After having climbed Elbrus in August 2015, i have been fascinated by its beauty and curious about its history. What piqued my interest was the monument of the soldiers who perished on Elbrus.
So, i did some background digging on the internet and read some books and found that Elbrus has been the center of some very historic events. Though not a lot of information is available on the mountain, it has been a focal point during World War 2. The guides did not say much about the incidents other than some facts about how the glaciers reveal bodies of soldiers and some artillery occasionally and how the Red Army suffered to gain control over Elbrus, which had fallen into the hands of the Germans.
The Central Caucasus range extends along the South Western part of Russia. It contains some of the tallest mountains in Europe of which Elbrus is the tallest. It is a region that is rich in oil and natural resources.
To gain a strategic advantage to proceed further into Russia, Germany wanted to take over the control of these vast oil reserves. This will enable the army to have sufficient supplies of fuel for its further advancement towards the east. The army was already having problems with getting fuel supplies to the German army who were in the front lines and with this capture, the problem could be solved. As a result, Operation Case Blue was created where the German army was divided into two groups. The Edelweiss group was tasked with the capture of the Caucasus region. The Edelweiss land forces comprised of 15,000 oil industry workers, included 167,000 troopers, 4,540 guns and 1,130 tanks and supported by 1,000 aircraft of the 4th Air Fleet.
As explained by Yasen Dyachenko, a leading authority on Russian mountaineering:
The action is named after the 1-st mountain division “Edelweiss”. Vermacht thoroughly prepared for еру War on all possible battlefields – both in desert, and in Arctic regions, but the special place was borrowed with mountain armies. There were some specialized divisions of Mountain Huntsmen in Vermacht structure, and undoubtedly elite division completed by locals of mountain areas of Southern Germany, Bavaria and Austria was allocated among them. These guys were single and not younger than 24. They possessed fine training of operations in mountain above a snow line. They have been trained to move at all forms of a mountain relief, to choose a position for supervision, for fight points, for an ambush and an attack, for defense. There is no need to write that their equipment and gear was the best for that time. All arms, provisions has been adapted for pack transportation. All kinds of shooting arms have been extremely facilitated, but have standard calibers, and, that the most important, their aim systems have been calculated in view of a corner of an eminence down to firing vertically upwards or vertically downwards.The officers has fine region maps of the whole battlefield and many officers had climbing experience received particularly on Caucasus before the War. And, at last, they had the faultless radio communications. Any minute leaders could receive the information on a site, character of battle conditions of each platoon separate battery.
With such a strong presence, The Edelweiss was quick to move and capture key strategic points in the Caucasus including all the key passes across the range. By end of August, most of the southern region was in the hands of the German army. The Red Army were no match to the advancing Edelweiss team. Yasen Dyachenko explains:
The Red Army had no specialized mountain divisions. It is terrible even to think of destiny of those parts and divisions which, being cut off from a way on the Southeast by an avalanche of German tanks, have gone to foothills of gorges of the Main Caucasus Ridge. Without maps, without radio communication with staffs and with each other, they went up by numerous gorges of the Western and Central Caucasus, reaching sooner or later a glacial zone. It is difficult to image the behavior of the people exhausted by long transitions, wear in bad army boots on a glacier. And they was under aim machine-gun fire! Those who could see rare films of German military chronicle, and those whose fathers were lost their lives in this terrible battle, hardly could stop their tears. I saw it and could not.
As a symbolic move, a small detachment of the Edelweiss division was sent to climb Elbrus and plant the Nazi Swastika on its summit. This was to indicate the conquest and dominance of the German army in the region.
The Edelweiss group was fully equipped to handle the rough and cold terrain of the mountain and eventually posted the flag at the west summit. The mountain hut, Prijut 11 at 4,160m, which was initially built by Russian scientists, became the Barracks for the German Army.
Although many in the upper echelons of the Nazi party were happy to hear the news of the swastika flying on top of Europe’s highest mountain and tried to promote it as a symbolic victory over Russia, Hitler, apparently, was furious at this “gimmick” and threatened to court marshal the officer in charge of the operation.
All was not good on the German side though. By December 1942, The Red Army had some success in fighting the Edelweiss army with their limited equipment and preparation for high altitude warfare. The Edelweiss group had to retreat to avoid defeat. This was followed by several other losses on the German side in other areas of Russia.
Eventually, the Edelweiss team had to leave the Caucasus range and
On February 1943, the Red Army was instructed to examine the abandoned camps in Elbrus and to replace the swastika with the flag of the Soviet Union. A group of ill-equipped soldiers lead by the legendary Alexander Gusev with nothing more than civil winter clothing, army boots and assault riffles but with a lot of patriotism climbed Elbrus and replaced the swastika with the flag of the Soviet Union.
A very rare footage of the Red Army climbing Elbrus to place the bust of Lenin and a memorial plaque is found here.
Video courtesy of Net-Flim.ru.
Since the re-capture of Elbrus, there have been several monuments that are placed in the honor of those who lost their lives in the war. This picture below was taken by me during my climb of Elbrus before going to Barrel’s hut.
I am struck by it’s beauty as well as its heritage in world events. I pay my absolute respects and tribute to the soldiers who have died on this mountain. To this day, Elbrus reveals many of the remains of the war through the melting glaciers like guns, artillery and mines. A grim reminder of its turbulent past but also a symbolism of human achievement and perseverance.