A full infantry division sent by General Francisco Franco to fight alongside the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, ostensibly in belated response to Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). It was not a division of the Spanish Army, though all its officers were regular Army at Franco’s insistence. Its enlisted men initially comprised a great majority of Spanish Falangist volunteers. The party uniform of these former blueshirts lent the division its popular nickname. Not all its members were volunteers, even at the start: Franco forced men into the division that included a number of his most bitter, left-wing opponents. The DEV was organized from June 27, 1941, by Franco’s brother-in-law and foreign minister, the committed fascist Serrano Suñer. He provided enthusiastic political support while regular officers shaped some 18,000 Falangist volunteers into a reinforced fighting division. Most of the original contingent were radical Falangists, many students from the universities but also men of the middle class and workers. Motivations of those joining the DEV were a mix of fascist enthusiasm, expectation of German victory, and anti-Communist and anti-Soviet feeling dating to the Civil War. While Franco was well pleased to see such committed revolutionaries depart Spain, his other interests were to soften the impact on German relations of Spain’s long-postponed entry into the war and repay the blood debt owed to the Kondor Legion . DEV participation in fighting on the Eastern Front would mark the height of Spanish collaboration with the Axis. No other nonbelligerent country raised an entire division for Adolf Hitler.
In Bavaria for basic training by July, the DEV was registered as the 250th Division of the Wehrmacht and reorganized to fit within the German order of battle. It took nearly two months for it to reach the front due to terrible German logistics. Most DEV troops prudently discarded their Spanish blue uniforms once they reached the Eastern Front, switching to German feldgrau. Some still wore blue shirts, however, when the DEV saw first combat on October 7. The 250th fought well but was badly bloodied as part of Army Group North, fighting around Leningrad for the next two years. By the end of 1941 it had suffered 1,400 dead, but also made a strong impression on local German commanders and on Hitler. The Blue Division saw more heavy action in the first months of 1942. It experienced especially heavy fighting over the next winter, when it was finally cracked by a Red Army assault in a bloody fight at Krasny Bor on February 10, 1943. On that single day the DEV lost 2,252 men, including over 1,100 dead. That was one-quarter of all casualties it suffered over two years. Its last seven months on the Eastern Front were more quiet. As casualties rose fewer Falangist volunteers could be found. More conscripts or regular army troops and more enemies of the regime were shipped out instead. During 1943 the Division was wholly reformed with replacements. Spain paid all wages and maintenance costs, but Germany provided weapons and military equipment.
Once Franco finally realized that Germany was going to lose the war, and as he came under increasing pressure from the Western Allies to end collaboration with the Hitler regime, he disbanded and recalled the Blue Division in October 1943. Over two thousand committed Spanish fascists refused to leave. Reinforced with conscripts, they were reorganized as part of German 121st Division under the designation “Spanish Legion” (Legion Españolo de Voluntarios), or “Blue Legion.” Even that small force was ordered dissolved by Franco and to return to Spain in March 1944, as Western Allied pressure on Madrid increased and Franco feared invasion and overthrow of his regime. The last surge of ideological enthusiasm among Blue Division veterans came in mid-1944, as 300 crossed into southern France looking to join Wehrmacht units readying to fight the Western Allies. A last few true fanatics were still in the east in 1945: 243 men who had not had enough of war in the fascist cause refused Franco’s 1944 order to return to Spain, staying on to form the “Spanish Volunteer Unit.” They and other Spaniards recruited separately into the Waffen-SS fought in the east until the final conquest of Germany in 1945. Almost none saw Spain or family again.
Of more than 45,000 men who served one-year enlistments or longer in the DEV just under 5,000 were killed, 8,700 were wounded, about 400 were captured by the Red Army, and another 8,000 had severe frostbite or other front-related illnesses. A vast praise literature later developed in Spain that portrayed Blue Division men as unusually kind to Russian civilians, absolving them from known German atrocities carried out in the east. The moral difference of the DEV from the behavior of other Wehrmacht units or Waffen-SS men was exaggerated in this nationalist revisionism, but the charge of somewhat greater decency was not wholly baseless. Most Spanish fascists who volunteered for the DEV were anti-Communist ideologues rather than Nazi-style race-haters, and not a few DEV men were unwilling working class conscripts who had no loyalty to the fascist cause whatsoever. Several hundred DEV prisoners were returned to Spain by the Soviet Union in 1954 and 1959.