Ski Company, 250 "Division Azul"

A World War II Living History organization depicting the Spanish Volunteer Division that fought on the Eastern Front.

Short History of the Spanish "Blue" Division

     The Spanish Volunteer Division was raised in direct response to Germany’s invasion of Russia in June of 1941.  Originally planned as brigade-sized element, the flood of over 50,000 eager Spanish volunteers allowed the unit to be expanded to a full division of approximately 15,000 men.  The division was organized as a square formation centered on four infantry regiments, as per Spanish custom.  However, this was soon changed to a triangle formation of three infantry regiments after their arrival in Germany.

     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 Great Britain.  Knowing how dangerous such a proposition could be to Spain, it being reminiscent of Napoleon’s invasion in 1808, Franco declined the offer by making outrageous requests for aid that he knew Hitler could not provide.  Franco was also very conscious of the aid that Hitler had already provided during the civil war in the form of the Condor Legion and did not want to be indebted any further to the Fuhrer.

     But Franco also had to make sure that Hitler would not invade Spain outright.  He needed to prove to Hitler that such an invasion would be costly.  The invasion of the Soviet Union gave Franco the situation he needed.  He would provide an expeditionary force to serve in Russia.  This would repay the debt of the Condor Legion, provide an opportunity to prove the mettle of Spanish soldiers, and temporarily remove or outright eliminate any potential political rivals as he consolidated his power.

     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 Soviet Union.

     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 Spain with great fanfare to begin training in Grafenwohr, Germany in July, 1941.  As much of the division already had three years of combat experience during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) or service in Morocco, the division’s training was completed in two months—a month less than normally required for a German division.  But their time in Germany was not spent without some “mischief”.

     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 Germany, the Spaniards often fraternized with local women, much to the chagrin of the German soldiers.  When ordered to cease and desist, the Spaniards simply ignored the order.  Upon completion of their training, one company protested the order by passing in review of a German general with condoms over their rifle barrels! This policy of womanizing continued in Russia in violation of orders from the German High Command.

     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 Army Group Center for the expected attack on Moscow, their orders were changed in September to join Army Group North outside Leningrad, arriving there in October.  The division would spend two continuous years in the siege lines around the city.  This time was spent almost unbroken. With a steady stream of replacements from Spain, the division was not pulled from the line to refit, but only to readjust and move immediately to reinforce another sector.

     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 Lake Ilmen in a grueling 11-day march in arctic temperatures that dropped as low as -53°C.  According to Ordas, ". . . the tempurature freezes the bolts of our rifles and they cannot be used.  The bread must be sawed or cut with an axe as lighting fires would reveal our position to the enemy. And worst of all, you cannot sleep. To sleep is to freeze to death. Even a few minutes rest can result in the loss of feet or legs to frostbite." 

     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 Lake Ilmen secured the division’s reputation.  For this action, the company received thirty-two Iron Crosses, the Medalla Militar Colectiva—a unit citation and one of only two awarded to the Division.  Captain Ordas was awarded his second Medella Militar Individual , making the Ski Company the most decorated unit on the Leningrad front and the most decorated foreign unit in the entire Wehrmacht.  General Munoz-Grandes even sent a special communiqué to Hitler praising the company’s achievements.

     In time, the Ski Company was reconstituted and continued to perform its duties admirably.

     Fearing his rise in popularity, Franco recalled Munoz-Grandes to Spain in December of 1942 and command of the division was handed over to General Emilio Esteban-Infantes, also a veteran of the Spanish Army's campaigns in Morocco.  The make-up of the division began to change under Esteban-Infantes.  Fearing the Falange was gaining too much influence, replacements began coming more from the army and Legion and less from the militia until nearly three-quarters of the division came from the Spanish military.  This change in command and character of the division is often referred to as the “Second Division.”

     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 Leningrad on 10 February, 1943.  The Soviets committed 44,000 men, 100 tanks, and 800 guns against a force of only 4,500 Spaniards and 1,500 Germans--a numerical advantage of nearly 8-to-1!  

     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 Spain had changed. The Allies had taken North Africa and Sicily, and were on the Italian mainland. Rumors circulated that an invasion of France was imminent.  The Soviets had dealt a crushing blow to Germany at Stalingrad and Kursk.  To Franco, the myth of German invincibility was gone and he could see the inevitable outcome, even if Hitler couldn’t.  Franco ordered the Blue Division home.

      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 Spain in March of 1944.  Franco did not want any affiliation with Hitler’s Germany and forbid any Spaniard from serving in the German Wehrmacht.  This order was ignored by several veterans of the Blue Division. 

     Several hundred crossed back into occupied France and joined various SS divisions.  Out of these volunteers, four independent companies were formed in the summer of 1944.  Two of these, 101 and 102 SS, fought on the Eastern Front.  A gebisjager company fought in northern Italy against British and American armies. The fourth company, dubbed Kondor Kommando, was made up of Spanish and French SS troops and conducted operations along the Franco-Spanish border, as well as participating in Operation Dragoon in southern France that summer, and the Ardennes Offensive in Belgium later that winter.  A fifth company was formed in early 1945 from among the survivors of 101 SS, 102 SS, and Kondor Kommando and, attached to the 11th SS “Nordland”, fought in the Battle of Berlin to the bitter end, defending Templehoff Airfield and the Reichstag.  These Spaniards were among the last defenders of the Reich.

     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 Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Great Britain.  Additionally, these divisions drew their replacements from wherever they could be found who were either volunteers or conscripts from any of the conquered nations.  As such, they were organized and commanded exclusively by German doctrine.  The Blue Division was a different matter.

     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 Spain only, and it continued to fall under Spanish Army regulations. 

     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 Germany, the other by Spain.