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.