A Brief History
On August 23, 1942, the Battle of Stalingrad commenced during World War II. The German 6th Army was destroyed, and the decisive Soviet victory marked the beginning of the decline of the Axis forces on the Eastern Front. Many historians therefore consider the Battle of Stalingrad to have been the turning point of the European theater of World War II.
There were many important battles during World War II; some only had a few thousand casualties, whereas others had over one million casualties. With a total of 22 to 25 million military deaths, including deaths in captivity of about 5 million prisoners of war, World War II was the most deadly war the world had ever seen.
In the Pacific Theater of the war, bloody battles at places such as Iwo Jima (1945), Leyte Gulf (1944), Pelileu (1945) and Tarawa (1943) resulted in the death of over 2 million Japanese and 4 million Allied (including many Chinese) soldiers. Yet these horrors pale in comparison to the slaughter experienced in Europe, with the two main powers, Germany and the Soviet Union, losing 5.5 and 13.8 million soldiers, respectively.
It must be noted that casualty numbers usually include the wounded. This list will focus primarily on the dead. For every dead soldier, there are many more wounded or missing ones.
10. The Battle of Monte Cassino (17 Jan 44 – 18 May 44)
The Battle of Monte Cassino, also known as the Battle for Rome because the Allies fought the Germans for control of the city, lasted four months and cost at least 75,000 soldiers their lives. This battle can be broken down to a series of four phases, each one lasting several weeks and consisting of a brutal back and forth between the sides. It was not until the final phase of fighting that the Allies, with the help of Polish troops, were able to gain complete control of the area.
9. The Battle of the Bulge (16 Dec 44 – 15 Jan 45)
Given its name because of the appearance of a “bulge” on the map where the enemy forces broke the Allied line, the battle was the German’s attempt to split the Allied forces. Beginning the battle with more than a quarter of a million troops, the German army at first made good headway, however, they soon began to run out of supplies, giving momentum to the American troops. In the end, the perseverance of the American soldiers enabled the Allies to claim a crucial victory. The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler’s final offensive attack of the war and left 38,000 troops dead.
8. The Battle of Kursk (5 July 43 – 23 Aug 43)
The Battle of Kursk was an aggressive move of the Germans against the Soviet Union and was the biggest tank battle in history. Not able to gain much ground, Hitler called off the invasion, but not before hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost their lives. An estimated 300,000 – 400,000 soldiers died.
7. The Second Battle of Kharkov (May 42)
In 1941 the Germans had captured the city of Kharkov, a strategically important city. The Red Army attacked, hoping to regain control of the city. The attempt would be in vain and at a great cost. The battle became known as the second Battle of Kharkov and only lasted sixteen days, but they were a brutal sixteen days. Nearly 200,000 soldiers died, most of them Soviets.
6. The Battle of Luzon (Jan 45 – Aug 45)
The one battle on this list to be fought in the Pacific Theater, the Battle of Luzon was fought between the Americans and the Japanese on the Philippine island of Luzon. The goal of the Americans was to reclaim the Philippines from the Japanese. The Japanese resisted as long as they could, but they lacked the artillery, armor, supplies and equipment of the Americans. In the end, they suffered over 200,000 dead, whereas the Allies only lost a little over 8,000 soldiers. There were many civilian casualties as well.
5. The Battle of France (10 May 40 – 22 June 40)
The Battle of France was the name of the German invasion of France. A French defensive mistake had allowed the Germans to pour into France through Belgium, and one month later Paris was occupied. This battle is also known as the Fall of France. More than 27,000 German soldiers died in the invasion, whereas over 85,000 French soldiers and resistance fighters died.
4. The Battle of Narva (Feb 44 – Aug 44)
The Battle of Narva was fought in Estonia between the Soviet Union and the German army. The reason the Soviets wanted to occupy Narva was because Stalin desired the land for an air base and as a door for the invasion of Germany. The Germans fought tooth and nail and managed to kill over 100,000 Soviets, while only losing 14,000 of their own. The tough German defense seriously hampered the Soviets’ progress in the Baltic region.
3. The Battle of Moscow (2 Oct 41 – 7 Jan 42)
This three-month battle left a total of 1,000,000 casualties. Unfortunately there are no reliable figures for the total number of dead, but these must have been in the hundreds of thousands. The Germans got off to good start in their attempt to take the Soviet capital, but then the winter months came, and temperatures reached twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit below zero and possibly lower. These harsh conditions gave back the Soviets their home field advantage.
2. The Battle of Berlin (16 Apr 45 – 2 May 45)
During the Battle of Berlin, the Soviet Red Army attacked Berlin from all sides. Hitler finally realized he was doomed and committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in an underground bunker. Nevertheless fighting continued, with both sides losing between 80,000 and 100,000 men each. A total of 125,000 civilians perished. (Editor’s Note: A cousin of the editor’s grandmother fought in the final days of the battle. Only barely out of his teens, his mother ventured into the wartorn city to find him. She never made it out either, as she fell victim to an air raid that reduced the city to rubble.)
1. The Battle of Stalingrad (23 Aug 42 – 2 Feb 43)
The Battle of Stalingrad was a German attempt to take the city. Nearly 480,000 Soviets died in defense of Stalingrad. 150,000 Germans died. Of the 108,000 Germans taken as prisoners of war, only 6,000 returned home… The total number of civilians killed is unknown, but as many as 40,000 died during aerial bombing. This image demonstrates the immense damage done to the city of Stalingrad.
World War II was clearly a devastating war. Between the above-mentioned battles, the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, the Japanese’ executions of POWs, the rape of women, the displacement of entire peoples and the use of nuclear weapons by the United States on Japanese civilians, the years of World War II were certainly a dark time in human history. Over 60 million people died in total.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did any of your ancestors fight in any of these battles? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 23, please see the History and Headlines article: “U.S. Posthumously Commissions 1st Black Military Pilot.”
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For more information, please see…
Haynes (USMC-Ret.), Major General Fred, James A. Warren, et al. The Lions of Iwo Jima: The Story of Combat Team 28 and the Bloodiest Battle in Marine Corps History. Tantor Audio, 2008. Audio CD.
Hoyt, Edwin P. The Battle of Leyte Gulf: Disaster and Triumph in the Bloodiest Sea Battle of World War II. Playboy Press Paperbacks, 1972.
National Archives, dir. National Archives WWII: Bloodiest Battles. Topics Entertainment, 2008.
Sloan, Bill. Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944–The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Sherrod, Robert. Tarawa: The Incredible Story of One of World War II’s Bloodiest Battles. Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.