One of the last Knights Crosses of the Iron Cross awarded in WW2 was to a French man: Eugene Vaulot, a member of the Waffen-SS.
Vaulot served in the ‘Charlemagne’ Division, a group of French volunteers fighting against the Allies, even their own country, under the Third Reich.
Around 300 men from this division kept up the fight in Berlin during the final days of the war, with no intention of surrendering. Most of these men would die in the ensuing battle, fulfilling their duty to protect Berlin and the Führer himself.
The journey the Vaulot and his comrades took to reach Berlin in term for its defence was a rather unique one and began in the late autumn of 1944.
These French volunteers who had thus far been fighting in the Wehrmacht, were formed into the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne, and began training under German leadership.
Despite it being a new unit, many of these men were battle-hardened from fighting alongside the Germans in the East against the Soviets. The division reached a peak strength of about 7,500 men in early 1945.
The division utilized heavy symbolism, and embodied the very pan-European empire Hitler had imagined. Their crest featured representations from both Germany and France, with the fleur-de-lis and Imperial Eagle of Germany as one.
The new Charlemagne division wouldn’t have to wait long to engage with the enemy.
The Frenchmen, lacking communications equipment and heavy weaponry, were sent to Pomerania to fight the Soviets. Fighting alongside three divisions of the German army, they were split up, encircled, and devastated by the Soviet forces.
Only about a thousand Frenchmen under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg managed to fight their way to safety, before being evacuated to Denmark by the German Navy.
Krukenberg, a speaker of both German and French, received an order on the night of April 23 1945, to regroup his men, and make their way to defend Berlin.
He gave the Frenchmen two choices, to either return home to France, or continue and fight on with the Germans, facing almost certain death or capture. He openly informed them that Charles de Gaulle was rebuilding a free France back home.
More than 60 percent of the men chose to return home. The rest stayed, either out of sheer devotion, or from fear of the consequences they may face at the hands of the French people.
The 400 who wanted to continue on were further inspired by the fiery speech of the French divisional chaplain, who sued for the men to embrace fighting to the death. This was the birth of the Sturmbataillon, or Storm Battalion Charlemagne.
Upon the Sturmbataillon Charlemagne’s arrival in Berlin, the centre a thousand year empire, they were greeted with a terrifying, ghostly silence of a city overtaken by 5 years of war. Bereft of civilian activity, all that could be heard was the quiet booms of distant Soviet artillery.
The city was left in ruins for years of bombing, and the on going Soviet advance. Making their way deeper into the city, the group came across a number of Hitler Youths, attempting to fight the Soviets with little more than Panzerfausts. With the Charlemagne’s assistance, they held them off for 48 hours, destroying 14 tanks in the process.
This extraordinary feat would have been a bittersweet success, knowing the entire world is bearing down on you.
Alongside the remaining loyalists, the Frenchmen fought on against impossible odds. One of the most brutal engagements was in the Berlin district of Neuköln. Members of Sturmbataillon Charlemagne accounted for more than half of the over 108 destroyed Soviet tanks.
Unterscharführer-SS Eugene Vaulot, mentioned earlier, who saw his finest hour during the futile defence Berlin, near the Reich’s Chancellery. He gave his all near the Führerbunker, destroying six Soviet tanks.
No matter how many men they killed, or tanks they destroyed, the Soviets simply threw more in, suffocating Hitler’s last resistance. Vaulot was awarded the Iron Cross on April 29, 1945, one of the last of WW2. Three days later Vaulot was killed by a German sniper.
Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. At this time, from the once proud ranks of over 7,000 men, just 30 remained alive. That day, Krukenberg gave the order to leave the bunker.
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Many of the Frenchmen surrendered to the Soviet Army near the Potsdamer rail station. Others fled west and managed to give themselves up to British forces at Bad Kleinen.
However, many of the men made it back to France where they were apprehended and placed in POW camps––eleven or twelve are believed to have been shot by the French authorities as traitors.