250th Division: Azul

Instead of a declaration of war in June 1941, Franco, at Serrano’s suggestion, offered to send a volunteer division of Spaniards to serve in the German army, a proposal accepted immediately by Nazi leaders. Spain’s initiative in this regard was unique, volunteering its soldiers before being asked by the Germans to contribute to the anticommunist effort. Recruiting began with a massive demonstration in central Madrid, during which Serrano declared that “Russia is guilty” of beginning the Spanish Civil War, murdering José Antonio, and otherwise contributing to the destruction of Spain’s economy and prospects. Tens of thousands of Falangists, university students, soldiers, and others wanted to join the unit, known officially as the Division Española de Voluntarios (Spanish Volunteer Division) but more popularly called the Division Azul, or Blue Division, for the Falangist blue shirts worn by its volunteers. Among the volunteers were hundreds of Falangist leaders, from Labor Minister José Antonio Giron to the fascist writer Ernesto Giménez Caballero (neither of whom was allowed by Franco to join the unit). Dozens of others were allowed to join, with the permission of Serrano and Falangist Secretary General José Luis de Arrese, including the poet and propagandist Dionisio Ridruejo, National Delegate for Health Agustin Aznar, Falangist student chief José Miguel Guitarte, and two thousand Falangist university students.

The initial wave of volunteers numbered more than forty thousand, and could have manned two or three divisions. Conservative elements within the government, and especially among the highest ranks of the army, were uncomfortable with this prospect, however, and limited the deployment to the original division while insisting that the majority of officers come from the regular army. The recruits volunteered for a number of reasons, including visceral anticommunism, ambition for higher rank in the army or Falange, a desire to find adventure, support for the German-led New Order, unemployment, or a feeling of having missed the combat of the Spanish Civil War.

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.

The Blue Division received the official support of the government for its first two years on the Eastern Front. Newspapers contained frequent mentions of the heroism of the unit, memorializing fallen soldiers and denouncing the evil of communism. Congregations throughout Spain held special masses in honor of the troops, attended by prominent figures in the Falange and government, and the Women’s Section of the Falange organized drives to collect winter clothing and other gifts for the unit, especially around Christmas. Upon their return from battle, Blue Division veterans gained the same hiring preferences as those who had fought in the civil war, and one year of service in the unit credited a soldier with two in the regular Spanish army. One result of the dispatch of the Blue Division was the rise of General Agustin Muñoz Grandes, the unit commander, as a popular figure. With his army background, experience as secretary general of the Falange, and proven battlefield leadership, he became the focus of great attention. He had also been commander of Spanish forces near Gibraltar in 1940 during German planning to attack the citadel, and so was trusted by Nazi military leaders. The Spanish press covered his speeches hailing the courage of his soldiers, which were also broadcast over Spanish radio: “Hard is the enemy, and harder still is the Russian winter. But it does not matter: even harder is my race, supported by reason and the courage of its sons who, embracing their heroic German comrades, will in the end achieve the victory, towards which we fight without ceasing.”

Muñoz Grandes also garnered the attention of Hitler, who saw in him a potential replacement for Franco. The Führer met several times with the general, awarding him the highest military decoration and encouraging him to remain involved in politics. Franco heard about these discussions and replaced Muñoz as divisional commander in late 1942, although he delayed this action for several months at the insistence of Hitler, who wanted to ensure that the Blue Division’s commander gained sufficient victories to become even more popular in Spain. Upon Muñoz Grandes’ return to a hero’s welcome, Franco promoted him to the rank of lieutenant general-too high to command an army division again-and appointed the general in March 1943 to head the dictator’s military household, in charge of Franco’s personal security and military ceremonies. Despite the celebrations and banquets in his honor, it would not be until March 1945- just before the end of the Second World War-that Franco would trust Muñoz Grandes with troops, giving him command of the prestigious Madrid Military District.

Blue Division: Spanish Blood in Russia, 1941–1945 by by Xavier Moreno Juliá (Author)

Until recently, the best book on the Spanish Division Azul remained Gerald Kleinfeld and Lewis Tambs, Hitler’s Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia. While reliant on German and Spanish archives, as well as use of interviews, it also exhibits a vibrant writing style and avoids the temptation, so common in modern writing about Spain, to condemn the Franco dictatorship and its supporters as completely identified with Nazi Germany. A newer Spanish-language manuscript, La Division Azul, by Xavier Moreno Julia, incorporates more extensive research and interviews, as well as the massive historiography on the unit that has emerged since the publication of Hitler’s Spanish Legion.

1 thought on “250th Division: Azul

  1. Great analysis. Very correct. I just want to reinforce the idea that among the origin of the volunteers there was a small but significant number of non-sympathizers with Franco who came as a way to “redeem” themselves with the new Franco regime.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.