Always and everywhere
Down the years remember this:
Tragedy came in 1941
And victory only in 1945.
THE FIRST HOURS OF THE WAR
June 22, 1941. The darkness of the night was fading. It was about four o'clock in the morning
when frontier guards noticed many multi-colored lights in the sky, moving quickly from the west.
Soon they covered the entire horizon. Then the hum of motors could be heard. Hundreds of
planes were crossing the border with their running lights on. Black crosses could be seen on their
wings and fuselages. Artillery began to pound away simultaneously from the other side of the
river. A moment later the earth shook from exploding shells and bombs. The border areas were
engulfed in smoke and dust and fires started in many spots.
This was the initial stage of the Barbarossa Plan, approved by the nazi High Command in
December, 1940. According to this plan, three large military groupings were massed along the
Soviet border - 190 enemy divisions with solid military experience, numbering five and a half
million officers and men, roughly 4,300 panzers, about 5,000 planes and over 47,000 guns and
mortars. The numerical balance of forces in the first echelons which began to fight on June 22,
was in favor of the enemy, and in many sectors, including that of Brest, the enemy was
numerically 3-4 times stronger than the Soviet forces. In the focus of the main thrusts, where the
Wehrmacht had created large, compact, fighting groups, the nazi troops had even greater
The largest grouping, the Army Group Center, composed of two armies and two panzer groups,
was assigned to attack in the central sector of the front. Its total force was composed of more
than 50 divisions. This group had air cover provided by the 2nd Luftwaffe Division (more than
1,600 planes). The Brest sector was attacked by the 4th Army under the command of Field
Marshal Kluge and the 2nd Panzer Group led by General Heinz Guderian. Units of the 4th Army
covering 150 kilometers of the border stood firm against the nazi divisions in the Brest Sector.
The enemy forces outnumbered Soviet forces 3 times over in this area. Brest and its fortress
were located along the line of the main thrust by the Army Group Center.
Brest and its fortress were meant to be taken by the 12th Army Infantry Corps. The 45th Division,
formed in Hitler's hometown Braunau in the mountains of Upper Austria, occupied the very center
of the attack. This division was trained to be unwaveringly loyal to the Fuhrer and to believe in the
unquestionable importance of his mission. The 45th Division had been active in the occupation of
Poland and France. Now it undertook the storming of the Brest Fortress, for which it was
equipped with 12 batteries of artillery, 9 batteries of the 4th Specialized Chemical Regiment,
several powerful 550-600-millimetre Tor guns capable of shooting high explosive and bunker-
bursting shells weighing 1,250-2,200 kilograms. Five hundred guns capable of firing 4,000 shells
per minute were aimed at the fortress. Massive air coverage was provided for the 45th Division.
One participant in the storming of the Brest Fortress, a chaplain in the 45th Division, Rudolf
Gschopf, wrote many years afterwards: "At 3:15 a.m. sharp (4:15 a.m. Moscow Time) a hurricane
began, which blew over our heads with such force that we had never experienced before, nor
during the rest of the war... This gigantic concentration of firepower literally shook the earth." Four
thousand shells and mines per minute were fired into the four-square-kilometers fortress.
According to the nazi High Command's plan, the 45th Division was to capture the fortress within a
few hours and then continue the offensive.
Who was in the fortress when this fearful blow was struck? In the months before the war began,
the garrison in the fortress numbered about 14,000 officers and men. At the end of June,
however, many units were engaged in defensive construction works or were in training camps.
On the night before the attack, there were 7,000-8,000 men from various units including the
personnel of the garrison hospital and medical unit. Moreover, the families, wives and children of
the servicemen were inside the fortress.
According to a secret order for the war-time, the troops had to leave the fortress and join their
units, scatted in the outskirts of Brest. In the first few hours of the war, before the fortress was
encircled, approximately half of the garrison managed to leave the fortress. Nearly 3,500-4,000
officers and men thus remained inside the fortress.
Five to ten minutes before the beginning of the artillery fire, German assault units captured the
bridges across the Bug River, which units of the 12th Army Corps then crossed, heading for Brest.
A massive column of enemy panzers moved northwards and southwards of Brest, bypassing the
city as they headed eastwards.
The enemy hastened to exploit the advantages of their unexpected attack. The guns continued to
pound away while the advance assault detachments of submachine-gunners tried to force the
Bug on pontoons and rubber dinghies, hoping to capture the fortress in one energetic thrust. The
nazis' attempt to take the fortress in one fell swoop failed, however.
"We thought everything inside the fortress had been turned into a pile of rubble," Rudolf Gschopf
wrote in his memoirs. "We were proved wrong. The Russian soldiers were awakened from their
sleep by our attack, but they recovered very quickly, grouped themselves, and began a
desperate, stubborn, and organized defense."
The Brest Fortress proved to be the major point of resistance for the enemy on the
western frontier. It occupied a fairly large area. Its external boundary extended 6.4
kilometers along the outside. The western part was occupied by the Terespol Fortification
on the other side of the bridge. The Bug River flowed between the Citadel and this
fortification. The Volhyn Fortification, divided from the Citadel by the left branch of the
Mukhavets, occupied the southern part of the fortress. The Kobrin Fortification, divided
from the Citadel by the right branch of the Mukhavets, protected its north and east sides.
The Citadel itself was located on an island encircled by the Bug on the west and by the
Mukhavets on the south, east, and north.
THE VOLHYN FORTIFICATION
The Volhyn Fortification is situated beyond the calm waters of the left branch of the Mukhavets. A
bridge leads to the fortification - an exact copy of the bridge destroyed in the early hours of the
war. The ruins of the burned-out army hospital attests to the tragedy which took place here on the
morning of June 22, 1941. The fragments of casemates, overgrown with grass and foliage, look
calm and peaceful today.
The grounds of the Volhyn Fortification, which the enemy troops tried to capture in the first
hours of the war, contained border-guard details, a regimental school (whose cadets were out on
exercises), a large military hospital, and a medical unit. At the beginning of the war, the military
hospital was in the process of being moved. A large portion of the patients and medical personnel
had fortunately already been moved out. It was fortunate, because the first enemy shells and
bombs fell on the hospital buildings. The most seriously ill patients were killed, while those who
could move hid in the casemates of the earthworks, and many even took up arms to beat off the
attack. The hospital defense was organized by Commissar Nikolai Bogateyev and Dr. Stepan
Babkin. The doctors, nurses, orderlies, and patients also took up weapons, but naturally could not
withstand the crack infantry troops for long. The assault forces penetrated the hospital grounds.
By noon on June 22 the nazi troops had captured most of the buildings on the hospital grounds.
They then killed the remaining patients and wounded officers and men.
Fighting continued on the fortification grounds. The defense that was smounted at the South
Gates and on the outer earthworks was especially fierce. Nurses treated the patients and
wounded men who had hidden in the casemates. One nurse, Praskovya Tkacheva, recorded the
names and addresses of those who were there that day, on her trade-union membership card.
This document survived the war. It records that a nineteen-year-old nurse, Vera Khoretskaya,
died while shielding a wounded soldier as the enemy infantry closed in.
The nazi troops captured the main body of the Volhyn Fortification only towards the end of the
third day. Only eighteen of its defenders remained alive.
THE TERESPOL FORTIFICATION
The rubble of bricks and shattered, broken walls are all that remains today in many spots of the
Brest Fortress, including the Terespol Fortification. They are a living testimony to the fierce
Immediately after the beginning of the military offensive, the assault troops succeeded in entering
the Terespol Fortification, which protected the Citadel on the west. Three hundred Soviet officers
and men were inside: frontier-guards, students at the army drivers' school, a transport company,
an engineer platoon, cavalry officers doing their summer training here and athletes. Although this
diverse group was unprepared to beat off an enemy surprise attack, within several hours it
managed to drive out the enemy troops from most of the fortification. Two border-guard officers,
Fyodor Melnikov and Akim Cherny, led the organization of the defense.
The defenders were too few in number, however, and they did not have sufficient ammunition and
provisions. They therefore fought their way through first - on the night of June 24 - to the Kobrin
Fortification, and then - on June 30 - to the Citadel.
The steadfastness of one defender of the Terespol Fortification is illustrated in these words:
"During our breakthrough, we found a border-guard with a light machine-gun in the bushes.
There were a great many spent cartridge cases on the ground around him, along with reserve
disks for his machine-gun, and there were dozens of dead Nazis lying nearby. This was
apparently one of the border posts. War had found him here and he remained at his post all these
days carrying on an unequal battle with the enemy. He looked terrible: his eyes were bloodshot,
his face was gray and pinched, and his bony hands clutched the machine-gun grip. He had
obviously not eaten or slept for several days. He seemed to be unconscious. Suddenly he raised
his head and looked at us. We suggested that he should join us, but he parted his cracked lips
with difficulty and said firmly: "I will never leave this spot."
Only fifteen men remained alive out of the three hundred who defended the Terespol Fortification.
The enemy suffered heavy losses, too, however. Another excerpt from Rudolph Gschopf's
memoirs reads: "Our losses, both officers and men, were soon very high... Soviet soldiers hidden
in the bushes on the West Island effectively stopped our troops." According to Gschopf, the
headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the 135th Infantry Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 99th
Artillery Regiment of the German army were encircled and destroyed on the first day of the war,
and the officers of these units were killed.
THE KOBRIN FORTIFICATION
Before us we see the earthwork of the Kobrin Fortification covered with grass. Part of the
embankment is occupied by a powerful cement structure. In the middle stands a gigantic five-
pointed star - the symbol of the Soviet Army. The cement structure is pierced by rays which serve
as the main entrance to the Brest Fortress.
The Battles at the Eastern Earthworks. The Citadel was protected on the north and east by the
Kobrin Fortification, the largest in area. Up to 1,000 officers and men from various units took part
in its defense. Of course, the defense of the fortification was not organized along the entire line.
There were not enough troops for that. Three pockets of resistance were therefore formed where
the defenders had to act independently.
Memories of the battles for the Kobrin Fortification are still alive. The eastern earthworks where
the cement block with the star - the main entrance to the fortress - is located is itself a witness to
A bronze memorial plaque hangs inside the fortress' main entrance showing a page from a
calendar with broken lines running diagonally across it and the words, "July 5, 1941. Artillery
soldiers held the eastern earthworks". There are many memorial plaques of this type throughout
On the eve of the war this spot was occupied by the 98th Independent Anti-Tank Artillery
Battalion. When fighting began, the battalion's soldiers began to force their way out under
fire towards the main fighting area. As they approached the Eastern Gate, they entered
into battle with enemy tanks. Many of the tanks burned when hit by shells, and their
burned-out carcasses obstructed the route taken by the main body of the Soviet artillery
battalion. The soldiers were forced to take up defensive position on the Eastern
Earthworks. Lieutenant Ivan Akimochkin, the battalion's chief of staff and Senior Political
Instructor Nikolai Nesterchuk, took charge of the defense.
The artillery soldiers fought off all attacks in difficult skirmishes along the entire line of defense
until nightfall. Their supply of shells was running out, however. An ammunition supply depot was
nearby - only a few dozen meters away - but it was impossible to reach because of a solid wall of
mortar fire. Despite the risks incurred, the drivers of the still intact towing vehicles succeeded in
making several runs to the depot and brought hundreds of shells back to the fighting positions.
The days passed and the artillery units, who had occupied an all-round defense position, stopped
and burned enemy tanks and eliminated all infantry attacks. In one of the battles, a gun crew
commanded by Vasily Volokitin dispersed an enemy infantry column. When tanks appeared,
Volokitin set the leading tank on fire, but they continued to advance. The entire gun crew died in
this unequal battle.
The artillery soldiers beat off enemy attacks from the direction of the Moscow Highway and the
Volhyn Fortification in their position at the crest of the earthworks, which is still well-preserved
today. Panzers advanced on the embankment from several sides and enemy submachine-
gunners approached on foot. From up on top of the crest bursts of machine-gun fire and solitary
shell-bursts rang out. Grigory Derevyanko, the assistant political officer, met the enemy assault
units with machine-gun fire. He and his comrades dug a gun emplacement on the earthwork and
forced enemy troops back for several days.
The battalion held on steadfastly, but their situation was becoming markedly worse. Their lack of
adequate ammunition and food supplies was obvious, the soldiers had no water, and the
wounded needed medical attention. Nikolai Nesterchuk was wounded by an enemy grenade
during one of the attacks.
A small red flag was unfurled above the casemate near the Eastern Gate. It was struck down by
shells and machine-gun fire, yet each time the soldiers raised it again.
A chain of casemates guarding the Eastern Earthworks leads off to the right of the main entrance.
On July 4, the thirteenth day of the defense, the surviving soldiers headed by Akimochkin hid
inside these semicircular structures with brick walls. Many guns were damaged, the shell supply
had been exhausted, and there were very few cartridges left, yet the soldiers continued to fight.
The casemates are badly mutilated by fire. The intense heat caused their vaults to melt, forming
suspended drops of melted brick on their ceilings. The casemates might have been burning for
many days, or maybe the flamethrowers literally had burnt out the fortress' defenders.
After repeated, attacks, the nazis succeeded in breaking into the casemates. After hand-to-hand
combat, they captured Ivan Akimochkin, who was wounded and shell-shocked. Lieutenant
Akimochkin was executed.
The Defense of the East Fort. If we go further along the Eastern Earthworks, we will arrive at the
East Fort. It is surrounded by a horseshoe earthwork and the fort itself is below ground level: it
has a courtyard and a two-storey high brick wall with casemates hidden in the ground behind it. It
is a solid, powerful structure. The fighting over forty years ago is attested to by the breaches in
the walls, the badly damaged gun-slits, the shattered window openings, and the soot still
remaining from fires.
This was the largest defense sector of the Kobrin Fortification. Major Pyotr Gavrilov, the
experienced and energetic commander of the 44th Rifle Regiment, took over command of this
Awakened by the first explosions early in the morning of June 22, Gavrilov dressed quickly, said
goodbye to his wife and son, and ran to the Citadel where his regimental headquarters was
located. Collecting several dozen soldiers, Gavrilov headed toward the fortress' North Gate in
order to take up position in the defensive line. The exit through the gate proved to be closed off,
however, and so Gavrilov then organized a defense sector by the North Gate on the fortress
earthwork. Other soldiers already fighting here joined his own men. Gavrilov's group kept up an
exchange of fire with the submachine-gunners in their established positions until June 24, then
retreated to the East Fort. The soldiers fighting by the North Gate were joined by anti-aircraft
gunners, transport soldiers, and soldiers from other units quartered inside the fortress before the
outbreak of the war. In addition to the rifles already possessed by the assorted group, the soldiers
now had several 45-millimetre anti-tank cannons, two anti-aircraft guns, and a quadruple-
mounted anti-aircraft machine-gun.
As soon as the soldiers took up their positions in the fort, Major Gavrilov elaborated a defense for
this vital spot. He organized the officers and men of the various units into a mighty fighting body
and appointed commanding officers of the fort. Companies were formed, defense areas were
defined, telephone links were established, reconnaissance was organized, and a medical unit
was set up where officers' wives and children who had made their way to the fort were assisting
the nurses. In the initial stage of the defense, the number of defenders in the fort was about 400
people, including women and children.
The same situation could be found in many sections of the fortress. The surprise attack had
dispersed soldiers from various units and thrown them together in a haphazard fashion. The units
themselves had been thinned out because many officers and men were killed in the first few days
of the fighting. The remaining officers tried to transform the remaining soldiers into a monolithic
force, to supply them with arms, to protect them, and to make use of the forces at their disposal in
a rational fashion. There was simply no time for the soldiers or officers to search for their own
battalions, companies, or platoons. They all had to unite to rebuff the massive onslaught of the
Gavrilov's group spent their first day in the fort defending their positions and beating off enemy
attacks. Artillery units also took part in the battles. Anti-aircraft gunners drove back the enemy
tanks that tried to penetrate the fortress grounds through the North Gate, with their weapons. The
situation became worse on the second day. The fort was surrounded and the enemy began a
That night Senior Lieutenant Sergei Shramko and a group of soldiers mined the approaches to
the fort. Shramko and Private Ivan Zedginidze were killed on the way back to the fort. The mines
they had planted worked successfully. When panzers attacked the fort, several were badly
damaged by the mines. Volunteers holding bundles of grenades went out against the tanks, and
the tank assault was driven back.
Then the enemy intensified bombing of the little earthen horseshoe earthwork with the handful of
Soviet soldiers inside. The anti-aircraft gunners shot down an enemy airplane and continued to
beat off the panzer attacks. Each day the artillery fire increased and the bombings became more
merciless. From time to time enemy submachine-gunners reached the crest of the earthwork and
lobbed grenades into the horseshoe-shaped yard.
The commander of the nazi 45th Infantry Division wrote in his reports: "It was impossible to
advance here with only infantry at our disposal because the highly-organised rifle and machine-
gun fire from the deep gun emplacements and horseshoe-shaped yard cut down anyone who
approached. There was only one solution - to force the Russians 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...
"June 28. The tanks and assault weapons continued their fire on the East Fort, but with little
"Shelling from the 88-millimetre anti-aircraft gun also produced no results.
"June 29. From 8 a.m. on our planes dropped a great many five-hundred-kilogram bombs, but
also without results. Renewed artillery fire on the East Fort from tanks and assault weapons
proved just as ineffectual."
The defenders of the East Fort were given an ultimatum - to lay down their arms and hand
over their commanding officers. They were given one hour to make up their minds. If they did not
consent, the nazi command threatened to wipe the fortification and its garrison from the face of
the earth. An open Party meeting, the third and last in the East Fort, was called during this brief
hour. In explaining the situation to the soldiers, Pyotr Gavrilov said they could no longer count on
outside help and that the enemy had promised not to kill them if they ceased fighting. The
soldiers unanimously resolved to fight to their last bullet and to the last man.
When the hour passed, enormous explosions rocked the fort as a merciless assault began.
The commanding officer of the German 45th Infantry Division wrote: "June 30. The assault was
readied with petrol, oil, and grease. All this was rolled into the fort's trenches in barrels and
bottles, which we expected to burn with grenades and incendiary bullets."
The casemates caught fire from the unabated artillery barrage and the solid brick vaults
collapsed. An ammunition storage area exploded when hit by a heavy bomb and part of the fort
was turned into rubble. Enemy machine-gunners broke through to the external embankment and
then to the central yard of the horseshoe. Desperate hand-to-hand skirmishes began. At this
critical moment. Junior Sergeant Rodion Semenyuk and two soldiers buried the standard of the
393rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion in one of the casemates on the fort's west side. Fifteen years
later, Semenyuk returned to Brest, found the spot, and dug the standard up. Today we can see
Another casemate that we can view today served as a refuge for Gavrilov and two soldiers
when the garrison's resistance had been broken and the enemy occupied the fort. This refuge
was a deep burrow leading out of the casemate into the earthwork.
Gavrilov and the soldiers spent several days in this hole,
then decided to break through the enemy posts and make their way to Belovezhskaya Pushcha
Forest. They emerged from their refuge at night and, as agreed beforehand, split up and went in
different directions. Gavrilov succeeded in making his way through the line of posts and reached
the north-west section of the external earthwork. He crossed it and came out on the bank of the
canal by the fortress. However, on the other bank a massive line of enemy posts blocked the
way. Gavrilov decided to bide his time in a nearby caponier, now known as Gavrilov's Caponier.
The East Fort's commanding officer fought his last battle here.
If we follow Gavrilov's path north-west from the East Fort, we will come to the caponier. It is a
narrow, corner casemate with two firing slits, thick brick walls, and arched vaults. Water flows in
the by-pass canal and trees grow on the bank only a few meters from the caponier.
It was here in this stone hole that Gavrilov emptied his TT pistol and captured German
Walther of their last bullets. On July 23, the 32nd day of the war, the nazis finally captured the
wounded and exhausted Major Gavrilov. He was liberated from a nazi concentration camp in
Germany by Soviet soldiers in April, 1945.
Fighting in the Residential Area of the Kobrin Fortification. A major defense center was
formed in the north-west sector of the Kobrin Fortification not far from the North Gate, where the
residential area was situated. A green and flowering street lined with the homes of officers'
families stretched almost from one end of the Kobrin Fortification to the other. Fierce fighting and
time have effaced even the ruins here, evening out the remains of buildings and the ground.
On the last Sunday before the war, the officers' families relaxed, watched films in the club,
and listened to music. Night fell and in house No. 8 where the family of Senior Political Instructor
Ivan Pochernikov lived, six-year-old Alik and five-year-old Nina fell asleep. Suddenly, the earth
seemed to open up.
The children did not even have the time to get out of bed. Either a bomb or a shell hit their room
directly and killed them. Pochernikov was wounded, but managed to run out into the street with
his wife. The street as such did not really exist any longer;
instead there was a huge, tumbling pile of stones threatening the lives of anyone caught there.
Women with children in their arms ran out of the flaming houses as planes dive-bombed and
strafed the running figures. There were scarcely any men in sight, for they had already reported
their barracks and units. Only the wounded were left behind: one of these was Ivan Pochernikov.
Aided by wounded soldiers, Pochernikov organized a defense of several buildings. He chose a
location near the entrance of his own home, which was near a crossroad, as their basic position.
His wife, Alexandra, helped in the defense. They rebuffed several nazi attacks, but began to run
short of ammunition. Pochernikov's wife then crawled between buildings to remove the cartridge-
pouches from dead soldiers. Still, their ammunition was fast being used up. Finally, they were
down to their last two bullets. Enemy submachine-gunners were approaching quickly, and the
tramp of their heavy boots could already be heard. Two last shots rang out as Pochernikov and
his wife killed themselves rather than be captured.
Another group of homes was defended by soldiers headed by Captain Vladimir Shablovsky,
commanding officer of a battalion of the 1 25th Infantry Regiment. The enemy kept these
buildings under siege for three days, turning them into a pile of rubble. Nonetheless, each pile of
ruins concealed fighting men who fired at and repulsed the enemy. Women removed the
wounded from the field of battle and bandaged them, as well as bringing their men ammunition
Captain Shablovsky, who was an experienced and courageous officer, organized the defense
skillfully. The next morning fighting started again more fiercely than before and artillery fire was
intensified. German assault groups managed to occupy the ground floor of the building where
Shablovsky and his soldiers were fighting. That night, in accordance with his instructions, ten
volunteers lowered themselves on ropes from the first floor, quietly overcame the sentries, and
burst into the building, lobbing grenades at the nazi troops.
The enemy only succeeded in crushing the resistance offered by the few wounded soldiers with
tanks on June 24. Some of the defenders were taken prisoner, including Captain Shablovsky, his
wife Galina, and their children. The column of prisoners was taken under heavy convoy to the
rear of the fighting lines. When the column was in the middle of the old bridge leading across the
by-pass canal near the North Gate, Shablovsky brushed aside the guard and jumped over the
railing into the water. He was cut down by submachine-gun fire. Galina Shablovskaya and her
daughters spent two weeks in the Brest prison. Then they settled in a village outside Brest, where
Galina soon began to serve as a liaison agent with a partisan detachment. She was captured by
the Gestapo while carrying out her duties in 1943, tortured, and hanged.
The street where the officers' homes once stood and which today leads from Brest to the North
Gate of the fortress is now named in honor of the Heroes of the Defense of the Brest Fortress. It
is a very ordinary street. Young mothers stroll along it with their children. Elderly people chat
quietly in their gardens, and boys play football.
THE CITADEL'S DEFENSE
The strongest center of defense of the Brest Fortress was in its central section, the Citadel,
located on an island. In the very first hours of the attack on the fortress, the enemy infantry tried
to make their way from the western fortification towards the fortress' Terespol Gate, which was
the focus for the main thrust of the German 45th Infantry Division. If they succeeded in capturing
the gate, they would have penetrated the Citadel. Enemy assault troops also attempted to break
through into the Citadel through the Kholm and Brest Gates in order to block off the fortress'
central section and isolate it from the earthwork on the other side of the bridge where intense
fighting was in progress.
Thirst. Today a broad road made of cement blocks leads from the main entrance to the Central
Island where the Citadel is located. There is a sculptural monument entitled Thirst to the left of
this road at the spot where the Mukhavets divides into two branches and washes the banks of the
The memorial shows a wounded soldier making his way through fire to the river. Inside the
fortress there are soldiers, women, and children dying of thirst. The soldier crawls towards the
riverbank for their sake, barely strong enough to make it, leaning on his submachine-gun. He is
striving to get even only a helmetful of water - so near and yet so unreachable. His twisted face,
his outstretched body, and his hand gripping the helmet, reaching towards the river attest to the
cruel and inhuman suffering he and his comrades experienced.
The lives of the fortress defenders were threatened from the very beginning of the siege by the
enemy who constantly bombed and strafed the fortress and attacked it with numerically superior
assault troops. The defenders were ready to withstand even the most difficult and bloody battles,
to which the history of the defense attests.
Not only were the fortress defenders threatened by the numerically superior enemy, but soon
they also began to run out of food because many of the food supply depots had been either
destroyed or burnt. They collected whatever food there was left in the canteens and in the badly-
damaged warehouses. It was far too little, though, and each passing day made their hunger
Medical supplies and bandages also quickly ran out. The soldiers sought fresh supplies in
damaged warehouses and dressing stations which were still intact. Undergarments were torn up
and used as bandages, but wounds received in fighting were increasingly left unbandaged.
The worst hardship borne by the fortress defenders, however, was thirst. The enemy had
bombarded the fortress with incendiary bombs, dropped on defenders petrol-filled barrels, and
used shells that splattered burning liquids when they exploded. Some parts of the fortress were a
solid sea of fire. Everything that could burn, did burn. The fires continued unabated in various
spots. The hot summer air was even more unbearably hot and, together with the thick smoke and
the dust from shattered bricks hanging constantly in clouds over the ruins, it made the people
inside the fortress unbearably thirsty. There was no water, though, with which to quench their
The water-tower located above the Terespol Gate was destroyed and the water supply system
was damaged at many spots. There were no emergency reserves of water in the fortress, nor
were there any wells inside it. True, the Mukhavets flowed only a few meters from its walls, but it
was impossible to obtain water from it. The enemy installed machine-gunners in the bushes along
the riverbanks who opened fire at anyone who ventured to reach the river. Anyone who attempted
to reach the river by day or night was immediately shot down. There were attempts to dig wells in
the casemates, and sheets attached to ropes were thrown into the river, then pulled back, and the
dirty water was wrung out of them into mess-tins; people even put damp sand into their mouths.
None of this, though, could replace a single drop of ordinary water.
The Fighting Near the Terespol Gate. The road running along the bank of the left-hand branch of
the Mukhavets River and outside of the fortress turns around the barracks. Until June 22, 1941
this building encircled the Central Island in a two-kilometer ring. During the siege, this ring was
broken in many spots. Only 860 meters of the circular barracks remain today.
One sector remaining in the south-west part of the Central Island was relatively quiet during the
siege. Exactly how quiet and undisturbed it was can be seen from the wall facing the river. Its
surface is scarred by bullet-holes and shell-splinters. After the wall is an open space which looks
as if nothing had even been there. This spot was previously occupied by part of a building
destroyed by artillery fire.
This branch of the Mukhavets, a narrow and insignificant water barrier from the military point of
view - a few strokes of the oar are enough to cross it - turned out to be very difficult for the enemy
to cross as they attempted to force it in the course of their advance. The fortress defenders
stopped any attempts to cross it with heavy, well-aimed gunfire. The enemy infantry units then
tried to cross the river's bridges.
The Citadel's Terespol Gate is located at the spot where the Mukhavets River flows into the Bug
River. Once there used to be a 3-storey structure with small turrets above the gate. Inside there
were two enormous water tanks which allowed it to function as a watertower of sorts. After the
siege only the first floor and fragments of the second were left. The rest was gone altogether,
turned to rubble and dust.
Two large two-storied buildings one behind the other, cutting across the courtyard, stood near the
Terespol Gate. One of them housed the 9th Frontier-Guard Station and the commandant's office,
while the other served as the barracks of the 333rd Rifle Regiment. When the war broke out,
there were very few men here, as in the other units, and many officers and men died at the outset
of the attack. Alexander Sanin, appointed assistant chief of staff of the 333rd Rifle Regiment only
one week before the outbreak of war, recalled the terrible first few moments in these words:
"A deafening roar shook our barrack walls. My cot stood by the wall, and this saved me because
a heavy bomb hit the roof of the building and went straight through to the first floor, so that
everyone in the room was buried under a load of bricks and rubble. The fire, deafening
explosions, collapsing walls, dust and smoke at first made it impossible to grasp what was
Bombs and shells rained down on the 9th Frontier-Guard Station. Ceilings collapsed in many of
its rooms. The guards who were not killed helped their comrades and carried out the wounded.
The enemy hastened to exploit the advantages of their sudden attack. The explosions had hardly
stopped when German infantrymen stormed the Terespol Gate. They were met with gunfire from
the windows, embrasures, and basements. Headed by Lieutenant Andrei Kizhevatov, head of the
9th Frontier-Guard Station, the frontier-guards fought the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
Soldiers of the 333rd Regiment, led by Lieutenant Alexander Potapov, their assistant chief of
staff, soon came to their aid.
A fighting group made up of officers and men from different units took shape in the first few
minutes of the war at the Terespol Gate to defend this tactical defense position in this sector of
the fortress, as happened at other defensive positions, too.
The Kholm Gate. The First Counter-Attack. We should approach the Kholm Gate - a distinctive
symbol of today's fortress - from the Terespol Gate, crossing the Citadel's inner courtyard, and
going along the remaining part of the circular barracks. When this gate was built it was decorated
with fanciful little turrets and a medallion. They are still there - the little turrets and the medallion –
but they have been disfigured forever. All the red bricks in the Kholm Gate are scarred by bullets
and shells and blackened by smoke.
The enemy's surprise attack and their numerical superiority enabled a group of enemy
submachine-gunners to penetrate the Terespol Gate on the morning of June 22, make their way
to the center of the Citadel, and occupy the regimental club building, which dominated the entire
Citadel, rising above all the other buildings. The submachine-gunners set up a radio transmitter
inside the club to guide the gunfire of their artillery units and began to shell the barracks from the
rear, dispersing the garrison's units. In addition, some of the enemy submachine-gunners began
to move towards the Kholm and Brest Gates from inside, with the aim of fully taking over the
center of the fortress. Decisive measures were needed, and they were taken by the commissar of
the 84th Rifle Regiment, Yefim Fomin.
This regiment occupied the barracks on both sides of the Kholm Gate. Most of its troops and their
commanding officer and chief of staff were outside the fortress. Only two artillery companies, a
company of mortar-gunners and a transport company, plus an anti-aircraft unit, military band,
medical and veterinary service workers were left in the barracks on the night of June 22.
When the fortress was hit by enemy bombs and shells, Fomin took command. The first confusion
was quickly overcome, the soldiers were armed and grouped together in the safety of the
basement, from where they launched their first bayonet attack. They took the enemy by surprise
and struck at the middle of an advancing enemy group, splitting it in two. Men from other units
supported the counter-attack. Some of the German submachine-gunners ran back to the club
building and towards the Terespol Gate, while another, larger group retreated in the direction of
the island's eastern shore, hoping to cross the Mukhavets. However, the attacking Soviet troops
defeat the enemy group. This was the first counter-attack struck at the German assault groups.
Inside the Kholm Gate there is a bronze plaque in the form of a calendar page, reading: "June 22,
1941. At dawn a group of soldiers from the 84th Rifle Regiment launched a counter-attack which
destroyed the enemy assault detachment. "
All day long on June 22 the enemy made numerous attempts to penetrate the Citadel by crossing
the bridge leading to the Kholm Gate. However, Fomin organized a clear defense plan for this
gate. Wave after wave of enemy assault troops tried to cross the bridge, but were met by gunfire
from the 84th Regiment and fell on the bridge or on the riverbanks. Enemy troops opened fire
again and again, peppered the walls beside the Kholm Gate with bullet and shell holes - not a
single un-scarred spot remains today. The mutilated walls tell us how fierce the fighting was here.
The garrison's stubborn resistance brought the German Army units to a halt.
The victory won at dawn in eliminating the group of submachine-gunners who had forced
their way into the fortress gave a fresh impetus to the Citadel's defenders. The regimental
commissar, Fomin, set up his command post next to the Engineering Headquarters building in
the very middle of the Citadel's courtyard - its ruins can be seen from the Kholm Gate -and tried
to establish radio contact with divisional headquarters. No one responded to the fortress' calls.
Then Fomin broadcast an open text, saying: "This is the fortress. This is the fortress. We are
fighting..." The radio station continued to broadcast this message until it ran out of power.
The ruins of the Engineering Headquarters, standing slightly above ground level, are carefully
Several times during the day of June 23 nazi loudspeakers unsuccessfully urged the
defenders of the fortress to surrender. Enemy artillery ringed the fortress, constantly firing on the
Citadel, and nazi planes raided it.
Commissar Fomin organized an attack by the soldiers of the 84th and 333rd Regiments on
the club building occupied by the enemy submachine-gunners with their radio transmitter. This
two-pronged attack was a success and the enemy soldiers were forced out of the building. The
battle for the building continued, nonetheless.
Let us take a look at this building, which was so important for the fortress' defenders and
enemies, and which gave rise to so much fierce, bloody fighting. As a result of the battle, the
building lost its roof and part of the second floor, and suffered greatly from fire. The soot from the
fires settled so deeply into the bricks that even today they look charred, as if the fire were put out
only an hour ago.
On the afternoon of June 23, the men of the 44th Regiment saw a man wearing a Soviet
officer uniform, decorated with an Order of the Red Star, running through the nazi-held territory
towards the right-hand branch of the Mukhavets. A moment later he threw himself into the river,
swam across under submachine-gun fire, and arrived safely at the fortress barracks. He was
Senior Lieutenant Vasily Bytko, head of the regimental school. At the very onset of the fighting,
he had led part of the cadets out of the fortress to an assigned assembly point in case of attack,
and now he had returned for those who remained behind in the fortress. Bytko led the sector
defended by the 44th Regiment: he assigned soldiers to man the windows and gun-slits and
explained to them how they should change their firing positions; he set up communication links
with neighboring sectors and with defense headquarters. Later, Bytko and Senior Lieutenant
Alexander Semenenko, the assistant chief of staff of the 44th Regiment, capably and
courageously commanded fighting in the north-west defense sector.
The Brest Gate. The Focus of Fighting. It is not far from the club building to the right branch
of the Mukhavets. Lying before us is the bank towards which Vasily Bytko swam under
submachine-gun fire. Today there are no buildings there. The long north-west wing of the ring-
shaped barracks (almost 600 meters in length) was destroyed and the ashes and rubble blown
away by the wind.
A grave danger for the Citadel's defenders arose here. Enemy submachine-gunners made their
way across the earth-works and occupied the north bank of the Mukhavets River on both sides of
the bridge by the triple-arched Brest Gate of the Citadel. They made several attempts to ford the
Mukhavets and establish a position on the north-east edge of the Central Island. All their attempts
were futile (fell in oblivion). The soldiers of the 455th Rifle Regiment and the 33rd Engineering
Regiment, both of which had barracks by the Brest Gate, drove off the enemy with bayonet
attacks. Defense in this sector was commanded by Senior Lieutenant Nikolai Shcherbakov,
Lieutenant Anatoly Vinogradov, and Political Instructor Pyotr Koshkarov.
Two panzers headed for the bridge from the north by way of the Kobrin Fortification. The
Soviet troops cut off the enemy infantry with gunfire, but the tanks crossed the bridge and
broke into the fortress' central courtyard. One tank kept up a steady stream of fire on the
barracks. A senior lieutenant and a sergeant-major whose names we do not know ran out
of the basement, quickly making their way to the regimental artillery depot and, in spite of
fire, aimed an anti-tank gun at the panzer. Its gunsight turned out to be broken, and so the
sergeant-major took aim through the gun-barrel. The first shell hit the ground near the
tank's tracks, and the second wedged up its turret. The next two shells destroyed the
Let us walk over to the bridge joining the banks of the right branch of the Mukhavets River. The
main force of the Citadel's defenders fought here, by the Brest Gate. The gate itself with its triple
arches and powerful columns has not been preserved, for it was destroyed during the fighting.
On the morning of June 24 the enemy intensified its attack on the Citadel and brought reserve
troops into the fighting. A fierce, stubborn battle began at the Brest Gate. Regimental Commissar
Yefim Fomin transferred his command post to this area. It was here that he came across Captain
Ivan Zubachov, assistant commander of the 44th Rifle Regiment, and who was commanding the
defense in the Citadel's northwest sector. Fomin and Zubachov decided to create immediately a
joint command for the defense of the Central Island. That afternoon, during an especially
prolonged air-raid, when the German infantry usually ceased their attack, Zubachov and Fomin
called a meeting of commanding officers and political staff in a casemate in the barracks near the
Brest Gate. A directive (order of the day) was adopted as a result of the meeting that became a
historical document. This is how it began:
"Directive No. 1, June 24, 1941, the Fortress. The situation which has arisen in the fortress
requires creation of a joint command and organized military action to continue the struggle
against the enemy..." The Directive went on to say that the officers at the meeting had decided to
place all their individual units into one large, joint-fighting force. Captain Zubachov was appointed
commanding officer of the force, Commissar Fomin was appointed his assistant, and Senior
Lieutenant Semenenko was appointed chief of staff.
After three days of fighting, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs, held a
press conference in Berlin to announce that Russian resistance along the border had been
broken. However, it was on this very day that a joint command was created for the besieged
garrison at the Brest Fortress. The Citadel's defense acquired a more organized, well-conceived
character. Even though the commanding officers of the joint force did not manage to unify the
defense throughout the fortress - the fighting became more and more intense, and the enemy's
onslaught became more fierce, which caused the situation to be constantly fluid, and with it the
disposition of the fighting defense units - nonetheless, the creation of a headquarters staff and the
Directive played a major role in the defense of the Citadel, strengthening it, and making it both
more stable and more flexible.
Now we shall take a look at the ruins of the circular barracks by the bridge. There is a bronze
calendar-page plaque on the wall reading: "June 24, 1941. A meeting of commanding officers
and political officers was held in the basement of this building and Directive No. 1 adopted,
creating a joint leadership for the defense of the Fortress."
When it became clear that the front had moved far eastwards and no help could be expected, the
commanding officers of the Citadel decided to form a large force to break out of the fortress. If
this attempt succeeded. Captain Zubachov was to then lead out the main contingent of the
besieged troops in the Citadel after the first group. At noon on June 26 an advance unit of 120
men rushed out of the Brest Gate in the direction of the bridge. Machine-gunners covered the
attacking troops with fire. Only a few small groups, however, succeeded in fighting their way
through the solid ring of enemy troops, and at a great loss in human life.
There is a small section of a brick wall left where the Brest gate once stood, and where the
small group of soldiers tried to break out of the fortress by running in the face of submachine-gun
fire beneath the arches and past the columns. There is another bronze plaque reading: "June
26,1941. A group of Red Army officers and men broke out of the fortress at this site on orders
from the commanders of the joint force. "
Another group of soldiers defending the Terespol Gate and what was left of the barracks of
the 333rd Regiment also decided to break out somewhat later after a week of fierce fighting. The
leaders of the defense in this sector, Kizhevatov and Potapov, decided to leave across the bridge
at the Terespol Fortification, then cross the Bug River, get through to Volhyn Fortification, and
from there make their way towards the military compound in the southern part of Brest. They
were counting on the enemy's expectation of an attempt to break out of the fortress northwards or
eastwards, but not at the Terespol Gate. Lieutenant Potapov led a detachment of soldiers in the
breakout attempt, and Kizhevatov commanded the group to provide them with covering fire.
Kizhevatov himself lay down behind a big gun to help cover Potapov's group. The attempt did not
succeed, however, and the attackers suffered heavy losses. After this, no further such attempts
On June 27, the enemy began to use 540-millimetre guns, which fired shells weighing 1.25
tons, and 600-millimetre guns, which bombarded the Citadel walls with concrete-piercing shells
weighing over 2 tons. The situation inside the fortress became even more grave.
As mentioned earlier, the war had caught women and children inside the fortress. The women
cared for the wounded, loaded the machine-gun discs and belts with cartridges, and even took up
rifles to help defend the fortress from enemy attacks. Children who had only a few days before
been at school helped bring ammunition and food supplies from half-destroyed supply depots,
searched for and brought weapons, and watched enemy movements.
Regardless of the defenders' stubborn resistance inside the fortress, the enemy with its
outnumbering forces gradually gained the upper hand. The defenders were short of ammunition.
What they had found in the supply stores was quickly running out. They now had to risk their lives
to remove ammunition from burning supply depots. The defenders began to make more frequent
use of German weapons seized in skirmishes or picked up on the field of battle. Food and water
supplies ran out.
"I remember as if it were yesterday how I went down into the basement to the wounded,
women, and children, and a boy of about six came up to me. He pulled at my trousers and
begged, 'Water, water, please'. His lips were cracked and bleeding from thirst, and all around him
were children just as dirty, tormented, and hungry as he. My heart couldn't stand it and I walked
out of the basement, hardly aware of what I was doing. All night long we searched for water, but
we couldn't get enough for everyone" (from the recollections of Pyotr Koshkarov). It was
impossible to leave women and children in the fortress in these conditions, and so they were sent
out under a white flag.
Let us return to the Brest Gate's former site. In the last days of June, the enemy began to
direct its main blows towards this point, where the main force of the besieged garrison under
command of Zubachov and Fomin was located. The enemy submachine-gunners succeeded
several times in occupying part of the barracks adjacent to the Brest Gate. Each time, however,
the defenders drove out the invaders in hand-to-hand combat. Then an attack was mounted by
German submachine-gunners and demolition squads who, during the attack, crawled across the
barrack rooftops and attics, dropping powerful charges down the chimneys which exploded,
causing the walls and ceilings to collapse on the fighting men inside. Fyodor Isayev, the
headquarters clerk of the 84th Rifle Regiment who concealed the regimental banner on his chest,
died in the explosion. Fyodor Ryabov, a cook, was also hit in the hand, but he would not stop
fighting. Somewhat later Ryabov received another, more serious wound in a hand-to-hand com
bat. His friends carried him down into the basement, where the wounded were being cared for.
When enemy submachine-gunners broke into the basement, Ryabov threw a grenade into their
midst with his last burst of energy.
On June 29, the enemy again delivered an ultimatum to the fortress' defenders: the besieged
troops would have to surrender or else the fortress would be totally destroyed. One hour was
given them to reach a decision. (How many hours were given at different times to decide the
same question!) Time ran out but the Citadel did not raise the white flag.
A massive assault on the Citadel was then begun. Dozens of bombers circled over the fortress
and showered powerful bombs onto it. These explosions caused cracks as deep as those caused
by earthquakes to appear even in buildings in the city. Inside the fortress itself walls, two-meters
thick, crumbled, age-old trees were uprooted and blown up into the air, and bricks and metal
melted. Enemy tanks penetrated the Citadel's courtyard and fired continuously at the gun-slits,
windows, and walls of the buildings still standing. German assault troops succeeded in occupying
several rooms in the south-east sector of the circular barracks building. Fierce fighting broke out
by the club building. Engineering Headquarters, and the Brest Gate.
The assault continued on June 30. The major group defending the fortress was gradually being
destroyed and broken up, and the defense headquarters was smashed.
Let us look once again at the ruins of the barracks building beside the bridge leading over the
right branch of the Mukhavets. A wall in one wing of this building collapsed from an exploding
enemy shell and buried Isayev, the clerk, with the banner hidden on his chest. Ryabov, the cook,
also died in one of the basement rooms. It was somewhere in this building, too, that the wounded
and exhausted commanding officers of the joint force. Captain Zubachov and Commissar Fomin,
were taken captive after the general assault.
The bricks had still not cooled from battle when enemy soldiers brought Commissar Fomin
outside the fortress and stood him with his back to the wall. The last thing the commissar saw
before he was shot on June 30 by the Citadel's Kholm Gate was the quiet river, overgrown by
willow bushes. A bronze plaque, marking the date, bears testimony to this. Captain Zubachov
died in a nazi concentration camp at Hammelburg in 1944.
The Last Defenders Continue to Fight. After fierce continuous fighting the enemy troops occupied
most of the fortress. But the fighting went on, even though instead of a joint defense there were
now only isolated centers of resistance -which nonetheless fought on even more stubbornly and
ferociously. The detachment defending the White Palace - a building guarding the route to the
Central Island from one fork of the Mukhavets - continued to fight. Lieutenant Arkady Nagai led
this group. The troops defending the White Palace prevented the enemy from entering the Citadel
from the eastern part of the Kobrin Fortification for a long time. They guarded the bridge, half a
kilometer east of the fork of the Mukhavets, with rifle and cannon fire and coordinated their
actions with other defense groups. During the general assault on the fortress, a large bomb
dropped from a plane hit the White Palace and exploded inside the building. The roof collapsed
and the building was almost totally destroyed, killing many of its defenders. But the soldiers who
remained alive carried on fighting. Senior Sergeant Kuvalin and his assistant, Volkov, changed
their position four times as they beat off enemy attacks with their heavy machine-gun. They only
stopped firing after a mine scored a direct hit on their gun.
We can see the remains of the White Palace today directly to the inside right of the entrance to
the Central Island. The bombs, shells, and mines not only pitted and shattered the walls, but also
turned the building's basement rooms into ruins. The vaults of the basement ceilings also
collapsed and today the sun's rays shine through into rooms that had never seen sun before.
Nevertheless, it is unpleasantly cold down there.
We can go downstairs and walk around from room to room to examine the walls and stones
which heard the roar of explosions, the crackle of rifle fire, and the thunder of the heavy machine-
gun. A miraculously preserved portion of a wall bears a bronze calendar plaque saying: "July 1,
1941. The fortress' defenders fought on in the White Palace, an important defense position for the
In July soldiers continued fighting from the western sector of the 333rd Regiment's circular
barracks and from the basements. The enemy used the most merciless means at his disposal to
put an end to resistance here. General Schlieper, commanding officer of the German 45th
Division, wrote in one of his reports: "The 81st Combat Engineers' Battalion was given the task of
blowing up this building on the Central Island ... in order to put an end to the Russian troops'
flanking fire at the North Island. Explosives were lowered from the roof of the building towards the
windows, then the fuses were lit. When they exploded, we could hear the Russian soldiers
screaming and groaning, but they continued to fight." In his book, Rudolph Gschopf writes: "We
only gradually managed to take one defensive position after another as a result of stubborn
fighting. The garrison of the so-called "Officers' Corps" on the Central Island only ceased to exist
with the building itself... The resistance continued until the walls of the building were destroyed
and razed to the ground by more powerful explosions." Lieutenant Kizhevatov, one of the leaders
of this sector's defense, died in the last fighting.
A granite block bears a five-cornered star and a marble plaque with the inscription: "Soviet
frontier-guards led by Lieutenant Andrei Kizhevatov heroically fought against German invaders
here, in the former building of the 9th Frontier-Guard Station of the 17th Frontier-Guard
Detachment. The name of Andrei Kizhevatov was given to a new frontier-guard station. "Nothing
remains of the old frontier-guard station today.
On July 8, the commanding officers of the 45th Division, which was laying siege to the fortress,
sent a report to their general headquarters that the fortress had fallen. This was not entirely
correct, however. Tiny centers of resistance continued in individual sectors of the Citadel and the
Kobrin Fortification from late June to mid-July. Until the very end of July, however, rifle fire and
short bursts of machine-gun fire continued to ring out from basements and half-destroyed
casemates with small groups of soldiers inside. After that, solitary fighters bravely fought on.
Even though they were starving and covered with wounds, they asked no mercy nor sought to
give themselves up. No one knows when the very last shot was fired in the fortress, who the last
defenders were, or how they died. In August of 1941, however, a German military magazine
carried a photograph on its cover, showing nazi flamethrowers still operating in the Brest