YOU command a regiment of Spanish volunteers fighting for Germany against a powerful Red Army attack.
The German army did not fight alone against the Red Army on World War II’s vast Eastern Front. Fighting alongside the Wehrmacht were com- bat units from Adolf Hitler’s Axis allies – Italy, Hungary and Romania – and Germany’s co-belligerent against the Soviet Union, Finland. The ranks of those fighting for Germany also included volunteers recruited from pro-Nazi or anti-communist elements in Europe’s conquered nations and, notably, a volunteer division from Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s ostensibly neutral Spain, the Spanish “Blue Division” (La División Azul).
Incorporated into the Wehrmacht as 250th Infantry Division (operating as part of the German army instead of as a separate allied formation), the Spanish unit arrived on the Eastern Front in summer 1941 and eventually joined German Army Group North targeting Leningrad, USSR. In February 1943, with the German siege of Leningrad nearly 18 months old, the Spanish division occupied a key sector in the southeastern portion of the siege lines south of the Neva River near Krasny Bor on the main Moscow to Leningrad road.
Although Soviet attempts to lift the siege of Leningrad were so far unsuccessful, the Red Army victory at the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942-February 2, 1943) inspired Stavka, the Soviet high command, to attempt another powerful breakthrough offensive to relieve Leningrad’s battered, starving defenders and civilians. With German forces on the Leningrad front substantially weakened by having to send troops south to replace the catastrophic losses suffered at Stalingrad, and with numerous Red Army units freed up by the victory, Stavka judged the correlation of forces highly favorable for finally achieving a Leningrad breakthrough.
Armchair General® takes you back to February 9, 1943, near Leningrad, where you will play the role of Colonel Manuel Sagrado, commander of Regiment 262, Spanish Blue Division. As Red Army forces prepare to launch a massive offensive to break the German siege of Leningrad, your mission is to hold the defensive line at Krasny Bor and defeat the Soviet attack. Although the Soviet forces heavily outnumber your regiment in infantry, tanks and artillery, your soldiers occupy a key position in the German siege lines and therefore must turn back the enemy attack at all costs. Failure to prevent a Red Army breakthrough at Krasny Bor could precipitate a catastrophic collapse of the German army’s entire Leningrad front.
SPAIN’S “BLUE DIVISION”
Spanish dictator Franco, who led the rebel Nationalist forces to victory over Republican loyalists in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War – a victory propelled by significant military assistance from Hitler’s Nazi Germany – is a crafty politician who knows how to hedge his bets. Franco prudently kept Spain neutral when World War II in Europe broke out in September 1939, and he has successfully walked the diplomatic tightrope of neutrality as he watched the fortunes of war shift back and forth between the Axis and the Allies. Yet popular support for Germany and bitter animosity toward Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, which gave military aid to the Republican loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, runs high amid Spain’s population. Franco’s solution has been typically devious: Please Hitler by providing military support, but do it in a manner that does not provoke Allied retaliation.
In June 1941, Franco offered – and Hitler accepted – the Volunteer Division of Spain (División Española de Voluntarios). To prevent the Allies from construing this as a move by Spain to officially enter the war on the side of the Axis, these 18,000 Spanish volunteers came with restrictions imposed by Franco: They would fight as the German army’s 250th Infantry Division, not as a separate national unit of Spain; Hitler could only use them on the Eastern Front and not in any occupied Western European nation; and they could only oppose Stalin’s Red Army, not any British, French or non-USSR allied forces.
Although the Blue Division takes its name from the distinctive color of its soldiers’ uniform tunics (intentionally different from the uniforms of Spain’s regular army), the division’s men all wear standard Wehrmacht uniforms while fighting with the Germans.
Since the Blue Division’s arrival on the Eastern Front, the unit has acquitted itself well in combat, particularly when fighting on the defensive. The imminent Red Army offensive, however, threatens to be the toughest challenge the Spaniards have yet faced in the war in Russia. The most critical portion of the division’s front is at Krasny Bor, the main focus of the Soviet attack – and the sole responsibility of your Regiment 262.
RED VS. BLUE
Intelligence reports indicate that the Red Army forces massing to attack your sector at Krasny Bor are huge.Your opponent is the Soviet 55th Army, whose first echelon consists of 72d Rifle Division on your left flank, 43d Rifle Division on your right flank, and 63d Guards Rifle Division to your front. (See Spanish Blue Division in Russia map, p. 59.) The enemy’s second echelon is made up of 45th Rifle Division, a tank battalion of 20 tanks positioned to the rear of 63d Guards Division, and an armored brigade of 60 tanks behind 43d Rifle Division. Supporting the Soviet attack are 700-800 artillery pieces, countless mortars and several batteries of 122 mm Katyusha rocket launchers.
To defend Krasny Bor against this awesome array of Red Army troops, tanks and firepower, you have only your Regiment 262, whose main strength consists of 1st, 2d and 3d infantry battalions. Each battalion is composed of three companies of infantrymen armed with bolt-action, K98 7.92 mm Mauser rifles and a heavy weapons company formed around six MG34 machine guns and six 81 mm mortars. The regiment also includes an anti-tank company with a dozen PAK36 37 mm anti-tank guns, a combat engineer battalion and a company of ski troops. Further support is provided by Reserve Battalion 250, composed of three companies of infantrymen armed mainly with submachine guns. An anti-tank gun section with three PAK40 75 mm anti-tank guns from 2d SS Brigade is also attached to the regiment for this battle. Fire support is provided by the regiment’s organic infantry gun company with two 75 mm guns and two 150 mm howitzers, and the Blue Division’s Artillery Regiment 250 with three dozen 105 mm howitzers and a dozen 150 mm howitzers.
At best, your regiment is outnumbered 9-to-1 in infantry and 15-to-1 in artillery. And while the enemy force has at least 80 tanks, you have none; thus anti-tank guns will be your regiment’s only protection against Soviet armor. Moreover, the Soviet air force has air superiority over the Luftwaffe in this sector. Your only hope for avoiding enemy airstrikes will be if miserable Russian weather intervenes and grounds Soviet planes.
Your regiment defends a front line that runs just northeast of Krasny Bor, a medium-sized village of brick buildings sitting atop a small rise surrounded by otherwise flat terrain. Positioned near three access routes to Leningrad, including the main Moscow to Leningrad all-weather highway, Krasny Bor is a strategic prize coveted by both sides. Key terrain features include a dual-track railroad sitting on top of a 15-foot-high embankment running generally north-south in the center of your sector; an old anti-tank ditch dug by the Soviets early in the Leningrad campaign meandering southwest to northeast through your sector and the Soviet-held area; and a system of well-prepared trenches occupied by your front-line troops that includes “the Bastion,” an oval-shaped, hedgehog (all-around defense) strongpoint.
On your regiment’s left flank, the unit boundary running roughly along the frozen Izhora River, is the Blue Division’s Regiment 269. Your right flank ties into the German 4th SS Polizei Division, with the boundary passing through a flat area of open peat bog that even in the winter is swampy ground that restricts the movement of infantry and armor.
The Blue Division’s commander, General Emilio Esteban Infantes, has given your regiment a daunting but vitally important mission: Hold the Krasny Bor sector at all costs against the Red Army offensive expected to begin within 24 hours. To help you determine how to accomplish this assignment, you have gathered your staff and subordinate commanders in your command post to hear three possible courses of action you are considering. As soon as the men are assembled, you immediately launch into an explanation of the plans.
Course of Action One: FULL-FRONT DEFENSE
“Señores,” you begin, “the first course of action I am considering is a ‘full-front defense.’ That is, the regiment’s main line of defense will be the trench line our three infantry battalions now occupy that extends all across our sector’s front. To provide anti-tank support, the 2d SS anti-tank section will be positioned at the left-flank trench, half of our regimental anti-tank company will be situated at the center trench, and the other six guns of our anti-tank company will be positioned at the right-flank trench.
“I will place three reserve forces behind our main front-line defense to reinforce the infantry battalions to their front or engage any enemy forces that might break through our trenches. Reserve Battalion 250 will be positioned to the rear of our trench on the left, the combat engineer battalion will be in the center behind the Bastion, and the ski company will be on the right. Our available regimental and divisional artillery will provide fire support all along the line.”
Major Castro, one of your infantry battalion commanders, speaks up first. “Colonel, since the Red Army is well aware of our frontline trench positions, our opponents will certainly try to obliterate them with a massive artillery barrage preceding their infantry and tanks. I fear that this plan risks playing to the enemy’s overwhelming strength in artillery firepower.”
Captain Casas, a combat engineer officer, shakes his head in disagreement and says, “Major, although the Reds, as usual, will indeed launch a massive artillery barrage, the best place for our troops to survive such firepower is safely within our well-dug trenches. My own engineers helped construct them!”
Course of Action Two: FALSE FLANK
“The second plan I am considering,” you continue, “is to reposition the regiment in a manner that offers the enemy a ‘false flank’ – a seemingly vulnerable weak spot in our line that the opposing commander undoubtedly will try to exploit. But instead, the enemy will be moving into a carefully prepared kill zone.
“To accomplish this deception, we will evacuate our right-flank trench from the Bastion to our eastern unit boundary and reposition our infantry battalion in that sector by swinging it southward and aligning it along the railroad embankment. Although this will appear to expose our defenses to an enemy penetration all the way to Krasny Bor, both the railroad embankment and the road from Krasny Bor to Mishkino will be lined with the guns of our anti-tank company and those of 2d SS anti-tank section.
“Additionally, Reserve Battalion 250 will form along the road as the regiment’s southern ‘anchor’ to prevent any enemy troops from proceeding past the kill zone should they escape. The combat engineer battalion and the ski company will be positioned behind our center and left to reinforce those sectors of our front, if necessary. Our artillery support will focus primarily on enemy forces in the kill zone but will help other sections of our front as necessary.”
“I like this plan,” says Captain Barón, commander of the anti-tank company. “It lures the Reds into a trap where they will be targets for our massed anti-tank guns and it makes them sitting ducks – most of that area is flat, open peat bog, which will slow their movement and make them vulnerable to my antitank gunners. The Reds will be stuck in the muck with nowhere to hide!”
Major León, the regimental operations officer, is not as enthusiastic.“Colonel,” he says, “I am uneasy about opening an avenue for the enemy to advance to Krasny Bor. What if we run out of anti-tank guns and ammunition before the Reds run out of tanks and infantry? This plan could end up handing Krasny Bor to the enemy if our trap doesn’t work.”
Course of Action Three: COUNTERATTACK
“My final plan,” you conclude,“is to blunt the Reds’ attack as it begins by launching our own offensive at the center of the enemy line, targeting and pinching off the shallow salient that projects southward from the old antitank ditch toward the Bastion. Although our three infantry battalions will occupy our current front-line trenches as in my first plan, Reserve Battalion 250 from our left center and the combat engineer battalion from our right center will execute a pincer attack on the edges of the salient to trap and destroy the leading Red Army forces moving into it.
“Meanwhile, I will space our anti-tank assets evenly across our front-line trenches and will hold the ski company as a general regimental reserve. Our artillery will give fire priority to our counterattack and will be prepared to launch a barrage along the old antitank ditch to seal off the salient, thereby preventing Red Army troops from escaping and stopping reinforcements from pushing into the salient.”
Major Castro speaks up again, and once more he is not pleased. “Colonel, the success of this plan relies heavily on the exact timing of our counterattack. It must start at the precise moment when there are enough enemy forces in the salient whose loss would cause the Reds to halt their offensive, but before there are too many for our counterattack to defeat them. Any misjudgment on the timing could be disastrous – we might be throwing away Reserve Battalion 250 and the combat engineer battalion. The loss of such a substantial portion of our regiment would leave our defense fatally weakened.”
Before anyone else can comment, you close the meeting by saying, “Thank you, señores, for your input. Now, return to your duties. I will make my decision and issue regimental orders very soon.”
With the Red Army attack only hours away, you must decide now which course of action your regiment will implement to win this vitally important defensive battle.
What is your decision, Colonel Sagrado?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Armchair General.