The Spanish Volunteer Division was raised in direct response to
Political reasons also played a part in the division’s formation. Hitler had offered to provide a panzer army should Franco decide to retake Gibraltar from
But Franco also had to make sure that Hitler would not invade
The initial ranks of the division were filled with men from all political views and affiliations. Over half of the division’s strength came from the Falange Militia, the military arm of Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalist Party. These men were highly motivated and ardent anti-communists. A quarter of the division came from the Spanish military. These men filled the senior NCO and officer billets as well as the more technical fields and specialties. Some of these regulars came from the Spanish Foreign Legion , but the majority came from the Spanish Army, including the division’s commander, General Agustin Munoz-Grandes, and had years of experience in leading expeditionary forces in Spanish Morocco. The remainder of the division was drawn from various economic and social classes to include farmers, factory workers, teachers, college professors, and university students. All of the men in the division shared two motivating factors: a strong devotion to Catholicism and a deep hatred of the
After initial recruitment, the division was given a unique uniform. The basis of the uniform was the standard Spanish army khaki trousers and tunic. A red beret was added in support of the Spanish royal family. The army’s khaki shirt was changed to blue, in recognition of the Falange militia. It is from this shirt that the division takes its nickname.
The volunteers left
Many of the German instructors were flabbergasted by what they perceived as Spanish laziness and unprofessionalism. The Spaniards thought the Germans to be too strict and regimented. These cultural differences often created tension between the soldiers. One of the biggest sources of tension was women. While in
The division was formally adopted into the German line as 250 Infanterie Division, Freiwilligen Spanische. It consisted of three infantry regiments: 262, 263, and 269; and one artillery regiment. There was a battalion each of pioneers, panzer-jagers, feldgendarm (military police), reconnaissance, and medical. The bulk of the fourth infantry regiment was disbanded and dispersed among the remaining three regiments. The remainder were formed into a mobile reserve battalion, affectionately known as Tia Bernarda, and used as assault troops and “fire brigade” within the division.
The division was finally ordered to the front in August of 1941. Originally sent to
Their baptism of fire did not impress their German superiors. Promised armor, artillery, and air support, the division was ordered to attack a strong Soviet position. The division succeeded in taking its objectives, but with heavy losses. The Germans began claiming the Spanish volunteers were simply a political statement and not real soldiers and could not be depended upon to fight. Munoz-Grandes claimed that if the promised German support had been given, his casualties would not have been so high. This finger pointing continued for several weeks until slowly, but surely, the division began to gain a reputation as a hard-fighting unit that preferred to fight hand-to-hand. By the end of winter, Soviet soldiers, and especially their political Commissars, soon came to fear Spanish bayonets.
250 Ski Company, which this unit attempts to represent, was formed in the winter of 1941-42 to combat Soviet ski-borne infiltrations. An ad hoc unit, its members were drawn from every battalion in the division, thus giving it an odd appearance as there was a mix of piping colors (representing different military specialties) within the company. Placed under the command of Captain Jose Ordas of 5 Panzer-jager Company, the company distinguished itself in a long-range relief of trapped Germans soldiers of 81 Infantry Division.
On 10 January, Captain Ordas led his 200 men across the frozen
Ordas and his men made contact with Soviet forces on 17 January, catching them by surprise and breaking through their line. Three hours later, the Soviets counter-attacked with two infantry battalions, supported by 6 tanks. Although greatly outnumbered, the Spanish held and made contact with the encircled Germans that evening. Heavy fighting continued for the next several days. Having to divide his forces between containing the German attempts to break-out and alarmed at the rapid advance to the Spanish, the Soviet commander came to believe he faced a superior enemy force, and ordered a withdraw on 21 January 1942. Captain Ordas only had 12 Spaniards left.
The Ski Company’s achievement on
In time, the Ski Company was reconstituted and continued to perform its duties admirably.
Fearing his rise in popularity, Franco recalled Munoz-Grandes to
It would be under Esteban-Infantes’ command that the division, and the Ski Company, would meet its toughest and most glorious test at Krasni Bor, during Operation Polar Star, a Soviet offensive to relieve
An epic battle ensued, prefaced by a two-hour artillery barrage that churned up the ground and inflicted heavy casualties on the Division. The Soviet attack was slowed, however, as their tanks had difficulty in navigating the torn landscape. The Spanish were forced to give ground, but not without a fight. By the end of the first day's fighting, the Division had suffered more than 2,200 casualties. Over the next month, the front line swayed back and forth, with the Division losing another 1,000 men. By 19 March, the Soviets had advanced only 3 km, suffered nearly 15,000 casualties, and failed to break the siege of Leningrad. As a result, the Soviets were forced to take up defensive positions for the remainder of the winter.
By the summer of 1943, the political situation in
Repatriation began in the fall of 1943 with the last of the division returning in November. A small contingent of 2,500 die-hards and new replacements was left behind under Colonel Antonia Garcia Navarro as the Legion of Spanish Volunteers, better known as the Blue Legion. This small force, too, was soon repatriated to
Several hundred crossed back into occupied
The Blue Division was unique in the German Wehrmacht, even among the foreign divisions. Many of these foreign units, while nominally from one nation or another, were actually made up of several nationalities. For example, 11th SS “Nordland” was officially a Norwegian division but contained men from
Raised in Spain, a neutral country, the division could be recalled at any time—as it was in 1943—and was officially an expeditionary unit of the Spanish army. As a result, the division was made up entirely of Spaniards, drawing replacements from
However, being numbered among the German line, the division was also bound by German regulations as well—a problem which the common guripa solved by following the regulations he most preferred. For example, the German army frowned upon facial hair and established strict regulations; for the Spanish, facial hair is a cultural sign of masculinity. Spanish army regulations prohibited the wearing of medals on field uniforms, a practice that was authorized in the Wehrmacht according to the wearer’s preference. The Spanish soldier, as a result, may have a big bushy mustache and wear a chest full of both Spanish and German medals and badges into battle! He would often take this to the extreme and decorate his uniform with badges depicting his religious, political, and military affiliations as well, much to the consternation of German officers.
As part of the agreement between Franco and Hitler, administration of military justice was to be carried out by a Spanish court martial only. This also caused some friction between Spanish and German officers. In one instance, a Spanish armorer modified his battalion’s machine guns to function better in the Russian winter. The Germans wanted him court-martialed as a saboteur; the Spanish decorated him instead.
What further separated the Blue Division from other foreign units was Hitler’s own praise of the Spanish. Hitler once declared, “[The Spanish] are the only virile Latin race,” and that they were the “equal to the best German divisions.” He ordered a special medal struck in their honor to be issued to all veterans of the division. This is the only such medal awarded to any division in the German Wehrmacht.
By the end of the war, over 50,000 Spaniards had served in the Blue Division, Blue Legion, or one of the various SS units, many in all three. Nearly 22,000 were wounded and 4,000 killed, but they inflicted nearly 60,000 casualties on the Soviets. Both Munoz-Grandes and Esteban-Infantes were awared the Knight’s Cross; Munoz was also awarded oak leaves. Members of the division also received, in various degrees, Iron Crosses, War Merit Crosses, Close Combat Clasps, Assault Badges, and Wound Badges, as well as Spanish medals for valor. All members of the division received a Russian Front Medal and two different Blue Division Medals; one issued by