The Brest Fortress is for sure one of the best sights in Belarus. I would say that this is one of the most impressive monuments of the Second World War of them all. Follow me around the Brest Fortress, and we will also go off the beaten track.
I arrived here a chili and a foggy autumn day after 350 kilometers of driving from the capital city of Belarus – Minsk. I started at 4 AM and now, at 9:30 AM, I am finally here at one of the memorial sites I have dreamed so much about.
Brest Fortress is the most common name of the site. In Belarusian, it will be Брэсцкая крэпасць, Polish Twierdza brzeska and in historical sources, you may find it under the name Brest-Litoŭsk Fortress. From the year 1965, an additional name was added: Hero Fortress. It’s connected with Brest’s status as “Hero City”, after the intense battles during World War 2. This highly honored name was decided by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Examples of other “Hero Cities” are Volgograd (Stalingrad), Moscow, and Saint Petersburg (Leningrad). All “Hero Cities” have an obelisk as a sign in common. In total there are twelve “Hero Cities”.
Construction of Brest Fortress
The fortress is constructed in a star-shaped fortification and began to be built in the early 19th century based on a Russian military engineer, Karl Opperman’s, drafts. The fortress was from the beginning an Imperial Russian fortress and the first stone was placed in the year 1833.
The center of the fortification, the citadel, is an island in the Bug River. Around the central island, there are other islands with a mix of dug canals and the Mukhavets River. Three fortifications surround the Citadel. Much of the constructions are built by red bricks, which in that time was considered to be very strong. Now, much of those constructions have fallen apart.
There was space for a lot of soldiers. The biggest barrack housed 12.0000 soldiers in 500 rooms. I haven’t done any measurements on it, but sources say it was 1,8 kilometers long…
The big battles at Brest Fortress
During World War 1, no big battles occurred. Instead, after battles of nearby fortresses, the Russian army withdrawal and the Germans could just go into the fortress. The Russians had brought the munitions away though. The fortress had already damaged parts though, but from battles during the 19th century.
During World War 2, there were two main fights including the Brest Fortress.
The first battle in the area was The Battle of Brześć Litewski. In 1939, Brest belonged to Poland. German troops had recently invaded Poland and between 14-17 September 1939, heavy battles took place both in the city and around the fortress.
You may think the Poles saw the Brest Fortress as a stronghold but initially, there was no plan for any battle here. The fortress was more used as a warehouse and administrative center for the military and also a prison. But when they saw how the Germans broke the defense lines, the plans changed. The fortress was supposed to be a barrier for Warsaw for the advancing German troops.
The Germans sent tanks to the city and fortress and the Polish infantry repelled. A heavy bombardment of Brest started. Half of the town came into German control and soon intense streetfights started. On the 16th of September, the main German attack started. At this time, the Polish just had a small amount of munition left and they barricaded themselves in the evening in the Eastern parts of the fortress. From there, the Polish soldier started evacuation to the other side of the river. This evacuation was done on the morning of 17 September and the retreating forces blew up the bridge. Behind them, they left 1000 killed, wounded or captured, and 15 destroyed tanks.
The fortress didn’t stay long in German hands. The Soviet 29th tank brigade reached to fortress the same day and it was handed over to them from Wehrmacht as an agreement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Later, German and Soviet troops hold a military parade through Brest. If the found imagine how short this friendship would last…
Germany siege Brest Fortress again
Actually, the first big battle of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa took place in Brest. Remember how the troops walked hands in hands less than two years ago… The battle started on 22 June and the Red Army got no intelligence about the upcoming attack and the 9000 tankmen, regular soldiers, border guards, NKVD staff, and their families received no warning. And this was a triumph of the German army. They had planned to conquer Brest and the fortress in just one day. The Germans had assigned 17.000 soldiers and 2 Panzer Divisions this mission.
The battle would for several days but after two raids by Luftwaffe, over 2000 dead Soviet soldiers and 6800 captured, the fortress was returned “back” to Germany again. Worth to mention is, that this old fortress wasn’t really prepared for air raids. The base of the fortress was still constructed in an age when flying was utopia.
The surprise attack was very successful. Only 4 minutes after the bombardment started, German troops crossed the Bug river. Groups of Soviet soldiers managed to escape but was quickly surrounded. The unnoticed attack plans didn’t give the Soviets time to regroup to the strongpoints of the fortress which made the German offensive much easier. During the battle, several Soviet soldiers made inscriptions in the stone walls about the situation, which today are big attractions.
On 29 June 1941, the last shots were fired. Left in the fortress were 360 Soviet soldiers. Comparing with the Soviet losses the Germans were fewer: 429 killed and 668 wounded. That Brest fortress didn’t have any big strategic importance, as shown by an order on the 30th of June to abandon the fortress. On the 2nd of July, most units had abandoned it.
What’s can be very interesting is that small groups of Soviet soldiers hide in the fortress, even after the German capture. There isn’t much official information about any enemy soldiers living the fortress more than the of the famous defenders of Brest Fortress, who was captured on the 23rd of July. Also reports from a small firefight on the 23rd of July can be found. What’s for sure is that the control of the fortress was total when both Hitler and Mussolini visited it on 8 August.
The Red Army recaptured Brest on 28 July 1944.
Brest Fortress today
Now you know the background and we go further to my visit to the site. The Brest Fortress is one of the most popular attractions in Belarus. I was here in the autumn but I would say there is never any risk of crowds – The place is huge.
The first thing you will notice is a (probably red) star that you will pass under on your way to the main sights. Like everything else on this spot, the star is very massive and the road is through is straighter than a yardstick. You will pass memorial signs, military vehicles, and ruins until you reach the biggest head you have ever seen – The “Courage” monument.
Courage is the centerpiece and reaches a height of 33,5 meters. It is the greatest symbol of the defense of the Brest Fortress and is surrounded by tombstones containing more than a thousand bodies. Right beside stands the 92 meters high obelisk which symbolizes a bayonet from the famous Mosin-Nagant rifle and has the names of those who died during the battle of Brest Fortress on plaques around it and of course – an eternal flame.
On the central island, there is also much more to see. The magnific orthodox church and the war museum is of course also a must to see.
Remains of the fully authentic Brest Fortress
As I told before, the place is huge and let’s leave the central island and all the tourists. Now we want to find remains than aren’t close to any museum. On the other island, there are mostly barracks, fortifications, and walls. There are also very small memorial sites far off the beaten track which are maintained by local people.
Farther away, in the northeast, there is a concentration of different memorials, both soldiers and regular people that were victims of the war. The biggest is the Liberation Memorial and it honors the liberation of Brest in 1944 and the fallen soldiers. It stands in the center of the Garrison Cemetery.
There is just so much to see in the fortress area. If you have a moderate interest in history you will cover the place in around two hours. If you are a WW2 enthusiast, I would calculate to stay a whole day here. And not to forget – Brest and its surroundings is a diamond when it comes to remains from the war.
My final conclusion of the visit to Brest Fortress
I was excited both and after the visit. This is one of the best WW2 experience you can get – both with statues and monument and authentic environments. There is much to see even without paying any entrance fee. Bullet holes are everywhere. The remains of the bridge the Brigitian Bridge are untouched. You may walk around freely where ever you want. In the forests around and off the island there are so many buildings from the Molotov Line. You will also see open-air exhibitions of WW2 vehicles, the fortress Cathedral St. Nicholas, the defense museum, and of course – The Brest Citadel as you maybe have seen in the Russian/Belarussian movie from 2010 “The Brest Fortress”.