Defense of Brest Fortress
The defence of Brest Fortress took place 22–29 June 1941. It was one of the first battles of Operation Barbarossa. The Brest Fortress was defended by the Red Army against the Wehrmacht, held out longer than expected and, after the Second World War had finished, became a symbol of Soviet resistance. In 1965 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress for the 1941 defense.
The area around the nineteenth-century Brest Fortress was the site of the 1939 Battle of Brześć Litewski, when German forces captured it from Poland during the Polish September Campaign. However, according to the terms of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact the territory around Brest as well as 52% of the then Poland was assigned to the Soviet Union. Thus, in the summer of 1941, the Germans had to capture the fortress yet again - this time from the Soviets.
The Germans planned to seize Brest and the Brest Fortress which was located in the path of Army Group Centre during the first hours of Operation Barbarossa. The fortress and the city controlled the crossings over the Bug River, as well as the Warsaw–Moscow railway and highway.
The garrison in the fortress comprised approximately 9,000 Soviet soldiers, including regular soldiers, border guards and NKVD operatives. The Soviet soldiers belonged to elements of the 6th and 42nd Rifle Divisions, under General Ivan Lazarenko and Colonel Mikhail Popsuy-Shapko respectively, the 17th Frontier Guards Detachment of the NKVD Border Troops and various smaller units (including the hospital garrison and a medical unit) inside the fortress. There were also 300 families of the servicemen inside the fortress as well.
The initial defense plan allowed for 12 hours to secure the area in face of the 45th Infantry Division (Austrian) (about 17,000 strong) as well as elements of the 31st, 34th Infantry Divisions and 2nd Panzer Group under Heinz Guderian (in total, about 20,000 men).
The fortress had no warning when the Axis invaded on 22 June 1941, and became the site of the first major fighting between Soviet forces and the Wehrmacht. From the first minutes of the invasion, Brest and Brest Fortress were shelled by the German Wehrmacht. The initial artillery fire took the unprepared fortress by surprise, inflicting heavy material and personnel casualties. Fierce battles were fought at the border, in the town of Brest and in the fortress itself. The first German assault on the fortress took place half an hour after the bombardment started; the surprised Soviet defenders were unable to form a solid front and instead defended isolated strongpoints–the most important of which was the fortress itself. Some managed to escape the fortress; most were trapped inside by the encircling German forces. Despite having the advantage of surprise, the subsequent attempt by the Germans to take the fortress with infantry quickly stalled with high losses: about 281 Wehrmacht soldiers died the first day in the fighting for the fortress. Heavy fighting continued two more days. In the evening of June 24, 1941, some 368 Germans were dead and 4-5,000 Red Army soldiers in captivity.
On June 25 and June 26, 1941, local fighting continued mainly in the citadel. Till the evening of June 26, 1941, most of the northern Kobrin fortification, except the East Fort, was captured.
|“||"It was impossible to advance here with only infantry at our disposal because the highly-organised rifle and machine-gun fire from the deep gun emplacements and horse-shoe-shaped yard cut down anyone who approached. There was only one solution - to force the Soviets to capitulate through hunger and thirst. We were ready to use any means available to exhaust them... Our offers to give themselves up were unsuccessful..."||”|
Once the East Fort could not be taken by infantry the Luftwaffe bombed it twice on June 29 and forced its approximately 360 defenders to surrender.
Although the Soviet soldiers in the opening hours of the battle were stunned by the surprise attack, outnumbered, short of supplies, and cut off from the outside world, many of them held out much longer than the Germans expected. The Germans deployed various powerful guns, rocket mortars 15 cm Nebelwerfer 41 and resorted to flame throwers. The civilians inside the fortress tended the wounded, reloaded the machine-gun discs and belts with cartridges and even took up rifles to help defend the fortress. Children brought ammunition and food supplies from half-destroyed supply depots, scavenged weapons and watched enemy movements.
Schlieper wrote in his detailed report that:
|“||"the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion was given the task of blowing up a building on the Central Island ... in order to put an end to the Russian flanking fire on the North Island. Explosives were lowered from the roof of the building towards the windows, then the fuses were lit. When they exploded, we could hear the Soviet soldiers screaming and groaning, but they continued to fight."||”|
Chaplain Rudolf Gschöpf wrote:
|“||"We only gradually managed to take one defensive position after another as a result of stubborn fighting. The garrison of the so-called "Officers' House" on the Central Island only ceased to exist with the building itself ... The resistance continued until the walls of the building were destroyed and razed to the ground by more powerful explosions".||”|
On 24 June, with Germans having taken parts of the fortress, some Soviet troops were able to link up and coordinate their actions under the command of Major Ivan Zubachyov; his second in command was political commissar Yefim Fomin. On 26 June small Soviet forces tried to break out from the siege but were unsuccessful and sustained heavy casualties. Probably the same day Zubachyov and Fomin were captured. Zubachyov was sent to a POW camp in Hammelburg where he died along with several million of his countrymen; Yefim Fomin was executed on spot for being a commissar and a Jew.
|“||“Late on the 30th of June the division received the order to abandon Brest. Early on the 1st of July we paid tribute to the perished in the Division cemetery that was laid out on the eve… The main units of the Division abandoned Brest on the 2nd of July 1941.||”|
The 45th divisional after-action report on the fighting for the fortress and the city of Brest of June 30, 1941 related: "The Division took 7,000 prisoners, including 100 officers. German losses were 482 killed, including 32 officers, and over 1,000 wounded". The magnitude of these losses can be weighed by the fact that total German losses on the Eastern Front up to 30 June 1941 amounted to 8,886 killed. The fighting at Brest therefore accounted for over 5 percent of all German fatalities. After nine days of fierce fighting the Germans had captured the fortress. But the strategic objectives - control over the Panzerrollbahn I, i.e. the road to Moscow, the important railway line, and the bridges over the Bug river - were accomplished the very first day of the war. Because of the high German losses the German High Command demanded General Fritz Schlieper to present a detailed report regarding combat at Brest 22–29 June 1941. It was made on July 8, 1941. A copy was found in the archive of the 45th Infantry Division, that was captured by the Red Army by Livny, Russia in March 1942.
Some individual soldiers and even small groups of Red Army soldiers kept hiding in the fortress after the fall of the Eastern Fort. During the last days, some of remaining defenders made inscriptions on the walls. One of them said:
|“||"We'll die but we'll not leave the fortress". "I'm dying but I won't surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41."||”|
The authenticity of the date in the inscription is not proven.
Some authors[who?] claim that isolated defenders were being rooted out by Germans as late as in August when Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress with heavy security to protect them from remaining defenders. The only documentary proof of resistance after June 29, 1941, is a report that states a shoot-out on July 23, 1941, with the subsequent capture of a Soviet "Oberleutnant" the next day.
The resilience of the fortress defenders did not significantly affect the early German successes as the Wehrmacht rapidly advanced into the Soviet territory largely according to the German plan, leaving the fighting fortress well behind the front line.
The events of the fortress defense were not publicized in the Soviet Union until 1957. The book "Brestskaia krepost" that broke the story of the fortress defense in the USSR was published in 1957 by the Soviet investigative journalist Sergei Smirnov; Smirnov investigated the fate of the fortress defenders, those who were killed in action, died in the Nazi camps and those who survived the war.
In the post-Stalin era both the fortress and her defenders were rehabilitated and the Soviet propaganda built on the defenders' heroism and examples of individual hold-outs creating a myth that an organized defense of the fortress lasted for about a month, containing the German advance (for example, Great Soviet Encyclopedia claimed that "For almost a month the heroes of the Brest Fortress contained the attack of the whole German division"). That exaggeration persists to the modern time in some sources; for example, a 2006 article by Russian government official outlet, Voice of Russia, stated that "Even after a month of fighting, the Brest fortress held out, engaging a significant part of the enemy’s forces and wearing them out.".
The Museum of the Defence of the Brest Fortress was opened in 1956, while the Memorial Heroic Brest Fortress Complex was opened in 1971. The fortress was awarded the title Hero Fortress on 8 May 1965 (the twentieth anniversary of the German surrender).
In popular culture
The events surrounding the defense of Brest Fortress were dramatized in the 2010 film The Brest Fortress.
- Constantine Pleshakov, Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005, ISBN 0-618-36701-2, Google Print, p.243
- Pleshakov notes (p. 242): "With the exception of Gavrilov [commander of the 44th Infantry Regiment], all the commanders of the troops were self-appointed. On the morning of 22 June, rank ceased to matter, and whoever was able to issue a sane order and persuade others to carry it out was acknowledged as a leader."
- Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 , ISBN 0-300-11204-1, Yale University Press, 2006, Google Print, p.87
- Christian Ganzer: Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress. In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-145; here p. 141.
- Robert Kirchubel, Operation Barbarossa 1941 (3): Army Group Center, Osprey Publishing, 2007, ISBN 1-84603-107-9, Google Print, p.44
- Christian Ganzer: Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress. In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-145; here p. 139.
- Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung.“ In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81-96; here p. 82. The claim, "up to 50% of them had left the fortress before complete encirclement by the Germans never could be proven, but still is to be found also in Western literature - e.g. Evan Mawdsley, "Thunder in the East. The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941-1945", Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-340-61392-4, p. 63.
- М.И. Глязер, Г.И. Олехнович, Т.М. Ходцева, Л.В. Киселёва, "Героическая оборона. Сборник воспоминаний об обороне Брестской крепости в июне - июле 1941 г.", Государственное издательство БССР, Редакция социально-экономической литературы, Минск, 1963, LCCN 68-50853, Предисловие
- (English) The defence of the Brest Fortress (Belarusian) Брестская крепость
- Many of the Soviet survivors of the fightings wrote after the war, that the fortress was bombed by German planes. Due to the simultaneous artillery fire, this was not possible. Only two air raids took place on June 29, 1941, but then only the "East Fort" on the northern island of the fortress was bombed. See Christian Ganzer: „Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress.“ In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-145; here p. 141.
- Constantine Pleshakov, Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005, ISBN 0-618-36701-2, Google Print, p.108
- Christian Ganzer: „Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress.“ In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-145; here p. 138.
- Christian Ganzer: „Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress.“ In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-145; here p. 139.
- Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung.“ In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81-96; here p. 83
- Gschöpf, Rudolf «Mein Weg mit der 45. Infanterie-Division » Oberöstereichischer Landesverlag, 1955
- According to the POW registration card in the online archive www.obd-memorial.ru.
- Constantine Pleshakov, Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005, ISBN 0-618-36701-2, Google Print, p.245
- Jason Pipes, 45.Infanterie-Division, Feldgrau.com - research on the German armed forces 1918-1945
- Ростислав Алиев “Брестская крепость, взгляд с немецкой стороны (in Russian) Фронтовая иллюстрация (Frontline Illustration) #5 2008 Moscow
- Henry Sakaida, Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-84176-769-7, Google Print, p.48
- Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung.“ In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81-96; here p. 83.
- Smirnov, S. S, Brestkaia Krepost, 1957, LCCN 58-27270
- This article includes content derived from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1969–1978, which is partially in the public domain.
- Tatyana Shvetsova, HOLY WAR, Voice of Russia, 16.03.2006
- Constantine Pleshakov, Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005, ISBN 0-618-36701-2, Google Print, p.275
- Aliev, Rostislav & Britton, Stuart, The Siege of Brest 1941: A Legend of Red Army Resistance on the Eastern Front, Pen & Sword, October 2013
- Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung. In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81–96. 
- Christian Ganzer: Remembering and Forgetting: Hero Veneration in the Brest Fortress. In: Siobhan Doucette, Andrej Dynko, Ales Pashkevich (ed.): Returning to Europe. Belarus. Past and Future. Warsaw 2011, p. 138-14. 
- Christian Ganzer: Czy „legendarna twierdza“ jest legendą? Oborona twierdzy brzeskiej w 1941 r. w świetle niemeckich i austriackich dokumentów archiwalnych. In: Wspólne czy osobne? Miesca pamięci narodów Europy Wschodniej. Białystok/Kraków 2011, S. 37-47. 
- Moschansky, I. & V. Parshin, THE TRAGEDY OF BREST 1941, Military Chronicle 2007 Paperback (Russian text but English summary and captions)
- Soviet Citadel of Brest-Litovsk is Captured (Jun 1941), Combat footage. German Wartime Newsreel (Die Deutsche Wochenschau Nr.565)
- (Russian) Подвиг героев бессмертен
- (Russian) Брестская крепость (English version available)
- (Russian) 
- World War II aerial photo