I came across an opinion of an alternative "historian"/conspiracy theorist who claims that the defense of Brest fortress did not make sense. According to his theory, its inhabitants should have left the fortress to the Germans because a counter-offensive was planned for a later stage. As far as I understand, he thinks that the retreat of the Red Army in the early phases of the war was part of Stalin's strategy.

I want to investigate whether or not his opinion may be true.

Imagine that instead of trying to defend the Brest fortress, its inhabitants retreat without much bloodshed. Would the Red Army lose anything important (compared to the real life scenario in which Soviet troops defended the fortress for 30 days, until most of them were killed)?

Or, same question in different words: What exactly did the Red Army gain from the defence of the Brest fortress?

My answer

Hypothesis: Defense of the Brest fortress did not make any sense

Argument in support of the hypothesis

  • All other Soviet units in its vicinity either retreated or were destroyed by the Germans. The Germans could advance eastwards regardless of whether they seized the fortress or not.

Arguments against the hypothesis

In Wikipedia I found the following text:

The fortress and the city controlled the crossings over the Bug River, as well as the Warsaw–Moscow railway and highway.

If this is true, then the Germans could not use

  • the Bug river and
  • the Warsaw-Moscow railway

as transportation channels as long as the fortress was not captured.

Update 1:

This argument has been refuted by @pnuts:

But the strategic objectives - control over the Panzerrollbahn I, i.e. the road to Moscow, the important railway line, and the bridges over the Bug river - were accomplished the very first day of the war.

Source: Wikipedia article mentioned above.

  • 3
    Not even looking at it, that argument seems silly on its face. If it was a fortress worth its name, it should cost much more in lives to take it than to defend it. So no matter what your future plans are, defending it is going to be worth the trouble. Particularly if you're on the side that has less issues with manpower (which the Russians were). As a bonus, if you're going to have to take it back at some point, why not let the enemy do the job of destroying that annoying fortress for you?
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 28, 2018 at 18:34
  • @T.E.D. My impression (correct me if I'm wrong) is that the fortress did not prevent the Germans from advancing. Basically, the German troops walked around the fortress. From the Soviet perspective there were two options: 1) Retreat and fight the Germans in a different place and at a different time (when the Germans have lost momentum). 2) Defend the fortress and lose most of your people in the process. Option 2 makes sense, if the fortress is very valuable. But I don't see, what value it had.
    – user23839
    Dec 28, 2018 at 18:43
  • 1
    Well, somebody put effort into reducing the fortress, and if it wasn’t the Germans...
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 28, 2018 at 21:06
  • Considering the losses the Red Army suffered in the first hours of the war, and the chaotic retreat, I don't see how one could possibly hypothesize that a retreat was a grand plan.
    – vpekar
    Dec 29, 2018 at 12:26
  • @vpekar The narrative of the treacherous surprise attack is a very useful one politically. The US government used it in reference to the Pacific War and the Soviets used it in reference to the Great Patriotic War. I think there are some well founded controversies surrounding the extent to which either of those two governments may have precipitated the conditions allowing for such a framing of events. Mar 20, 2020 at 10:42

3 Answers 3


Note: I'm using Wikipedia as my only source. This answer is supposition. But let's think this idea of retreat through.

...he thinks that the retreat of the Red Army in the early phases of the war was part of Stalin's strategy.

Was there a grand strategy?

The defenders in the fortress were surprised on the first day of the invasion by a brief, but heavy, early morning bombardment by the 45th Infantry Division followed quickly by an sudden infantry attack. The Germans were crossing the river within minutes before the Soviets could mount an effective defense. They couldn't effectively man and defend their outer defenses. The Soviet defenders that didn't make it back to the fortress were caught in the open, or stuck in isolated strongholds. Vital men and material and good defensive ground that could have been used to resist a siege were lost.

This was in the first few hours. If this was all part of Stalin's grand strategy, it stank. If an attack was coming and retreat was the plan, nobody told the defenders of the fortress. How can they plan a retreat from an attack they didn't know was coming?

Furthermore, Soviet high command wasn't aware that Brest was holding out.

In March 1942 the Red Army defeated the [the 45th Infantry Division who conducted the siege] at Livny, Russia and captured the archive of the division. That was the first time the Red Army learned about the defense of Brest Fortress.

The Soviet High Command can't coordinate a retreat from a siege they don't even know was happening.

Given there is no evidence of a coordinated grand strategy of retreat, this comes down to the tactical decisions of the local commanders. Once the surprise wore off, should they have held out, or should they have attempted a breakout? Let's look at the situation at the end of the first day.

The units in the Fortress were the 6th Rifle Division, elements of the 42nd Rifles, plus some Soviet Border Troops. The 6th was assigned to the fortress and was mostly fully formed up when the attack hit. By the end of the first day the bulk of the 6th and its HQ had retreated, though scattered, but some elements remained trapped in the fortress.

The 42nd was still forming up when the attack came having only collected about 3/5ths of their strength and who knows what equipment. Their elements were scattered around with only part of the division inside the fortress. The surprise attack only made this worse. Some elements of the 42nd did break out on the first day, but fractured elements were scattered about inside the fortress.

Finally, the Soviet Border Troops trapped within the fortress were not part of the regular army. These were NKVD, a completely different chain of command.

At the end of the day many forces have retreated. Inside the fortress is the remnants of the 6th division with no divisional HQ, elements of the 42nd division which didn't even complete muster before the war started, some border troops under the NKVD. They have who knows what equipment, ammunition, probably few vehicles, armor, or artillery. They're scattered, surprised, and have taken heavy losses. Their command and communications are fragmented. They may only have a hazy idea of the strategic situation, what direction the front line is, and how far. They're surrounded by superior, mobile German forces.

In this desperate tactical situation, organizing a coordinated break out among the fragmented defenders would be difficult to say the least. Its chances of success were even less. And break out to where? The rest of the Soviet army was also getting mauled and fast retreating. All they would succeed in doing is leaving their strong defenses to be scattered and slaughtered in the open.

The local commanders made the correct choice to remain behind their defenses and hold out for as long as possible.

Was it effective? Probably more effective than getting caught in the open, surrounded, and annihilated like much of the rest of the Soviet border army.

But what about the casualty ratio? 2000 dead & 6800 captured Soviets for 429 dead and 668 wounded Germans seems a very poor trade off for a siege. And it is. And they didn't even block the railway and roads to Moscow.

However, they held up a German infantry division, and elements of others, for 7 days. That's probably 7 days more than they would have otherwise if they attempted a breakout. Given the tight timetable of Operation Barbarossa, any delay is a Soviet strategic victory.

  • 3
    The defenders of the fortress had no idea how far east the Germans had advanced (there was no communication with the high command), they must have hoped they would be soon rescued from the siege.
    – vpekar
    Dec 29, 2018 at 12:31

Actually, people like defenders of Brest fortress saved the Soviet Union and consequently won WW2

When you look at figures (number of troops, casualty ratio etc ...) in Wikipedia and other articles, first impression was that defense of Brest fortress was not very successful. Attackers had around 17 thousand men, defenders around 9, so not even usual 3:1 advantage for attack was achieved. Attackers sustained relatively low casualties (429 dead, 668 wounded) while defenders were practically all wiped out (KIA or POW). Also, most of the fortress fell in two days, some pockets remained few days more, rest were just stragglers hiding in underground cellars, so siege didn't last that long.

However, when you dig little bit deeper, you will find another truth. Out of 9000 original defenders, only small part actually resisted the attack. According to sources from Russian Wikipedia, only 3-4000 personal were actually in the fortress on the morning of June 22nd. Rest, which were outside (training , building earth fortifications etc ) fared no better then usual Soviet infantry divisions in the summer of 1941 - in the chaos and confusion of German attack they were quickly destroyed either trying to retreat to the East, or attempting to confront invaders on some random unprepared position.

Many of those remaining in the fortress also didn't put much resistance. After first failed attempt to storm the fortress, Germans opened artillery fire and in the morning of June 23rd 1900 Soviet troops surrendered (and another 1000-1200 on June 24th) . Remaining defenders were isolated in pockets, largest group was that commanded by Major Gavrilov in Eastern Fort, it consisted of around 400-500 men, with similar number in so called "Officers House". So actually, number of active defenders, those who resisted Germans during the June 23 was most likely around 2000, and from June 24th likely bellow 1000.

Now we come to the real story and significance of struggle: Officers House fell on June 26th, and Eastern Fort on June 29th only after the heavy airstrikes by Ju-87. Remaining stragglers like Gavrilov fought on until July, maybe even August. Considering that those few hundred people held up major parts of infantry division and even some aviation assets, strategic implications become clear: Soviet formations (including whole armies) that tried to maneuver, retreat, counter-attack or fulfill some another grand plan in the opening days of war in the East failed miserably. But Soviet soldiers, either individually or in groups, fighting stoically and stubbornly where they stood, slowed down and finally stopped German invasion in front of Moscow, effectively deciding outcome of WW2.


That the defense of the Brest fortress had no military purpose is an understatement. I cite a respected Soviet general and historian Sandalov, who participated in the events:

Большое количество личного состава частей 6-й и 42-й стрелковых дивизий осталось в крепости не потому, что они имели задачу оборонять крепость, а потому, что не могли из нее выйти.

"Large numbers of personnel of the 6-th and 42-th infantry divisions stayed in the fortress not because they had an order to defend it, but because they could not leave it."

Two infantry divisions were accommodated in the fortress Including the family members of many officers. The fortress was situated right on the border. When the Germans started bombing it, people rushed to the exit, but they could not leave it physically through the narrow exit. A soviet infantry division had about 12000 men. So the only choice was between death and captivity.

Let me recall that surrendering to captivity (under any circumstances) was considered a crime in Soviet Union. So they heroically resisted for 7 days. When the fortress was finally taken 7223 Soviet military were captured. But the Germans lost 1120 men (killed and wounded) which was a huge rate of loss for German army at that time. (All numbers are from German official data). Commander of the 42-nd Soviet infantry division was arrested on 17 of September 1941, tried and sentenced to death. Commander of the 6-th division was probably killed in the fortress.

It is unlikely that the people in the fortress had any communication with the Soviet command outside, for the simple reason that the Soviet command at that time was not functional for all practical purposes. Everything was in complete mess.

Of course the heroic resistance of these soldiers helped to save the honor of Soviet army; a large part of it offered almost no resistance to the fast German advance in June 1941.

  • 1
    "Commander of the 42-nd Soviet infantry division was arrested on 17 of September 1941, tried and executed." You seem to refer to Ivan Lazarenko. He was arrested, tried, but then freed in October 1942. He was killed in action in 1944.
    – vpekar
    Dec 29, 2018 at 12:13
  • Thanks for the correction. My source (Россия — XX век. Документы. 1941 год. Кн. 1. С. 614.) says "sentenced to death".
    – Alex
    Dec 29, 2018 at 16:37
  • The opening statement that "the defense of the Brest fortress had no military purpose is an understatement" seems to be contradicted by the rest of the answer. They held up a German division for a week and inflicted casualties the Germans could not afford. Perhaps you're referring to whether they did this purposely?
    – Schwern
    Mar 21, 2020 at 4:12

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