station platform on 29 April. Vaulot did not survive the battle being killed three days later.

 

The French Charlemagne SS were the last defenders of Hitler’s Führerbunker, remaining there until 2 May to prevent the Soviets from capturing it on May Day.

 

Reduced to approximately thirty able men, most members of the Sturmbataillon had been captured or escaped Berlin on their own, or in small groups. Most of those who made it to France were denounced and sent to Allied prisons and camps. For example, Fenet was sentenced to 20 years of forced labour, but was released from prison in 1959. Others were shot upon capture by the French authorities. General Philip Leclerc, the French divisional commander who had served under the Americans, was 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 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 later executed by the "victorius allies" without any form of military tribunal procedure.

 

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                                                     The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

Henri Kreis. Former head of the PAK section of the Sturmbrigade in Galicia and Kriegkommandant of Radomyśl village, where he was seriously injured when fighting a T34 tank. Once recovered, he became an instructor at the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Schule at Kienschlag. In March 1945 he commanded a reinforcement battalion at Wildflecken, as the division itself had already left for Pomerania. Attached to the 38th Nibelungen Division, he fought against the Americans in Bavaria with the rank of an Obersturmführer, although in this photograph he is still only an Unterscharführer. (DR)

Prisoners of the Charlemagne Division who were executed on 8 May 1945 at Karlstein by their fellow Frenchmen from the 2nd Armoured Division, commanded by General Leclerc, in American uniform and under orders from Paris. In the foreground from left to right are Waffen-Unterscharführer Jean Robert, then Waffen-Obersturmführer Serge Krotoff (of 2nd Bataillon, 57th Regiment), Paul Briffaut in army uniform and Waffen-Untersturmführer Raymond Daffas. The divisional archives had previously been piled onto trucks and destroyed in late April by the Bavarian peasant with whom they had been hidden, as a result of the American advance.

 

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

 

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

 

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

 

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

 

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

 

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