Monday 25 February 2019

Book Review: Lake Ilmen, 1942 - Gonzalez, Sagarra

A fascinating if rather specialist look at a particular episode in the history of the Blue Division, a Spanish volunteer unit serving with Germany in Russia, 1942.

The story central to the book concerns the creation of a volunteer 'ski unit', who neither ski nor complete their original mission (the relief of encircled German troops at Zvzad). This mission involved the crossing of the titular Lake Ilmen, frozen solid in winter, and therefore a potential temporary route for either Axis or Soviet forces across what was normally an enormous watery obstacle.

What I found most interesting about this book wasn't so much this failed and rather minor seeming action, but rather the broader contextual picture on the one hand, and the more personal biographical insights on the other. The broader picture concerns a sector of the Ostfront, and an element within that (i.e. the Spanish), not usually paid much attention in books on Barbarossa.

Blue Division soldiers at Lake Ilmen, 1942.

If this stuff gives an interesting and different macro-view, then at the more micro-level learning about the Spaniards involved, and even to some extent about their pre- and post-WWII lives is fascinating. Unsurprisingly these men were drawn from those on the right during the Spanish Civil War, who felt that they were simply carrying on and extending the fight against Communism that had begun in their youths at home.

Hitler's Germany made much of the 'heroes' of Lake Ilmen, awarding over 30 Iron Crosses. For propaganda purposes they even claimed the original operation had succeeded in its stated goal, which simply wasn't true. If we're to believe the Spanish accounts presented here, the men of the Blue Division got along with local civilians better than one is accustomed to hearing about in this infamously brutal war.

Franco's Spain celebrated the achievements of the men this book covers, whereas modern Spain by and large seeks to expunge such things from contemporary public life. Leaving aside the still fraught ideological aspects, and looking at this as a purely military episode, I personally found this a fascinating and informative read.

Whilst this may potentially a bit too specialist for the generally interested WWII reader, I found it an easy and compelling enough read to make it well worthwhile.

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