The Invasions Of Belarus Tour Diary
A group of 20 with participants from the UK, USA, Sweden, Belgium and Nicaragua led by WW2 historian Bob Kershaw and Napoleonic historian Alan Rooney enjoyed an exciting 8 days in the little known and understood east European country of Belarus to follow in the footsteps of soldiers and commanders who took part in either Hitler’s or Napoleon’s invasion of Russia...
... But this was not just a tour about the country’s military history but one that provided an insight in to how the country has been defined by its Russian, Polish and Lithuanian roots, what it is today and how its people live inside what has been referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and what its future hold. It is no exaggeration to say that we were all very pleasantly surprised by what we saw and experienced and we have returned with a very positive opinion about Belarus.The country was far more advanced and unrestricted than we were expecting. It is a country that has westernised very well. It is clean, open and the people are friendly (except those working in civic establishments where they are poorly paid). The roads are in excellent condition, especially the Minsk Highway (M1) which is a fast well-made motorway with many good quality service stations lining its route. Even the country roads are generally in a better state than those in the UK. The west of the country is much more affluent and western leaning than the east, which has been slower in upgrading from Soviet times. The Russian Orthodox Church seems to be very aggressive and obvious in its presence and is clearly up for the fight with Catholicism to become the dominant Christian church, although both churches only seem to appeal to the elderly. Belarus people are becoming more aware of their identity and there is a conscious effort to promote their Cyrillic language in preference to Russian. Nevertheless it is always clear that this is a country that has suffered a chequered past and the Polish, Lithuanian and Russian influences are everywhere to be seen.
Sunday 14 August. Arrival in Belarus.
Sarah, Peter and Luis had made their own way to the hotel and we met them at dinner later in the evening. Martin and Richard were waiting at the airport upon our arrival, so there were 12 to meet off the flight from London which arrived 40 minutes late. Everybody got through ok and we arrived at the hotel to enjoy a late dinner with generous servings of the wine which of course helped the tour get off to a good start.
Monday 15th August. Mir, Kobryn, Brest
Napoleon’s birthday today, but nobody guessed when asked! Tut tut. Our coach arrived on time and were away by 09:15. After a promising start the day was overcast, but the rain held off and at Mir we were able to appreciate the great cavalry country over which Russian Cavalry General Platov surprised the advancing Poles on two occasions. Thence to Mir town for a guided tour of its castle and its chequered past. As it was ruined and ransacked after WW2, much of what we saw was reconstructed rather than original, although we did see some original French graffiti from 1812 carved in to the walls of one of the towers. Ironically when we had to walk over a recently laid wooden floor we were asked to wear protection over our shoes whilst our local guide showed us around wearing stiletto heels!
En-route to Kobryn (a bonus addition to the tour) we enjoyed a generous picnic lunch. Although the museums were closed (despite Sandy trying the door a few times) we enjoyed a brief talk on the life of Russian General Suvorov besides his statue outside his house and then took coffee at the nearby café much to the amusement and amazement of the locals (tourists in Kobryn – really?). We took a gentle walk through the town to the monument commemorating the battle where we heard about the capture of the Saxon garrison by Tormosov’s Russians in July 1812.
Arriving at the lovely Hermitage Hotel in Brest, we were checked in efficiently with a couple of hours to ourselves before we enjoyed a delicious fillet steak served with roasted vegetables and a lovely cabernet-sauvignon in the wonderfully atmospheric hotel restaurant.
Tuesday 16th August. Brest Fortress and Railway Museum
After a hearty breakfast we took the very short journey to the Brest Fortress Complex. The sun was shining all day and this allowed for some fantastic definition on the buildings, just fantastic for photography. We started our tour besides the River Mukhavets which supplies much of the fortress’s water defences before it joins the River Bug and from where Bob gave a great description of the abortive German amphibious assault. The long pedestrian avenue approach led us to the massive star-shaped archway entrance, inside of which one heard the Russian WW2 broadcaster, Yuri Levitan, announcing the German invasion which was swiftly followed by a stirring rendition of the Red Army Choir singing ‘Sacred War/Arise, Great Country’. Passing through we found ourselves inside the ‘Kobryn’ outer-fort which contained collection of period armour but it wasn’t until we crossed into the citadel itself that our story really started. Walking around the outer edges, everywhere there was obvious evidence of the terrible fight the fortress had undergone during the war, for example the damage was particularly bad around windows through which, presumably, the Russians had made a staunch defence. Later on we would see the blackened brickwork around windows that had been cleared by German flame-throwers. At the Holmsky Gate we discussed the German assault and their attempt to use civilian hostages to gain entry, so ably portrayed in the recent Russian film. Bob picked up the story of the German units that managed to enter the fortress through the Terespol Gate only to find themselves holed up in the Officers’ Club, today the restored orthodox fortress church. Later in the siege this same church would become the last place of refuge for its Russian defenders and we saw the entrance to the hidden tunnels in its basement fireplace, today a war grave for those last brave men. Indeed there was so much to see that we broke for lunch which we enjoyed in the lively and attractive centre of Brest itself. Back at the fortress we enjoyed some free time to explore, admire the massive sombre monument which broodingly overlooks the entire complex and visit the fascinating museum.
And then we enjoyed a real bonus. Nearby is the Brest Railway museum which boasts a magnificent collection of steam, diesel and electric locomotives and rolling stock, many of which date from before the Great Patriotic War. It was real Boys Own stuff as we were able climb over and into many of the exhibits. Wonderful.
We returned to the hotel with plenty of time for some relaxation before taking a 10 minute stroll to the Jules Verne restaurant were we enjoyed an excellent steak washed down with some fine wine. Those who were not too tired after a really rewarding day then indulged in a few drinks in the hotel bar, but for most of us, it was a fairly early night.
Wednesday 17th August. Gorodeczna, Kosava, Stolovichi
This morning we switched back to the events of 1812 as we visited the little known battlefield of Gorodeczna where the Austrian Commander, Prince Schwartzenberg, defeated the 3rd Russian Army under General Tormosov on 12 August. Whilst the marshes which provided such an obstacle during the battle have been drained to provide pasture, we walked the causeway over which the Saxon attacked in to the forest in the middle of which we came across a commemorative chapel to the battle. Alan provided a background to the Napoleonic Wars which provided the context background for our visits to the 1812 battlefields.
We enjoyed a fabulous club-sandwich picnic lunch whilst en-route to Kosava where we visited the home of Polish patriot, American Independence fighter and designer of West Point, one Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who spent his early years here.
This afternoon we picked up WW2 again, visiting the village of Stolovichi, which was occupied by the Gross Deutschland Regiment in July 1941. Bob discussed how the regiment played a key role in sealing the Minsk Pocket and took us through their actual orders. Standing on the edge of the village we were able to clearly identify many of their objectives and appreciate how the surrounding woods and forests dominated the open undulating land around the Minsk Highway or Rollbahn as it would have been known to the Germans. We used that same road, which today is a very fast and modern motorway to make our way back to Minsk where we checked-in to our hotel for the next two nights. Dinner this evening was in a local restaurant about a 15 minute walk from the hotel – great food, but the service was a little lacking.
Thursday 18th August. Minsk
We spent the whole day in the bright, clean, open and vibrant city of Minsk. Whilst the place has plenty of high density apartment blocks, many of which date from the Soviet era, it boasts plenty of wide boulevards and open spaces. In particular the River Svislach winds its way prettily through the centre of the city, its banks landscaped by green parks. We started our tour at Independence Square which was right next door to our hotel: its Stalinist parliament building and Catholic Church being two of the few buildings in Minsk to survive the war. There are plenty of reminders of the sacrifices made by the people of Belarus during war and we visited the impressive obelisk in Victory Square, the beautifully set and haunting Island of Tears and the poignant monument to the Fallen Jewish People.
After a rather generous lunch in a local brewery, we explored the wonderful Great Patriotic War Museum which has recently been built in to the monument which celebrates Minsk’s status as a Hero city of the former USSR. The museum has been cleverly designed to take you through many aspects of the war as you gently walk up its three floors exiting besides the hero monument itself. Some choice exhibits were the recreation of a partisan village and a panorama depicting the German advance on Minsk. Our day ended with dinner in a 22nd floor restaurant which not only provided a wonderful dinner but on this beautiful evening presented stunning panoramas over the centre of Minsk – a very memorable evening.
Friday 19th August. Khatyn, Gomel (village), Polotsk, Vitebsk
We drove out to the memorial complex at Khatyn, a very evocative and emotional place which is extremely well presented. It was created by the Soviets in the 1960s and built upon the site of the village that was destroyed by the Germans in reprisal for a partisan ambush in which a few Germans were killed. In a surprise dawn raid, the Germans rounded up all the villagers, forced them into a barn and set them alight. Only 2 or 3 escaped of which the blacksmith Kamenski was one. There is a 6m high statue of Kamenski carrying his murdered young son in his arms. The location of each of the 30 houses in the village has been marked with concrete walls with their gates permanently open. Each has a concrete chimney from the top of which hangs a bell which rings every minute in unison with all the other house bells. It is very daunting and focuses the mind on the committed horrors. However Khatyn is also a memorial to all 386 villages in Belarus that the Germans destroyed in this way and there is a monument to every village and in each monument has been placed a handful of soil from the appropriate village. There is also a monument to each concentration camp set up by the Germans in Belarus included a couple which were solely set up for children to be experimented on! That 1 in 4 Belarussians were killed during WW2 is recognised by a poignant monument consisting of 3 silver birches which represent life and one eternal flame to remember those who died – very simple but very moving.
Just outside the village of Gomel (not the city) we visited a refurbished bunker complex which was part of the Polotsk defence line in 1941 and where we were able to walk through reinforced trenches, explore its shelters and the bunker itself. It made a good stop to enjoy our picnic in the sunshine.
At Polotsk we discussed the two battles from August and October 1812, but as the new town has been built over the entire battlefield site the action was difficult to appreciate other than at the Red Bridge which was unsuccessfully stormed by Russian forces. There’s a good little regional museum here and great views over the River Dvina can be gained from the esplanade around the cathedral. Thence to Vitebsk for the night and our hotel, more of a guest house, but the best available in the city. We saw where Napoleon set up his Imperial HQ in July 1812 and enjoyed some magnificent vistas of the city’s golden domed churches and the steep sided River Dvina which winds through the city. Dinner in the hotel was a low key, but after a long day, few would have had the stamina to have visited a restaurant.
Saturday 20th August. Berazino, The Crossing of the Berezina.
We took a long drive to Berezino to discuss the failed crossings of the Berezina by 10Pz in 1941. Here, the river looks very gentle and unassuming with little portent for the tragedy that unfolded some 40 miles upstream at Studianka. And it was in search of those events in late November 1812 that we travelled to Borisov.
The Regional museum has a black and white copy of the 19th panorama painting depicting the events of 28 November 1812. Apparently the artists responsible fell out with each other and fragments were subsequently distributed all over Europe. Some years ago a photographer took copies of each fragment to recreate the panorama and gave a copy to the museum and we were able to use this an aid to set the scene for our visit to the site of the Berezina crossings. We walked to the 1812 monument commemorating the seizing of the tete du pont by the Russians on 21 November and some climbed up on to the high ground where there is much evidence of earth fortifications, many of which probably date from WW2.
At Studianka we heard the horrific story associated with Napoleon’s almost miraculous escape from the clutches of three converging Russian armies. As we descended the ‘heights’ over which the French, Allied troops and stragglers approached the bridges we discussed Victor’s IX Corps staunch rear-guard action. The sites of the two bridges over the Berezina that were built in haste are marked by two monuments and from there we heard about the misfortunes experienced by many of the stragglers as the Russian artillery opened fire on their amorphous mass. There were a small jetties upon which the more adventurous stood to take photos and, with great timing, we witnessed a father with his sons swimming in the river itself, subsequently standing up in its centre, the water only coming up to their waists to give an idea of the river depth (albeit in summer). Thence to heights on the far side, known as Brilli Field where from the French monument we gained a magnificent vista of the Berezina crossing points and the Studianka Heights.
Returning to Minsk for our last night we once again checked-in to our hotel where we enjoyed our final dinner whilst being serenaded by a classical musical trio. Many where reluctant to retire and rather than acknowledge that this wonderful tour was almost over, they kept the bar busy in to the small hours.
Sunday 21st August. Mound of Glory and home.
After bidding farewell to Robin and Luis who had alternative plans we boarded the coach for our final Belarus journey to the airport. But it was not quite over yet, as we stopped off at the imposing ‘Mound of Glory’ situated to the east of Minsk which was built in 1969 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the encirclement and surrender of German Army Group Centre to the Red Army on 3 July 1944. From its summit amidst glorious sunshine we gained magnificent panoramas of the vast undulating open countryside which must have been great terrain for tanks to cross (whilst the ground was firm in the summer).
And thence to the airport where our tour finally ended and from where we took our various flights home. It was a memorable holiday which far exceeded many of our expectations. We shall return!
View details of this tour - Napoleon 1812 & Hitler 1941-44