The heroic defense of the Brest Fortress, June 22 1941
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
An Soviet account of the incredible bravery of the Red Army garrison in the opening days of the Nazi invasion.
The Courage Monument in honour of those who fought in the Fortress. The monument was erected in 1971 as part of a Soviet memorial complex. -- Photo via Priscilla Meray, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Today is the 80th anniversary of the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR.
On June 22, 1941 the forces of Nazi Germany and its allies launched a massive, surprise attack on the Soviet Union. In the early days of this horrific conflict the Germans advanced rapidly and the Soviets seemed on the verge of defeat, an outcome which would have been devastating for the entire world.
But the peoples of the Soviet Union fought with astonishing bravery and tenacity and they did so from the very start of the conflict.
One of the most heroic examples was the defence of the Brest Fortress. An island fortress by the city of Brest that lay right on the Soviet frontier with Poland, the fortress was attacked and surrounded on the very first day of the invasion. Yet despite the hopeless situation the defenders held out for many days.
In 1973 Sergei Smirnov (1915-1976), an engineer who became a combat officer during the war, wrote a stirring account of this remarkable story of courage and resistance that was published in the USSR at the time.
Here we post an excerpt from his larger piece:
In the early morning, just before dawn on 22 June 1941, the night patrols and outposts guarding the Western border of the Soviet Union noticed a strange aerial phenomenon. Far away, over the Nazi-occupied territory of Poland, on the western edge of the gradually lightening sky, there was a constellation of stars no one had ever seen before. And it was not stationary. Unusually light and colourful, some red, some green, the stars were moving slowly but steadily eastwards, blazing a trail across the dim nocturnal heavens. Soon they covered the whole horizon, as far as the eye could see, and as they drew closer there came, also from the west, the hum of hundreds of engines.
The hum swelled rapidly to a roar, filling every cranny of existence. Hundreds of German aircraft with all their lights on were violating the air space of the Soviet Union.
And before the border-guards could recover from a sudden ominous sense of alarm and grasp the meaning of this incomprehensible and arrogant violation, the early morning gloom in the west was illuminated by a blaze of light. Violent explosions throwing up black pillars of earth ploughed the first metres of the Soviet border zone and every-thing was submerged in a deafening earth-shaking crescendo of sound.
Thousands of German guns and mortars that in the last few days had been concentrated along the Soviet border opened fire and the always alert but quiet zone of the state frontier at once became a roaring, blazing front line...
This was how Hitler Germany's treacherous attack on the Soviet Union began; this was the beginning of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people against the Nazi invaders.
That morning, at exactly the same time, military operations were launched along the whole western border of the USSR, a distance of three thousand kilometres, from the Barents to the Black Sea. After an intensive artillery bombardment and fierce bombing of border installations, nearly two hundred German, Finnish and Romanian divisions began the invasion of Soviet territory. The Nazi troops set about carrying out the so-called Barbarossa Plan, the plan of the campaign against the USSR devised with assiduous care by the generals of Hitler Germany.
At first sight everything appeared to be going according to the plan. Just as had been envisaged, Guderian and Hoth's panzers met near Minsk on 27 July; the Nazi forces captured the capital of Byelorussia and cut off a part of the Soviet defence. Three weeks later, on 16 July, the advance units of the Wehrmacht entered Smolensk...
But the war on the Eastern Front proved to be quite different from the war in the West. This was a different adversary whose behaviour upset all the accepted ideas of the German generals and their men.
It began right from the border. Taken by surprise and deprived of a large part of their weapons and equipment, faced with an enormously powerful and numerically far superior enemy, the Soviet troops nevertheless resisted with amazing determination and every victory over them, even the smallest, was bought at far too high a price. Though cut off from the main army, the encircled Soviet units, which according to all the laws of German military science should have immediately laid down their arms and given themselves up, went on fighting with desperate fury. Even scattered, dismembered groups deep in the rear of the advancing enemy and apparently doomed to inevitable destruction, retained their arms and, making their way east-wards through dense forests and marshes, boldly attacked enemy' transports and supply columns, fought their way across the front line and joined up with their own forces. Others remained in the enemy rear, formed armed detachments and began a fierce partisan struggle, which gradually involved more and more of the people of the Nazi-occupied areas.
As a result the enemy were unable to count even the part of the country that lay behind their own lines as conquered or subdued territory. The whole vast area could fairly be described as a battlefield, because it was all the scene of an armed struggle, now open, now hidden, but always bitter and stubborn. The front was virtually every-where the invader had set foot; it extended for hundreds of kilometres in depth, from the line of the Nazi advance units right back to the borders of the USSR.
But the Soviet forces were still retreating eastward.
And it was in those dark days of bitter disappointment and retreat that a legend spread among our troops about the Brest Fortress. It would be hard to say where it first appeared, but it was passed on by word of mouth and soon became a byword from the Baltic to the steppes bordering on the Black Sea.
It was an exciting legend. The news went round that hundreds of kilometres behind the enemy lines, near the city of Brest, within the walls of an old Russian fortress standing on the very border of the USSR, our troops had been valiantly resisting the enemy for many days and weeks. It was said that enemy forces had surrounded the fortress and were attacking furiously but suffering enormous losses, that neither bombs nor shells could break the spirit of the fortress garrison, which had sworn to die rather than surrender and were answering all the Nazi offers of capitulation with deadly fire.
No one knows where this legend sprang from. Perhaps it had come with the groups of officers and men who had fought their way out of the German rear in the Brest area and managed to cross the front line. Perhaps it had been admitted at an interrogation of Nazi prisoners-of-war. The men of the Soviet bomber forces are said to have confirmed that the Brest Fortress was still fighting. When flying near Brest at night on their way to bomb enemy targets on Polish territory, they had seen the flashes of explosions, the glittering fire of machine-guns and the streams of tracer bullets.
But all this belonged to the realm of rumour and hearsay. The facts could not be verified, for all radio contact with the garrison had been lost. So for the time being the legend of the Brest Fortress remained a legend...
In the summer of 1944, during the massive Soviet offensive in Byelorussia, Brest was liberated. On 28 July 1944 Soviet fighting men entered the Brest Fortress after three years of Nazi occupation.
The fortress lay almost entirely in ruins. Its awesome appearance told how fierce and bitter the fighting must have been. The gutted buildings breathed a grim greatness, as though the unbroken spirit of our men who had fallen in 1941, still lived among the rubble. Those somber stones, by now partially overgrown with grass and scrub, cracked and chipped by bullets' and shell splinters, seemed to have soaked up the blood and fire of the battle that had raged here, and the men who now roamed among the fortress ruins could not help thinking how much these stones had seen and how much they would relate, could they but speak.
And the miracle happened! The stones suddenly did speak! Inscriptions left by the fortress' defenders came to light on intact sections of the fortress walls, in doorways and windows, on the vaults of cellars, on the buttresses of the bridge. In these inscriptions, signed or name-less, scribbled in pencil or scratched with a bayonet, the defenders declared their determination to fight to the death, sent farewell messages to their Motherland and comrades, and spoke of their devotion to the people and the Communist Party. The fortress ruins came alive with the sound of the voices of the nameless heroes of 1941, and the soldiers of 1944 listened with emotion and pain to these voices, which spoke with a proud awareness of duty done, grief to be departing this life, calm courage in the face of death, and a plea for vengeance.
"There were five of us: Sedov, I. Grutov, Bogolyub, Mikhailov, and V. Selivanov. We were in the first battle on 22/6/1941. We will die but not retreat! " reads the inscription on the bricks of the outer wall near the Terespol Gate.
In one, of the rooms of the western section of the barracks another inscription was found. "There were three of us, we had a hard time but we didn't lose heart and will die like heroes. July 1941." In the centre of the fortress yard stood a half-demolished building that had at one time been a church. The following inscription had been scratched on the plaster: "There were three of us, Muscovites—Ivanov, Stepanchikov and Zhuntayev, who defended this church, and we made a vow: we will die but not leave here. July 1941."
This inscription has since been removed with the plaster of the wall and placed in the Central Museum of the Soviet Army in Moscow, where it is preserved to this day.
And not only the stones spoke. It turned out that the wives and children of some of the commanders who had died in the fighting for the fortress in 1941, were still living in Brest and the neighbouring districts. Women and children, caught in the fortress by the war, sheltered in the cellars of the barracks in the first days and shared the hardships of the defence with their husbands and fathers. After the liberation they recounted their experiences, revealing many interesting facts about the memorable defence.
A German document...claimed that the fortress resisted for nine days and fell on 1 July 1941. But many of the women re-called that they were taken prisoner only on the 10th or even the 15th of July, and when the Germans marched them out of the fortress, fighting was still going on and the shooting was intense. The citizens of Brest testified that sounds of battle could be heard from the fortress right up to the end of July and into August, and that in those months wounded German officers and men were still being brought out from there to the army hospital in the city.
Admittedly, there was at first no direct proof to back up these testimonies. But in 1950 an expert from a Moscow museum, investigating the premises of the western barracks discovered yet another inscription scratched on a wall. It read as follows: "I am dying but I won't surrender. Goodbye, Motherland! " There was no signature. But beneath it there was a perfectly clear date: "20 July 1941". This was direct proof that the fortress was still resisting on the 29th day of the war. After that historians have concluded that the fortress went on fighting for 29 days, although eye-witnesses maintained that resistance lasted more than a month.
Some time later it was established that not all the defenders of the fortress had perished; a few of them were still alive. These men, most of them badly wounded or shell-shocked, were taken prisoner and endured all the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Some of them were lucky enough to escape. They fought with the partisans and later in the Red Army. Later they recalled episodes from the fighting and told us how the struggle proceeded, giving the names of their comrades-in-arms. Gradually the picture has been pieced together.
* * *
Images of the island fortress
The Brest Fortress was sleeping peacefully when the first salvo thundered across the River Bug. Only the men of the outposts, who were on watch in the bushes along the river and the sentries on night duty in the fortress saw the brilliant flash against the still dark western edge of the sky and heard the terrible growing whistle. The next moment the earth shook with the crash of hundreds of exploding shells and mortar bombs.
The men and their commanders awoke amidst fire and death and many died in the first seconds without becoming fully awake and realizing what was going on.
The enemy hastened to exploit all the advantages of their surprise attack. The German guns in the left-bank thickets were still firing when the assault groups of submachine-gunners of the 45th Infantry Division began forcing the Bug in rubber boats and rafts and landed on the Western and Southern islands of the fortress.
These islands were defended by only a sparse line of outposts and patrols. The border-guards did all they could. But there were too few of them to halt the enemy's attack. Both islands were overran by enemy submachine-gunners, who swept aside the outposts and rapidly closed in on the centre of the fortress.
The Central Island of the fortress was dominated by the large building, once a church, that was now used as the regimental club .
As soon as they entered the yard of the citadel the Germans spotted the advantages of this building and rushed to occupy it, particularly as at that moment it was empty; in the first minutes of confusion none of the garrison had thought of barricading themselves there. The German assault troops set up a transmitter in the club and mounted machine-guns at all the windows.
This was a blow at the very heart of the defence. The enemy now held the commanding position on the Central Island. From the club windows they could keep the rear of the barracks under fire and slice up the defence with their machine-guns. Encouraged by this success, they sought to consolidate and develop it. A large detachment of submachine-gunners advanced further, towards the eastern tip of the island in an effort to capture the whole centre of the fortress.
Opposite the club in the eastern part of the island stood a half-demolished building surrounded by a concrete wall with iron railings.
The southern section of the wall round this building ran parallel with the barracks, forming a broad street. The submachine-gunners advanced down this street in a mob, shouting gutturally to one another and raking the barrack windows with fire from their guns.
There were no answering shots. It looked as if the Soviet garrison's spirit had been broken by the artillery and air bombardment and the centre of the fortress would be captured without a fight.
And suddenly a quite unexpected blow descended on the enemy. A kind of muffled growl rose from inside the barracks; the door into the yard flew open and with a rousing cheer Soviet soldiers charged the very centre of the attacking force with fixed bayonets.
In a few minutes the enemy were overwhelmed and put to flight. The bayonet charge cut through the German detachment like a knife. The submachine-gunners who had not got as far as the door of the barracks turned tail in panic and made for the club and the western . Terespol Gate, through which they had entered the yard. But a large section of the detachment, cut off from their own side, scuttled away down the street towards the eastern end of the island with a crowd of defenders hot on their heels, cheering triumphantly and wielding their bayonets. And behind them came other soldiers of the garrison, some armed with sabres, some with knives, sticks or even bricks. As soon as a submachine-gunner was killed, he was pounced on for weapons and ammunition, and if one of our own men went down, his rifle at once passed to another defender and continued the work of picking off the enemy.
Hemmed in on the bank of the River Mukhavets, the Germans were quickly wiped out. Some of the submachine-gunners dived in and struck out for the other bank but our light machine-guns made sure that none of them reached it. This was the first counter-attack against the German forces storming the fortress, and it was made by the men of the 84th Infantry Regiment, which had been quartered in the south-eastern section of the barracks.
That night Regimental Commissar Yefim Fomin, second-in-command of the regiment for political affairs, had been sitting up late in his office. He had only just turned in and was falling into a doze when the enemy shells and bombs hit the fortress.
The windows of this section of the barracks opened on to the River Mukhavets, in the direction of the border. Several shells at once penetrated the building and exploded, causing rues and destruction. Some of the piles of rifles were smashed by direct hits and many of the men were disarmed. An incendiary landed in Fomin's office and the commissar only just managed to escape, choking amid the acrid fumes.
He at once took over command of the regiment. It took some time to overcome the initial confusion, arm the men and assemble them in the security of the cellar. There Fomin made a short speech, reminding them of their duty to their country and urging them to resist the enemy stubbornly and bravely. Then, on the commissar's orders, the men made their first bayonet charge, which ended successfully in the destruction of the group of the submachine-gunners cut off on the eastern tip of the island.
What had happened on the Central Island was repeated elsewhere. Though caught unawares, the garrison overcame its initial confusion and began a stubborn and bitter resistance. The same pattern of action occurred in all sectors of the fortress that were isolated and cut off by enemy fire.
The heroic resistance of the small garrison, its skilled and resolute actions held up a whole corps of the German Army on the first day of the war and, in some sectors of the fortress, forced the attackers to retreat.
At the outset every defender of the Brest Fortress, from the officers who took command of the defence to the men in the ranks, was inspired with the same feeling, with a profound, unshakeable confidence that the treacherously attacking enemy would very soon be routed and thrown back beyond the state border, that in a very short time the besieged fortress would be relieved by the troops stationed in the country around Brest, and the border would be re-established.
The citizens of a great country, well aware of the strength of their land and their army, brought up in the victorious traditions of the Soviet Armed Forces, they could not think otherwise and had no conception of the enormous military might assembled by the enemy, or the consequences of the surprise attack.
In these first hours the fortress was cut off from the outside world and locked up in a ring of encirclement. The garrison did not even know what was happening outside the fortress walls, in the town and in the neighbouring districts. The divisional headquarters were in Brest, but no instructions had yet come from there. Apparently no messenger or liaison officer could get through. As for the telephone and telegraph lines, they had either been cut by saboteurs before the invasion began or had been damaged during the bombardment.
The first thing the officers who had taken command of the defence did was to try to get in touch with their superiors by radio.
But the divisional, corps and army radio stations made no response to the fortress' appeals. Attempts to transmit a coded message achieved no results. The Germans seemed not only to have surrounded the fortress but to have blocked the air itself. Guttural commands in German sounded on all wave lengths and only the urgent, furious calls of our tank men battling with the enemy armour or of our pilots in combat with Messerschmitts and Junkers came across in snatches.
Fomin decided to abandon the code and try an open message. Realizing the danger of its being intercepted, he wrote an exaggeratedly cheerful text and Boris Mikhailovsky, his Young Communist radio operator, sat down at the microphone.
"This is Fortress! This is Fortress! " the new call sign went out over the air. "We are engaging the enemy. We have plenty of ammunition, our losses are insignificant. We await instructions. Over to you—over!"
Again and again he repeated the message but no answer was received. The radio continued to send out its signal until at last its batteries were exhausted and the voice of the fighting fortress went off the air for ever.
Meanwhile the past two days had seen grave and tragic events at the front in the area of Brest. By noon on 22 June Brest was in enemy hands. Since early morning shells and bombs had been bursting in its streets, bringing down houses, and setting them on fire; the city hospital was packed with wounded. The municipal authorities and military staffs had been forced to leave the city and head eastwards that morning. Here and there groups of armed local Communists tried to organize resistance but were soon broken up and annihilated by the German submachine-gunners, whose numbers were overwhelming. Civilians were killed and their homes looted.
Every hour the front was moving away from Brest. The Soviet forces, badly shaken by the first surprise attack, could not check the thrust of the powerful German armies, who were splendidly armed and enjoyed the additional advantage of battle experience in the West. Despite the stubborn and valiant resistance of individual units and formations, the front was pierced in one sector after another, defending forces were surrounded, and the tanks of Guderian and Hoth thrust swiftly into the rear, closing in steadily on Minsk and trying to join their iron pincers behind the Soviet units that were making an arduous fighting withdrawal from the border areas. Every hour the enemy penetrated further east.
But within the walls of the old Russian fortress that stood on the first metres of Soviet soil, on the first front line of the war, the small besieged garrison of Soviet fighting men hold out with iron determination and will-power.
"We shall fight on to the last, no matter how it ends! " This decision, though never recorded in writing or spoken aloud, matured silently in the heart of every defender of the fortress. Isolated from its own forces, without orders from any of the higher commands, the little garrison knew and understood its mission. And it fought with unique determination, displaying astonishing contempt of death. Though wounded several times, the men remained in the fighting line. Bleeding to death, swathed in blood-soaked bandages and rags, they summoned up their last strength and charged with bayonets. Even the gravely wounded tried not to quit their posts.
A staircase from the fortress shows the level of devastation.