Thousands of kilometers from their land, in a war that had nothing to do with them, armed with light rifles incapable of doing more than scratching the Soviet tanks, and intimidated by a cold that left those of Avila, Guadalajara, and others. Castilian glaciers in a pleasant summer breeze. Under these harsh conditions and dressed in Nazi uniforms reduced to rags, the 4,500 Spaniards belonging to the 250th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht (popularly known as the Blue Division) honorably resisted the offensive of 45,000 men and 80 tanks sent by the Red Army to Krasnyi Bor. Beyond ideologies and proclaiming heroes or villains, the visionaries who intervened in the siege of Leningrad, the liberation of Paris at the hands of a French company made up mostly of Spanish republicans or the spies who, like Joan Pujol, strongly influenced In the course of the conflict, they insist on denying those who continue to maintain that our country did not play a significant role, for better or for worse, in World War II.
The Blue Division was a unit of Spanish volunteers, in total made up of about 47,000 men, who fought alongside the Third Reich on the Eastern Front. Even though the German demands passed because the contingent was made up entirely of professional soldiers, it was finally agreed that the bulk would be fed by civilian volunteers – many of them opponents of the regime who enlisted before the possibility of clearing their records, as in the case by the film director Luis Garcia Berlanga, with a republican family – but commanded by experienced officers of the Spanish Army such as Agustín Muñoz Grandes or Emilio Esteban-Infantes. The readiness to fight and the Spanish sobriety did not take long to attract the praise of the Nazi officers.
During its military operations in the Volkhov region, alongside the historic city of Novgorod, the Blue Division undertook some of the most famous actions in the history of this unit. When a Soviet offensive in early 1942 – which sought to reestablish communications between Leningrad and Moscow – engulfed the 18th German Division, Nazi infantry general von Chappuis appointed the Spanish Ski Company to help his men. This same general had in the past had doubts about the unit’s capabilities, but was now turning to it for a desperate rescue. The Spanish skiers crossed a frozen lake at the cost of their health, with temperatures of 52 degrees below zero and with hardly any provisions, to find eleven days later the few survivors of the German 18th Division. A score of them had to have both legs amputated because of the extreme cold. The height of their actions led Adolf Hitler, from “the Wolf’s Lair,” that same year, to describe the visionaries as a “gang of rags”, fearless men who defied death, brave, hard for deprivation, and undisciplined. Recognizing, also, that his men were glad to have them around.
45,000 Russians fall on Krasni Bor Wrapped in a certain aura of impregnability in the eyes of the Wehrmacht –which hardly matched the racist postulates of Nazism–, the Blue Division reached its third and last year of existence in 1943. From defense, in the Volkhov region, they passed to the siege of Leningrad. There, the Spanish troops were deployed to the south of Lake Ladoga, from where they faced “Operation Iskra”, the umpteenth offensive to liberate Leningrad from the Nazi siege. On Saturday, January 16, 550 visionaries under the command of Captain Manuel Patiño Montes flocked to a wooded region southeast of Posselok to stop the attack ordered by Stalin.
As the historian Xavier Moreno Julia explains in his book “The Blue Division: Spanish Blood in Russia”, the Spaniards distributed themselves in the form of a fan and covered themselves with trunks, branches, and snow. Under the fire of Stalin’s mortars and barrels, the performance of Captain Salvador Massip shone. After being successively wounded in the eyebrow, in the eye, and the leg, he died with his machine gun still clutching his hands without having yielded. one centimeter of land. In all, the fighting in the Posselok forests killed about 70% of the battalion’s members, forcing Esteban-Infantes to request the return of his men to less exposed positions. A request that took weeks to approve.
While the Spaniards licked their serious wounds, their blackest day happened, on February 10, 1943. In Krasnyi Bor, located in a Leningrad suburb (today, Saint Petersburg), 5,900 Spaniards equipped with light weapons fought for several hours to the unstoppable shock of 38 battalions of the Red Army, divided into 4 divisions, and supported by a large number of artillery and tanks. It was not, however, an unexpected action. The Spanish suspected that the Russians were planning to take Krasnyi Bor for ten days and concentrated all their forces on this position. Not surprisingly, knowing the place of an attack is only the first step to reject it.
At 6:45 a.m., the Soviet mass fell on the Spanish. The first line was almost crushed; the Russian chariots, first rejected, had returned to Krasnyi Bor, opening a breach in the October Railway; nothing was known of the First Battalion commanded by Commander Rubio; and the situation of Battalion 250 was unknown, although it was supposed to be very delicate ”, describes one of the combatants in the battle as a catastrophe. Without the necessary weaponry to stop the Russian tanks – save for a handful of magnetic mines – the delicate situation was, in fact, desperate. In a few hours, a thousand Spaniards were killed in an onslaught the Division had never suffered before.
The Red Army fired tens of thousands of howitzers that day, with an approximate rate of one shot every ten seconds for each piece. Convinced that the brutal artillery bombardment had wiped out any threat of life, the Soviet infantry advanced against the Spanish lines, which, overwhelmed by enemy superiority, crouched in their makeshift holes, waiting for an opportunity to counterattack. When the Red Army was on top of them, the survivors mounted their MG 34 machine guns and barricaded themselves in the craters that the Soviet howitzers had produced. Then a bloody hand-to-hand was unleashed between both sides under the watchful and remote gaze of Russian snipers, who mercilessly killed a hundred Spaniards on that day. Surrounded by enemies, several division officers demanded by radio that they bomb their positions at the risk of their lives.
After nine hours and 45 minutes fighting alone, the German infantry came to the aid of the Spanish at 16:30. But the help was late. From the beginning of the attack, the Spanish commanders had been demanding reinforcements that did not come until the German aviation, the Luftwaffe, had secured the land. While the bulk of the Blue Division withdrew to Sabino, an Artillery Group under the command of Commander Guillermo Heinlein, still held its position until the morning of the 12th when it was relieved. The Russian Army had dislodged the Krasnyi Bor sector and extended its front for nearly six kilometers. The division casualties counted, at the end of the day: 1,125 dead, 1,036 wounded and 91 missing. However, the booty reaped by Stalin was too scant to be deemed a triumph. He had lost between 7,000 and 9,000 men as a result of the Numantine resistance of the visionaries. The ambitious “Operation Polar Star” had failed because of the high cost of taking Krasnyi Bor from the Spanish. Ignoring the fine print of the Russian victory, the English BBC presented the battle to the world as the grave of the Blue Division.
In the following weeks, the evening struggle to gain control of the western bank of the Ishora River – a goal that the German Army finally achieved – cost the Blue Division a daily trickle of 30 casualties. On March 19, the volunteer unit suffered a direct assault that earned it an additional 80 casualties. And despite such bleeding, the real final blow to the Blue Division was going to be endorsed by the political context. Francisco Franco’s order to withdraw the Blue Division, dated October 12, 1943, coincided with the change in the Spanish position in World War II.