THE BLUE DIVISION CHANGES ITS LOCATION
General Muñoz Grandes received his orders on 1 August 1942 to transfer the Spanish Division to an assembly area northeast of Vyritsa. This move took place from 16 to 30 August, upon relief by the German 20th Motorized Division. The Eleventh Army then moved the Spaniards to the sector Pushkin-Krasny Bor, relieving the German 121st Infantry Division from 4 to 7 September in the LIV Corps zone of operations. The Spaniards received numerous heavy weapons that were left in the positions prepared by the 121st Division. The 250th Artillery Regiment took possession of the three 220-mm mortars and three 155-mm howitzers, both weapons of French make. The infantry regiments received an assortment of captured Russian anti-tank guns, six 76.2-mm and four 45-mm guns in all. The Spanish troops did not imagine at the time, though, how important these acquisitions would become.
Spanish troops settled down to their by now familiar routine of positional warfare in their new location. Replacements continued to arrive from Spain, and only patrol actions and the ever-present Soviet artillery fire exacted a few casualties. At the same time, however, events in Spain took place that became of significant importance to the men of the Blue Division.
POLITICAL CHANGES IN THE SPANISH GOVERMENT
In a shakeup of his government on 3 September 1942, Franco dismissed Serrano Suñer and General Varela as Foreign Minister and Army Minister, respectively. Serrano also lost his position as President of the Falange Political Council, and became thereafter a political nonentity. In their stead, the Generalissimo appointed Lieutenant General Count Francisco Jordana—an Anglophile—as Foreign Minister, and General Carlos Asensio became the new Army Minister. Asensio was generally regarded as a pro-Axis officer and thus, on the surface at least, Franco had preserved the "neutral" balance of his government. But Serrano had been the chief protagonist in the commitment of the Blue Division to the German cause, and Count Jordana was well known as being opposed not only to the Division, but also highly suspicious of the popular General Muñoz Grandes, whose pro-German character he regarded as highly dangerous
Despite German wishes to the contrary, Brigadier General Emilio Esteban-Infantes was sent to the Blue Division as its new commander. An officer of the General Staff, Esteban-Infantes had previously headed the replacement organization for the Division in Spain. Muñoz Grandes was not willing to step down as the division commander for reasons of personal prestige and because he wished to participate in the planned attack on Leningrad. He had no wish to embarrass Esteban-Infantes, so upon the latter's arrival at the Volkhov position in August of 1942, he made him the Blue Division's deputy commander. The Spanish High Command finally exerted its will and compelled Muñoz Grandes to return on 12 December to a new assignment in the Army Ministry
The end of 1942 saw the Spanish Division secure in its lines at Pushkin-Krasny Bor, but there existed increasing indications all along the Eighteenth Army front that a Soviet offensive was in the offing. The Spanish sector boasted no natural terrain features, such as rivers or high ground, to assist defensive preparations. The 11.5 miles of front was occupied by all three regiments, leaving few units for use as reserves. Early January brought the First Ladoga Battle, in which the Soviet forces finally succeeded in breaking the Leningrad siege by driving from both the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts to a meeting point north of Mga, isolating the German forces on the shores of Lake Ladoga. In furious fighting, the trapped Germans broke through to Mga and succeeded in stabilizing a new front by early February. During this time, the L Corps took over operational control of the Spanish Division, on 22 January. Army Group North noted the possibility of a Soviet attack from the Kolpino area on 6 February, but probably felt that the momentarily-stabilized Mga area remained more critical and, in any event, the 4th SS Police Division was reforming several miles southeast of Krasny Bor, where it was expected to be able to give some support.
On 10 February 1943, the Spanish Blue Division met its most severe test in what turned out to be a veritable struggle for existence. An extremely heavy artillery and rocket barrage rained down upon the Spanish positions, starting at 6:45 A.M. Then the Russian infantrymen of three rifle divisions, spearheaded by over one hundred tanks, poured down the frozen corridor between the east bank of the Izhora and the October Railway. The 37-mm guns of the Spanish anti-tank battalion were utterly ineffectual against the Soviet armor and were quickly overrun. The I/262nd Battalion was rolled back to the southeast, and the II/262nd and 250th Reserve Battalions bore the brunt of the Russian assault, between Krasny Bor and the Izhora River. The powerful Russian attack shattered these two battalions, with the exception of a couple of platoon-sized strongpoints. By 1:00 P.M., the Russian assault had begun to reach the nearest Spanish artillery batteries, which blew up their guns to prevent their capture. The second line of Spanish reserve troops around Krasny Bor had counterattacked valiantly but were simply outweighed from the beginning
By 3:00 P.M., when communications were lost between the Spanish Division and its right flank neighbors, the first German reinforcements had rushed into the battle area. The L Corps had sent three 75-mm anti-tank guns of the Norwegian Legion to the Spaniards and all of its available reserves to shore up the eastern flank of Krasny Bor, including a regiment of the SS Police Division and elements of the 390th Infantry Regiment (215th Division). The Eighteenth Army sent in Tiger tanks, assault guns, anti-tank guns, the 85th Mountain Regiment (4th Mountain Division), and the Army Engineer School troops. The Spanish Division moved all the troops it could spare from its left flank to the Izhora to hold the west flank of the penetration area, but Army Group North despaired of closing the gap between the Izhora and the October Railway. To this end, they released the 212th and 24th Infantry Divisions from other assignments and sent them to the south and southeast, respectively, of Krasny Bor. This quick reaction on the part of the German command ultimately prevented a major Soviet breakthrough, as the regiments of the 212th established a new front line between the SS Police Division and the Spanish Division by 13 February. On the 19th, the newly arrived 24th Division attacked in a counteroffensive and, with the support of tanks and assault guns, recovered some of the lost ground around Krasny Bor.
General Esteban-Infantes shored up his Izhora River flank with companies of the 263rd and 269th Regiments, recovered some scattered survivors of Krasny Bor, and improvised new units from sick and wounded men moved up from the field hospital. By 18 February, a stabilized new front extended about two miles to the south, linking with units of the German 212th Division. With only three effective 75-mm anti-tank guns in their possession, the Spanish Division nonetheless gave no further ground to the Soviets, who attacked the Hispano-German forces repeatedly through the end of March. The Russian objectives in this action, which the Germans called the Second Ladoga Battle, were again to cut off the German forces in the Mga area by means of two widely set pincer strokes, southeast from Kolpino and west from the Volkhov front, near Pogostye. In choosing the Krasny Bor sector, the Russian commanders followed their favorite tactic of attacking at a juncture of two major units, in this case the L Corps and "Group Hilpert" (LIV Corps) boundary, occupied by the Spanish and German 5th Mountain Divisions. Only the fiercely fought, often hand-to-hand defensive action of the Spanish troops against overwhelming odds and the fairly rapid reaction of the higher German commands prevented a major Soviet success in their drive from Kolpino. The Russians attacking in the Pogostye sector met three German divisions in rugged terrain and were more easily repulsed. Since the Spanish Division had suffered over three thousand casualties in the fighting at Krasny Bor and the Izhora, the Germans shifted it gradually to the west as new units arrived to take up the defenses around the Russian salient. Ultimately relieved by the 254th Infantry Division on the Izhora flank, the Blue Division by April occupied a narrower sector (about nine miles) centered on the town of Pushkin. Because only about three thousand men arrived from Spain as replacements during the first three months of 1943, the Spaniards found it difficult to reconstitute those units decimated at Krasny Bor. For the remainder of 1943, the Spanish Division exchanged artillery fire and fought patrol actions with their Russian opponents, often entrenched only a few hundred meters away