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 million and 13.8 million soldiers, respectively.
It must be noted that casualty numbers usually include the wounded. This list focuses primarily on the dead. For every dead soldier, there are many more wounded or missing ones. Numbers are not always exact and they are often matters of dispute among historians.
10. The Battle of Monte Cassino (17 Jan 1944 – 18 May 1944)
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 1944 – 15 Jan 1945)
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 Germans’ 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 19,000 American troops dead. German losses included over 12,000 dead with many thousands more captured and wounded. Another 3000 civilians died during the battle, though the British suffered a mere 200 men killed.
8. The Battle of Kursk (5 July 1943 – 23 Aug 1943)
The Battle of Kursk was an aggressive offensive of the Germans against the forces of the Soviet Union called Operation Citadel 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 and the Soviets went on an enormous counteroffensive.. An estimated 300,000 – 400,000 soldiers died, with at least 250,000 Soviets killed or missing, and at least 50,000 Germans killed.
7. The Second Battle of Kharkov (May 1942)
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, about 170,00 of them Soviets.
6. The Battle of Luzon (Jan 1945 – Aug 1945)
The one battle on this list to be fought in the Pacific Theater, the Battle of Luzon was fought between the Americans, Filipinos and the Japanese on the Philippine island of Luzon. The goal of the Americans was to reclaim the Philippines from the Japanese. The Japanese high command ordered the capital city of Manila to be evacuated, but stubborn subordinate Japanese officer resisted as long as they could resulting in terrific casualties and damage. The Japanese lacked the artillery, armor, supplies and equipment of the Americans. In the end, the Japanese suffered over 200,000 dead, whereas the Allies only lost a little over 8,000 soldiers. There were many civilian casualties as well, in fact a staggering 100,00 civilian deaths! The Battle of Luzon was the costliest battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II in terms of those killed.
5. The Battle of France (10 May 1940 – 22 June 1940)
The Battle of France was the name of the German invasion of France. A French defensive mistake by relying on the Maginot Line of fortifications that ended at the border with Belgium, and 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 1944 – Aug 1944)
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 doorway 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 1941 – 7 Jan 1942)
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 though the tremendous distances involved stretched German supply lines to the breaking point. 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 and the time to regroup and reinforce the front around Moscow.
2. The Battle of Berlin (16 Apr 1945 – 2 May 1945)
During the Battle of Berlin, the Soviet Red Army attacked Berlin from all sides, clearly the final act in the play against Hitler’s dreams of German hegemony. Hitler finally realized he was doomed and committed suicide with his wife Eva Braun in an underground bunker as the fighting raged on the streets above his underground bunker.. Nevertheless fighting continued as determined Germans fought with the realization that surrender might well lead to death anyway. The close combat was often to the death without quarter, 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 war torn 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 1942 – 2 Feb 1943)
The Battle of Stalingrad was a German attempt to take the city that bore Stalin’s name. Nearly 480,000 Soviets died in defense of Stalingrad and 150,000 Germans died. Of the 108,000 Germans taken as prisoners of war, only 6,000 returned home after the war, in most cases, years after the war had ended. The total number of civilians killed is unknown, but as many as 40,000 died during aerial bombing alone. This image demonstrates the immense damage done to the city of Stalingrad. Stalingrad was the meat grinder against which the German army was fruitlessly thrown into to the point where any realistic chance of German victory became nearly far fetched.
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 (or even more by other accounts).
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.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Sergey Strunnikov (1907–1944) from Waralbum.ru of the centre of Stalingrad after the battle, is in the public domain in Russia according to article 1281 of Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation No. 230-FZ of December 18, 2006 and article 6 of Law No. 231-FZ of the Russian Federation of December 18, 2006 (the Implementation Act for Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation).
- The author of this work died before January 1, 1946.
- The author of this work died between January 1, 1946 and January 1, 1950, did not work during the Great Patriotic War (Eastern Front of World War II) and did not participate in it.
- This work was originally published anonymously or under a pseudonym before January 1, 1943 and the name of the author did not become known during 50 years after publication.
- This work was originally published anonymously or under a pseudonym between January 1, 1943 and January 1, 1950, and the name of the author did not become known during 70 years after publication.
- This work is non-amateur cinema or television film (or shot, or fragment from it), which was first shown between January 1, 1929 and January 1, 1950.