Part of the "French Volunteers and Collaborationist Forces" series by Daniel Laurent

Légion des volontaires francais contre le bolchévisme (Legion of the French Volunteers against Bolshevism)

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 fascists organizations) launch the idea of a Legion of French volunteers to help fighting 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 volunteers 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 help at the Majestic Hotel, HQ of the Whermacht 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 in 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 the Colonel Roger Labonne (1881-1966), former commander of a French colonial army unit, the RICM. The LVF is registered by the Whermacht 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), general chaplain of the LVF, who 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 hour 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 waiting in horrible conditions, 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 platoons 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 good will but are lacking of military training. NCO are 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 the renewal of the officer Corp and a strong military training.”

The retreat was done in really horrible conditions, the men having 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 rear of the front, fighting against Soviet Partisans. There, the LVF will apply with some success methods issued from 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 to 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 to 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 weight 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. One June 22, 1944, the German front is horribly weakened by the assault of 196 Soviet divisions. While the Wehrmacht retreat everywhere, a LVF battalion, formed in a Kampfgruppe, is asked to cut the Moscow-Minsk road in front of Borrisov, near from the Beresina river.
Leaded 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 is equipped with MG42 machine guns, anti-tanks 37 guns and some Tiger Panzers.
At dawn on this June 22nd, the Red Army launches a heavy infantry offensive, seconded by tanks. Thje battle will last till the 23rd at night. The Soviet didn’t passed. The LVF retreated, as no more ammunition was available. 41 dead, 24 wounded but, in that opposite side, several hundred of dead and about 40 destroyed tanks.

2 weeks later, exhausted and starving, the survivors are gathered at Greifenberg camp, in Pomerania. The Legionnaires discover there their French comrades volunteers in the Waffen SS. Here is the end of the LVF history, all the Legionnaires being incorporated in the French Waffen SS Brigade.