On a gray morning that threatened rain at the Grafenwohr training grounds inside Nazi Germany on July 31, 1941, the Spanish Blue Division that had volunteered to a man to fight the Communists alongside the Germans in the just-invaded Soviet Union stood ready to take their oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
Noted authors Gerald R. Kleinfeld and Lewis A. Tambs in the superb 1979 book Hitler's Spanish Legion: The Blue Division in Russia, " The gray green columns (moved) out of the woods and began to form a gigantic U... A podium stood atop a small elevation... The little dais, festooned in red and gold" (the Spanish colors) "was flanked by cannon and tall masts bearing the national flags. Behind, a row of guidons alternated German and Spanish banners-black swastikas mixed with the yoke and arrows and the red Burgundian cross of the Carlists."
After a Catholic mass was celebrated, a Spanish flag sent by Generalissimo Francisco Franco from Madrid for the Legion was blessed. The Blue Division's commander-Gen. Augustin Munoz-Grandes, 45, a favorite general of both Franco and later Hitler---drew his sword and held it out before him. Another officer placed his hand on the naked blade and administered the oath that rang over the loudspeakers to the assembled Spanish warriors.
"Do you swear before God and on your honor as Spaniards absolute obedience to the Supreme Commander of the German Army, Adolf Hitler, in the fight against
Communism and do you swear to fight as valiant soldiers, ready at any time to sacrifice your lives in fulfillment of this oath?" The Spanish soldiers-their right arms raised in the Fascist salute-roared "Yes, I swear." It seemed to be a scene right out of the later movie of the 1960s, El Cid, a heroic role to which Franco fancied himself a successor.
What was also called 250 Infantry Division was then officially accepted into the German Armed Forces, and Gen. Munoz-Grandes stepped up to the microphone to proclaim, "Spanish volunteers! Soldiers of honor of my motherland! Before the glorious flags of Germany and Spain, you have sworn to die before allowing barbarous Bolshevism to continue its work of hatred and destruction which has already bloodied our motherland"(in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39) "and which today criminally attempts to impose itself on all of Europe...
"You only wish to destroy this monster-this lash of humanity-in its own lair... Tell the Fuhrer that we are ready and at his orders. Tell him that we have sworn the oath and tell him that my people fulfills what it swears." He was to be as good as his word-and then some. Indeed, during one of their later meetings, the German Fuhrer told Munoz-Grandes that the Blue Division was "Equal to the best German divisions." He considered the Spaniards, moreover, to be the "only virile" of the Latin races, a pointed barb at the Fascist Italians.
Who was this man who would live to be named Captain General of All Spain and what was the Spanish Blue Division ? How did it come to be formed, and what was its record in combat on the Eastern Front, where it was highly respected by its German allies and feared by its Red Army foes?
An English volunteer who served under him in Spain during the Civil War called Munoz-Grandes "A magnificent soldier-and incidentally a man of great charm." Moreover, British Military Intelligence rated him as "One of their best and most resolute generals." According to Kleinfeld and Tambs, "He was also well-known to the Germans, having been consulted by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris in connection with the planning for Operation Felix-the joint assault on Gibraltar."
He was born in 1896 in the Madrid working class district of Carabranchel Bajo and graduated from the Infantry Academy at Toledo in 1913, on the eve of the First World War, from which the Kingdom of Spain prudently remained neutral. Volunteering for duty in Spanish Morocco, he won promotions commanding native forces called regulares, and even formed an elite unit or harka that carried his own name.
When the Spanish Republic was established in 1931, Munoz-Grandes was named to head the Assault Guards, "A paramilitary force designed to counterbalance the traditionalist, and therefore suspect, Guardia Civil (National Police)," according to Kleinfeld and Tambs.
He was dismissed from this post following the victory of the leftist Popular Front in the 1936 election. On July 18th-when the Civil War broke out-Munoz-Grandes was in hostile Madrid and might've been massacred by either the Red mob or the militia, but was rescued by members of the Assault Guards and Republican Gen. Rojo. He was jailed by the new Republican government, but escaped to the newly-formed Nationalist (right wing) lines.
He commanded a Nationalist Army corps during the Civil War, and in Franco's first Cabinet after the victory of March, 1939 Munoz-Grandes served as General Secretary of the Movement and Chief of the Falangist Militia. This was the Falange de las JONS, or Spanish Phalanx of the Committees of National Syndicalist Action. The color of the Falange was blue, hence the later color of the Blue Division.
Wounded nine times and considered by all Nationalist Spaniards as one of Spain's foremost soldiers, this intrepid warrior was "Known for exemplary courage and bravery" assert Kleinfeld and Tambs.
His hated rival within the Falangist movement was Spain's Foreign Minister (and Franco's own brother-in-law), Ramon Serrano Suner, who the very day that Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union-June 22, 1941-offered Hitler a volunteer Spanish Legion to fight in the USSR. Although the Fuhrer would have preferred a Spanish declaration of war on England instead and the joint occupation of Gibraltar, the offer was accepted as a means of drawing the two fascist states closer.
The new Blue Division would comprise both Regular Army and Falangist Militia aspects, with a composite of 18,000 officers and men-volunteers all. In fact, 40,000 men rushed to enlist right away.
Franco's first choice to lead the new Blue Division was Munoz-Grandes, primarily as a means of removing a dangerous domestic rival for political power within Spain, and Serrano Suner seconded the nomination for the same reason. "We pay the Russians a return visit!" became the cheerful slogan of the volunteers, and their new uniforms included a cross-section of haberdashery from Spanish politics: the red berets of the
Carlists, the blue shirt of the Falange, the khaki trousers of the Spanish Foreign Legion, and black boots for enlisted men. "The officers' attire consisted of the red beret, a khaki tunic with blue collar and cuffs, a leather harness belt, khaki trousers, and high black boots," according to Kleinfeld and Tambs. It was the predominance of the color blue that prompted almost everyone to call this new force the Blue Division.
Its first day of formation was July 4, 1941-less than a month after Hitler's invasion of the USSR-and the men sang the Falangist hymn, Cara al Sol/Face to the Sun. On the 13th-a mere 20 days after the war had started in the east-19 trains with 17,924 troops aboard started their trip eastward, while Munoz-Grandes himself flew ahead in a Lufthansa Focke-Wulf Condor 200.
Once at the front, Munoz-Grandes proved to Hitler straightaway that he was his kind of field commander-an Andrew Jackson of the Eastern Front. "We will recuperate in the line. My soldiers will fight to the death!" Indeed, in the first Russian winter of 1941-42, some units virtually ceased to exist in the -40-53 degree Celsius cold, with whole regiments looking like ghosts. Note Kleinfeld and Tambs, "Many (soldiers) had died when the cerebral fluid suddenly froze solid under their steel helmets."
Like the Russians, when surrounded or cornered, the Spanish guripas/GIs fought to the death: "The only thing left for us is to die in the best possible style." Neither side took prisoners: "The Spanish dead lay nailed to the ground with Soviet ice picks. The wounded had been finished off. An ice pick gleamed in the center of a fallen guripa's forehead," it was reported on Dec. 27, 1941.
Munoz-Grandes praised his sturdy troops fulsomely, and often: "Hard is the enemy and harder the Russian winter---even harder are my men... You are the pride of our race. Trust in God and attack like Spaniards!" Spanish garrisons rarely surrendered, but died fighting with their weapons in their hands, ala the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific. More than that, however, the fighting style of the Africanistas-the Moroccan veterans-unnerved the soldiers of the Red Army. The Moroccans would send dead Russians back to their lines missing ears, noses and fingers.
Nor were the Blue Division troopers overly impressed by their German allies in the field, note Kleinfeld and Tambs (and as recorded also in Count Galeazzo Ciano's wartime diary): "The German authorities were so concerned about fraternization" (with Polish girls) "that they authorized the guripas to patronize Wehrmacht (Armed Forces) brothels. Condoms were issued. Rumors that anti-erotic pills had also been distributed to the 250 Division abounded. The Germans then reinforced the prohibition of fraternization with Polish women... Indignant at the order, the guripas retaliated. Ten Company of 262... showed its displeasure by marching in review before German officers flaunting inflated condoms flying from the muzzles of their rifles."
They also persisted in sexual intimacies with known Jewesses, leading German Army Field Marshal Hans Gunther von Kluge to retort, "Are they soldier or gypsies?" They were brutal, ruthless soldiers, as Munoz-Grandes' vaunted "Bridegrooms of Death" proved time and again in the assault and defense, with knives, bayonets, entrenching tools, and rifle butts to force Red Army surrenders. "Where does the road lead?" the men asked themselves, and would provide their own answer: "To glory!"
As the defeated "Russkies" retreated, the guripas would taunt after them, "Otro toro!
Otro toro!" ("Send in another bull!") Stripping dead Russians of their warm clothing, they would also pry from their frozen fingers weapons with which to continue the fight, as well as bury them.As for their own dead, when they were surrounded and the Red Army would taunt, "Kill your officers and join us," the Legionnaires' last truck in retreat would remove all the crosses from cemeteries so that the bodies could not be dishonored by the Reds.
In his speech in the German Reichstag in Berlin's Kroll Opera House on Apr. 26, 1942, Reich Chancellor Hitler asserted, "The Spaniards have done all that we ask of our own soldiers... They and their general know the meaning of loyalty and bravery unto death." Munoz-Grandes had already been awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class, as well as the Knight's Cross (a top German decoration), and upon returning home was also awarded the highest Falangist medal as well.
Munoz-Grandes was replaced as commander of the Blue Division by Brig. Gen. Emilio Esteban Infantes (who would also be awarded the Knight's Cross on Oct. 5, 1943); his successor was already planning a second Spanish division of volunteers fighting alongside the Germans in the USSR, but it was not to be, for Franco had decided to shift his political gears in the light of the German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk.
He had already replaced his pro-Axis Foreign Minister-brother-in-law or no- in September 1942 with a pro-Allied Spanish general as a sign of his hardening policy of official neutrality, and when Munoz-Grandes had returned home to a hero's welcome at Madrid on May 24, 1942, Franco promoted his paladin to the rank of lieutenant general in the Spanish Army, but was also keenly aware that both the Germans and the General saw the latter as the eventual successor-or perhaps sooner replacement-to the wily Caudillo (Leader.) Indeed, if Spain entered the war on the side of the Axis, it was agreed that Munoz-Grandes would have the post of Minister of the Interior---akin to the role played by Hitler's police chief, Heinrich Himmler, in the Third Reich.
More than that, the Germans saw Munoz-Grandes as part of a Spanish military junta that would force Franco to join the Axis and also ask for German arms. To somewhat co-opt him, the Caudillo offered Munoz-Grandes a new Cabinet post or that he be named Spanish Ambassador in Berlin, but the General refused both, so as not to be a tool of those he considered to be reactionaries.
Meeting with Franco and Munoz-Grandes on Aug. 20, 1943, British Ambassador to Madrid Sir Samuel Hoare demanded the withdrawal of the Blue Division from Russia; Franco listened politely. On the following Oct. 1st, Franco declared a final Spanish neutrality in the European war, and the next day the Germans were told that the Blue Division would be leaving the Eastern Front, but that a smaller "Legion" would remain.
On Feb. 20, 1944, Hitler informed Franco that he would send the Legion back, and on March 6th, the guripas assembled for the final trip home: "This is a bitter moment... The Legion must return to Spain!... Return home with the proud feeling that you have done your duty... On this day of sorrow, you will carry your rifle barrels down, as in a funeral, or in Holy Week. Long live the Legion!... Franco! Franco! Franco!" an officer said.
All the survivors were back in Spain within the month of April 1944, although some elected to stay and fight to the point of giving up their Spanish citizenship to do so, and thus were incorporated as such into the German Waffen (Armed) SS. This final Spanish SS Battalion defended besieged Berlin in 1945...
And what of their losses? According to Kleinfeld and Tambs, "Their 4,500 dead were now in Soviet hands. The Red flag flew over the cemeteries at Sitno, Grigorovo, Pavlovsk, Mestellevo, Riga, Konigsberg, and Berlin; 300 Spanish prisoners had disappeared into the maw of Soviet Siberia and were not to see their homes again until 1954. Spanish military hospitals continued to treat some of the 8,000 wounded; 7,800 sick, and 1,600 frostbitten from the campaign.
"Out of a total of 47,000 officers and men who fought on the Eastern Front, 22,000 were either killed, wounded, injured, ill, or missing... There was a casualty rate of 47%, or almost half of those engaged... "
And what of Augustin Munoz-Grandes himself, their first commander? As Franco suspected, he returned home wanting to cleanse his country of military cabals, Falangist intriguers like Suner, and even Franco. Instead, once more the Generalissimo slyly co-opted his military fame, making him in 1953 Madrid's negotiator with the United States with fellow Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to permit American air bases in Spain that paved the way for Franco's return to the European community after his long honeymoon with fascism.
He retired from the Army in 1966 at age 70, but retained the rank of Chief of Staff, as well as remained Vice President, a post he had assumed in 1962. Franco abruptly
removed him from that position, too, in July 1967. Munoz-Grandes died at age 74 on July 12, 1970, and Franco followed him in death on Nov. 20, 1975.
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