Featured in Armchair General
The Blue Division Saga
By Ion Grumeza
In the beginning, no German commander wanted to be near the Spanish volunteers: they were an undisciplined bunch of macho men who refused to practice drills, march in formation, salute, wear military uniform or obey orders. According to German military code, their lax cultural habits made the rebellious Spaniards, wearing colorful scarves, good luck chains, talismans and crosses hanging on their chest (they had 28 chaplains), anything but soldiers, certainly no good for war. Their main activity in Russia seemed to be to chase local women and have a good time. When the Germans stopped that, a Spanish company “paraded” in front of German high brass with condoms wrapped around their rifle barrels.
The good natured volunteers had no respect for any military authority and proudly wore their Fascist blue shirts under their German uniforms. From the beginning their open attitude was that they had volunteered to destroy Communism, not to help the Germans. Worse than any other sin was marriage of the Catholic soldiers in the Russian Orthodox Church to local girls with whom they fathered children. The Spaniards made clear that they did not fight the Russians, but the Bolsheviks. Compared to the Gypsies, they were so unruly that no German division wanted to incorporate the Spanish troublemakers; and thus Hitler formed a special 250th Division, whose coat of arms was a shield with their national colors and "España" written above it.
Just about everything was highly irregular and condemnable about the phantom division, until its 18,000 men travelled by foot almost 1000 kilometers and fought their way to reach Leningrad in 1943. Because of their bad reputation, no German unit wanted them to be near, so the Spanish took the most dangerous position by the Moscow-Leningrad road that was under continuous Soviet attacks. Outnumbered 8 to 1 in manpower and 30 to 1 in war machines, the Spaniards fought so savagely, throwing back one assault after another and inflicting so many casualties on the enemy that Soviets commanders began to do anything to avoid facing the wild 250th Division again. Because of this, the Leningrad front lasted one year longer. Still, the Spaniards, who had no sentries on duty, had to be woken up by local Russians when the Soviets massed an attack against them. However, when the fight began, the same “lazy” and “insubordinate” men proved to be incredibly efficient killers and clear winners. One German general declared that in a state of ‘waw” the Spaniards were fighting as if the Russians had taken their wives.
Eventually the Blue Division became famous in the most military way as it rescued many German units from encirclement and sure annihilation. One Spanish sky company of 217 men and 70 sleds with supplies braved an 11 day march in subzero (-55C) weather and Soviet attacks, to relieve the German soldiers of the 81 Infantry Division. Only 12 Spaniards survived in fighting condition from that next-to-impossible ordeal. Another company defended a railroad station from massive Soviet tank and infantry assaults, with the fierce Spaniards fighting to the last man, including their commander, Capitan Ruiz de Huidrobo. Twenty-two pilots of the Blue Divisions gunned down 156 Soviet fighting planes.
Impressed by their valor, Hitler himself designed a medal to commemorate the bravery of these Spaniards who never took a step back in front of danger.
In an incredible spin of fate, it was the supreme sacrifice of these gallant fighters that brought their downfall: their legendary military successes made their generals fully trusted by Hitler. Given the fact that Generalissimo Franco refused to enter the war alongside the Germans, any Blue Division commander was likely to replace the Spanish dictator. Aware of walking on thin ice, Franco recalled first General Augustine Munoz Grandees (decorated by Hitler personally with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves) and General Emilio Esteban Infants to Spain. And then, to nip in the bud any competition against Franco, who at that time was on friendly terms with the Allies, the entire 250th was ordered back to Spain.
At this point there is another memorable fact about the Blue Division: most of its men refused to return home from the front. They had tasted the Communist insurgence in the 1936 Civil War in Spain, and they wanted to terminate the same enemy in its own nest. Some 3,000 Spaniards formed the Blue Legion (Legion Azul) and decided to stay with the Germans and continue fighting the armies of Stalin. Attached mainly to other volunteer Waffen-SS units like Nordland and Wallonien, the Spaniards fought in retreat throughout Russia, and proved merciless in destroying anti-German resistance in Yugoslavia, Romania (in Bukovina) and France. Some of them also took part in the Ardennes offensive.
By now, with the end of the war near and without a country, many of the Blue Division survivors ended up in Berlin. With the Walonians, they were the last defenders of Hitler’s bunker.
The rest of the men who agreed to give up fighting changed German uniforms and returned to Madrid, arriving by train after midnight. There was no one waiting to greet them, certainly not a military band and or any kind of official welcome for these anti-Communist heroes. They were disbanded in silence. These were the fighters whom Hitler called “the only virile Latin race, equal to the best German divisions!” A number of German 2 Golden Crosses, 138 Iron Crosses First Class, 2,359 Iron Crosses Second Class and 2,216 War Merit Crosses with Swords, were bestowed on the 45,000 fighting men of the Blue Division.
Regardless of their amazing military deeds, they vanished in undeserved anonymity after killing more than 60,000 Soviet soldiers, in many cases in hand to hand combat. From the Spanish ranks, 22,000 volunteers were lost: 5,000 thousand died, 8,000 were wounded, 7,800 hospitalized, hundreds missing in action and some 300 former hell fighters came from the Soviet prison camps ten years after the war was over.
That was not the case with General Augustine Munoz Grandees, whose bigger than life fame generated the admiration of Dwight Eisenhower and Konard Adenauer, both decorating the future First Vice President of Spain from 1962-1967.
Despite all of its valor during the war and the recognition of General Grandees, Spain never acknowledged the heroics of the Blue Division, renamed the 250th Infantry Division—and often even denied that it was Spanish.
© 2013 Ion Grumeza