At the intersection of two rivers in southwestern Belarus just outside the city of Brest stands an imposing fortress surrounded by a networked circle of ramparts. The Brest Fortress emerged from the imperial overtures of tsarist Russia and ended up becoming the site of one of the Soviet Union’s most triumphant symbolic acts of resistance over a century later during the Great Patriotic War. The geographic location of the fortress made it the first target of German forces during Operation Barbarossa. On June 22, 1941, German aerial bombings and artillery shelling rained down upon the fortress and Brest in advance of a German infantry division that began moving through the woods. At the time of the attack there were fewer than 8,000 Red Army soldiers, who hailed from an estimated 30 Soviet Union nationalities, stationed in the fortress and were by all accounts outgunned and underequipped. Yet these defenders held out against the overwhelming odds for a significant amount of time and became hailed as heroes by the Soviet Union, as well as underscoring the immense contributions that Belarusians made to the victory in the Great Patriotic War as their home territory became one of the most fought-over regions in the European theater (UN).
The fortress was conceived by imperial military engineers and underwent construction from 1830 to 1842 under the supervision of Generals Oppermann and Maletsky as one of the many structures designed to defend the western edge of Russia’s periphery as part of Tsar Nicholas I fortress strategy. The exact spot was chosen due to the intersection of the Mukhavets and Western Bug River tributaries that split the land into four distinct “islands” and provided an additional layer of defense. After an initial delay in 1831 due to the onset of a popular national revolt, the fortress was completed and ready for operation by the end of April 1842 (WHC).
The central portion of the fortress is the Citadel, a two-story structure located on the center island that included storage areas, a church, barracks, and the White Palace. Each of the four bypass channels was defended by a 10 meter-tall structure and battlements, and multiple gates blocked bridges that spanned the length of the channels and connected to the Citadel island. With two-meter-thick walls and living capacity for up to 12,000 defenders, the fortress was indeed a formidable engineering and strategic piece. New developments in artillery technology led to renovations in 1864 on the main rampart to support the new artillery pieces, and an additional fortification structure approximately 1 kilometer to the southwest of the main fortress, the Graf Berg fort, was built from 1869 to 1872. A plan to vastly increase the fortress lines led to the construction of dozens of new posts between six and seven kilometers from the fortress center (WHC).
The units stationed inside the fortress at the time of the attack included seven rifle battalions, a reconnaissance battalion, two artillery battalions, the 6th and 42nd rifle divisions, and varying personnel from an engineering regiment and an NKVD rifle corps. About 300 military families were also quartered inside the fortress (War Witness). On the German side, elements of the 45th infantry division led by General Schlieper spearheaded the offensive, supported by the 34th and the 31st divisions, with the 45th under the alone numbering over 17,000 soldiers. Alongside the infantry were two tank divisions and significant long-range artillery pieces, with estimates of approximately 500 pieces capable of delivering up to 4,000 rounds every minute onto a target (Defence).
After the invasion forces crossed the German-Soviet border at 4 a.m. Moscow time on the morning of the attack, the assault on the Brest Fortress began just 15 minutes later. By 9 a.m. the fortress was surrounded, and the German infantry were able to penetrate the Citadel and briefly occupy the barracks. It wasn’t long, however, before the Soviets counterattacked and thrust the invaders out and back across the bridges. Many of the Soviet commanders had been killed or wounded in the opening salvos of the attack, and the destruction of vital communication equipment left the defenders without any way of efficiently mounting a coordinated defensive effort over the massive complex, divided among multiple islands and buildings (War Witness).
On the second day German tanks attempted to breach the Citadel but defenders quickly countered and destroyed them. By the following day, however, the Soviets controlled only the Citadel and one of the Northern islands, with the remaining forces led by Major Pyotr Gavrilov. On June 26 a couple of hundred of the defenders attempted a break-out from the Citadel, but those who did not fall back to the Citadel under withering German fire were captured before they could escape the German lines. Two days later, air support called in by General Schlieper destroyed the remaining fort on the eastern edge of the fortress and all of the defenders were captured or killed. One of the Soviet commanders, Efim Fomin, was identified as a Jewish political commissar, and was summarily executed by the Germans (War Witness).
On June 29 the Germans entered the fortress and laid siege to the Citadel, where defenders refused to surrender despite concentrated artillery fire and constant bombardment by the Luftwaffe. The following day General Schlieper informed his superiors that the fortress had fallen, but Major Gavrilov and a handful of defenders were able to hold out as late as July 23, until which time the citizens of Brest reported continuous gunfire and other sounds of battle that indicated there were still defenders holding out within the fortress (War Witness). Defenders within the Officer Corps building on the central island near the Citadel fought with such ferocity that the Germans were forced to completely level the building with explosives in order to put an end to the resistance (Defence).
The after-action report issued by the 45th Division on June 30 stated that 7,000 Soviet prisoners were taken, including 100 officers. The Germans had suffered 482 killed and over 1,000 wounded in taking the fortress, and the fact that the total number of Germans killed on the Eastern Front at the time was 8,886 meant that the Brest Fortress defenders inflicted 5% of the German casualties up to that point in the war (Pipes). Even General Schlieper paid homage to the defenders, recording in the report that “In Brest, the Russians fought with incredible persistence, showed excellent infantry training and an outstanding will to resist” (War Witness). Red Army soldiers also weren’t the only ones defending the fortress, as many of the military families present were active in key support roles. Children ran ammunition and food supplies to isolated defensive positions and also braved the frontlines to scout out and observe enemy movements, while many of the women either took up arms or tended to the wounded (Defence).
Soviet authorities had no knowledge of the battle’s details until 1942, when documents of one of the German units that participated in the battle were captured by Red Army forces, and the full story become mythical among the Soviet Union. Party officials bestowed on the Brest Fortress the title of “Hero Fortress” along with the Order of Lenin. Major Gavrilov, who was held in a German concentration camp before being liberated at the end of the war, was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, and over 200 of the other defenders were similarly decorated for their actions during the siege (Defence).
The 2010 film, The Brest Fortress, directed by Alexander Kott centers around the siege of the fortress, and the film’s development process sheds some light on the role of the Communist Party in propagating the myths surrounding the battle. Following the publication of a book on the siege by reporter Sergei Smirnov during the Khrushchev era, First Secretary of the Belarus Communist Party Peter Masherov successfully lobbied to have Brest Fortress advertised as a significant national attraction and war monument, given the diversity of the defenders and the connection to Belarusian “fraternal attitudes” to the greater Russian state. When the Belarusian Television and Radio Organization made its first documentary, the story of Brest Fortress was chosen as its subject matter, and the success of the resulting film led to plans for the live-action version (Russian Film).
Much in the same way that Stalingrad has become synonymous with Soviet resilience and tenacity in the face of destruction and invasion, the Brest Fortress has also been held to such standards as the penultimate representation of Soviet defenders fighting waves of attackers despite little hope for relief or victory. The fact that the defenders were eventually overwhelmed and defeated, if anything, gives it even greater significance because it can argued that the defenders were fighting not for themselves or for their own survival, but for the greater good of the Soviet Union. Visitors to the Brest Fortress can have an experience unlike most war memorials – they can actually walk through the narrow corridors and up the stairs and into the rooms where half a century before, Red Army soldiers fought and died in a seemingly-futile attempt to hold out against countless invaders.
The site today hosts a wide variety of contributions from the Soviet Union’s most renowned artists and architects that have turned the former warzone into one of the most popular war memorials for the former Soviet state. In the central portion the Square of Ceremonies serves as the main highlight of the site, situated in between the Museum of the Defense of the Brest Fortress and the remaining sections of the White Palace. Further inside stands a concrete structure over 30 meters tall containing a number of illustrations on one side that tell a narrative of the events within the fortress during the battle: “The Counterattack”, “The Meeting of the Commanding Officers” and “The Last Grenade” are all depicted. Up a flight of stone steps is an eternal flame, beyond which are three long rows of tombstones for 962 of the fallen defenders; however, over two-thirds of the tombstones are inscribed with the word “Unknown”. Surrounding the entire area is an extensive array of vegetation and plant life, including rose bushes, weeping willows and oak trees, lending a certain air of natural beauty to what would otherwise be an extremely solemn area of the complex and the fortress as a whole – as if to show that life continues at a site where so many gave their lives for the Motherland (Heroic).
Jason Pipes. “45.Infanterie-Division.” Accessed April 28, 2012. http://www.feldgrau.com/InfDiv.php?ID=41.
Russian Film. “Alexander Kott: The Brest Fortress aka Fortress of War – Брестская Крепость (2010).” Last modified November 3, 2010. http://russianfilm.blogspot.com/2010/11/alexander-kott-brest-fortress-2010.html.
The Brest Fortress. “The defence of the Brest Fortress.” Accessed April 26, 2012. http://www.brest.by/ct/page3e.html.
The Brest Fortress. “The heroic Brest Fortress complex.” Accessed April 26, 2012. http://www.brest.by/ct/page4e.html.
United Nations. “The Great Patriotic War 1941-1945: Liberation of Belarus and its input into the Great Victory.” Accessed April 26, 2012. http://www.un.int/belarus/about/gpw_en.pdf.
World Heritage Centre. “Brest Fortress.” Last modified January 30, 2004. http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1897/.
War Witness. “The Heroic Defense of Brest Fortress.” Accessed April 26, 2012. http://victory1945.rt.com/war-facts/key-battles/heroic-defense-of-brest/.