Defense of Brest Fortress

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The defence of Brest Fortress took place 22–29 June 1941. The Brest Fortress, defended by the Red Army against the Wehrmacht, held out longer than expected[citation needed] 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.

Background[edit]

The map from the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact showing the new German-Soviet border after September 1939; the town of Brest can be seen as located on next to the border.

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.[7] 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 day of Operation Barbarossa. The fortress and the city controlled the crossings over the Bug River, as well as the WarsawMoscow railway and highway.

Opposing forces[edit]

The garrison in the fortress comprised approximately 9,000 Soviet soldiers, including regular soldiers, border guards and NKVD operatives.[8] The red army soldiers belonged to elements of the 6th and 42nd Rifle Divisions, under Colonel Mikhail Popsuy-Shapko and Major-general Ivan Lazarenko respectively,[9] the 17th Frontier Guards Detachment of the NKVD Border Troops and various smaller units (including the hospital garrison and a medical unit, as well as units of the 132nd Separate NKVD Convoy Battalion, etc.) inside the fortress.[7] There were also 300 families of the servicemen inside the fortress as well.

The 45th Infantry Division (Austrian) (about 17,000 strong) had the task to take the fortress during the first day. For the first five minutes of the shelling it was supported by parts of the artillery of the 31st and 34th Infantry Divisions. The 45th division had neither war planes nor tanks at its disposal, but was supported on June, 22d, by a battery of assault guns (Sturmgeschütze) from 34th division and on June, 29th, by some Ju 88 planes that dropped 23 bombs.

The siege[edit]

The layout of the Brest Fortress in June 1941

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. The attack started with a 29-minute shelling with artillery and Nebelwerfers[10] by the German Wehrmacht. The initial artillery fire took the unprepared fortress by surprise, inflicting heavy material and personnel casualties.[11] The first German assault groups crossed the Bug river four minutes after the bombardment had 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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[13]

Regarding the fighting around East Fort, the commander of the 45th Infantry Division, Generalmajor Fritz Schlieper, wrote to the High Command in his detailed report:

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.[15]

Copy of the inscription found inside the citadel: "I'm dying, but I won't surrender! Farewell Motherland. 20.VII.41" exhibited in the Museum of the defense of the Brest fortress

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.[14]

Schlieper wrote in his detailed report that:

Chaplain Rudolf Gschöpf wrote:

On 24 June, with Germans having taken most parts of the fortress, some Soviet troops were able to link up and coordinate their actions under the command of Captain Ivan Zubachyov;[17] his second in command was Regimental Commissar Yefim Fomin.[1] On 26 June small Soviet forces tried to break out from the siege but were unsuccessful and sustained heavy casualties. The same day Zubachyov and Fomin were captured.[18] Zubachyov was sent to a POW camp in Hammelburg where he died along with about 3.2 million of his countrymen; Yefim Fomin was executed on spot for being a commissar and a Jew.[19]

German soldiers in the Citadel in June 1941

R. Gschöpf wrote:

The total German losses in the battle for the Brest fortress were about 629 killed and about 668 wounded.[4] The Soviet losses numbered about 6,800 POWs and about 2,000 dead.[6] 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.[20] After eight days of fierce fighting the Germans had captured the whole 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.[21] A copy was captured by the Red Army near the town of Livny, Russia in winter 1941/1942.[22]

Some individual soldiers and maybe even small groups of Red Army soldiers kept hiding in the fortress after the fall of the Eastern Fort. After the war graffitis were found on some fortress walls. They became iconic symbols of the defense. One of them said: {{cquote|"We'll die but we'll not leave the fortress", another: "I'm dying but I won't surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41."[23]

It is said that Major Pyotr Gavrilov, one of the best known defenders of Brest (later decorated for it as Hero of the Soviet Union) was captured only on 23 July.[19][24]

Some authors[who?] claim that isolated defenders were being rooted out by Germans as late as August 8 when Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress with heavy security to protect them from remaining defenders.[25] 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 lieutenant ("Oberleutnant") the next day.[26]

Aftermath[edit]

Since the mid-1950s a master narrative was developed, that claimed - contrary to the historical facts - that the fortress held out for 32 days and the defenders would refuse to surrender. Most of the central claims of the official narrative have been proven false. In some cases it became clear that the Museum of the defense of the Brest fortress had hidden away documents, had manipulated other documents and items to make the story look more heroic.[27] The Soviet propaganda made a big effort to make the official story known. Film, memories, articles in newspapers and journals, fictional books, theatre plays, and even an opera have been produced, millions have visited the memorial in Brest, but Soviet scholars never wrote academic texts on the topic - the defense of the Brest fortress remained unresearched during Soviet times.

In 1971 a huge memorial was opened with the Museum of the defense of the Brest fortress as its core pice. Several monuments in the style of Socialist realism dominate the area. The main monument, a 32 m high concrete head, in 2014 was awarded "the world's ugliest monument" by CNN.

The events surrounding the defense of Brest Fortress were dramatized in the 1957 film Immortal Garrison and again in a 2010 film, Fortress of War.

Soviet writer Boris Vasilyev wrote a novel named "His name is not in the list" (В списках не значился) about a soldier named Nikolai Pluzhnikov who defended the Brest Fotress in 1941. At the end of the novel, when Pluzhnikov was captured by the German troops and was interrogated, he simply replied "I am a Russian soldier" and died due to exhaustion from months of fighting. Vasilyev's novel was dramatized in the 1995 film I, a Russian soldier (Я — русский солдат) directed by Andrey Malyukov.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b 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
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b Christian Ganzer: German and Soviet Losses as an Indicator of the Length and Intensity of the Battle for the Brest Fortress (1941). In: The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 27, Issue 3, p. 449-466., here p. 458-459.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b Christian Ganzer: German and Soviet Losses as an Indicator of the Length and Intensity of the Battle for the Brest Fortress (1941). In: The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 27, Issue 3, p. 449-466., here p. 463.
  7. ^ a b Robert Kirchubel, Operation Barbarossa 1941 (3): Army Group Center, Osprey Publishing, 2007, ISBN 1-84603-107-9, Google Print, p.44
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Many of the Soviet survivors of the fighting 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.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b 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.
  14. ^ a b c d (in English) The defence of the Brest Fortress Archived 2008-02-01 at the Wayback Machine. (in Belarusian) Брестская крепость Archived 2008-01-31 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung.“ In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81-96; here p. 83
  16. ^ a b Gschöpf, Rudolf «Mein Weg mit der 45. Infanterie-Division » Oberöstereichischer Landesverlag, 1955
  17. ^ (in Russian) Иван Зубачёв [Ivan Zubachyov]
  18. ^ Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 639
  19. ^ a b 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
  20. ^ Jason Pipes, 45.Infanterie-Division, Feldgrau.com - research on the German armed forces 1918-1945
  21. ^ The German text is published in Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 290-298.
  22. ^ Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer]: Stalina dlinnaya ten’. Plen kak klyuchevaya problema istoriografii oborony Brestskoy kreposti [Stalin's long shadow. Captivity as the central problem of a historiography of the defense of the Brest fortress]. In: Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 22-41; here: p. 32.
  23. ^ About the graffitis see "Ot sostaviteley" [From the editors], in: Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 6-21; here: p. 13-14. All known graffitis are printed in the same book on the pages 163-169.
  24. ^ Henry Sakaida, Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-84176-769-7, Google Print, p.48
  25. ^ Mussolini and Hitler at Brest. One of a series of images, including one colorized image of the two in a jeep. A closeup of the two is shown at the on-site museum today (2016).
  26. ^ Christian Ganzer, Alena Paškovič: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung.“ In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81-96; here p. 83.
  27. ^ Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer]: Stalina dlinnaya ten’. Plen kak klyuchevaya problema istoriografii oborony Brestskoy kreposti [Stalin's long shadow. Captivity as the central problem of a historiography of the defense of the Brest fortress]. In: Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 22-41; here: p. 35-39.

Further reading[edit]

  • Aliev, Rostislav & Britton, Stuart, The Siege of Brest 1941: A Legend of Red Army Resistance on the Eastern Front, Pen & Sword, October 2013.
  • Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer]: Stalina dlinnaya ten’. Plen kak klyuchevaya problema istoriografii oborony Brestskoy kreposti [Stalin's long shadow. Captivity as the central problem of a historiography of the defense of the Brest fortress]. In: Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016, p. 22-41. [1]
  • Kristian Gantser [Christian Ganzer], Irina Yelenskaya, Yelena Pashkovich [et al.] (ed.): Brest. Leto 1941 g. Dokumenty, materiyaly, fotografii. Smolensk: Inbelkul’t, 2016. ISBN 978-5-00076-030-7 [2]
  • Ganzer, Christian: German and Soviet Losses as an Indicator of the Length and Intensity of the Battle for the Brest Fortress (1941). In: The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 27, Issue 3, p. 449-466.
  • Ganzer, Christian; Paškovič, Alena: „Heldentum, Tragik, Kühnheit.“ Das Museum der Verteidigung der Brester Festung. In: Osteuropa 12/2010, pp. 81–96. [3]
  • 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. [4]
  • Ganzer, Christian: 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. [5]
  • Kershaw, Robert, War Without Garlands: Operation Barbarossa 1941-1942, Ian Allan Publishing, 2010
  • Moschansky, I. & V. Parshin, THE TRAGEDY OF BREST 1941, Military Chronicle 2007 Paperback (Russian text but English summary and captions)

External links[edit]