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Battle of Voljov pocket



As the Spaniards marched eastward, the situation changed drastically for Army Group Center with the completion of the tasks assigned to its armored forces in the Leningrad and Kiev encirclement operations. Hitler issued his Directive No. 35 on 6 September, which called for a radical shift of most of the available armored unit strength to Army Group Center and set a deadline for the end of September for beginning Operation Typhoon: the seizure of Moscow. As the German mechanized forces were shifted and realigned, the suddenly weakened Army Group North of Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb found itself at an immediate disadvantage. A sharp Russian attack on 24 September against the Eighteenth Army caused the Germans to give up some ground on the east bank of the Neva River. At the same time, German intelligence revealed a Soviet buildup on the east side of the Volkhov River and the Valdai Hills to the south which, they feared, could threaten the thinly-held junction of the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies. 17 Colonel General Franz Halder recounted the events of 24 September as a crisis in the German Army High Command (OKH). To buttress von Leeb's army group, Hitler directed the cancellation of the transfer of one of Leeb's motorized divisions that had been scheduled to go to Army Group Center, and ordered the immediate transfer by air of anti-tank mines, two parachute regiments from reserves, and an infantry regiment from Army Group Center. This proved totally beyond the German air transport capabilities, and as a result OKH ordered Army Group Center to give up a complete infantry division, which was sent forward by rail. The Spanish Division was picked for this assignment, probably because it was just approaching the key rail center of Vitebsk

Volkhov location map

The Spanish command drew up infantry regiments on line to occupy the Volkhov river front from Lobkovo south through Novgorod, and along the shores of Lake Ilmen to the mouth of the Veryazha River (a forty-mile frontage) using, from north to south, the 269th and 262nd Regiments and a mixed group of reconnaissance, anti-tank, and other smaller units. With this, the Blue Division of Spain became the largest foreign volunteer unit to be deployed in combat by the Wehrmacht.

Voljov Area Map

The arrival of the Spanish Division and other reinforcements to Army Group North now permitted that command to plan a limited offensive with the triple objective of tightening its stranglehold on Leningrad, linking with the Finnish Army in eastern Karelia, and diverting Soviet resources from the major effort of Operation Typhoon, the seizure of Moscow. The last mechanized group controlled by Army Group North, the XXXIX Corps, was staged at Chudovo for the thrust along the single railroad line to Tikhvin. To cover the flanks of this operation and expand the bridgehead over the Volkhov, two corps of infantry would be employed, of which the southern one, designated Group "von Roques" on 11 October, included the Spanish Division and its neighbors to the north, the 126th Infantry and 18th Motorized Divisions

The Sixteenth Army issued its operation order on 10 October, just as the Spaniards were occupying their new positions. According to the order, the Spaniards were expected to attack with two regiments frontally across the Volkhov River from Novgorod to seize the towns of Kostova and Bozhenka and consolidate a bridgehead at Msta over the river of the same name. This represented a most ambitious undertaking, even for a full-strength division. Two days later, the Germans revised their plan and designated a more limited objective of covering the right flank of the 18th Motorized Division as it advanced along the Shevelevo-Posad road toward the Msta River

The 269th Regiment of Colonel José Martinez Esparza executed the first Spanish attack in Russia with assault battalions massed between Udarnik and Kotovitzy. Reconnaissance patrols crossed the river on 17 and 18 October to test Russian defenses and were driven back by a sharp Russian spoiling attack on the second day. On the following day, the 2nd Battalion (II/269th) followed and linked with elements of the 18th Motorized Division, which had crossed easily at Kuzino. Pivoting to the south, the Spanish battalions took Russa and Sitno on 21 and 22 October after hard fighting. The Germans had meanwhile thrown pontoon bridges across the Volkhov at Udarnik, and the III/263rd Battalion and 250th Reserve Battalion joined the battalions of the 269th in the assault. On 23 October, the Russians unsuccessfully counterattacked Sitno in regimental strength, and repeated their assaults four days later. In each attack, the Russian forces left hundreds of dead on the battlefield. The Spanish took hundreds of prisoners, indicating the very low state of Russian morale at this point in the campaign. Tigoda and Nikitkino fell on the 28th and 29th to the  III/263rd, but the 250th Reserve Battalion met heavier resistance near the river and was repulsed from Muravi. Meanwhile, on the Spanish left flank, the German motorized infantry captured Ottenski and Posad against light opposition. Colonel Martinez Esparza sent a company-sized patrol eastward to link with the Germans. When this was accomplished, the captain in command returned from Ottenski reporting that the extremely rough terrain and dense woods left only the Shevelvo-Posad road as an effective communications route. 21 Meanwhile, the XXXIX Corps struggled to the northeast against stiff Russian resistance, losing much armor in the mud on the way. A final thrust over the last six miles to seize Tikhvin succeeded on 8 November, but the troops were already at the point of exhaustion. The 18th Motorized Division was therefore ordered up from the right flank on the same day, and the Spaniards relieved the 30th Regiment of that division at Ottenski and Posad. The I/269th and the 11th Company of III/269th, which had made the earlier reconnaissance, entrenched there in the face of growing enemy pressure

                                                                                    Spaniards preparing the 150mm howitzer for firing

The Spanish companies of this garrison had suffered heavily in the earlier phase of the Volkhov battle, and averaged only about fifty men each. Three anti-tank guns and two captured Russian 122-mm guns augmented the infantry strength of the two strongpoints. Fierce Russian attacks drove in Spanish outposts and cut the road between Posad and Ottenski on 12 November. Major Tomás García Rebull, a staff officer of the 262nd Regiment, took a relief column of infantrymen and anti-tank guns and forced through scattered Russian patrols to clear the road

That night, the Russians returned to the attack with several battalions and heavy air and artillery support, cutting all communication with the embattled Posad defenders, who were threatened with complete annihilation. General Muñoz Grandes threw his available reserves to this critical sector. He ordered the II/269th Battalion to attack south from Ottenski and concentrated his last available units at Shevelevo: one company each of the 262nd and 263rd regiments, and one other created from clerks, technicians, and bandsmen of the division headquarters. On 15 November, the relief forces reached Posad to find their shattered comrades of the I/269th Battalion. Positions were held by only four or five men in some sectors, surrounded by heaps of Russian corpses and dead Spanish comrades. Major García Rebull was the senior survivor of the Posad garrison and succeeded to the command of the relief unit, made up of the 2nd Company, I/261, the 7th Company, II/262, and the 3rd Company of the Engineer Battalion, which possessed anti-tank guns and mortars. The II/269th Battalion returned to Ottenski, with the 180 survivors of the I/269th continuing on to Shevelevo for well-deserved rest and reorganization. The Spanish outposts settled down to a static defense through the remainder of the month.

WWII BLUE DIVISION Battle Of Volkhov Video

Starting on 4 December, the Spanish lines received heavy Russian infantry assaults with strong air and artillery support. The I/269th remnants at Shevelevo returned again to Ottenski to shore up the vulnerable salient of the Spanish lines. The III/263rd alone suffered 190 casualties in the Nikitkino area during the next four days. But the stiffest fighting again involved Major García Rebull's men at Posad. In bitter cold—minus thirty-eight degrees Celcius—the Spaniards defended in place with small arms, shovels, and axes, repeatedly repelling desperate Soviet assaults. On the 7th the Spaniards were ordered by XXXVIII Corps to withdraw, and they destroyed all their immovable equipment, including six guns, and evacuated Posad and Ottenski during the night of 7-8 December. On the 9th, XXXIX Corps evacuated Tikhvin and, after extensive pleading on the part of von Leeb, Hitler allowed Army Group North to begin the wholesale withdrawal behind the Volkhov line during the period 15-24 December. All Spanish units re-crossed the frozen Volkhov by 10 December and occupied their former sector without incident through 24 December. 23
According to Spanish sources, 566 men of the Blue Division died during the course of the Volkhov-Tikhvin offensive. The mission of flank protection had been accomplished but the action left an indelible mark upon the Spaniards as to the strength of the Soviet air and artillery power, a respect that would last through the whole campaign.

The first immediate action the Spanish Division took was to extend its lines north to relieve some units of the hard-pressed 126th Division. Then, over the next five months, artillery and infantry battalions of the Spanish Division were attached to or placed in direct support of other German units engaged in surrounding and liquidating the Russian forces in the Volkhov Pocket

The Soviet forces on the Volkhov Front attempted to pursue the retreating German and Spanish units across the river, but were generally too weak. The most critical threat developing in the Spanish sector through the New Year took the form of a three-regiment attack on the thinly-held northern sector on 27 December. Russian shock troops crossed the ice at 2:30 A.M., hit the Spanish outposts, and seized a salient between Udarnik and Lobkovo. Local Spanish reinforcements held the Russians at bay until that afternoon, when Major García Rebull counterattacked with two companies of the I/269th Battalion and retook the Volkhov bank, isolating the enemy remaining on the west side of the river. The Spanish claimed 1080 Russians killed in this action. That night the Spanish units were relieved by the German 424th Regiment of the 126th Infantry Division as far south as Kottovitsy. The Spanish Division in effect shifted southward to cover the Lake Ilmen sector with stronger forces. Frozen to a depth of three feet or more, the lake had become a serious problem as Soviet patrols and partisans made extensive use of it as a communications route. The Division also had difficulty in covering its old sector with adequate strength, because of the heavy losses it had suffered in the earlier offensive

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