Men of the Spanish Blue Division
by Wayne H. Bowen
In April 1939, after three years of fighting, Generalismo Francisco Franco and his right-wing forces finally defeated Spain’s Popular Front army to win the Spanish civil war. Franco had received much support from Adolf Hitler in his revolt against the democratically elected leftist government, which in turn left him indebted to Germany at the war’s end. Though Spain officially remained neutral throughout World War II, in 1941, Franco on his own initiative provided a unit of soldiers, known as the Blue Division for the shirts worn by its Falangist enlistees, and an air squadron to help the Nazis in their war against Soviet communism and repay his debt to Hitler. The United States, Great Britain, and the Free French government vehemently protested this violation of neutrality, and as the tide of the war began to turn against Hitler, Franco bowed to Allied political pressure and agreed to end all aid to Germany.
Spain’s official military contribution to Nazi Germany ended in spring 1944, when the last soldiers of the Legion Espanola de Voluntarios (Spanish Legion of Volunteers), also known as the Legion Azul, or Blue Legion, were withdrawn from the Eastern Front and repatriated to Spain. The Blue Division had already been withdrawn the previous November under Allied pressure, to be replaced by the smaller 1,000-1,200-man Legion Azul. The official withdrawal did not end Spanish involvement in World War II, however; even as the soldiers of the Blue Division and Legion were crossing from France into Spain, some of their compatriots were headed in the opposite direction.
From late 1943 to the end of the war, several hundred Spaniards enlisted in the Waffen-SS (militarized units of the SS) and the German army, leaving their homes and families to serve Nazi Germany. While most sought adventure or material gain, these Spaniards also represented the persistence of support among certain elements of the Spanish population for the New Order, a “Third Way” that would avoid the errors of communism and liberal democracy. Convinced that they had fought for such a New Order for Franco in Spain and on the Eastern Front, they sacrificed everything for the vision of Hitler. Their numbers were small, however, and their presence had far less impact than they anticipated, certainly not in the way they expected. Rather than being the vanguard of a new Europe, most died in the rubble of a crumbling empire, and their activities remained a black mark against the Spanish government as Franco’s regime was branded a collaborationist state and left politically isolated until the mid-1950s.
While there are over 200 books, articles, movies, and other works about the Blue Division, the historiography of Spaniards in the Waffen-SS is much more limited. Two short books, by Fernando Vadillo and Carlos Caballero Jurado, rely on interviews with veterans and selective use of documents, mostly unattributed, to paint a hagiographic portrait of these volunteers. The issue of Spanish volunteers in the SS is also discussed in a dissertation by Kenneth Estes, but his focus is on the broader issue of Western European volunteers rather than those from Spain. Works about the Waffen-SS by Mark Gingerich, Bernd Wegner, Robert Koehl, George Stein, and Felix Steiner pay little or no attention to the issue of Spanish volunteers, whose experience was very different from that of even Western European SS soldiers. Aside from a handful of Swedish, Swiss, and Finnish recruits, Spaniards were the only Europeans to join the SS and German army not from Axis occupied territory. Using Spanish archives, this paper will provide a more complete understanding of the experience of these soldiers.
By May 1944, when all Spanish soldiers and aviators were withdrawn from the Eastern Front and repatriated to Spain, losses in the Blue Division and Legion were high: 4,500 dead, 8,000 wounded, 7,800 sick, 1,600 frostbitten, and 300 prisoners, deserters, or missing: over 22,000 casualties out of the 47,000 total who fought in the division. With the crushing manpower shortage in Germany and the Third Reich conscripting the very young and old, every possible source for combat units had to be tapped. Their open access to Spanish recruits closed, the Germans began to search out other ways to enroll and retain Spaniards in the armed forces of the Third Reich.
Some Spaniards refused to be repatriated at all, though their numbers alone were too few to make a significant contribution to Germany’s forces. In Spain, however, potential recruits already had begun to seek out opportunities to enlist in the service of the Nazis. As historian Kenneth Estes has written, Spanish volunteers included “soldiers of fortune, ardent antibolshevists, and those seeking employment and living conditions superior to those of Spain.” After the devastation of the Civil War, hunger and unemployment were rampant, and on the dark night of 27 January 1944, Jose Valdeon Ruiz and two of his friends, too young to have served in the Spanish Civil War or Blue Division, sneaked across the Spanish border into France with the firm intention of joining the German army.
Over the next eight months, until the Allies drove the Germans from the Pyrenees, hundreds of Spanish men and boys followed Valdeon Ruiz, crossing illegally from neutral Spain into Nazi-occupied France. The SS even established a special unit in Spain and occupied France, the Sonderstab F (Special Staff F), to recruit these fugitives and provide them with transportation to Germany, work contracts, and identity documents. The Spanish Foreign Ministry and German ambassador in Madrid opposed these activities, as Franco by this time had begun to withdraw aid from Hitler, but elements of the Falange (Franco’s political party) and German agencies collaborated in this effort to recruit soldiers for the Nazis. In one week in January 1944, over 100 Spaniards presented themselves at the German embassy in Madrid, attempting to volunteer for military service. As they dribbled across the border, alone or in small groups, these Spanish recruits were taken by train to a holding camp near Versailles, until they reached 300 in number by May 1944.
A third source of volunteers came from Spanish workers already in Germany. At the beginning of the war, Franco had sent 25,000 volunteer workers to Germany. As their factories were bombed and they were displaced by air raids, some of these workers, seeking to leave the country, enlisted in the German merchant marine in hopes of jumping ship in neutral territory. This was also dangerous, however, as Allied air and naval forces ensured that few vessels survived long at sea. Others volunteers, still committed to the Nazi cause, joined the Organisation Todt, a militarized labor force, one of several units of the Waffen-SS, or a Spanish Legion within the Wehrmacht.
Their numbers were supplemented by repatriated veterans of the Blue Division who petitioned the Spanish government to be sent to the Third Reich as common laborers, hoping that their prior service would gain them some kind of preference in contracts. German diplomats and labor representatives were more than happy to sign contracts with these volunteers, but such arrangements were considered invalid by the Spanish government; along with withdrawing his troops, Franco had ended the volunteer worker program in late 1943, albeit with the promise of allowing more workers to go to Germany if needed. Without the official support of the Spanish government, few managed to make it to Germany.
Those who did, along with dozens of other Spanish recruits from elsewhere in the Nazi empire, were then sent to the training base of Stablack-Sud Steinlager in Eastern Prussia. By D-Day, just over 400 had been assembled at this center. At Stablack, the Spaniards were divided into two battalions and deployed to the outskirts of Vienna for eight weeks of training, led by officers who had been liaisons between the Blue Division and the German military. From 8 June to 20 July, another 150 Spaniards joined the Batallon Fantasma (Ghost Battalion), as the unit was called by its soldiers. The name signified two things: first, the unit’s shadowy existence in defiance of official agreements between the German and Spanish government; and second, that knowledge of the unit spread throughout the Spanish communities of Europe through rumor and word of mouth rather than through official declarations.
According to the Spanish police attache in Rome, who sent back a detailed report on the unit, the Spanish volunteers insisted to the Germans that they did not want Spanish officers over them; this would reflect unfavorably on the Franco regime, they feared, because Franco had promised the Allies that no Spanish nationals would continue to fight for the Axis. As the unit developed, it had a mix of Spanish and German junior officers, but even those who had held commissions in the Blue Division entered the Ghost Battalion as mere enlisted soldiers, having to earn their rank through merit. The commander of the unit was a former German army artillery officer, SS Captain Wolfgang Graefe, who had been attached to the Blue Division.
While these troops underwent weeks of training to prepare them for the front, other Spaniards were quickly committed to battle. Serving in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the security service of the SS, these soldiers, some of whom had been recruited by the Germans from among Spanish Republican exiles, fought and spied against Spaniards in the French Resistance and against the Allies in Normandy. The Spanish embassy in Berlin estimated that in summer 1944 there were as many as 1,500 Spaniards working for German security services in France.
Other collaborationist movements in Europe also provided volunteers for the German armed forces and SS units. For example, approximately 10,000 Frenchmen fought in units such as the Legion des Volontaires Francais (LVF, French Volunteer Legion) and Charlemagne Division of the Waffen-SS between 1941 and 1945. Most of these volunteers were recruited in 1943 and 1944 from members of the Milice Francaise and other collaborationist groups who left France with the Germans to avoid reprisals by the Resistance. Like the Spanish Blue Division, these units fought on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Army, and some, like the Spaniards of the Ghost Battalion, died defending Berlin in 1945. Also like the Spanish enlistees, other Western volunteers joined the Waffen-SS “for such non-idealistic reasons as a desire for adventure, status, glory, or material benefit,” as historian George Stein has noted. Fewer, but still a significant percentage, were “adherents of political or nationalist organizations who hoped to improve the fortunes of their movement or to demonstrate their ideological commitment to National Socialism by serving in the SS.” Some of the fanaticism among those who remained or joined the Waffen-SS no doubt rested on the fate of foreign volunteers should they fall into enemy hands: repatriation and, in the case of those who came from Allied nations, firing squads or harsh prison sentences.