Friday, January 10, 2014

The Siege of Brest 1941: A Legend of Red Army Resistance on the Eastern Front by Rostislav Aliev and Stuart Britton

The fighting for Brest Fortress has acquired a legendary status within the history of the Eastern Front in World War II. Knowledge of the resistance various Red Army units put up was not readily known about until 1942 when a German report was discovered and published in the newspapers. With the victory in 1945 Stalin's demigod status was cemented with the caveat that few to no histories or recollections of the war were allowed to be published, especially discussing 1941. Thus the history of the defense of Brest fortress was put off until after Stalin's death and even then it was filled with what the author of this work calls myths.

'The Siege of Brest 1941' gives a brief but very revealing account of the first minutes, hours, and days of the war from both the Soviet and German point of view, relying on German and Soviet recollections, documents, and unit histories (the last mainly for the German side). The majority of the work concentrates on the German 45th division with limited discussion of surrounding or higher up units, and the Soviet concentration is, comparably, on the units specifically located within the confines of the fortress.

Aliev lays out a very dense and detailed history of the numerous engagements within the fortress by Soviet NKVD border guards, rifle regiments, anti-tank units, and a host of other formations that were caught by surprise on June 22, 1941, as the Germans crossed the Soviet border and unleashed Operation Barbarossa. Considering the surprise the Germans achieved, the amount of resistance offered by the Soviets is quite astonishing, even though the majority lasted only for the first three days, as they inflicted hundreds of casualties on the German 45th infantry division and held up their advance into the Soviet interior. Red Army and border forces were often left without any adequate leadership as many officers were outside the fortress either taking the Sunday (June 22) off to relax, were on training exercises or participating in any number of other activities.

Soviet resistance was thus diluted and disorganized. Within hours of the invasion Aliev describes how resistance stiffened in some sectors, while in others men and women ran to escape the confines of the fortress as they were overcome by shock and panic. German advances into the fortress were met with success until Soviet resistance was able to overcome the initial chaos. What followed was a German retreat with a few German units even becoming encircled by the Red Army within the fortress. As hours turned to days, German artillery took a toll on the defenders, as did a lack of water. Many units began to contemplate breaking out and often it was painful to read about the numerous escape attempts. On the night of June 22, many were able to get away as the Germans were only just setting up a cordon. As more time passed, especially by the second and third day, practically all breakout attempts resulted in death or prisoner of war status. The last large group of defenders (several hundred men) surrendered at the end of June but isolated incidents of sabotage, shootings, and escapes from the fortress continued into August.

Overall, Aliev has produced a very interesting and detailed account of the siege of Brest Fortress and Stuart Britton has done an excellent job with this translation. Maps offered in the first pages are very well done with a lot of highlighted locations and points of interest laid out for the reader. My biggest complaint is the minute number of endnotes, and the complete lack of a bibliography and an index. This greatly takes away from the reading experience for me and limits the usefulness of this text in terms of reference.

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