CDG 55 – Spanish Blue Division in Russia, 1943
The March 2013 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “Spanish Blue Division in Russia, 1943.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Colonel Manuel Sagrado, commander of Regiment 262, Spanish Blue Division (La División Azul), which was fighting as part of the German army on World War II’s Eastern Front. In February 1943, Sagrado’s regiment held an important sector of the German siege lines surrounding the Soviet city of Leningrad. His unit’s mission was to hold the defensive line at Krasny Bor and defeat an imminent attack by Red Army forces greatly outnumbering the Spaniards in tanks, infantry and artillery. If the regiment failed to prevent a breakthrough at Krasny Bor, the German army’s entire Leningrad front was at risk of a catastrophic collapse.
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Spain, under the leadership of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, was officially neutral in World War II. However, the wily dictator – whose victory in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War owed much to military aid from Nazi Germany – created the Blue Division (18,000 volunteers) in 1941 and sent it to fight against the communist USSR. Franco prohibited the unit from fighting outside of Russia against any of the Western Allies, lest Spain’s neutrality be endangered.
By February 1943, the German siege of Leningrad that began in September 1941 was nearly 18 months old. Although Soviet breakthrough attempts had thus far been unsuccessful, the Red Army victory at the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942-February 2, 1943) gave Stavka renewed hope. With German forces on the Leningrad front substantially weakened by having to send troops south to replace the losses at Stalingrad, and with numerous Red Army units freed up by the victory, the Soviet high command decided to take advantage of the situation. On February 10, 1943, it launched Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda (Polar Star) with the aim of striking the German forces besieging Leningrad and those farther south at Demyansk. One key objective of the Soviet operation was to open the main Leningrad-Moscow highway running through Krasny Bor.
Colonel Sagrado, who had been warned by intelligence reports and Red Army deserters about the imminent Soviet attack, established his regiment’s main line of defense (all three infantry battalions) in the trench line extending across his sector’s front, placing reserves and anti-tank guns in supporting positions (COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FULL FRONT DEFENSE).
At 6:45 a.m. on February 10, a massive, two-hour-long Soviet artillery barrage blasted the Spanish defenses, destroying many of the trenches and bunkers and paving the way for Red Army tanks and infantrymen that swept forward at 8:45 a.m. Although the barrage fragmented Regiment 262’s main defensive line and the enemy tank-infantry attack pierced the line at multiple locations, isolated pockets of Spanish soldiers stubbornly held out in “hedgehog” (all-around defense) positions, including a major one in the center called the Bastion and another one blocking the railroad embankment (a major avenue of approach).
Despite being slowed by the Spaniards’ stubborn resistance, Soviet spearheads pushed into Krasny Bor by midday, engaging Spanish support troops fighting a last-ditch holding action to prevent the Soviets from quickly overrunning the town.
Meanwhile, the German high command used the time the Spaniards had bought to good effect, sending reinforcements to the Krasny Bor sector and striking Soviet troop concentrations with airstrikes and artillery attacks. Soviet progress was further impeded when the Blue Division’s Regiment 269 on Sagrado’s left launched a counterattack across the Izhora River into the Soviets’ exposed flank.
By the end of February 10, the Soviet steamroller had run out of steam. Although it had pushed the front line back to the southern edge of Krasny Bor, thanks to Regiment 262’s valiant defense, the Red Army suffered 10,000 casualties and the attack fell far short of the major breakthrough Soviet planners had intended. Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda failed to break the German siege of Leningrad, and it was only lifted a year later, in January 1944. Lasting 900 days, the siege was one of history’s longest and most destructive, leaving 1 million Red Army soldiers and 1 million civilians dead.
Spanish Blue Division casualties for the Battle of Krasny Bor totaled 4,000 killed, wounded or captured/missing – about 75 percent of all Spanish soldiers engaged in the battle. Of these casualties, 2,200 were suffered by Sagrado’s Regiment 262.
From 1941 to 1943, 45,000 Spanish soldiers served on the Eastern Front. During this time, the Spanish Blue Division suffered 5,000 killed and nearly 9,000 wounded. As many as 3,000 of the division’s soldiers refused Franco’s order to return to Spain in November 1943 and instead fought in German units until the end of the war.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: FULL-FRONT DEFENSE, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a World War II Eastern Front defense. (See “After Action Report.”) With the Spaniards outnumbered 9-to-1 in infantry, 15-to-1 in artillery and 80-to-0 in tanks, none of Sagrado’s possible defensive options appeared particularly promising. However, COA One took maximum advantage of the protection from the Soviet artillery barrage offered by the trenches and bunkers, enabled the creation of “hedgehog” defensive positions from which the Spaniards could fight surrounded, and delayed the Soviet advance as long as possible.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FALSE FLANK exposed the entire eastern section of Regiment 262’s defensive sector to a rapid advance by Soviet tanks and infantry intending to strike the defenders’ rear area. Given the great disparity in numbers, an attempt to create an anti-tank gun “kill zone” would have been foolhardy and could have allowed the Soviets to achieve a swift, catastrophic breakthrough of the Leningrad siege line.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: COUNTERATTACK exposed the defenders, who were fighting in the open outside of prepared fortifications, to the murderous fire of Soviet artillery and tanks. With the Spaniards lacking tanks and air cover, a plan to attack the hugely superior enemy force would have been suicidal.
After Action Report
Key Points for a WWII Eastern Front Defense
- Prepare reinforced bunkers and deep trenches to protect defenders from massive enemy artillery barrages.
- Create heavily fortified strongpoints with all-around defense (hedgehogs) to allow defenders to hold out even when surrounded.
- Position reserves prepared to reinforce front-line defenders or react to enemy breakthroughs.
- Disrupt enemy units forming for an attack by employing timely artillery fire and airstrikes.
- Coordinate counterattacks by adjacent units, targeting the exposed flanks of enemy penetrations.
- Slow the enemy advance and limit its extent by stubbornly defending every strongpoint.