(July 23, 2021) Today, 80 years ago, the Germans finally captured Maj. Pyotr Mikhaylovich Gavrilov of the Red Army during the fight for the Brest fortress. Maj. Gavrilov was an officer in the 44th Motor Rifle Regiment, one of the units tasked with defending Brest. This was the second time in as many years that the German Wehrmacht had captured the fortress.
The original fortress was built from plans prepared by Russian Gen. K. I. Operman in 1830. At that time it was located within the borders of the Russian Empire and, when completed in 1842, was the largest fortress in the empire.
The fortifications were constantly modernized, expanded and updated, with more forts being added around the original fortress until the final version was completed in 1914. The fortress was occupied by the Imperial German Army in August of 1915 after the Imperial Russian Army abandoned it during its withdrawal from Poland in World War I. By 1941, Brest Fortress was a star-shaped fortification with accommodations for 12,000 soldiers.
The fortress was built to protect the city of Brest, which is located at the confluence of the Western Bug and Mukhavets Rivers, on the Belorussian side of the current border with Poland. It is one of the oldest cities of Belarus.
Pursuant to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed in the fortress on March 3, 1918, the Soviet Union ceded that part of Poland to the German Empire. However, that was undone by the post-War World I treaties between the Allies and the Central Powers, which recreated the Polish nation. During the Polish-Soviet War, the fortress changed hands twice, before the Treaty of Riga established it within the boundaries of Poland in 1921.
In September, 1939, Polish Maj. Gen. Konstanty Blisowski, with four infantry battalions and two tank companies, defended the fortress against the XIX Panzerkorps of Gen. Heinz Guderian for four days, after which Gen. Blisowski withdrew his troops and joined the forces of Brig. Gen. Franciszek Kleeberg, and the Germans occupied the fortress. Gen. Blisowski was later captured by the Soviets and murdered at Katyń.
Pursuant to the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans handed the fortress to Soviet forces under Brig. Gen. Semyon M. Krivosheyin. To celebrate the capture, troops of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht paraded, together, in front of Gens. Guderian and Krivosheyin.
Now the Germans had to do it all over again. Astride the road to Moscow, the fortress and the city had to be taken, again — this time from the Red Army. The Germans expected it to fall within hours. It would be many weeks before the Germans could claim victory. In the meantime a Soviet legend was born.
On June 22, the Soviet defenders of the Brest Fortress were shocked when the bombing and shelling began. Operation Barbarossa, the greatest offensive in history, had begun, as the German Wehrmacht and the Slovakian Army, soon to be joined by two Rumanian Armies, and Hungarian, Finnish and Croatian troops, began their assault on the USSR.
Elements of the 6th and 42nd Rifle Divisions commanded by Col. Mikhail Bopsuy-Shapko and Gen. Ivan Lazarenko, and the 17th Frontier Guards detachment of the NKGB border troops, totaling about 3,500 soldiers, began defending the fortress against the onrushing Wehrmacht. When the families of 300 of the soldiers, plus some smaller units, including the hospital and medical staffs were included, approximately 7,000- 8,000 people were in the fortress. However, probably only about 3,500 remained inside the fortress after it was surrounded by the Germans.
Most of the soldiers the Brest defenders faced were from the 45th Infantry Division, commanded by Gen. Fritz Schlieper. It had formerly been the 4th Austrian Division, until it was incorporated into the Wehrmacht, following the Anschluss with Germany.
The initial assault on the fortress began 30 minutes after the aerial and artillery bombardment had begun. Some of those inside the fortress managed to escape, but most became trapped. The Germans used rockets, artillery and flamethrowers. Everyone inside contributed. The women tended the wounded, reloaded the machine-gun cartridge belts and even took positions on the walls, while the children brought food and ammunition to the soldiers. Gen. Schlieper reported,
“It was impossible to advance here with only infantry at our disposal because the highly organized rifle and machine gun fire from the deep gun placements in horseshoe shaped yards cut down anyone who approached. There was only one solution — to force the Soviets to capitulate through hunger and thirst. We were ready to use any means available to exhaust them ... our offers to give themselves up were unsuccessful.”
The Germans blew up one of the buildings of the fortress. Gen. Schlieper wrote that after the detonation, “...we could hear the Soviet soldiers screaming and groaning, but they continued to fight.” Chaplain Rudolf Gschöpf said, “The resistance continued until the walls of the building were destroyed and razed to the ground by more powerful explosions.”
On June 24, the Soviet defenders coalesced under the command of Maj. Ivan Zubachov. The commissar and second in command was Yefin M. Fomin.
Three days later, the Germans unleashed two Karl-Gerät self-propelled mortars. These monsters were the largest self-propelled guns to see service during the war. They weighed 122 tons and could fire a 4,800-pound shell 4,720 yards, capable of penetrating more than eight feet of concrete.
After the defenders rejected their surrender offer, the Germans mounted a major assault on June 30, which resulted in the capture of most of the fortress, including Maj. Zubachov and the commissar. The major was sent to a POW camp, where he, like most Soviet prisoners, died.
The commissar had two strikes against him — being Jewish and being a commissar. Pursuant to the “Commissar Order,” he was executed by the Kholm Gate. He was, posthumously, named a “Hero of the Soviet Union.” The Germans had suffered 482 dead and 1,000 wounded. By this time, the rest of the German army was 300 miles to the east. To put this in perspective, the Germans had only suffered 8,886 casualties on the entire 1,000-mile long Eastern Front by this date!
However, pockets of resistance continued in the rubble and the dungeons. Inscriptions were later found on the walls: “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland. July 8, 1941;” “We’ll die, but we won’t leave the fortress.”
After further pounding by the two Karl-Gerät mortars, Maj. Gavrilov and the other survivors finally surrendered on July 23, 1941. Although he survived German captivity, his troubles had not ended. Upon his return to the USSR, pursuant to Order # 270, he was condemned for “being taken captive,” and spent 10 years in a Gulag, finally being released in 1957, after Stalin’s death.
As Stalin said, when the order was adopted on August 16, 1941, “There are no Soviet prisoners-of-war, only traitors.” Finally, the Germans flooded the fortress with water from the Bug River. Ten days after the major’s capture, the German Führer gave the Italian Duce a personal tour of the fortress and showed him the work of the monster mortars.
A museum devoted to the defense of the fortress was opened in 1956. On May 8, 1965, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet awarded the title of Hero Fortress to the Brest Fortress and to Maj. Gavrilov and Lt. Andreii Kizhevatov, “Hero of the Soviet Union,” for their roles in the heroic defense of the fortress.
Lt. Kizhevatov was commander of the 9th Frontier Guard Station and died in the fighting. The major is buried on the fortress grounds. The street where he lived in Krasnador was renamed Gavrilov Street. He was also awarded the Order of Lenin for exemplary service and meritorious service to the Soviet state.
The Heroic Brest Fortress Memorial Complex was opened in 1971. Of the 962 defenders buried there, 265 have been identified. The bayonet obelisk is 100 meters high and weighs 620 tons and can be seen from any part of the Complex.
A Russian movie, “Fortress of War,” depicting the siege, was produced in 2010.
Next week: The Siege of Odessa
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.