Blue Division: Spanish Volunteers on the Eastern Front
Blue Division: During the Second World War, the Francoist government of Spain was focused on survival after its brutal civil war concluded with the Nationalist rebels winning in the spring of 1939.
Francisco Franco, named el Caudillo or leader of Spain, while appreciative of German and Italian military and financial aid during the civil war, knew that a full Spanish commitment to the war would mean cutting necessary British aid that was needed to rebuild the country.
Of course, it was to deter a looming threat of a British invasion. Rather than not supporting Hitler’s war plans, once Germany initiated Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, Spanish foreign minister Ramón Serrano Suñer immediately organized a volunteer battalion called the División Española de Voluntarios, or the Spanish Volunteer Division. This battalion would be remembered in history as the Blue Division, or División Azúl.
Though originally called the Blue Division, they would be rebranded as the Spanish Volunteer Division in 1943, and also, the 250th Wehrmacht Division once 1944 came around. This is their story.
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The Blue Division would be the peak of Spanish assistance to the German war effort. It would be nothing more than a good gesture to relieve German pressure to bring Spain into World War II.
In total, the number of Spanish volunteers has ranged from 50,000 to 70,000, but historian Stanley G. Payne has estimated that 45,500 men joined the volunteer division.
A meeting was planned at Hendaye once the French fell to the Germans in the autumn of 1940. When France fell the German government immediately had a border with Nationalist Spain. A year had passed since the civil war’s climactic conclusion, and Hitler was interested in bringing Spain into the war in order to cut Britain’s access to the Mediterranean Sea.
This meant not allowing the British access to Malta or Egypt thus reducing the chances of a land invasion of Europe through the south. The meeting was scheduled for the 24th of October.
Arriving late to the meeting in Hendaye, Franco handed over a list of demands for an official Spanish entry into World War II. While the lateness has been rumoured as a legitimate way to irritate Hitler, the reality was that Spanish railroads were horrendously kept because of the civil war’s devastation.
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It would be the only time Franco and Hitler formally met to discuss Spanish involvement. Franco’s demands included most of France’s African colonies, French Catalonia, Gibraltar, and a concession would have been one of the Canary Islands for a German naval base. He also sought financial and military aid to rebuild his army.
While Franco was rational in his demands because he did acknowledge his debt to Hitler and Mussolini, the talks immediately fell apart. Hitler could not simply give French colonies to Spain as it would have irritated Italy; Vichy France was another problem for the concessions.
The French would have not allowed such a transition of colonies to a European power that had recently ended its civil war and had not done much to earn said colonies in the World War. A dinner followed with the leaders and the talks ended.
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However, foreign ministers Ribbentrop and Serrano Suñer did sign a pact that if Spain entered the war, they would win some French colonies and Gibraltar in return for military aid to help the Spanish fight with the Axis forces. Why did the plan for Spanish entry fall apart? It was because Hitler’s opinion of Franco had fallen to a new low following the Hendaye meeting. In addition, Spanish demands were not a priority as the Germans were planning a new front in the East against the Soviet Union.
Formation of the Blue Division
Once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Spanish Foreign Minister Ramón Serrano Suñer rallied for volunteers to fight with the Germans against the Soviets on the 24th of June. The civil war was still fresh in every Spaniard’s mind, as the Soviets financed the Republic in military and financial aid.
No one had forgotten the massacres committed by the “Reds” and other subversive groups at the time. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop accepted the Spanish aid, and Hitler approved the entry of volunteers to the Eastern Front.
The volunteers came from all over Spain, the majority being university students since fascism in Spain catered to the educated class. The Falangist party had cemented itself as the party in power.
The volunteers had their reasons for joining the war against Communism; some detested Soviet interference in Spain and wanted revenge, others had hidden their leftist ideals once Franco won, hoping to defect once on the frontlines.
While the volunteers had their reasons for signing up, the Francoist government had a bigger cause in mind. Franco knew that the balance of power rested on making wise decisions that would not risk a cut on British aid, or a German invasion to conquer Gibraltar.
He also needed to quell fascist demands for a fight against the Soviet Union; in fact, most of the Spanish volunteers were the hardened fascists that either fought on the Nationalist side during the civil war, or fanatics in the ideological sense.
The “gesture”, that Stanley G. Payne noted, was an attempt to transfer German pressure in Spain to join the Axis Powers; once the Eastern Front began, most attempts to push Spain into the war subsided. The Blue Division would be a gesture to keep Germany happy, even if Francoist Spain didn’t put the official call into the war.
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The volunteers began their training in the Grafenwöhr barracks of Bavaria in the summer, before their transport to the front by August. Initially a slow endeavour, German reorganization saw the Spanish volunteers head north as a defensive battalion against any Soviet counteroffensive in Novgorod by October. Under the command of Agustín Muñoz Grandes, they oversaw much intensive fighting against Soviet forces.
Facts on the Eastern Front
The Blue Division would see action in key battles such as the Soviet counteroffensive at Krasny Bor in February 1943. On February 10th, the Spanish battalion would endure its bloodiest and most intense fight of the war.
Organized on defensive lines, in the end the battalion would lose 2,252 in the span of less than a day, with 1,125 officially dead. Nevertheless, the Soviets lost a resounding 7,000 to 9,000 soldiers, according to Stanley G. Payne.
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They would, like the Germans and other volunteer battalions, face the harsh Russian winters, and in early campaigns back in 1941, would rummage through dead Red Army soldiers, stealing the jackets and wool uniforms made for the Russian winter. Not only was the Blue Division severely lacking in clothing made for winter, but in weapons as well.
Lack of Discipline
Once again, the Germans believed the rag-tag team of Spanish volunteers would be useful as a defensive mechanism. These men also saw little in the way of aerial support or rest, as they faced constant Soviet attacks. Hitler himself noted that they fought with a fire in them despite their lack of discipline.
The Spanish volunteers were also part of a German counter offensive at the siege of Leningrad in 1942, where they would again face massive Soviet forces in the south, fighting a battle that devolved into a defensive effort to keep Soviet forces from breaking south.
The Spanish fighter pilots under the Blue Squadron, using German fighter planes such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109, shot down approximately 156 Soviet aircraft.
By 1943, once Franco gave the official word to disband the volunteer legion, there were dozens of Spaniards that stayed to fight, or left Spain to join the Wehrmacht through France illegally.
In March 1944, it was a process that was accelerated as the tide of war turned to the Allies, who pressured Franco to disband the volunteer legion. Spain was essentially under threat of an invasion if they continued to help Germany.
Franco immediately disbanded the Blue Division in March 1944 as the war turned against the Axis Powers; Spain, officially a neutral country, needed to keep face with the Allied Powers. As early as 1941, Spanish generals were contemplating a full commitment to not enter the war on the Axis side, as Western Europe had more Allied interference once the Eastern Front began.
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It would be a significant change in Spanish foreign policy. As historian Stanley G. Payne noted, it was a shift from non-belligerency to “vigilant neutrality.” In fact, British and American foreign policies at the time were becoming suspicious of neutral Spain’s efforts to help Germany.
Once the call came, 40,000 Spaniards would return to Spain; a small number of 5,000 would stay. The men that stayed behind were accepted into the Wehrmacht, and saw fighting in the Battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945.
Years later, the official death toll of the Blue Division men would be, according to the Blue Division Foundation in Madrid:
372 prisoners of war
1,600 frostbite victims
7,800 cases of general sickness
Their involvement in the Eastern Front garnered many medals and decorations from the Germans. In total, they won:
Two German Knight’s Crosses
Two Golden Crosses
2,497 Iron Crosses (138 First Class)
2,216 Military Merit Crosses (16 First Class)
The Spaniards who returned to Spain safely generally had their involvement with the German war effort forgotten, as once again, Franco wanted to erase any mention or knowledge that he was an ally of Hitler’s Germany.
Yet, many of the men who returned from the war would enter in high military and governmental positions in the Franco regime for the next thirty years until Franco’s death on November 10th, 1975.
One volunteer, who joined in 1944 to fight was Manuel Ezquerra. He would fight, like the thousands of other Spaniards that kept fighting with the Wehrmacht, in the Battle of Berlin. He would be captured by Soviet officials, but managed to make an escape to Spain as an Argentine tourist roaming throughout Europe. He lived until October of 1984.
Brave Group of Fighters
Historians have noted the Blue Division as not only the most influential volunteer group in the Second World War, but also one that was often an overlooked part of Spanish involvement in the war. While a neutral state, Spain’s foreign policy still warrants an intriguing look by avid historians of the era, as the Blue Division was noted by the Germans as a brave group of fighters.
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In fact, Hitler had commissioned a medal in 1944 to commemorate the volunteer division’s efforts to fight against Soviet Bolshevism. The Francoist government also commissioned one after World War II, with swastikas in the medal because Spain had yet to make the symbol illegal.
Since most information on the Spanish Volunteer Division is in Spanish, there aren’t many articles on the Blue Division except on Wikipedia or other military sites similar to Wikipedia. A recommended book on the Blue Division, about Spain during World War II would be Stanley G. Payne’s Franco and Hitler: Spain, Germany, and World War II.
The book has a chapter on the Blue Division not discussed here alongside Spanish foreign policy at the time. It has a great overview of the Hendaye meeting and the specific demands that Franco gave to Hitler, which fell apart. The book is available in the Internet Archive.
While in Spanish, a recommended article would be “Un aragonés en el búnker de Hitler”, or An Aragonese in Hitler’s Bunker, which details Manuel Ezquerra’s story of joining the fight against the Soviet Union, and his involvement in the Battle of Berlin.