Spaniard Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII
|Perhaps one of the most successful volunteer contingents to have fought for Germany, in terms of fierce fighting spirit and battle worthiness were the Spanish Volunteers. The war situation in spring of 1941 was bleak for Great Britain and her few existing allies; the Balkans, Greece, and Crete had fallen in short order beneath the seemingly unstoppable German armies. Nevertheless, the Caudillo (leader) of Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, despite urgent prodding from the German Foreign office to join the war on the Axis side, found it politic for reasons both economic and geo-strategic to keep Spain a neutral state in the great conflict. Still, Franco was quite aware of a debt owed to Germany for her pivotal “Legion Condor” aid during the Spanish Civil War years, and conversely, had a grudge to settle with Stalin for his aid to the opposing Republican side. Only hours after German troops stormed Soviet borders in the east on June 22, 1941, Spain officially offered her services to the Reich. The Spanish plan was to draw volunteers for a Division to fight exclusively in Russia from among both her standing Army, and the presiding fascist party known as the Falange. (The volunteers would later dub themselves as the “Azul” or “Blue”, in reference to the “blue-shirts” worn by the Falangist movement.)|
Calls for volunteers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic from the start. Potential recruits flocked to Falange party stations and Army barracks across Spain. The recruits came from all backgrounds and numbered among them many ex-Civil War combatants, seasoned soldiers, and fliers (an “Esquadra Azul” of pilots was also raised for the Luftwaffe on the Eastern front). Apparently, the thought of personally striking at the Soviet Union, the home of “International Communism”, greatly appealed to the Spaniards. An example of their mass enthusiasm can be seen in that by July 2nd,1941 when the recruiting stations were officially closed – it is reported that the required initial draft of 18,000 men had been exceeded enough to form at least several infantry divisions.
The Commander of the newly raised Division hand-picked by Franco himself was the 45 year old General Agustin Munoz Grandes, the former CO of the 22nd Division and sometime Governor of the Gibraltar district. During the Civil War he had been a successful Corps commander, and briefly thereafter, the Secretary General of the Falangist Party. Beneath him, four Infantry Regiments were formed under the command of Colonels Rodrigo, Esparza, Pimentel, and Vierna. The battalions were raised in Madrid, Zaragoza, Seville, Vallaolid, Corunna, Burgos, Valencia, Barcelona, and Ceuta in Spanish Morocco. The divisional artillery regiment was formed beneath the command of a Colonel Badillo, and divisional support services such as anti-tank, engineer, communications and supply were also formed from veteran units during this period. The Division entrained for Germany in mid-July of 1941.
Upon arrival at the Grafenwohr training ground in Bavaria on 17 July, 1941, the four initially established regiments were reduced to three, according to German Army specifications, and the Spanish Volunteer contingent was officially named the 250.Infanterie-Division of the Heer. With the re-establishment of the regimental setup, Colonel Rodrigo would become second in command to General Munoz Grandes, and the division would henceforth consist of :
Each regiment would consist of 3 battalions, of 4 Companies each (3 rifle co.’s – 1 hvy. co. of mixed mortar & MG). Colonel Badillo’s 250.Artillerie-Regiment consisted of three Light-groups, each of 3 batteries of 10.5cm guns, and a Heavy-group of 15cm guns. The 250.Panzerjager-Abteilung was armed with 36 pieces of 3.7cm caliber. The remaining elements of the division consisted of an Aufklarungs-Abteilung, a Pionere-abteilung, and a Nachrichten-abteilung, as well as other supporting divisional services, such as transport, medical, police, and veterinary companies. Also, as an adaptation to the terrain they operated in, a very competent Ski-company was raised among the Spaniards to be used for recon and quick strike capability in the deep snow. Total strength estimation of the Division in August 1941 was: 641 Officers, 2272 NCO’s, and 15,780 soldiers.
The training at Grafenwohr under the sometimes harsh drill instructions of German Army Feldwebels went somewhat less than smoothly. The German non-coms, not famous for their tolerance of anything less than strict discipline, were constantly irritated by the seemingly “un-smart” appearance of their Spanish recruits, and what seemed their lack of respect for German parade ground instruction. The fact was that these “recruits” were for the most part both professional Spanish Army soldiers, and veterans of the Civil War. The barking of foreign speaking drill instructors had for the most part, little impact upon their idea of parade ground discipline. Also, they were not yet all uniformly dressed in German kit, with many still wearing a mixture of Spanish Army and Falangist garb. Nevetheless, on the 31st of August 1941 they were paraded to take their official oath to the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, with the wording changed to specify their obedience to the Fuhrer only “In the battle against Communism.” After a very short period of training and outfitting, the Spaniards were deemed ready for the Eastern front by the OKH. The troops were now all uniformly clad in the field grey of the Wehrmacht, indistinguishable from other German infantrymen only by a woven shield worn on the upper right arms of their tunics in their national colors of red/yellow/red surmounted by the title “ESPANA.” It is worth noting that behind the lines, and while at home, the volunteers of the “Azul” were allowed to wear a mixed uniform symbolically consisting of the Red beret of the Carlist movement (supporters of Don Carlos as heir to the Spanish throne), a blue shirt in honor of the Falange, and khaki trousers in honor of the Spanish Foreign Legion, of which Munoz Grandes was a former commander, and from which a number of “Azul” volunteers originated.
After being entrained in Bavaria for the 1200 km trip to Sulwalki in Poland, on the 29th of August the “Divison Azul” began a grueling 1000 kilometer, 40 day foot-march to Vitebsk, in northern Russia. Their only form of transport was horse-drawn, and even these last minute equine additions were sub-standard, being hastily culled from cavalry depots in Czechoslovakia and the newly conquered Balkans. It wouldn’t be until early October that the exhausted division actually reached Vitebsk, and after a short train-ride, entered its front line (hauptkampflinie – HKL) positions at Shimsk, on the Volkhov-front as part of the 18.Armeekorps, Heeresgruppe Nord. The first contact in with the Red Army would come to II/269.Inf.Rgt. At Kapella Nova, when Spanish grenadiers surprised a Soviet battalion attempting a river crossing. After a furious fire-fight some 50 Russian dead were lying on the snowy banks of the river, and 80 were prisoners of the newly blooded Spaniards.
During the frozen month of October 1941 units of the German 18th and 126.Infanterie Divisions, along with two regiments of the Spanish Azul crossed the Volkhov at Udarnik and established a bridgehead on the east bank. The II/269 Infantry Regiment was again closely engaged in heavy combat and close-quarter fighting against elements of the Soviet 52nd Corps, which they successfully threw back after tenacious defense of the bridgehead. Continuous shelling by the Soviets kept reinforcements at a minimum, but forces of the III/263rd Infantry Regiment and the 250. Reserve Battalion made it to the east bank of the Volkhov to bolster the defense. In a slowly widening circle to the north, east, and south of their start point, bought with grim and unflinching resolve – the Spanish grenadiers invested the villages of Tigoda, Dubrovka, and Muravji on the east bank of the Volkhov, pushing the Russians slowly back.
With the full freeze on of the Volkhov in November, the Spaniards faced regular counter-attacks from the Soviets on their flanks, which included massive artillery bombardments, and vast WWI-like infantry trench-charges by the “hoourah…” screaming Russians. At the village of Possad on 12 November, wave upon wave of Russian soldiers hurled themselves at the Azul held line in several successive attempts to regain control of the village. It would eventually turn into a standoff. The grimly determined Azul held up against each Red counter-attack, taking heavy casualties in men and material not easily replenished. For close to a month the Spanish volunteers held Possad, while only meager replenishments of men and ammunition were able to get through. While the Soviets urged their opponents to surrender their nearly surrounded positions, the Spanish defiantly retorted with their Civil War battle-cry: “Arriba Espana!” The garrison of Possad was quietly withdrawn on 7 December, only when intelligence told the Soviet attacking force had also withdrawn through sheer exhaustion. The losses to the 269 Infantry Regiment during this brutal month were 120 dead, 440 wounded, and 20 missing. All units of the 250 Infantry Division now retired over the frozen Volkhov to fortified positions on the west bank.
That winter, greater horrors would visit the volunteers. On Christmas eve of 1941, at positions held by a company of Spanish Grenadiers at Lubkovo suddenly overrun by a fierce attack of Soviet infantry – relief troops subsequently found the stripped and mutilated bodies of Alferez’ Moscoso’s over-run platoon nailed to the frozen ground with their own bayonets and pick-axes in a display of brutal mock-crucifixion. Shortly thereafter, a fierce, revenge-focused counterattack by two companies of the I/269 Infantry Regiment of the “Azul” left the icy surface of the frozen Volkhov strewn with the dead bodies of an entire Soviet battalion. For the time being – the atrocities had been revenged. One can only imagine the endlessly repercussive effects of this sort of action. This was the reality of the bitter fighting on the Volkhov front.