Brest Fortress, Belarus

The fortress at Brest was originally built at the western frontier of the Russian Empire, with the first foundation stone being laid on June 1, 1836, and the fortress opening on April 26, 1842. It is situated on a series of islands at the confluence of the Western Bug and Mukhavets Rivers, with the main fortification—the Citadel—on a central island surrounded by three other islands, which form the Volyn, Kobrin and Terespol fortifications. A 1,800-metre-long, two-storey brick barracks building, which could accommodate a garrison of 12,000, was built around the citadel, and by the start of the First World War, the fortifications totaled 6.4 km in length.

The town of Brest-Litovsk (as it was then called) and the fortress were captured by the German army in August 1915, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia exited the war, was signed on March 3, 1918, in the Citadel’s White Palace. The fortress then changed hands twice in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920-21 and remained in Polish territory following the signing of the Treaty of Riga, which ended that war.

Under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Western Bug marked the boundary between the German and Soviet occupation zones of Poland, with the Brest therefore on the Soviet side. In September 1939, however, it was Heinz Guderian’s 19th Panzer Korps that captured the fortress after a 4-day battle. It was handed over to the Soviet forces, with ceremonies including a joint parade, on September 22, and the German troops moved back to the western side of the Bug. The new occupants wasted little time in repairing and further strengthening and modernising the fortifications, and just 20 months later, the Wehrmacht attacked a second time.

As June 22, 1941, dawned, the fortress was defended by elements of the 6th and 42nd Rifle Divisions, along with NKVD border guards, engineering, artillery and communications personnel and cadets. The total defending force numbered about 7,000-8,000, much reduced from the full complement as a result of weekend leave and an artillery training exercise starting that morning at a range a few miles away. Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2 was to attack over the Bug in the Brest region, with the 45th Infantry Division (formerly the 4th Division of the Austrian Army) being given the task of capturing the fortress.

At 3:15 am, German artillery launched a barrage onto the citadel, and the infantry assault followed 15 minutes later. The artillery barrage had not had not had the expected impact on the defenders, and the German assault groups were met with heavy fire. Communications were badly disrupted, however, meaning that instead of a unified command, the defence had to be organised in a series of individual fortified positions, often commanded by junior officers. To rectify the command situation, as many officers as were able attended a meeting to create a joint command for the defence of the central island, with Captain Ivan Zubachev and commissar Yefim Fomin in command. The German attack made slow progress across the three outer islands throughout the day, and a Luftwaffe bombing raid was called in during the night, but the 23rd followed the pattern of the 22nd, with the Germans taking heavy casualties as they eliminated individual strongpoints. The 24th showed the first signs that the defences were starting to crack, and the Germans were able to reach the central island in some numbers, even though a force in the Eastern Fort on the northern Kobrin Island, under the command of Major Piotr Gavrilov, continued to hold out.

On June 26, with food, water and ammunition running out, the main force in the Citadel attempted to break out, but most were killed. Zubachev and Fomin were captured; Fomin was shot under the Commissar Order, and Zubachev died in a POW camp. Further bombing attacks finally forced the group of about 400 in the Eastern Fort to surrender on June 29th. The final building in Soviet hands, the Officers’ Mess on the Citadel Island, was taken on the 30th, ending organized resistance. Small bands of Soviet soldiers continued to hold out in the ruins, although it is difficult to distinguish fact from myth regarding how many there were and how long they held out. In strategic terms, the defence was of little consequence, as by the time the last defenders were being rooted out, the bulk of the German forces had bypassed Brest and two huge armoured pincers were closing on a vast pocket of Soviet forces around Minsk. The fighting, however, provided the Wehrmacht with a taste of what lay in store in the interior of the Soviet Union,

No descriptions of the action at Brest appeared in Soviet accounts until after Stalin’s death, presumably to avoid any suggestion of lack of readiness, but in 1957, a book recounting the defence and the fates of some of those involved was published. Subsequent accounts increasingly embellished the tale by claiming that organized defence lasted for over a month and tied down significant German forces. A museum was first opened on the site on November 8, 1956, and the title Hero Fortress was bestowed on May 8, 1965. The full memorial complex was officially unveiled on September 25, 1971.

The memorial complex is situated at the end of Masherov Avenue (Проспект Машерова) about a mile from the city centre. The route is lined with memorials, including flag-shaped sculptures featuring images of the defenders. The Brest Railway Museum, just before the fortress, is worth a visit.

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Memorials on Masherov Avenue

Memorials on Masherov Avenue

The main entrance is a star-shaped portal cut into a gigantic concrete block that rests on the remains of the outer walls. Speakers play a recorded loop of military songs, gunfire, explosions and radio broadcasts announcing the attack.

From the entrance, a tree-lined path leads past a small square with T-34 and T-44 tanks and an SU-100 self-propelled gun to the footbridge that crosses to the Citadel island. To the left is a sculpture entitled “Thirst,” which depicts a dying soldier holding out his helmet for water. Opposite the sculpture are the remains of the White Palace, where the 1918 treaty was signed, but these are off-limits to visitors.

SU-100, T-44, T-34/85

“Thirst” sculpture

Beyond the White Palace, in part of the former barracks building, is the Museum of the Defence of Brest Fortress, which describes the complete history of the fortress from its foundation, through the Civil War and the Polish period, to the battles in 1939 and 1941.The museum has a kiosk selling books, DVDs, postcards and other souvenirs.

In the centre of the Citadel island, across the central ceremonial square is the main monument “Courage,” a 33-metre-high sculpture of a soldier’s head emerging from a rock. The reverse of the memorial features carvings illustrating the defence of the fortress. In front of the memorial is an eternal flame, guarded by 4 teenagers from the local Pioneers Corps.  Three rows of graves contain the remains of over 800 victims of the fighting, with many being marked only “неизвестный” – “unknown.” A 100-metre-tall titanium bayonet obelisk stands beside the “courage” sculpture, along with the Church of St. Nicholas, which is undergoing lengthy restoration. A series of monuments resembling pages from a desk calendar have been erected around the complex, giving details (in Russian) of some of the key events of the battle.

The Honour Guard at the Courage memorial

Graves in Front of the Main Memorial

St. Nicholas’s Church

The Eternal Flame at the Main Memorial

The three outer islands are open to visitors, but much less restoration work has been done and little other than partially destroyed buildings and defensive points remain. There is a cafe and a campsite on the Kobrin Island; the cafe is on the right-hand side when walking from the main entrance toward the Citadel, just before the footbridge. The memorial grounds are open daily from 8:00 am until midnight, with the cafe closing at 11:00 pm. The museum opens between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm. The memorial’s web site has a small amount of English content.

Also in Brest:

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