France’s Last Battle for Europe

By Gustav Juergens posted in the Renegade Tribune

Like a group of tired, dirty robots, the French volunteers of the “Charlemagne” Division had only one worry, and that was being cut off from their destination. They had to reach their rendezvous with destiny at all costs in the cauldron that was Berlin. They reached the western edge of the stricken European capital at night, over the last free road. The distant thunder of heavy artillery was mixed with the approaching rattle of machine guns, and the bark of camions. In the sanctuary of a small forest the Frenchmen tried to catch a few final hours of sleep despite the Soviet artillery bombardment of a nearby bridge.

But their rest was uneasy, filled with visions of the terrible trek and running battle through the forests of Neusterlitz and the discovery of the murdered forester in his but at Serrahn. In a short time the French volunteers reached the newly demolished bridge where they were forced to abandon the last of their vehicles. After crossing the river, they received the order to advance with all speed to Berlin. They were going to take part in the struggle for the capital!

When the next day dawned brilliantly clear, the commander Brigadeführer Krukenberg was driven to the Reichskanzlei (Reichschancellery) and returned with an air of melancholy about him. Briefly he sketched the situation for the men and gave his orders. As of the night before the capital of the Reich had been completely surrounded, but the full weight of the communist offensive had not yet reached Berlin because the outer positions such as Neukolln were still holding. In fact, it was Neukolln that the Frenchmen were to be sent, because the warriors of the Waffen-SS were never destined for the quiet sectors.

The 300-plus man battlegroup from the 33rd SS Division “Charlemagne” under Hstuf. Henri Fenet was attached to the 11th SS Division “Nordland” as an assault battalion. This latter division, which had been devastated in the battles of the previous spring and winter, had a strength of only 2,000 more or less men in Berlin, with a like number outside of the city. But every one of them, be the Norwegian, Dane or Swede, was a volunteer, willing to die for his unshaken belief in a united, non-communist Europe. He was there to fight the “great fight” and to die for a cause which he knew was doomed.

As the Frenchmen, once again the possession of a few trucks, rolled through the city, they were greeted by every passerby with a cheer, a wave or other signs of friendship and sympathy. The SS grenadiers were touched by this show of spirit and tears welled up their eyes. They took up positions by the Hasenheide, from where, with other units of “Nordland,” would attack and recapture Neukolln from the Soviets. The night was calm but the men were nervous. They wandered down dark, lonely streets where the only sound was the grinding of broken glass underneath a boot. The dark, still water of the canal and the bridges and quays were cloaked with an eerie silence.

Then the silence was split asunder by the roar of aircraft engines. For hours on end, the earth shook and buildings collapsed in a hurricane of fire and steel. The expected assault, however, failed to materialize. Everything slowly sunk back into that mocking silence. Just before the arrival of the first rays of dawn, the grim SS grenadiers gathered by the city hall. They were joined by some assault guns, a few “Panther” tanks and some massive “King Tigers.” The men secured the nearby streets and then waited in silence.

Finally, just before six o’clock, the order to attack arrived. Silently the infantry spread out, followed closely by the tanks with their motors rumbling. For a few minutes the enemy was silent but then the Soviet serpent began to spit its venom. The anti-tank guns barked dryly and the machine guns began to rattle. “Charlemagne’s” French SS warriors pushed determinedly forward from door-to-door, through buildings and over walls, destroying enemy positions and killing the bearers of the Asiatic communist plague which was threatening their homelands, which constituted the very heart of civilization. The advancing tanks kept up a constant barrage of fire and steel to prevent the enemy from organizing any effective resistance. In this manner the European offensive gained ground.

Then calamity struck! A reserve platoon arrived at the city hall and thinking that they were in a safe area stood ready in close order. As they stood thus, waiting eagerly to get at the hateful enemy, a salvo of Soviet anti-tank shells struck, leaving 15 young SS troopers spread out on the blood-soaked street.

Meanwhile the Frenchmen were clearing out house after house with hand grenades and bayonets; fighting hand-to-hand under the eyes of the civilians who would crawl out of their basements after a house had been cleared to see the results. These people, who had been hoping against hope that the Bolshevik beasts would never get that far, would offer the SS heroes cups of coffee, glasses of water and invite them to share their meager food supplies at meal time, all during the course of the battle.

Unfortunately the French troopers now had more pressing problems. At this stage they should have encountered friendly troops on their flanks but instead they were still surrounded by the Soviets. Suddenly an order arrived from divisional HQ which stated that if the attack had not yet run its course, everyone should stop where they were and await new directives, otherwise the handling of the situation would be at the commanders’ discretion. Now what in the world was that supposed to mean?

Von Wallen, the battalion adjutant, rushed over to the HQ immediately to find out what was going on. After a lengthy absence he finally returned followed by every available man that he could scrape up along the way. The situation was black. Just as the SS men had launched their assault that morning the Soviets had attacked Berlin with overwhelming forces. The main line of resistance was beginning to collapse already. Von Wallen noted bitterly that the same thing had happened in the Heinrichswalde two months before. “Charlemagne” was then 3 hours into a successful attack when they were called back because the line beside them and behind them had ceased to exist.

Of course the question was now: “What do we do now?” And the answer was: “Naturally we stay where we are but we must be careful not to be cut off from everyone else!” The city hall was made into the pivot point of the defense. A group of Hitler Youth arrived as reinforcements. These 200 youngsters (ages 14 to 16) were full of youthful naivete and enthusiasm and wanted nothing more than to come to grips with the enemy, even though the Panzerfausts and rifles that they carried were sometimes as big as they were.

During the short attack that followed the Reds were dealt a heavy blow. Thirty enemy tanks and many anti-tank guns littered the ruins, along with dead and wounded infantrymen. The runners had an almost suicidal task in keeping up the communications between the attacking companies. Many of them disappeared without a trace among the shattered buildings.

The most important and dangerous assignments were handled by a 20-year-old grenadier named Millet. Every time he entered the ruins for a run it was expected to be his last. But just when all hope was lost, he would surface once again, salute and report: “Orders carried out!”

In the afternoon, all of the battalion elements regrouped and were sent to the city hall which was expected to be the next Soviet objective in their plan to strike at the “Charlemagne” flanks. Just as the soldiers were crossing the street to enter the city hall, a lone artillery shell struck. It was Millet who caught it. He staggered and then fell face first into the dust and rubble. One final twitch and he lay still, never to rise again. Another martyr who was sacrificed on the altar of the Dark Age; one more candle of civilization snuffled out by the raging Red storm.

Now there was no time to lose. The Reds were much closer than originally anticipated. They were within 50 meters when they launched their flank attack. A vicious hand-to-hand battle ensued in which the Soviets were finally repulsed. Immediately afterwards, sparing neither men nor materials, the communists made a frontal attack. In furious fighting they made a little headway, but then they hesitated. The Frenchmen, with the help of the company of Hitler Youth who were fighting like demons against the hated enemy, used the pause to counterattack and managed to drive the Reds out of the immediate area.

Up to now the main fighting had been house-to-house between infantry. Now T-34 tanks began to advance along the streets. The SS men managed to destroy two of the metal monsters with Panzerfausts, but still couldn’t stop their advance. At the last minute a “King Tiger” appeared in a side street and opened fire. The leading T-34 stopped in its tracks. Close by lay the body of Millet, clad :n his green-brown camouflage jacket, his blond hair caked with dust, the dark shadow of death clouding his fresh, youthful features. His comrades carried his body back to their own lines.

A 19-year-old black-haired Frenchman named Roger took Millet’s place. He had volunteered when he was 17 and when the officer in charge had commented that such a hard soldier’s life was perhaps too much for a young Frenchman, Roger had retorted: “It’s not for everyone and that’s exactly why I’m here!” He proved himself to be an “ace” in close combat with the hand grenade and bayonet.

During the course of the afternoon, the situation at the city hall grew increasingly worse. To the right and to the left there were no communications with friendly units, and even to the rear, very few strong positions were to be found. It was only the fighting spirit of the “Charlemagne” volunteers that allowed the positions to be held at all since there was no support of any kind to be found. Cap, a little Fleming, was a typical example. With just a machine gun, Cap held a whole street all by himself throughout an entire day. The Reds tried many times to advance up that avenue but were always stopped and driven back by one determined European, armed only with a machine gun and an ideal!

Five hours later the brave French SS men found themselves all alone out in front. The few tanks that still had enough fuel and ammunition stayed while the rest made their way back to the main line. Without orders to the contrary, it was decided to hold the present positions, even though 50 Reds could have cutoff “Charlemagne” from the rest of the defenders. Such a thought never occurred to the communists however, who continued to attack frontally and from the flanks.

At about 0700 hours a runner arrived with a message stating that Soviet tanks had been sighted at the Hermann-Platt 900 meters to the rear. That left only two roads open for a withdrawal. It was a certainty that those two streets would not remain open for long, so during a lull in the fighting, the Hitler Youth and the Waffen-SS trooper began a reluctant, but orderly withdrawal. As soon as they reached the Hermann-Platt they feverously began work on defensive positions. This change of lines came not a moment too soon as all the roads were now in enemy hands and the T-34s had begun to roll forward! “Charlemagne’s” assault guns (the few that were left) covered the digging-in process. They blasted every Soviet attempt to send tanks across the square. This battle of armor continued well into the night and though it turned into a massacre of the Red’s tanks, the Soviet infantry didn’t make a move.

The 1st Company, which up until now had been in reserve, was ordered to relieve the surviving remnants of the battalion so that they could get some rest. Von Wallen discovered a cellar at the Anhalter train station that would accommodate the weary SS warriors for the night. While hunting for a truck to take him into the inner city, Hstuf. Fenet came upon a “Nordland” regimental command post where he learned that not a drop of fuel of any kind existed any longer in the Berlin pocket. He decided to stay at this HQ for the rest of the night.

The next morning, Fenet set out accompanied by an old Berliner nearly twice his age. The elderly German officer would always moan as they passed the shattered ruins: “Oh the beautiful Berlin; oh the beautiful Berlin!” He considered himself to be too old to ever again see better days, but said: “You youngsters will see them because you have earned them!” His speech was rudely interrupted by a Soviet artillery barrage of monstrous proportions which rained down shells on the Opera House, the Kaiser’s Palace and the surrounding area for the entire day. If only we had that much ammunition, sighed the European volunteers, we could drive those Asiatic barbarians back to Moscow! But instead we have to fight futilely against the Red hordes, supported and supplied by the pro-Communist Western Democracies.

The hurricane of steel forced the HQ of the “Charlemagne” battalion into the Stadtmitte subway station. The troops now found themselves defending “French Street”—named after the Huguenots that had moved in there 200 years before. Brigfhr. Krukenberg, now commander of Division “Nordland,” came to see his battle- weary French SS men to congratulate them on their performance so far and to bestow the Iron Cross 1st Class upon those who had earned it After the awards ceremony there was much singing and gaiety and the last of the candies and cigarettes were given out to the decorated heroes. The only thing missing was the presence of 1st Company which had been expected to have returned by this time.

During the evening Ustuf. de Lac, now the acting commanding officer of 1st Company, returned with most of his men. The commander, Ostuf. Labourdette had taken a few men out to bring in some grenadiers from an exposed position. True to his orders, de Lac had not worried about his commander but had taken the rest of the company to safety. No one was worried at the moment though, because a few hours delay in this kind of fighting didn’t matter. It was only later that news of Labourdette’s death arrived. He had gotten everyone back alive, and with machine-pistol in hand was covering their retreat into the subway system. As the last man entered the tunnel and Labourdette turned to follow, a high explosive shell hit, spraying shrapnel that ripped him to shreds. He was only 22 years old and the third Frenchman to volunteer for the Waffen- SS.

During the night it became necessary to send two squads to the Belle-Alliance-Platz. The first group was commanded by von Wallen and the second by a man named Cart. Cart had come through howling storms of shells, bullets and shrapnel without a scratch. At 38 years of age he was like an old man to the young SS grenadiers. Because of his luck and good advice, they looked upon him as an “institution.”

The hours crawled by at the HQ. Where was everybody? Soon came a request for reinforcements. The last of the battalion was to be sent to the Belle-Alliance-Platz in an effort to block and defend the Wilhelmstrasse and the Friedrichstrasse. The Reds were trying to reach the Reichschancellery down those two avenues. As one of the French officers raised himself to his feet, Brigfhr. Krukenberg asked: “Where are you going?” The Frenchman replied that he was going to get the rest of the battalion ready to march. The divisional commander noted that the French officer could hardly stand up and therefore ordered him to stay in the command post. He protested but was sharply overruled. The hours in the dusty subway tunnel dragged slowly on. Although the Reds didn’t try to gas the position a shell did explode in the entranceway, killing or wounding 50 people.

The shelling continued unabated all day long. The French officer at the “Nordland” HQ was at last allowed to go out and check on his men. He found Cart in a first aid area, his leg tom open by an exploding shell. He then made his way down the tunnels to the Kochstrasse station where he met Ostuf. Weber, a man who went out and destroyed at least one enemy tank every morning for breakfast! [Editor’s note: Ostuf. Wilhelm Weber was the commanding officer of the “Charlemagne” close-combat school and a tank-killer of great repute who as a result was given the nickname “Cyclone” Weber.] Weber took the Frenchman to a room overlooking the Wilhelmstrasse and pointed down into the street. There stood a massive T-34 tank, with the hateful star on its turret replaced by a Panzerfaust hole out of which smoke and flames billowed. Weber asked quietly: “Isn’t it beautiful?”

That T-34 was Weber’s handiwork. The French officer sat there and drew up a mental balance sheet of sorts. Five enemy tanks had been destroyed on the street with Panzerfausts and numerous enemy infantry attacks had been crushed with heavy losses for the communists. The European forces fighting to defend Berlin had only Panzerfausts, their small arms and a few machine guns.

Against their meager armaments swept the Red hordes of destruction armed with anti-tank guns, numerous mortars and never- ending squadrons of tanks.

Losses continued to mount due to enemy snipers that were stationed all through the ruins of the city. They fired at anything that even resembled a man. Finally, de Lac, who had been commanding 1st Company since Labourdette’s death, was struck by a sniper’s bullet and taken to the rear. Two volunteers named Roger and Bi- cou discovered the nest of snipers responsible and wiped it out with hand grenades but Roger got a grenade splinter in his right eye. When brought into the dressing station, the doctor said that the right eye was lost and maybe the left one too! No price was too great to pay for these young men, because they were fighting for the very heart of civilization: Europe and its people!

The remainder of the night was quiet. Quiet enough to hear the heart-rending screams of the women being raped and tortured by barbarian Asiatic-Mongol steppe dwellers. The Frenchmen could only bite their lips and wring their hands in frustration as they thought of the men and women who had only yesterday waved to them and helped them on occasion, who were now screaming fearfully as those beasts broke down their doors. If only we had a few tanks, the Frenchmen thought, we could retake those few blocks, save the civilians and wipe out those demons in human form!

As soon as it was light enough to see, the Soviet tanks began their assault again. The roar of their motors had warned the Frenchmen who were waiting. A number of well-placed Panzer- faust shells were fired and the first wave of Red armor was brought to a halt. This first victory, however, only managed to bring down a veritable hurricane of fire and steel on the houses in which the French volunteers were stationed. The walls leaned crazily from the impact of shells and stones and earth and dust rained down upon the stalwart defenders.

Ostuf. Weber was there accompanied by an NCO who had already destroyed 4 enemy tanks that day, and a soldier by the name of Roger Albert. At this point there was no longer enough Panzer- fausts to go around, so an argument ensued with Roger Albert laying claim to a tank. “Come on now, let me have the first one.”

“No way. When you knock out the first one, the rest will turn tail and I won’t get any!”

“Leave him to me anyway. You already have two and I don’t have any yet!”

The harder the French resisted, the more firepower the communists threw at them. It got so bad that they expected the command post to collapse at any second. They would have to move soon and the Reichskanzlei was only a couple of hundred meters away. What better place to defend to the end!

Thinking that the Frenchmen were dead, the Reds now attacked without a preparatory barrage. Their mistake in counting the SS out so easily soon became apparent. The enemy then sat out of Panzerfaust range and pounded the defender’s positions. Avoiding a Soviet attempt to cut them off, the SS men fought their way back towards the Reichskanzlei. They dug in astride the Friedrichstrasse just in time to stop a Soviet armored thrust in close combat.

By this time, the warriors of the “Charlemagne” Division didn’t even look like human beings any more. Their eyes were burning and their faces were skull-like and covered with dirt and mortar dust. Supplies only came in negligible amounts, the most telling shortage being a lack of water. The young SS men moved like robots through the hell of Berlin. The future was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. The only motivating idea that burned in their consciousness and kept them from collapsing was their flaming desire to come to grips with the Bolsheviks! They had to throw hand grenades, destroy tanks, and hold out against the Reds. That was their only reason for living and for dying.

It was like experiencing another world. There was no blue sky to be seen during the day, only a dusty fog that surrounded everything. Everywhere one looked there were burning houses and collapsing ruins, while clouds of smoke drifted down the streets. The eerie silence after every new barrage was only the herald of the roar of motors and the rattle of tank tracks as a new attack was launched. The French SS grenadiers awaited these assaults with Panzerfaust in hand, while standing in doorways and windows.

Every time, two or three tanks were destroyed and the rest retreated; returning under the cover of a new barrage to drag off the wrecks.

The battle raged on throughout the night. But what was night? The raging fires lit up everything; the colors of the flames changing from hour to hour. The Frenchmen looked at themselves as actors in some kind of fantastic drama; they saw each other as furtive silhouettes with gigantic shadows that would spin around in a hail of bullets and slowly crash to the ground. It seemed as if the earth itself would open up and swallow up that chaotic, insane battleground!

In the evening of 30 April, a prisoner was brought into headquarters. He was given cigarettes in exchange for the bread that he had with him. The bread was quickly divided up and eaten, because the defenders hadn’t seen any for many days. Through an interpreter, the captured NCO made it known that he was a Ukrainian and not a Russian, and that he was anti-communist but had been drafted.

Those present didn’t believe that for a minute but kept questioning him anyway. The Ukrainian said that a great victory celebration was taking place in the Red Army positions because there were only one square kilometer of Berlin left to take, and that was being saved for the following day as a May Day celebration. As the interpreter said that, the SS men broke into wild laughter, replying: “Tomorrow we are still going to be here, and your comrades will get a warm welcome if they try to break through here!”

The Soviet offensive began during the night and carried on into the morning of May 1st. By the afternoon the situation had deteriorated. Many buildings had collapsed, leaving the wooden beams exposed, perfect targets for Russian flamethrowers. Try as they might, the French could not get rid of the beams and soon they had been set alight. Since there was no water with which to fight the fire, the SS men had to vacate their positions.

On the morning of 2 May, they pulled back to the Luftfahrt Ministry building which was being occupied by a unit of Luftwaffe troops. They had no sooner dug in then vehicles with Red Army personnel approached under white flags. Among them were also German officers and soon there was talk of surrender as unarmed Soviets came forward, offering cigarettes. The SS troopers just couldn’t believe that it was over. It was impossible! They couldn’t surrender that easily after all that they had been through. What was going on at the Reichskanzlei? It was decided to go to Hitler’s Chancellery and defend it to the last man. The French SS troopers worked their way through the subway system to the “Kaiserhof” station right behind the Chancellery. When they arrived at the station, one man was selected to go topside and check out the situation. When he reached the top of the iron ladder, he expected to hear the sounds of battle but all he heard were horns honking and the roar of truck motors. He gazed upon the Wilhelmplatz which was now full of vehicles bearing the red star, the mark of communism. The Bolshevik beast had at last planted his cloven hoof on the Heart of Civilization! No shot was fired. The end was at hand.

It was decided to attempt a breakout to the West. The plan was to take the subway system as far as possible and then improvise. The Frenchmen had to dig their way through many collapsed sections with hand and bayonet only to be ultimately disappointed. At the Potsdamer Platz, the subway line continued on under an open sky! The only alternative was to wait for night to fall. The “Charlemagne” remnants then split into small groups to hide until darkness came.

Unfortunately many old Volkssturmers had decided to do the same thing. They were too slow on their feet to elude the searching Soviets however, and their cries of “Don’t shoot!” alerted the searchers to the fact that there were fugitives in the tunnels. After that it wasn’t long before one group after the other was captured.

The survivors were dragged above ground and searched. First their watches and other valuables were taken and then their weapons. Their Red guards, many with bottles under their arms and drunk, marched them away. As they marched, one drunken communist grabbed young Roger Albert and dragged him to a wall, but another guard, seeing what he was going on, rescued Roger and put him back in the column. “Managed to survive again,” Roger said to his companion.

At the same moment, the drunken Russian came staggering back. Once again he grabbed the young Frenchman, drew his pistol and screaming “SS, SS!”, fired it point blank. Roger Albert fell to the ground with a bullet hole in his temple. The guards now hurriedly pushed everyone forward as they noticed that the Frenchmen wanted to stop to avenge the murder. The last survivors of France’s greatest contribution to the defense of Europe were marched past the Reiehskanzlei, the plundering of which was just being completed. They went by hundreds and hundreds of Soviet tanks that were parading from the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate. But it was the latter edifice that made the greatest impression in the mind of the captured SS grenadiers. The wounded silhouette of the Brandenburg Gate, rearing up against the gray sky, remained for them a symbol of hope and a beacon for the future. Its endurance amidst the rubble convinced them that their sacrifices had not been in vain!


Published in „Siegrunen“ Monograph 4 – French Volunteers of the Waffen-SS, 2006

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