Legionnaires in the Blue Division (I): ‘Tía Bernarda’, the most ferocious battalion

Gustavo Morales

The 250th reserve battalion, nicknamed ‘Aunt Bernarda’, was one of the best units of the Blue Division and avenged, wielding knives and bayonets, the Spaniards killed by the Russians.

The Spanish Volunteer Division, known as the Blue Division, was largely made up of Falangists. But its ranks also included many men from the conscripts of Ceuta and Melilla, especially from the Spanish Legion, who played a decisive role in the great battles in the Soviet Union.

These legionnaires who went to the Blue Division were distributed in two different ways. Many of them were assigned to different regiments. Others formed a unit of their own: the 250th Mobile Reserve Battalion, popularly known as “Tía (Aunt) Bernarda”, as their combat experience and ferocity meant that they were used in extreme situations, in attacks, counter-attacks and fierce defences.

Replacements for the Blue Division. Spanish volunteers march to their destinations

Both groups behaved individually and collectively as legionaries, making very clear the spirit of going to the fire: “The Legion, from the single man to the whole Legion, will always go where it hears fire, day, night, always, always, even if it has no order to do so”.

They spread the legend that the Spanish soldier does not fear death. They won the admiration of their allies in the fight against Stalin’s communism and, secondarily, made the Germans forget the temptation to invade Spain to occupy Gibraltar. Marshal Keitel confirmed this in his statements at the Nuremberg trials: “Hitler announced that he was abandoning the idea [of invading Spain]; he did not like being forced to transport his troops by force, against Franco’s wrath”.

The Spaniards received five weeks of training before they were launched onto the Russian steppe. The training period for the Marines, who operate in less bloody scenarios, is 13 weeks. The thousands of Spanish veterans who fought in the Moroccan war, the Asturias campaign and the Spanish Civil War came with the advantage of war experience. The first conscription in Ceuta, Melilla and the Protectorate yielded 1,682 soldiers and 63 officers, regulars and legionnaires, enough for a regiment. They were experienced and fierce fighters.

Groups of Legionnaires

In three battalions of the 269th Regiment there were groups of hardened Legionnaires. The first battalion was commanded by García Rebull; the second by Major Román. The third battalion of the 269th, organised in Ceuta, was commanded by Ángel Ramírez de Cartagena y Marcaida. This battalion included Portuguese legionnaires. There were more legionnaires in the first and second battalions of the 262nd regiment, from the first and second tercios. In the eighth company of the second battalion of the 263rd there were legionnaires from the VIII Bandera. There were also personnel coming from the Tercio in the 240th Regiment and in Anti-Tanks.

But the Tercio unit par excellence within the Division was the 250th Mobile Reserve Battalion, “Tía Bernarda”. Its first commander was Fernando Osés Armesto. The Battalion assembled a good part of the recruits in Ceuta and Melilla. Their combat experience had nothing to do with the rest of the expeditionary force, mostly Falangist volunteers. Muñoz Grandes mobilised them at critical moments: they plugged a breach, stopped an offensive or reinforced an assault. They started in the vanguard of the fiercest counterattacks near the Volkhov. They were not ladies in waiting. The Divisional Intelligence Service had open files on a hundred or so legionnaires, which listed: blasphemer, brawler, or tattooed on their backs with the hammer and sickle.

The Spanish Blue Division on the Eastern Front, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

It was considered an elite group, but also a group of fairly independent hotheads. It was the oldest and most homogeneous group. Their disposition was a disdain for death, with a legionary gesture, trimmed with long, unregulated sideburns and sharp knives that the Russian enemy came to fear. Some wore the Tercio belt, not the German buckle. Legion badges were worn on their armour. That was in breach of the rules on how to wear the Wehrmacht uniform, but no one had the courage to punish them for it. A veteran Legionnaire from the first battalion of the 269th Regiment recalled: “We were feared by our own comrades-in-arms, by the chief García Rebull and even by the German soldiers, comrades-in-arms in the fight against a common enemy”.

The legionnaires went on to create their own legend by assaulting communist trenches “seeking to close the gap with the enemy in order to reach the bayonet”; partisans returned to enemy lines alive but useless to return to the guerrilla…

The barracks

On 18 October 1941, two legionary sections of the 2nd Battalion of the 269th Regiment established a bridgehead at Udarnik. Major Osés, leading ‘Tía Bernarda’, conquered the village of Dubrovka, turning to attack some well-defended stone buildings, which the guripas (slang: soldiers) christened The Barracks. The 250th Battalion made the first part of the advance in an unfiltered advance, taking advantage of the slope of the river. At first, ‘Tía Bernarda’ attacked in the purest style of the old infantry, bare-chested: the companies deployed in line, bayonet drawn and advancing without sufficient fire support. A version of these events appears in the book Diario de una aventura, by Ensign Castañón of the 9th Company of the 269th Regiment. On pages 144 and 145 he relates: “This battalion, made up of volunteers from Melilla and Madrid, suffered many casualties. The enemy, holed up in The Barracks, let our men approach, who, stepping on mines camouflaged by the enemy for their better defence, caused explosions that threw the arms and legs of Spanish volunteers into the air… Colonel Esparza must have thought he was in the assault of a blockhouse in the anaemic Rif War”.

Among the fallen legionnaires are Lieutenants Francisco González Barreira and Acisclo Manzano Carrión, of the 250th Mobile Reserve BON; Sergeant Bernard Maldonado Bonilla, of the 7th Company/2nd BON/269th. Private Manuel Iglesias Fernández. And from the Primer Tercio, Benito Bravo González and Miguel Limón Castizo, from Huelva, the latter assigned to the 1st Battalion, 262nd Regiment.

The legend of the Intermediate Position

Poster Division Azul Russia 1942 Volchov soldiers

In the history of the guripas legionnaires there is a date, 27 December 1941, and a place: The Intermediate Position. It was a Spanish redoubt protecting the sector between Lubkowo and Udarnik behind the Soviet lines. Colonel Esparza sent Ensign Rubio Moscoso’s platoon to that elevation. The order they received was “stick to the ground”. After heavy fighting, the Spaniards were brutally killed. In Hitler’s Spanish Legion, authors Kleinfield and Tambs, wrote of the rescue of the Intermediate Position: “As the Spanish patrol crested the ridge, cries of rage and anguish rang out. The Russians had done their task. The Spaniards were pinned to the ground with the kind of spikes the Soviets used to break the ice. One of the spikes gleamed in the centre of a guripa’s forehead”. A legionnaire recognised his friend Ramon “with a machete stuck in his mouth, wide open, because the back of his neck had been driven into the cold-hardened earth. The corpses were finished off and frozen at almost 40 degrees below zero”.

The response was swift. Tía Bernarda‘s legionnaires were called in. They emerged from their trenches to avenge the murder of their comrades with a ferocious grin, shouting “¡Arriba España!” and “¡Viva La Legión!”. The legionnaires cut across the battlefield like lightning. Wielding knives and bayonets, they threw themselves into hand-to-hand combat. One of them recalled: “We jumped into their trenches and bayoneted them out. Then they ran over the snow shouting ‘Vojna kaputt’ [the war is over] and we shot them down”. The Russians carried in their pockets the objects they had stolen from the Spanish dead. The divisional Carlos María Ydígoras – he was 17 years old – left his vision of the battlefield in his book Algunos no hemos muerto: “It must have been frightening to see us contemplating the bayonet, caressing it as if it were a relic…. What happened when we rushed the Russians falls within the realms of delirium.

The Russians were dislodged. The action lasted less than 12 hours. According to body counts, Russian losses amounted to 1,080 dead, mainly from the 1002nd and 1004th regiments; no prisoners. Spanish casualties: three officers killed and four wounded and 32 NCOs and troop classes killed and 61 wounded, all from the 269th regiment.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Morales , G. (2021) ‘Legionarios en la División Azul, parte I: ‘Tía Bernarda’, el batallón más feroz’, 25 November. Available at: https://www.eldebate.com/historia/20211125/legionarios-division-azul.html (Accessed: 6 December 2021).

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