(July 9, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Spanish Blue Division was incorporated into the German Wehrmacht as the 250th Infantry Division.
As word of the commencement of Operation Barbarossa — the Axis invasion of the USSR — spread through Europe, there was much joy and exultation. However, there was no more exuberance than in Spain, and, in particular, its capital, Madrid. This may have been, because other than Rome, Bern and Lisbon, this was the only western European capital that was not under the heel of the German jackboot.
In Madrid, crowds gathered and began marching down Avenida de José Antonio toward the headquarters of the Falange. Avenida de José Antonio was, and is now, La Gran Ví a— the main drag of Madrid. The name was changed, by El Caudillo, Generalíssimo Francisco Franco, to honor José Antonio Primo de Rivero, the founder of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange Española, or Spanish Phalanx.
Party Minister José Luis de Arrese, who was in the building as the crowd approached, immediately called Ramón Serrano Súñer, who was the brother-in-law of El Caudillo, Spain’s Foreign Minister and chief of the Junta Política of the Falange. Súñer raced to Falange headquarters and went directly to the balcony, stepped outside and received a thunderous ovation. The Foreign Minister began addressing the crowd, “Comrades, it is not the time for speeches but it is the moment for the Falange to dictate its sentence of condemnation!”
The throng responded with one voice, “¡Arriba Espana! ¡Viva Franco!” Súñer continued, “Russia is guilty — guilty of our civil war, guilty of the murder of José Antonio, our founder.” The crowd interrupted, “¡Ruso es culpable! ¡Arriba Espana! ¡Viva Franco!” The foreign minister ended his address by saying, “Guilty of the murder of so many comrades — so many soldiers who fell in that war brought on by the aggression of Russian communism. The destruction of communism is a necessary condition for the survival of a free and civilized Europe.” The crowd shouted, “¡Arriba Espana! ¡Viva Franco! ¡Viva Alamana!” And then, finally, with one voice, “Muerte a Soviet Ruso.”
The year before, the German Führer and his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had met with the Spanish Caudillo and his foreign minister for nine loooong hours at Hendaye, on the Franco-Spanish border, as the German leader attempted to persuade/cajole the Spanish leader to enter the war against Great Britain. The Spanish Caudillo agreed — in principle.
However, he placed so many conditions on his country’s entry into the war, that it was obvious that Spain was going to sit this one out, even though everyone knew that he owed his position as the Spanish Caudillo — leader — to the aid he received from the German Reich and the Italian Kingdom. After the meeting, the German Führer told the Italian Duce that he, “...would rather have three or four teeth extracted than go through that again!” But now, the Spanish dictator saw a way to repay his debt to the Axis nations without going to war with the British Empire.
The Reich’s ambassador to Spain, Eberhard von Stohrer, communicated Spain’s offer of participation and help in the crusade against communism to the Reich’s foreign minister. Minister von Ribbentrop immediately informed der Führer of the Spanish offer. On June 24, 3 days after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, von Ribbentrop, thinking that the war would be over quickly, cabled Ambassador von Stohrer, “All right, but tell them to hurry!”
When the call for volunteers was issued, the recruiting stations were overwhelmed as hundreds of thousands of Spanish men rushed to enlist to fight communism. All of the cadets of Spain’s military academy volunteered. Requirements for the volunteers were: membership in the Falange or military service; 20 - 28 years old; medical approval.
The Spanish government decided to send an infantry division and a squadron of fighter pilots. The official name for the infantry division was División Española de Voluntarios — DEV. However, the name by which it is/was universally known is La División Azul (The Blue Division).
It took this name from the blue shirts it received from the Falange, as blue was the Falange color. The name was suggested by Minister de Arrese. Although the Spanish soldiers wore regulation German uniforms when on duty, when they were in Spain, they wore the blue shirts of the Falange, red berets of the Carlist party and the khaki pants of the Spanish Foreign Legion. Their German uniform had a patch worn on the right shoulder with the Spanish national colors and the word ESPAÑA.
On June 30, a secret meeting was held at the Foreign Office on the Willamstrasse, in Berlin. The purpose of the meeting was to determine where the tens of thousands of expected foreign volunteers would be serving. It was decided that Germanic and Scandinavian volunteers, such as Danes, Finns, Flemings, Dutchman, Norwegians, and Swedes, would serve in the Waffen SS. Non-Germanic volunteers such as the Croats, Portugese, and Spaniards were assigned to the Wehrmacht. Even though Súñer hated him, Gen. Agustín Muñoz Grandes was chosen to lead the DEV. The British considered him, “...one of [Spain’s] best and most resolute generals.”
On July 13, 1941, thousands packed Madrid’s Estación del Norte, as the young volunteers of Regiment Rodrigo made their way to the first train which would carry them on the initial leg of their trip to the German Reich. Gen. Muñoz Grandes was on the platform with other generals, ministers and government officials when Foreign Minister Súñer arrived, resplendent in a white uniform, as the band played “Cara al Sol(Face to the Sun).”
This was the song of the Falange, written by Party Founder Primo de Rivero. After a short speech, as the crowd sang “Cara al Sol,” the train, draped in Spanish, German and Italian flags and bearing the first of Spain’s contribution to the Axis war effort, pulled out of the station. The next day, a similar scene was repeated, sin Minister Súñer, as Gen. Muñoz Grandes and his staff departed Madrid’s Barajas Airport. In the following days, the scene was replayed in the train stations of 18 other Spanish cities.
The first train carrying the Spanish volunteers stopped at Hendaye. There the volunteers boarded third-class coaches of the French National Railway. The reception, as the train rolled through France, was decidedly different. Frenchmen along the route hurled taunts, stones and other missiles. At several stops, fights occurred.
The attitude changed, once again, when the train crossed into Germany. At Karlsruhe, as many as 12,000 Germans gathered to welcome the young Spaniards. On July 23, 1941, the last trainload of Spanish volunteers arrived in Grafenwöhr, in Bavaria, for outfitting and training.
The Spanish soldiers swore their loyalty to the German Führer on July 31,1941. La Division Azul began moving toward the front on Aug. 21, 1941. It, along with Escuadrilla Expedicionaria, a.k.a.: Escuadrilla Azul — the Spanish squadron of fighter pilots — was assigned to Armeegruppe Center, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, whose objective was the Soviet capital of Moscow.
It traveled, by train, to Grodno, which is a city now in Belarus. From Grodno, the Division marched 620 miles to Vitebsk, also now in Belarus, near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. With each soldier carrying 70 pounds of equipment, the division stretched for 20 miles.
On Sept. 26, the division was diverted from Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center to join Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb’s Armeegruppe North, whose objective was Leningrad.
Along the way, the Spanish soldiers began bedeviling their German allies with their disregard of the prohibition against fraternization with the Polish and Jewish girls. At Vitebsk, the division boarded other trains to the front, where it joined the Sixteenth Army, commanded by Ernst Busch.
Escuadrilla Azul remained with Armeegruppe Center. It was responsible for downing 156 Soviet aircraft, at a cost of 21 killed and one captured.
The Blue Division was assigned a sector of the front, north of the ancient Russian capital of Novgorod, along the Volkhov River. It began to settle in during the second week of October, as the first snow fell. The temperature dropped to 29 degrees Fahrenheit. El Caudillo demonstrated more prescience than the Germans, when he ordered winter clothing shipped to La División Azul.
On Oct.19, 1941, La División joined the German offensive toward Tikhvin, aimed at joining with the Finns along the Svir River east of Lake Ladoga and completing the encirclement of Leningrad. However, the Red Army’s tenacity and the plummeting mercury, combined to stop the offensive on Nov. 6. The temperature on that day was -23 degree Fahrenheit. By early December, it was down to -40 degrees By then, the division had suffered more than 2,400 casualties.
Gen. Muñoz Grandes was replaced by Emilio Esteban Infantes y Martin in December 1942. Upon his return to Spain, Gen. Muñoz Grandes was greeted by almost every government official, promoted to Lt. general and awarded the Palma de Plata, the highest award of the Falange, which no one had received since Founder Primo de Rivero had received it, posthumously, during the Spanish Civil War.
With the Allied invasion of North Africa, and the American occupation of French Morocco, El Caudillo, seeing the change in direction of the winds of war, and bowing to British and American pressure, ordered the division home on Oct. 10, 1943. Those that wished to stay — 2,133 — served in the Legión Azul, commanded by Col. Antonio García Navarro, former chief-of-staff of La División Azul.
By November 1944, most of them had returned to Spain. Some 250 stayed until the bitter end, with a company commanded by Miguel Esquerra, serving in, first, the SS Wallonian Panzergrenadierdivision and then the SS Nordland Panzergrenadierdivision, defending Berlin.
Approximately 47,000 Spanish soldiers served in La División Azul, the Legión Azul and Escuadrilla Azul. One-third were veterans, while the rest were from the Falange. About 5,000 were killed, 8,700 wounded, 1,500 suffered frostbite and 372 were captured.
Of those captured, 286 finally returned to Spain on April 2, 1954, after Stalin’s death. La División Azul was the most decorated unit in Spanish history. The Spanish soldiers were awarded 138 Iron Crosses, 2,359 Iron Crosses Second Class, eight Cruzes Laureadas de San Fernando (the Spanish equivalent to the Medal of Honor) and 44 Medallas Militares (the Spanish equivalent to the Silver Star).
In addition to the Knight’s Cross awarded to Gen. Muñoz Grandes, one was also awarded to Gen. Infantes y Martin, (although without the Oak Leaves) who was also promoted to Lt. general upon his return to Spain. Both generals also received the German Cross of Gold.
Hitler said that La División Azul was, “...equal to the best German ones.”
Next week: Smolensk
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.