Fun Friday Fact #2

For all the American and British soldiers who died on the Normandy beaches, the same number of Russians fell each day that the Red Army was at war.

This statistic, which I heard about when listening to an interview with Antony Beevor, reminds us that it was the Soviet Union that broke the back of the Germany army. Whilst the British and Americans debated plans for the invasion of Europe, for three years the Russian army grappled with the fearsome Wehrmacht largely by itself. After catastrophic losses within the first few weeks of fighting (roughly 2 million men) somehow the Red Army managed stand firm against the tide. It is estimated that some 10 million soldiers and a further 10 million civilians perished altogether in the course of the conflict. But in spite of these figures (then over a 6th of the entire British population), the line held. By the time the British and American paratroopers landed in Normandy, the war in the East was already won.

For the soldiers of the Western Allies, on the other hand, death was the exception rather than the rule. In fact, according to Richard Overy, only 3% of the American soldiers prepared for war perished. If one compares that to the British casualties of the First World War one finds, in some places, that the survival rate dropped as low as 50%. That’s not to say, I wish to note, that one would fancy those odds. Nothing should be taken away from the bravery of the men making the Normandy assaults.

Why the difference? Well for a start there was no static warfare, aside from a few localised battles. From the day that it was repelled from France in June 1940 to D-day in July 1944 the British (and later American) army largely waged war without really fighting. The major struggle took place in the air, in the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Allied bombing campaign, and at sea, where the Royal Navy and her American counterpart tried to stop German and Italian submarines from starving Britain into submission.

Even in those theatres in which the Western Allies did directly engage German forces they faced but a fraction of their enemy’s strength. In North Africa, for example, the British army was stretched to its limit containing 4 German divisions compared to the 178 that were deployed in Russia.

On August 12 1942 Stalin met with Churchill and pleaded with him to open up a second front in Europe, to ease the strain from his own beleaguered forces digging in around Stalingrad. Churchill hinted vaguely at a campaign in the Mediterranean. No substantial front was opened until D-day.

It is easy to sympathise with Stalin’s frustration. He feared that the British and the Americans were content to let Communism and Facisim wipe each other out; that, as far as they were concerned, Russian soldiers should continue to run onto German lines until the Germans had run out of bullets.

There’s probably some truth in that, but the fact of the matter is that Britain was never in a position to engage in a direct war. Even after Pearl Harbor and the introduction of America into the equation, the Western Allies were still obliged to wage a war that was capital intensive, rather than one that was based on military labour. In this way, when analysing the war effort of the three major allies in terms of casualties, the Russians stand alone.

The story of the Russian people is one of extraordinary courage and tragedy. It was deep war, in the words of Ilya Ehrenburg, at a time full of unobtrusive day-to-day heroism.



Filed under The Second World War - Fun Friday Facts, Trivia

7 responses to “Fun Friday Fact #2

  1. Alegria Imperial

    Thanks for this great summary. It does turn around the picture that has been long embedded in many minds like mine.

  2. Reminding people of the number of dead is useful. My son (6th grade) was recently ‘studying’ the Holocaust in school. For shock purpose, while he was writing programmed responses in a reading guide, I said, “The Holocaust pisses me off.” I then told him of Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin and more people who have caused the deaths of more than Hitler did Jews. It seems that letting fascists and communists kill each other off is not such a bad idea. The sad thing is how the masses will march like sheep to defend a government.

    Can you call sheep “brave”?
    I am reminded of my Japanese barber story.

  3. Yes it is a sad fact that certain slaughters are overlooked. For my part, I was entirely unaware of the scale of Pol Pot’s destruction until I visited the killing fields for myself.

    Just to clarify, are you including the Soviet people within the category of marching sheep?

    If so then that strikes me as a rather rash and risky generalisation (dare I say it?!)

  4. I was just talking about this with someone a couple weeks ago. It was also recorded that Russia had its second coldest winter in Russian history when Germany attacked. It is still shocking to see how many people died when compared to other battles and wars, it puts things into perspective.

  5. The well worn cliche about one death being a tragedy and a thousand (or is it a million?) deaths being a statistic is generally attributed to Joseph Stalin. And he would have known, he killed millions after all.
    What always adds insult to injury is the way that so many attrocities just get lost in the mix. Everyone (except Holocaust deniers) knows that six million Jews died in the Nazi concentration camps. What’s often omitted is the similar number of non-Jews who also died in the camps. What is almost always ignored is the unknown and possibly much larger number of people who were murdered in sanitaria and other health facilities. These people were people with physical or mental disabilities or long term health problems, or in at least one case a little boy who was just a bit unruly. These people were not killed by guards or soldiers, they were killed by doctors and the cause of death given on the certificates signed by those doctors was usually pneumonia or influenza. This is why we’ll probably never know how many of these deaths were actually murder. All we do know is that the first gas chambers to be built in Nazi Germany were in health facilities and not in death camps.
    Basically the Jewish victims of the Nazis had someone to lobby for them (And fair enough, the world needs to remember this stuff), but the non-Jews did not have anyone to speak out for them. They were gay, or they were gypsies or, possibly the largest single group, they were disabled and until very recently no one was going to speak out for minorities like these.
    Similarly, during the Cold War, no one in the West wanted to hear about the war dead of Eastern Europe, because then we might have to admit that Stalin might have had good reason (although no right) to want to use Central Europe as a buffer zone against the West.

  6. Agreed, it is interesting how history picks and choses its causes. Indeed. I just read that 80% of Russian men born in 1905 did not survive the Second World War. I suspect that, for as many as were killed by the Germans, Stalin saw to an equal amount. Yet the former tragedy carries the greater historical weight.

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