Blue Division

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Spanish Volunteer Division
(250th Infantry Division)
Arms of the 250th Division of the Wehrmacht.svg
Insignia of the Spanish Volunteer Division, incorporating falangist and Nazi iconography
Active24 June 1941 (1941-06-24) – 21 March 1944 (1944-03-21)
Country Francoist Spain
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Branch Wehrmacht
TypeInfantry
Size45,000 men (total, 1941–44)[1]
Nickname(s)Blue Division
Engagements
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Agustín Muñoz Grandes
Emilio Esteban Infantes

The Blue Division (Spanish: División Azul, German: Blaue Division) was a unit of volunteers from Francoist Spain within the German Army (Wehrmacht) on the Eastern Front during World War II. It was officially designated the Spanish Volunteer Division (División Española de Voluntarios) by the Spanish Army and 250th Infantry Division (250. Infanterie-Division) by the Germans.

Spain was ruled by an authoritarian regime under Francisco Franco installed in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) with support from Nazi Germany. Franco chose to remain neutral in World War II but sympathised with Nazi anti-communism. After lobbying by the Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Suñer and senior figures within the Spanish Army, Franco agreed that Spaniards would be permitted to enlist privately in the German Army but agreed to provide tacit support. An infantry division was raised from Falangist and Army cadres and was sent for training in Germany. The unit participated in the Siege of Leningrad but was withdrawn from the Front after Spanish pressure in October 1943 and was returned to Spain soon afterwards. A small number of non-returners were incorporated into the short-lived Blue Legion and eventually into the Waffen-SS.

Background[edit]

Francisco Franco took power at the head of a coalition of fascist, monarchist, and conservative political factions in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) against the left-leaning Spanish government supported by communist and anarchist factions. More than 300,000 people were killed and lasting damage was done to the country's economy.[2]

Franco had been supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Civil War and Franco sympathised with many aspects of Nazi ideology, especially its anti-communism. Franco ensured that Spain was neutral at the start of World War II but seriously contemplated joining the conflict as a German ally in the aftermath of the Fall of France in 1940.[2] He met Adolf Hitler on 23–24 October 1940 but was unable to gain promises that Spain would gain colonial territories from France in North Africa because Hitler feared delegitimising the new Vichy regime in France.[3] Ultimately, Spain remained neutral.

Formation[edit]

Departure of Blue Division's recruits at San Sebastián, 1942

The German invasion of the Soviet Union led to renewed interest in participating in what Spanish officials saw as an "anti-communist crusade". Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Suñer first proposed the idea of a Spanish contribution to Franco within hours of the invasion on 22 June 1941.[4] The proposal was also supported by senior officers within the Spanish Army. Franco soon agreed to the proposal, directing that the Spanish Army should unofficially co-ordinate the unit. The Spanish offer was accepted by the German regime on 24 June 1941 but there was still disappointment that Spain had not declared war on the Soviet Union.[5] Franco struggled to balance the demands of both Army and Falangist factions which attempted to influence the new unit, himself siding with the former.

Recruitment began on 27 June 1941 and 18,373 men had volunteered by 2 July 1941 from within the Spanish Army and Falangist movement.[6] Fifty per cent of officers and NCOs were professional soldiers given leave from the Spanish army, including many veterans of the Spanish Civil War.[citation needed]The division was made up of mainly Falangist volunteers and almost a fifth of early volunteers were students.[7] General Agustín Muñoz Grandes was assigned to lead the volunteers. Because the soldiers could not use official Spanish army uniforms, they adopted a symbolic uniform comprising the red berets of the Carlists, the khaki trousers of the Spanish Legion, and the blue shirts of the Falangists—hence the nickname "Blue Division". This uniform was used only while on leave in Spain; in the field, soldiers wore the German Army field grey uniform (Feldgrau) with a shield on the upper right sleeve bearing the word "España" and the Spanish national colours.

Operational history[edit]

Organization and training[edit]

Blue Division train ride, between Spain and Germany in 1941

On July 13, 1941, the first train left Madrid for Grafenwöhr, Bavaria for a further five weeks of training. There they became the German Army's 250th Infantry Division and were initially divided into four infantry regiments, as in a standard Spanish division. To aid their integration into the German supply system, they soon adopted the standard German model of three regiments. One of the original regiments was dispersed amongst the others, which were then named after three of the Spanish cities that volunteers largely originated from—Madrid, Valencia and Seville. Each regiment had three battalions (of four companies each) and two weapons companies, supported by an artillery regiment of four battalions (of three batteries each). There were enough men left over to create an assault battalion, mainly sub-machine gun armed. Later, due to casualties, this was disbanded. Aviator volunteers formed a Blue Squadron (Escuadrillas Azules) which, using Bf 109s and FW 190s, was credited with 156 Soviet aircraft kills.

Eastern Front[edit]

Division's soldiers at the Siege of Leningrad in 1943
Spanish soldiers of the Blue Division on a raft somewhere close to Leningrad.

On 31 July, after taking the Hitler oath,[8] the Blue Division was formally incorporated into the German Wehrmacht as the 250th Division.[9] It was initially assigned to Army Group Center, the force advancing towards Moscow. The division was transported by train to Suwałki, Poland (August 28), from where it had to continue by foot on a 900 km march. It was scheduled to travel through Grodno (Belarus), Lida (Belarus), Vilnius (Lithuania), Molodechno (Belarus), Minsk (Belarus), Orsha (Belarus) to Smolensk, and from there to the Moscow front. While marching towards the Smolensk front on September 26, the Spanish volunteers were rerouted from Vitebsk and reassigned to Army Group North (the force closing on Leningrad), becoming part of the German 16th Army. The Blue Division was first deployed on the Volkhov River front, with its headquarters in Grigorovo, on the outskirts of Novgorod. It was in charge of a 50 km section of the front north and south of Novgorod, along the banks of the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen.

The iconostasis of the Church of Saint Theodore Stratelates on the Brook was used for firewood by the division's soldiers. The iconostases of the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia, Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Kozhevniki, and the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the Antoniev Monastery were taken to Germany at the end of 1943.[10] According to the museum curator in the Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyina Street, the division used the high cupola as a machine-gun nest. As a result, much of the building was seriously damaged, including many of the medieval icons by Theophanes the Greek.

In August 1942, it was transferred north to the southeastern flank of the Siege of Leningrad, just south of the river Neva near Pushkin, Kolpino and Krasny Bor in the Izhora River area. After the collapse of the German southern front following the Battle of Stalingrad, more German troops were deployed southwards. By this time, General Emilio Esteban Infantes had taken command. The Blue Division faced a major Soviet attempt to break the siege of Leningrad in February 1943, when the 55th Army of the Soviet forces, reinvigorated after the victory at Stalingrad, attacked the Spanish positions at the Battle of Krasny Bor, near the main Moscow-Leningrad road. Despite very heavy casualties, the Spaniards were able to hold their ground against a Soviet force seven times larger and supported by tanks. The assault was contained and the siege of Leningrad was maintained for a further year. The division remained on the Leningrad front where it continued to suffer heavy casualties due to weather and to enemy action.[11]

Disbandment and the Blue Legion[edit]

Eventually, the Allies and conservative Spaniards (including many officials of the Catholic Church) began to press Franco for the withdrawal of troops from the quasi alliance with Germany. Franco initiated negotiations in the spring of 1943 and gave an order of withdrawal on October 10. Some Spanish volunteers refused to return. On November 3, 1943 the Spanish government ordered all troops to return to Spain. In the end, the total of "non returners" was close to 3,000 men, mostly Falangists. Spaniards also joined other German units, mainly the Waffen-SS, and fresh volunteers slipped across the Spanish border near Lourdes in occupied France. The new pro-German units were collectively called the Legión Azul ("Blue Legion").

Spaniards initially remained part of the 121st Infantry Division, but even this meagre force was ordered to return home in March 1944, and was transported back to Spain on March 21. The rest of the volunteers were absorbed into German units. Platoons of Spaniards served in the 3rd Mountain Division and the 357th Infantry Division. One unit was sent to Latvia. Two companies joined the Brandenburger Regiment and German 121st Division in Nazi security warfare in Yugoslavia. The 101st Company (Spanische-Freiwilligen Kompanie der SS 101, "Spanish Volunteer Company of the SS Number 101") of 140 men, made up of four rifle platoons and one staff platoon, was attached to 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien.

The Blue Division was the only component of the German Army to be awarded a medal of their own, commissioned by Hitler in January 1944 after the Division had demonstrated its effectiveness in impeding the advance of the Red Army.[12] Hitler referred to the division as "equal to the best German ones". During his table talks, he said: "...the Spaniards have never yielded an inch of ground. One can't imagine more fearless fellows. They scarcely take cover. They flout death. I know, in any case, that our men are always glad to have Spaniards as neighbours in their sector"[13] -

Through rotation, as many as 47,000 Spanish soldiers served on the Eastern Front.[14] The casualties of the Blue Division and its successors included 4,954 men killed and 8,700 wounded. Another 372 members of the Blue Division, the Blue Legion, or volunteers of the Spanische-Freiwilligen Kompanie der SS 101 were taken prisoner by the Red Army; 286 of these men remained in captivity until April 2, 1954, when they returned to Spain aboard the ship Semiramis, supplied by the International Red Cross.[15] In action against the Blue Division, the Red Army suffered 49,300 casualties.[14]

After the war[edit]

Vault of the Blue Division, in La Almudena cemetery, Madrid

Many of the generals who perpetrated the attempted coup d'état against the Spanish government on February 23, 1981 had served in the Blue Division during World War II. Amongst them were generals Alfonso Armada and Jaime Milans del Bosch. Other Blue Division veterans, including Director of the Guardia Civil José Luis Aramburu Topete and José Gabeiras, remained loyal to the legal democratic government under the young King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

Foreign fighters in the Blue Division[edit]

Regarding Portugal, although some sectors of public opinion with anti-communist sentiments have had some sympathy for the Blue Division. However, the Salazar regime managed to dominate the most radical sectors and prevent the formation of a Portuguese unit. Despite Portugal's neutrality about one hundred and fifty Portuguese soldiers fought in the Blue Division, However these Portuguese were mainly Portuguese with roots in Spain and who had already fought on the Franco side in the Viriatos division during the Spanish Civil War. These Portuguese fought integrated in the Spanish ranks and at no time did they create any type of subunit with its own identity.[16]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Moreno Juliá 2018, p. 193.
  2. ^ a b Moreno Juliá 2018, p. 195.
  3. ^ Moreno Juliá 2018, p. 196.
  4. ^ Moreno Juliá 2018, pp. 197–8.
  5. ^ Moreno Juliá 2018, pp. 198–9.
  6. ^ Moreno Juliá 2018, pp. 201–2.
  7. ^ Beevor, Antony (2014). The Second World War. London. p. 489. ISBN 978-1-78022-564-7. OCLC 884744421.
  8. ^ Arnold Krammer. Spanish Volunteers against Bolshevism: The Blue Division. Russian Review, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1973), pp. 388–402
  9. ^ David Wingeate Pike. Franco and the Axis Stigma. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 369–407
  10. ^ 11th - 19th Century Russian Icons in the Collection of the National Museum Complex in Veliky Novgorod (page 9), Exhibition Guidebook, Veliky Novgorod - 2018, Saint Petersburg: Lubavich 2018, 216 pages, illustrated, ISBN 978-5-86983-862-9
  11. ^ Gavrilov, B.I., Tragedy and Feat of the 2nd Shock Army, defunct site paper
  12. ^ Stanley G. Payne; Delia Contreras (1996). España y la Segunda Guerra Mundial. EDITORIAL COMPLUTENSE S.A. p. 85. ISBN 978-84-89365-89-6.
  13. ^ Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens (translators). Hitler's Table Talk 1941–1944: His Private Conversations. Enigma Books. New York, 2000. p. 179.
  14. ^ a b Clodfelter, Micheal (2017). Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015 (4 ed.). McFarland. p. 456. ISBN 978-0786474707.
  15. ^ Candil, Anthony J. "Post: Division Azul Histories and Memoirs". WAIS - World Association for International Studies. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  16. ^ Carlos Caballero 2019.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Moreno Juliá, Xavier (2018). "Spain". In Stahel, David (ed.). Joining Hitler's Crusade: European Nations and the Invasion of the Soviet Union, 1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 193–212. ISBN 978-1-316-51034-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Caballero Jurado, Carlos (2019). La División Azul: Historia completa de los voluntarios españoles de Hitler. De 1941 a la actualidad (in Spanish). Spain: La Esfera de los Libros. ISBN 9788491646068.
  • Bowen, Wayne H. BowenSpaniards and Nazi Germany: Collaboration in the New Order. University of Missouri Press (2005), 250 pages, ISBN 0-8262-1300-6.
  • Kleinfeld, Gerald R., and Lewis A. Tambs. Hitler's Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 434 pages, ISBN 0-8093-0865-7.
  • Morales, Gustavo, & Luis Togores, "La División Azul: las fotografías de una historia". La Esfera de los Libros, Madrid, 2009, second edition.
  • Moreno Juliá, Xavier. La División Azul: Sangre española en Rusia, 1941–1945. Barcelona: Crítica (2005).
  • Núñez Seixas, Xosé M. "Russia and the Russians in the Eyes of the Spanish Blue Division soldiers, 1941–4." Journal of Contemporary History 52.2 (2017): 352-374. online
  • Rusia no es cuestión de un día.... Juan Eugenio Blanco. Publicaciones Españolas. Madrid, 1954