“Take care that none of them escapes”“The Deeds of Charlemagne” – Notker the Stammerer
Berlin, Germany. 24th April 1945. Around 330 exhausted soldiers from the 33rd SS Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne enter the outskirts of the city having dodged the advancing columns of Red Army soldiers; they will be some of the last troops to enter the city before it is completely surrounded. How did some of the last defenders of the first city of the Third Reich come from the Gallic homeland? Let’s dip into this and find out and see how we can represent this in a game of Flames of War.
I think it is important to explain why I am looking at this unit and this history. Firstly, I am not here to glorify their role or ethos, or motivation. The SS was an abhorrent organisation and its legacy is not one to be promoted or the members martyred as part of this, or any look at them. I am interested in the extremes of the human experience and what drives young men to walk into the maelstrom of fire and iron that they would experience in the final throes of the dying Reich and that is what we will explore today.
The origins of the 33rd SS lay in the beginnings of the war in two organisations: the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism (LVF) and the French Sturmbrigade. The LVF was comprised of right-wing Frenchmen and released French soldiers who preferred fighting to forced labour in Germany and fought on the eastern front in 1941, reaching very nearly the gates of Moscow.
Its commander was relieved of his duties in 1942, the unit was assigned to anti-partisan units in Belorussia. The unit (without a French commander) was attached to various German divisions until June 1943 when Colonel Edgard Puaud took command. Finally winding up in 1944 on the Ukraine front facing off against Soviet units there.
The origins of the Französische SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade began to take shape in July 1943. 3,000 volunteers from mainly collaborating militias and university students in Vichy France signed up and the unit was sent to Galicia to fight the Soviet advance. It suffered heavy casualties and was merged into the LVF and in late 1943 was retitled: Waffen-SS Französische SS-Freiwilligen-Grenadier-Regiment.
By late 1944 this cadre was reinforced with a ragtag assembly of French collaborators fleeing the Allied advance in the west, Frenchmen from the Horst Wessel brigade and Organisation Todt and others from Vichy French Milice and other collaborationist organisations. There may even have been volunteers from French colonies and Switzerland but this is unproven. SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg took active control of the unit and it was retitled again Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS Charlemagne.
In February 1945 the unit was officially upgraded to a division and was again renamed, this time to 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne. A division in name only it was vastly understrength at a little over 7,000 men, and despite these shortcomings, it was sent by train to fight against the Red Army in Poland. On 25 February the 33rd SS was attacked while deploying from its railhead by troops of the Soviet 1st Belorussian Front and was smashed into three battlegroups. Only the units with Krukenberg survived, and they hurriedly retreated towards the Baltic coast, to be evacuated by sea to Denmark and later sent to Neutrelitz for refitting.
As early April 1945 ticked around, Krukenberg, now commanding a mere 1100 men, released those who were disillusioned from combat service. Of the 1,100 about 700 men chose to remain with the other 400 men formed a construction battalion. It is from these remaining 700 men that on the 24th of April 1945, 300 managed to avoid the closing snare of the Soviet forces around Berlin. They entered the ruined city and were placed under the command of SS-Standartenführer Walter Zimmermann. They fought in the Battle of Berlin, in the southeastern sectors until 2nd May 1945, when just thirty survivors surrendered to the victorious troops of the Red Army.
The Gaul to Defend Berlin
On the 25th of April, Krukenberg was appointed the commander of Berlin Defence Sector C which included SS Division Nordland. By this point, Nordland’s regiments had been reduced to about a battalion each which is absolutely crazy! Charlemagne was attached to Nordland whose two regiments had been decimated in the fighting. Both equalled roughly a battalion.
The Frenchmen walked from West to East Berlin, to a brewery near Hermannplatz. Here fighting began again, with Hitler Youth firing Panzerfausts at Soviet tanks belonging to advance guards near the Tempelhof Airport and on the 26th of April counterattacked towards Neukölln supported by Konigstiger tanks of the 11th SS Panzer Battalion. The attack stalled and losses were heavy with around half the attackers becoming casualties as they encountered stiff resistance from Soviet troops, including a captured Panther tank.
It became very apparent, very quickly that the Soviets were deeply ensconced in and around Neukölln and Krukenberg prepared fallback positions for Sector C defenders around Hermannplatz creating a new command post in the opera house. To buy the defenders time Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fenet and some attached Hitler Youth destroyed fourteen Soviet tanks with light anti-tank Panzerfausts and a machine gun nest positioned by the Halensee bridge refused to budge holding up Soviet forces for 48 hours.
The inexorable advance of the Red Army into Berlin followed a monotonous, rhymical pattern of massive artillery barrages followed by storm group assaults of about 80 men clearing houses one by one accompanied by tanks and close, direct-firing artillery support. On the 27th of April, the meagre remnants of Nordland were pushed back into the central government district (Zitadelle sector) in Defence sector Z. Here, Krukenberg’s made his HQ in a carriage in the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station.
Fighting was extremely fierce and by the 28th of April around 108 Soviet tanks had been destroyed in the southeast of Berlin within the S-Bahn with around half of those kills being attributed to the Panzerfausts and Panzerschreks of the men under Fenet’s command.
When the Red Army started a major offensive into the central sector on the 28th Charlemagne was in the centre of the battle zone around the Reich Chancellery. Eugène Vaulot, who had destroyed two tanks in Neukölln, claimed to have destroyed a further six more near the Führerbunker. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross by Krukenberg on 29 April but by the 2nd May, he had been shot and killed by a Soviet sniper. The Soviets drove what was left of the battalion back to the vicinity of the Reich Aviation Ministry in the central government district which fell under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke. The pocket of men drew smaller and smaller.
By the 30th of April, the defence of Berlin was in the final death throes with the last defenders in the area of the bunker complex a patchwork of troops from the 33rd SS Division Charlemagne, 1st SS Division Leibstandarte, 11th SS Division Nordland, Latvian SS Legion, and Spanish SS from the Blue Legion.
The fighting continued to be ferocious and by the evening of the 30th of April, the Charlemagne men serving under Fenet had destroyed another assorted 21 Soviet tanks and had used up a large number of their Panzerfausts reserves from the Reich Chancellery. This was it for the last defenders of the Reich and 24 hours later, after dusk, Krukenberg told his men that were left to split up into small groups and attempt to break out less than 10% of the men that entered the doomed city would even make it out to be captured at the beginning of May 1945.
Frank-y Goes to Hollywood
As we have always said Flames of War is the game of the film of WW2, this gives us some artistic license in bringing together a force to represent the 33rd SS Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne in the dying days of WW2. In the new Berlin – Germany book we have a force organisation for a Berlin Battle Group that gives us so many options to compile our army list.
The Defenders of Sector C
The 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne Berlin Battle Group HQ
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne SS Panzergrenadier Platoon
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne SS Panzergrenadier Platoon
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne SS Tank Hunting Platoon
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne SS 8cm Mortar Platoon
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne SS MG42
This first formation gives us all the basic building blocks for the defenders for the French defenders of Sector C. The SS Tank-Hunting platoon is a Command Card and allows you to switch up your MG42 teams to K98 Rifle teams but gives you 4 Panzerfaust armed teams and 3 Panzerschek teams. Interestingly, these Panzerschreck teams are on medium bases with a Rate of Fire of 2 when stationary.
This unit represents the battlegroup of Hauptsturmführer Henri Joseph Fenet and its tank-hunting prowess. Woe betides any Soviet tanks not bringing bedspring armour to the fight! The 33rd was always short of heavy weapons so I have stayed away from including any PaK40 anti-tank guns; I’m not sure that the list suffers for this though. I also chose to exclude the option of the leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18 for the same reason and included more mortars than I normally would.
The MG42 unit will be converted into a series of Machinegun Nests using, again, one of the Command Cards.
These nests will represent the bitterly staunch defence put up around the Halensee bridge that we highlighted early on.
- Volkssturm HQ
- Volksturm Platoon (9 x K98 rifle with Panzerfaust)
- Hitlerjugend Platoon (7 x Panzerfaust)
- Volksstrum Mortar Platoon (4 x 8cm Mortars)
This second formation gives us the fanatically motivated Hitlerjugend Platoon that helped the 33rd destroy many Soviet tanks with their Panzerfausts. This Hitlerjugend Platoon will likely be my ambushing unit if I have access to one. The reasoning behind this is that with a Hit On rating of Reckless, they are going to be cannon fodder soon enough if exposed to round after round of enemy shooting. They are also only armed with Panzerfausts so getting them in the right place at the right time is going to be critical.
I’ve also chosen to use another Command Card here to gain access to a second light mortar platoon for the force, giving me those two templates to try and thin the ranks of the Red Army. The issue with these will be the low Skill rating of Green when it comes to ranging in… but beggars really can’t be choosers here.
- 11th SS Panzer-Battalion “Hermann von Salza” – (2)
- 3 x Kleinpanzer Wanze
And finally, we come to Support available to the 33rd in Berlin. The 11th SS Panzer-Battalion “Hermann von Salza” provides the list with two Konigstigers, eight of these monsters were still roaming the Tiergarten area in the final days of the battle. These provide our force with some serious hitting, and staying power.
The Kleinpanzers were assigned to the Nordland Division so I have taken some poetic licence here to include even more Panzerschreks in the force – this time mobile ones. Being small and having a Rate of Fire of two these three little bedbugs will help the Volkssturm to see off the IS-2s or T-34s.
So there we have it. The new Berlin – Germany book, and Command Cards, allow us to build a very convincing force that can be used to represent the 33rd SS Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Charlemagne in the heart of the Reich. It is a shame that there is no Command Card specifically for the 33rd, maybe with a super-last stand or more Panzerfausts but there we go.
I’ll be back soon with a cup of single-origin, cold brew flat white artisan coffee with more thoughts from the hipster’s beard.