The defence of Brest Fortress was the first major battle of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union launched on 22 June 1941, lasting from 22 to 29 June. The defenders had received no warning of the attack, and the German Heer (army) expected to take Brest on the first day using only infantry and artillery. The defence of the fortress by the Red Army lasted for several days; the defenders lost many men killed and captured and German ground forces took the fortress only after two bombardments by the Luftwaffe.
The area around the nineteenth-century Brest Fortress was the site of the 1939 Battle of Brześć Litewski, when German forces captured it from Poland during the Polish September Campaign. According to the terms of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact the territory around Brest as well as 52 percent of Poland was assigned to the Soviet Union.
In the summer of 1941, the Germans advanced to capture the fortress from the Soviets. The Germans planned to seize Brest and the Brest Fortress, which was in the path of Army Group Centre, during the first day of Operation Barbarossa. The fortress and the city controlled the crossings over the Bug River, as well as the Warsaw–Moscow railway and highway.
The Brest garrison comprised approximately 9,000 Soviet soldiers, including regular soldiers, tankmen, border guards and NKVD operatives. The Red Army soldiers belonged to elements of the 6th and 42nd Rifle Divisions, under Colonel Mikhail Popsuy-Shapko and Major-general Ivan Lazarenko respectively, the 17th Frontier Guards Detachment of the NKVD Border Troops and various smaller units (including the hospital garrison and a medical unit, as well as units of the 132nd Separate NKVD Convoy Battalion, etc.) inside the fortress. There were also 300 families of the servicemen inside the fortress as well.
The Austrian 45th Infantry Division (about 17,000 strong) had the task to take the fortress during the first day. For the first five minutes of the shelling it was supported by parts of the artillery of the 31st and 34th Infantry Divisions. The 45th Division had neither aircraft nor tanks at its disposal but was supported on 22 June by a battery of assault guns (Sturmgeschütze) from 34th Division and on June 29, by some Ju 88 bombers that dropped 23 bombs.
The fortress had no warning when the Axis invasion began on 22 June 1941 and it became the site of the first fighting between Soviet forces and the Wehrmacht. The attack started with a 29-minute bombardment by artillery and Nebelwerfer. Many of the Soviet survivors of the fighting wrote after the war that the fortress was bombed by German aircraft. Due to the simultaneous artillery fire, tank support against the fortress made this not possible. Only two air raids took place on June 29, 1941 but then only the East Fort on the northern island of the fortress was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The initial artillery fire took the fortress by surprise, inflicting heavy material and personnel casualties. The first German assault groups crossed the Bug river four minutes after the bombardment had started; the surprised Soviet defenders were unable to form a solid front and instead defended isolated strongpoints–the most important of which was the fortress.
Some Soviet troops managed to escape the fortress but most were trapped inside by the encircling German forces. Despite having the advantage of surprise, the attempt by the Germans to take the fortress with infantry quickly stalled with high losses: about 281 Wehrmacht soldiers died the first day in the fighting for the fortress. Fighting continued two more days. By the evening of June 24, 1941, some 368 Germans had been killed and 4,000–5,000 Red Army soldiers in captivity. On June 25 and June 26, 1941, local fighting continued mainly in the citadel. In the evening of June 26, 1941, most of the northern Kobrin fortification, except the East Fort, was captured.
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 horse-shoe-shaped yard 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...
Although the Soviet soldiers in the opening hours of the battle were stunned by the surprise attack, outnumbered, short of supplies and cut off from the outside world, many of them held out much longer than the Germans expected. The Germans used artillery, rocket mortars 15 cm Nebelwerfer 41 and flame throwers. The civilians inside the fortress tended the wounded, reloaded the machine-gun drums and belts and took up rifles to help defend the fortress. Children brought ammunition and food supplies from half-destroyed supply depots, scavenged weapons and watched enemy movements.
Schlieper wrote in his detailed report that,
...the 81st Combat Engineer Battalion was given the task of blowing up a building on the Central Island ... in order to put an end to the Russian [sic - Soviet] flanking fire on 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 Soviet soldiers screaming and groaning, but they continued to fight.
Chaplain Rudolf Gschöpf wrote,
We only gradually managed to take one defensive position after another as a result of stubborn fighting. The garrison of the so-called "Officers' House" 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.
On 24 June, with Germans having taken most parts of the fortress, some Soviet troops were able to link up and coordinate their actions under the command of Captain Ivan Zubachyov; his second in command was Regimental Commissar Yefim Fomin. On 26 June small Soviet forces tried to break out from the siege but failed and suffered many casualties; that day Zubachyov and Fomin were captured. Zubachyov was sent to a POW camp in Hammelburg where he died; Yefim Fomin was executed on spot under the Commissar Order and as a Jew.
Late on the 30th of June the division received the order to abandon Brest. Early on the 1st of July we paid tribute to the perished in the Division cemetery that was laid out on the eve… The main units of the Division abandoned Brest on the 2nd of July 1941.
The total German losses in the battle for the Brest fortress were about 429 killed and about 668 wounded. Soviet losses numbered about 6,800 POWs and about 2,000 dead. The magnitude of these losses can be weighed by the fact that total German losses on the Eastern Front up to 30 June 1941 amounted to 8,886 killed; the fighting at Brest accounted for over 5 per cent of all German fatalities.
After eight days of battle, the Germans had captured the fortress but the strategic objectives - control over the Panzerrollbahn I, the road to Moscow, the important railway line and the bridges over the Bug river - were accomplished the very first day of the war. Because of the high German losses the German High Command demanded General Fritz Schlieper to present a detailed report regarding combat at Brest 22–29 June 1941. It was made on July 8, 1941. A copy was captured by the Red Army near the town of Livny, Russia in winter 1941–1942.
Some individual soldiers and perhaps small groups of Red Army soldiers kept hiding in the fortress after the fall of the Eastern Fort. After the war graffiti were found on some fortress walls. They became iconic symbols of the defense. Two of them said
We'll die but we'll not leave the fortress
I'm dying but I won't surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41.— 
Some authors[who?] claim that isolated defenders were being rooted out by Germans as late as August 8 when Hitler and Mussolini visited the fortress with heavy security to protect them from remaining defenders. The only documented proof of resistance after June 29, 1941 is a report that states that a shoot-out occurred on July 23, 1941, with the subsequent capture of a Soviet lieutenant ("Oberleutnant") the next day.
Since the mid-1950s a myth grew that the fortress held out for 32 days and the defenders refused to surrender. Brest Fortress became a symbol of Soviet resistance. In 1965 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress for the 1941 defense. In 1971, a huge memorial was opened with the Museum of the Defense of the Brest Fortress as its centrepiece. Several monuments in the style of Socialist realism dominate the area. The main monument, a 32 m (105 ft) high concrete head, in 2014 was purportedly "awarded" "the world's ugliest monument" by CNN, for which the CNN Moscow Chief of staff had to apologize as this caused outrage.
The events surrounding the defense of Brest Fortress were dramatized in the 1957 film Immortal Garrison and again in a 2010 film, Fortress of War. The Soviet writer Boris Vasilyev wrote a novel named "His name is not in the list" (В списках не значился) about a soldier named Nikolai Pluzhnikov who defended the Brest Fotress in 1941. At the end of the novel, when Pluzhnikov was captured by the German troops and was interrogated, he simply replied "I am a Russian soldier" and died due to exhaustion from months of fighting. Vasilyev's novel was dramatized in the 1995 film I, a Russian soldier (Я — русский солдат) directed by Andrey Malyukov.