By Clement V. Kelly
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Soviet Russia intervened on the side of the Republic, sending volunteers (which included very competent experienced aviators), to fight the Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco. Although the Nationalists emerged victorious, Franco remained an implacable foe of all Communists, especially hating the Soviet Union. Therefore, Hitler’s invasion and expected destruction of Soviet Russia elated the dictator. He immediately offered a volunteer unit to aid the crusade against Communism.
Hitler readily accepted, as he hoped that Franco’s participation would eventually lead to Spain’s entry into the WWII on the side of the Axis. Although Franco was pleased to have volunteers—both army and air force—fighting alongside the Germans, he shied away from any outright declaration of war.
Spanish Medal for the Russian Campaign, obverse and reverse.
THE BLUE DIVISION
The call for volunteers brought forth a multitude of men, many more than were expected. Enough men volunteered to form a full division (19,000 men) that was named Division Espanola de Voluntarios (Spanish Volunteer Division). It was also called the Division Azul (Blue Division), a name derived from the blue shirts of the Falangist Party. Most of the volunteers, and they were truly volunteers, were combat veterans of the Civil War who shared Franco’s loathing of Communists and the Soviet Union.
The Blue Division was designated the 250th Infantry Division of the German Army and was composed of three regiments in the German manner rather than four as found in the Spanish Army. One regiment was known as the Barcelona Regiment as it was made up primarily of volunteers from that city, another was the Valencia Regiment and the third the Seville Regiment.
The unit’s only distinguishing insignia was a shield worn on the sleeve of their German tunic. Division memebers wore a shield with the colors of Spain, three horizontal bars of red, yellow and red, and the word “ESPANA” at the top of the shield. There were several variations of the shield, one of which has a German Iron Cross in the shield’s center across the Spanish colors.
The Division’s commander was General Augustin Munoz Grandes, a veteran of the civil war. The Blue Division was allocated to the Leningrad Front and first saw combat on October 21, 1941.
Many more than those in the original contingent served in the Division. Franco issued calls for more volunteers to keep the division up to strength, as it suffered a great number of casualties, not only from combat but from frostbite.
As the Germans seemed to be bogged down in an interminable campaign in Russia with no sign of victory in sight, Franco became wary. He did not want to be seen as “backing the losing side.” The Division remained in constant combat until they were withdrawn to Spain on October 14, 1943.
Cuidad Real “Blue Division” Medal, obverse and reverse.
OTHER SPANISH VOLUNTEERS
The Spanish Air Force supplied a fighter squadron, the Escudra Azul (Blue Squadron). It was first equipped with Me-l09 fighters and later upgraded to the FW-190. The squadron was also withdrawn to Spain in early 1944.
Some members of the of the Blue Division, because of their hatred of the Communists, refused to obey Franco’s order withdrawing them from the war. A special Spanish Legion, or Legion Espanola de Voluntarios, was allowed to remain and became part of the German 121st Infantry Division.
Because of the increasing Allied political pressure on Spain (and it was obvious that Germany was losing the war), Franco withdrew the Legion in March 1944. Still, a number of Spaniards refused to leave and were eventually absorbed into the Waffen-SS.
German “Blue Division” Medal, Spanish manufactured,
obverse and reverse.
The Germans valued the accomplishments of the Blue Division. They showed their appreciation by awarding the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves to the commanding general, Munoz Grandes. His successor, General Emilio Esteban-Infantes, was granted the Knight’s Cross, as well. Members of the division and the aviation personnel were entitled to receive all decorations and medals awarded by both Spain and Germany.
A Ministerial Order of November 9, 1943 established a Medalla de la Campana- Division Espanola de Voluntarios en Rusia (Campaign Medal of the Spanish Volunteer Division in Russia). Made in bright silver, the medal is in the shape of the Spanish Army eagle below a coronet (the coronet was used in place of the Spanish Royal Crown during the Franco era). The eagle has a silver-bordered, black enamel German Iron Cross covering its body. The eagle is superimposed over a wreath of laurel leaves.
The reverse shows domed buildings in the Russian style, over the word “RUSIA” and year “1941”, all encircled by a chain. The ribbon is white. Vertical 1mm stripes are inside each edge in the colors of Spain (to the wearer’s right), red 2mm, yellow 3mm and red 2mm. The German colors on the other side, black 1mm, white 1mm, red 2mm, white 1mm and black 1mm. The ribbon is suspended from a bright brass horizontal buckle as found on most Spanish medals, about 36mm wide by 11mm high.
The province of Cuidad Real awarded a decoration to all from that area who volunteered for service in the Blue Division, called the Medalla Voluntarios de Cuidad Real—Division Azul”. It is a dark bronze, 32mm diameter, with a center consisting of four cross arms formed by stylized flowers, creating a cross 50mm wide. In the center is a figure of a man flying to the wearer’s left, with his left arm extended and holding a feathered wing. At the bottom is a half-sphere holding the five arrows from the Falangist Party’s “Yoke and Arrows” motif.
The reverse has an eagle with spread wings, the escutcheon of Cuidad Real covering its body. Behind the eagle’s head is a circular wreath of laurel leaves encircling a swastika, all superimposed on the five arrows from the Falangist symbol. The suspension ribbon is red with five vertical center stripes, 5mm from each edge, yellow 4mm, red 2mm, black 3mm, red 2mm and yellow 4mm.
To reward the men of the Spanish Army and Air Force fighting in Russia, the Germans established a medal in January 1944, the Erinnerungs Medaille für der Spanischen Freiwillige im Kampf Gegen den Bolschewismus (Commemorative Medal for the Spanish Volunteers in the Fight Against Bolshevism). Since replacement medals could no longer be obtained from Germany after the war, Spanish medal manufacturers produced their own version of the medal for Russian Campaign veterans. The Spanish-made medal is 33mm in diameter. The original German-made medal is 30mm in diameter.
The obverse has a German steel helmet above two shields, side by side. The shield to the wearer’s right has the German Armed Forces style eagle and swastika, the other has the “Yoke and Arrows” of the Spanish Falangist Party. The two shields are superimposed on a horizontal sword. Below the shields is a swastika between two branches of laurel leaves. The reverse reads, in six lines: DIVISION/ESPANOLA/DE/VOLUNTARIOS/EN/RUSIA. At the bottom is an Iron Cross between a branch of oak leaves and another of laurel leaves.
The ribbon is suspended from a brass rectangular buckle as found on Spanish medals. The ribbon has on each edge vertical stripes of black 3mm and white 2mm with a red stripe 20mm and a 3mm wide yellow stripe down the center.