The Battle of Krasny Bor took place in northern Russia, near the village of Krasny Bor during World War II and was fought between the German Army’s 250th Infantry Division, which consisted of Spanish volunteers, and the Soviet 55th Army, from February 10 to February 13, 1943, with the major clash taking place on February 10, 1943. This military operation ended with a few miles of the Leningrad–Moscow Highway in Soviet hands for the first time since September 1941, but the Spanish division was able to hold off the much larger Soviet forces without yielding substantial ground.
When Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, the German General Staff, specially Heinz Guderian, advised an all-out drive for the city of Moscow, but the advise was overruled by Hitler who in turn decided to send his armies to capture Leningrad first. But Army Group North had failed to capture Leningrad in 1941, and then led offensive towards Tikhvin and the Svir River, trying to connect with the Finnish forces in order to complete the second, broader encirclement of the entire Leningrad province. Additional reserves were inserted to stop the Soviet counter-offensive on the Volkhov. These included the recently arrived the 250th Infantry Division, the Spanish Blue Division in the Leningrad sector. It took up the positions of the withdrawn 121st division between the railway line Kolpino-Tosno (east) and Babolovo (west).
After having fought in the Volkhov-Lake Ilmen-Novgorod area from October 1941 to August 1942, the Blue Division was transferred to the southern boundary of the Leningrad pocket, to reinforce the siege of the city, which had been surrounded by the Finnish forces and the Wehrmacht Army Group North in September 1941. Enduring immense cold and almost constant shelling after November 1942, the Blue Division dug in around Krasny Bor, Pushkin and Kolpino, which were situated 14 miles south-east of Leningrad.
The Soviet 55th Army was composed of four infantry divisions, two armoured regiments and several other support groups. In January 1943, this Soviet army was moved to Leningrad and became part of the Leningrad Front which was attempting to break the southern perimeter in the siege of Leningrad.
In order to break the siege of Leningrad, the Red Army launched Operation Polar Star. The 55th army’s mission was to break open the vital Leningrad-Moscow Highway starting from its jump-off position in Kolpino towards Tosno, to join with a northbound attack pincer of 54th Army of Volkhov Front, thereby encircling German formations in the Mga sector. The highway is an important road/railway connection linking Moscow and Leningrad. The pivot-point for this highway was Krasny Bor, situated between the highway and the railway line. 55th Army’s attack would also hit sectors defended by other German formations to establish secure flanks and draw them into battle.
By the end of January 1943, General Emilio Esteban Infantes, who was in command of the 250th Infantry Division, had become aware of a build-up of Soviet troops, which indicated that an attack was imminent. To deflect it he ordered his reserves, two cycle companies and 9th and 11th Battery of the 250th Artillery Regiment, into Krasny Bor on February 2.
The Soviet attack began at 06:45 hours of February 10, 1943, with a massive artillery bombardment carried out by 1,000 Soviet guns and mortars that opened on the Spanish lines. The Spanish trenches, bunkers and dugouts were pounded hard by Soviet shells, mortars and Katyusha rockets. At 8.45 hours, the bombardment shifted from the front lines onto Krasny Bor itself.
At approximately 8:40, the Soviet 45th and 63rd Guards and the 72nd Rifle Divisions, followed by some tanks, advanced towards Staraia Mgsa, Krasny Bor, Raikelevo and Podolvo, with the 63rd Guards Rifle Division facing the 5,900 troops of the 250th Infantry Division, which held the eastern flank of the line. Pinned by 2 hours of initial bombardment, Spanish formations were unable to retreat towards the town and in many cases fought to the death. The frontline was quickly overrun, and many Spanish formations were destroyed there.
Inside Krasny Bor, a company of 250th Infantry Division held the October Railway station, repulsing infantry charges and three tank charges by advancing Soviet forces. By 11:00 the company was reduced to 40 combatants yet these managed to hold the factory until 12:00, when they fell back into the town. Isolated Spanish units fought off Soviet attacks but were cut off when the Soviets seized the October Railway. Encircled, Spanish units, still holding the Leningrad-Moscow Highway, decided to hold as long as possible and were destroyed in combat.
The 55th Army, in the meantime, had advanced despite heavy casualties inflicted by the dug-in Spanish troops. The Soviets took Raikelevo, which cut off Podolvo from Krasny Bor. In Krasny Bor itself the Spanish artillery, engineer and other assorted stragglers came under attack from Soviet infantry and armor, and by 12:00, the southern half of the town was still controlled by the Spaniards. Soviet tanks opened fire on a hospital and retreating ambulances but were eventually beaten off by Spanish troops armed with Molotov Cocktails and hand grenades. In the afternoon, a Luftwaffe fighter-bomber attack to the east of Krasny Bor brought support and relieve for the defenders. Late on the day, the Soviet command decided to insert the mobile group into the battle, but they were stopped by a combination of fierce resistance and a sudden thaw that stopped the Ski Brigade from operating off road.
The remaining Spanish troops were ordered to new positions on the Izhora River, on the west of the town. Here they held off the Russian 63rd Guards Rifle Division’s last attacks of the day. A battle group of the German 212th Infantry Divisions and two companies each of the Flemish Legion and the Lithuanian Legion were able to support the Spanish by a counter-attack on the forest at Staraya Rechka, and by taking over the frontline from the highway to the Izhora River.
Sustaining heavy casualties, the Soviet 63rd Guards Rifle Division advanced 3 miles and took Krasny Bor, Mishkino, Staraya Mirza, Stepanovka, and Popovka Station. On its left wing, the attack by 43rd Rifle Division and 34th Ski Brigade drove the 4th SS Police Division into the Tosno River. In the Ishora River sector, the Russian 72nd Rifle Division pushed back the lines of the Spaniards towards the river, destroying the Field Replacement Battalion, but suffering up to 70% casualties in the process.
On February 11, 1943, units of the 63rd Guards Rifle Division were surrounded in several places, but the rest of 63rd Guards Rifle Division was in control of Krasny Bor by evening. A planned counter-attack by the Spanish division and the German 112th Infantry Division was thought likely to be successful, but ultimately not carried out due to concern over the overall position of 18th Army.
On February 13, as the 55th Army had lost more than a third of its initial strength and most of its tanks, its advance ground to a halt. The total penetration achieved by the Soviets reached to a depth of only 3 miles on a front of 9 miles. After the Spanish 262nd infantry Regiment and 1st Artillery Battalion evacuated, they bombarded the Soviet positions and attempted a counter-attack to recapture Krasny.
Soviet general staff critiques after the battle highlighted the reasons for the failure of the attacks during Operation Polar Star as strongly fortified defenses, faulty reconnaissance, poor command and control on all levels, clumsy employment of tanks and ineffective artillery support. The failure by the 55th Army to follow through on its initial success meant that the encirclement of the German forces in the Mga sector had lost its northern pincer. Failures by the other attacking armies, for similar reasons, led to the overall failure of Operation Polar Star. It would take almost another year before 18th Army withdrew from the direct approaches to Leningrad. The 250th (Spanish) Infantry Division and the German 50th Corps had managed to hold the Red Army inside the perimeter of the siege of Leningrad.