SPAIN’S BLUE DIVISIONS OF DEATH
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THIS STORY recently broke in ABC Spanish national daily newspaper founded 1903. It is the third largest general-interest newspaper in Spain, and the oldest newspaper still operating in Madrid. ABC is often referred to as a newspaper of record of Spain. Remarkable is that the following account is virtually unedited and was published in this mainstream newspaper.
Thousands of kilometres from their homeland, in a war that had nothing to do with them, armed with light rifles incapable of making more than scratches on the Soviet tanks, and intimidated by a cold left Ávila, Guadalajara and others Castilian glaciers in a pleasant summer breeze. Under these harsh conditions and dressed in ragged uniforms, 4,500 Spaniards belonging to the Wehrmacht’s 250th Infantry Division, known as the Blue Division, resisted an offensive of 45,000 men and 80 tanks sent by the Red Army to Krasni Bor.
The Blue Division was a unit of Spanish volunteers which in total formed by about professional and civilian 47,000 men, who fought alongside the Third Reich on the Eastern Front. Their willingness to fight and great courage attracted praise from the highest command. At one point the Spanish skiers crossed a frozen lake with temperatures of 52 degrees below zero and with little provisions, to find eleven days after the handful of survivors of the 18th German Division. To a score of the ragged troops it was necessary to amputate both legs because of the extreme cold.
During its military operations in the Volkhov region, next to the historic city of Novgorod, the Blue Division undertook some of the most celebrated actions in the trajectory of this unit. When at the beginning of 1942 a Soviet offensive, which sought to re-establish communications between Leningrad and Moscow, engulfed the 18th German Division, German infantry General von Chappuis appointed the Spanish to help his men. Hitler had nothing but praise for the Spanish volunteers and described them as the ‘ragged band’, undaunted men who defied death, brave, hard for privations their reward. The German President-Chancellor went on to say that his men the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS were happy to have them nearby.
From the defence in the Volkhov region, the Spaniards continued to the siege of Leningrad. There, Spanish troops were deployed south of Lake Ladoga, from where they faced Operation Iskra, the umpteenth offensive to liberate Leningrad from the German siege. On Saturday, January 16, 550 divisions under the command of Captain Manuel Patiño Montes went relocated to a wooded region southeast of Posselok to prevent the attack ordered by Stalin.
As the historian Xavier Moreno Juliá explains in his book The Blue Division: Spanish Blood in Russia, the Spaniards spread out in a fan shape under the most appalling conditions of a north Russian winter.
Under fire from the American-supplied Studebaker trucks armed with Stalin’s mortars and organ-rings, the performance of Captain Salvador Massip became one of the war’s legendary acts of courage. After being wounded in one eyebrow, one eye, and one leg, the army captain died with his machine gun still held in his grip without having yielded one centimetre of land.
In total, the fight in the forests of Posselok caused the death of about 70% of the members of the battalion, which forced Esteban-Infantes to request the return of their men to less exposed positions; a request that took weeks to pass.
While the Spaniards were recovering from their wounds, the troops were to meet their darkest hour on February 10, 1943. In Krasni Bor, located in a suburb of Leningrad, 5,900 Spaniards equipped with light weapons faced for several hours to the unstoppable jolt of 38 Red Army battalions, divided into 4 divisions, and supported by a large amount of artillery and tanks.
At 6:45 the Soviet Red Army, armed, militarised and uninformed by the great factories of the United States and Britain, were launched on the ragged Spanish divisions. Nothing was known of the First Battalion commanded by Commander Rubio as was the situation of Battalion 250 which had been overwhelmed.
Lacking the necessary weapons to stop the Russian tanks, except for a handful of magnetic mines, the situation was desperate. In just a few hours, over 1,000 Spaniards were slaughtered during a Red Army onslaught. The Red Army that day fired tens of thousands of howitzers, with an approximate rate of one shot every ten seconds for each piece.
Convinced that the artillery had totally annihilated the German armies the Red Army infantry advanced against the Spanish lines. When the Red Army reached the remnants of the Spanish divisions, the survivors mounted their MG 34 machine guns and barricaded themselves in the craters that Soviet shells had produced.
Then, a bloody melee between both sides was unleashed under the attentive and remote look of the Russian snipers, who mercilessly killed a hundred Spaniards on that day. After nine hours and 45 minutes fighting German Army, relief arrived to assist the Spaniards but the help came too late. From the beginning of the attack, the Spanish commanders had been requesting reinforcements that did not come until the Luftwaffe had first secured the ground.
The divisional losses counted, at the end of the day: 1,125 dead, 1,036 injured and 91 missing. Stalin had lost between 7,000 and 9,000 men as a result of the Spanish resistance. The Soviets ambitious Polar Star operation failed because of the high cost of snatching Krasni Bor from the Spaniards.
On March 19, the volunteer unit suffered a direct assault that earned it 80 more casualties. The final blow to the Blue Division was ironically that of their own national leader when Francisco Franco’s ordered the Spanish Blue Division to withdraw October 12, 1943.
MICHAEL WALSH is a British born Irish journalist, author, and broadcaster. His 52 books include best-selling WITNESS TO HISTORY, TESTIGO DE LA HISTORIA: HISTORIA SIN CENSURA (SPANISH EDITION), REICH AND WRONG, THE RED BRIGANDS, RANSACKING THE REICH , TROTSKY’S WHITE NEGROES, and THE ALLIED INVASION.
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