In 1962 Germany came to an agreement with the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, that Germany would support volunteers that signed up to fight for Hitler, and against Russia, in the years between 1941 and 1943. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy had helped Franco to win the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and at the end of the war Franco did not bring Spain into the war but he did permit volunteers to sign up to Hitler’s forces, provided they fought only against Russia.
In 1941, 47,000 volunteers enlisted in the División Española de Voluntarios, or Blue Division, and fought for Nazi Germany on the eastern front against Russia. German estimates of the casualties suffered by the Blue Division were 22,000 killed, wounded or declared missing in action during the war – numbers that are contested by other sources, who put Spanish casualties at 5,000.
On 31 July, after taking the standard personal oath to Hitler, under whose authority they were to be fighting, the Blue Division was formally incorporated into the Wehrmacht as the 250th Division. It was initially assigned to Army Group Center, the force advancing towards Moscow.
The division was transported by train to Suwałki, Poland (August 28), from where it had to continue by foot on a 900 km march. It was scheduled to travel through Grodno (Belarus), Lida (Belarus), Vilnius (Lithuania), Molodechno (Belarus), Minsk (Belarus), Orsha (Belarus) to Smolensk, and from there to the Moscow front. While marching towards the Smolensk front on September 26, the Spanish volunteers were rerouted from Vitebsk and reassigned to Army Group North (the force closing on Leningrad), becoming part of the German 16th Army.
The Blue Division was first deployed on the Volkhov River front, with its headquarters in Grigorovo, on the outskirts of Novgorod. It was in charge of a 50 km section of the front north and south of Novgorod, along the banks of the Volkhov River and Lake Ilmen. According to the museum curator in the Spasa Preobrazheniya church on Ilyin Street, the division used the high cupola as a machine-gun nest. As a result, much of the building was seriously damaged, including many of the medieval icons by Theophanes the Greek.
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