Lasting from 1939 to 1945, the Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history. The war involved almost every nation on Earth with only a handful remaining neutral throughout the conflict. The concept of ‘total war’ saw nations commit everything they had for the war effort. Civilians not recruited into the military worked on farms and in factories to produce the goods and materials needed to fight. Unlike any war before it, the Second World War witnessed warring nations fighting across the entire globe. From the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, from the Russian steppe to the jungles of the South Pacific islands, the war stretched everywhere. The war was so widespread and destructive that casualty estimates continue to vary to this day. By its end, general estimates place the human loss at anywhere from 50 to 70 million dead. Even if we accept the lowest estimate, it still works out to an average of 23,000 people killed per day.
Over the course of the war, nations like the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, Germany and Japan built millions of military vehicles and guns, hundreds of thousands of planes and thousands of naval vessels. Nations spent hundreds of billions of dollars financing and fighting the war – in today’s money that equates to several trillion dollars. Of course, with so much spent to equip armies of enormous size, World War II created some of the biggest battles that the world has ever seen. On land, in the air and on the seas and oceans, vast militaries collided creating some of the most epic moments of the war. This list looks at some of the ‘biggest’ events to take place during the war. From naval engagements to invasions to bombing raids, World War Two produced many notable events which help explain, in part, why the war was so destructive and claimed so many lives.
10. Bloodiest Battle – Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943)
Many people know of this battle thanks to 2001’s Enemy at the Gates. Unfortunately, the movie misses out on much factual detail. Yes, Stalingrad was an epic battle fought between the German and Soviet Armies. No, the battle did not revolve around a plucky shoe-shine boy with a British accent who helped the Russians by spying on the Germans.
The Battle of Stalingrad became synonymous with the brutality and devastation which occurred during the war on the Eastern Front. A strategically important city on the Volga River, Stalingrad was also politically important as it carried the name of the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin. The six-month-long battle saw the Germans take control of the region around Stalingrad as well as 90% of the city. A massive Soviet counteroffensive struck and cut off the entire German 6th Army in December, 1942. Surrounded and suffering from the brutal Russian winter, the 6th Army’s fate was sealed. By the end, fighting in the city alone is estimated to have cost a combined 1.5 million dead, wounded and missing. Figures are well over 2 million if the entire operation is included.
9. Largest Naval Battle – Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944)
Between the 23rd and 26th of October 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy, United States Navy and Royal Australian Navy fought the largest naval battle of the Second World War. The battle was sparked by the Japanese response to the landing of American troops in the Philippines. The IJN sent nearly 70 ships to attack the allied fleet which was 10 times larger and had five times more aircraft. Over four days, the two sides encountered each other several times as the Japanese attempted to break through the strong American forces. The Battle of Leyte Gulf also witnessed the first organized use of Kamikaze tactics – where pilots deliberately crashed their planes into allied warships. Despite the best efforts of the Japanese Navy, the American and Australian forces recorded a significant victory by sinking dozens of Japanese ships, including four aircraft carriers and three battleships, and shooting down approximately 300 planes. Allied forces lost 6 ships, including 3 carriers, and approximately 200 aircraft. This proved to be the final serious challenge to American naval dominance in the Pacific.
8. Biggest Siege – Leningrad (September 1941 to January 1944)
Known today as St. Petersburg, Leningrad was subjected to the longest siege of World War II by the German Army. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army in June 1941, Leningrad was set as one of the key objectives to be captured thanks to its port facilities and large industrial works. When the German Army Group North reached the outskirts of the city, the decision was taken to lay siege and starve the city into surrender. Air raids and artillery constantly bombarded the city, destroying shelter, starting fires and making life harder for the city’s hungry and cut-off inhabitants. People ate bread made from sawdust or, in some instances, other people as cannibalism became a well-documented occurrence. Supplies were brought in across the nearby Lake Ladoga, although these attempts were almost always subjected to attacks by German planes and artillery. In 1943, the siege was broken but not fully lifted until January 1944. By its end, over 3 million Soviet soldiers and a million German soldiers had been killed, wounded, gone missing or become sick. For the inhabitants of Leningrad, the 900 day siege killed over 600,000 in the city and an estimated 400,000 more during evacuations.
7. Costliest Bomber Raid – The 2nd Schweinfurt Raid (October 14th 1943)
In the years leading up to the invasion and liberation of German-occupied Europe, the Allies undertook a massive bombing campaign of German industrial and military targets. From bases in England, North Africa and later Italy, thousands of bombers attempted to destroy the German ability to wage war while suffering significant casualties in the process. On October 14th 1943 the US Eighth Air Force launched a raid to destroy the ball bearings plants at Schweinfurt. This was the second such raid. The first occurred in August and resulted in the loss of 60 B-17 bombers with only limited damage to Germany’s ball bearings production. The second raid’s force of 291 B-17s fought their way to Schweinfurt and caused serious damage to the plants. The cost was, however, very high with 77 bombers shot down or damaged beyond repair and over 650 crewmen killed or captured. The Germans had built up a supply of ball bearings and were also importing them from other countries meaning the raid actually had little effect on the war.
6. Largest Tank Battle – Kursk (July 5th to July 16th 1943)
In the summer of 1943, Adolf Hitler sought to retake the initiative on the Eastern Front by defeating the Soviet Army around the town of Kursk. A decisive victory at Kursk could, so the German generals thought, reverse the situation which had been deteriorating since the German defeat at Stalingrad a few months before. To the north, south and west of Kursk, the Germans concentrated a huge army of nearly a million men and 3000 tanks which would take part in the offensive known as Operation Citadel. The Russians had been given prior warning of the German attack and built up their own forces in the area which included nearly 2 million men and 5000 tanks. Amid massive artillery bombardments the two armies smashed into each other and over several days inflicted serious casualties on one another. The deep and very well prepared Soviet defenses absorbed much of the German attack, slowing the attackers down while inflicting casualties. As the German attack ran out of momentum, the Soviet forces counterattacked and ensured there would be no German victory during Operation Citadel. Historians estimate that both sides suffered a combined 230,000 casualties and as many as 3000 destroyed and damaged tanks.
5. Largest Invasion – Operation Barbarossa (June 22nd to December 5th, 1941)
The largest invasion in the history of warfare was launched in the early hours of June 22nd 1941 when Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union. The German Army fielded approximately 3.2 million men with a further half million from Italy, Croatia, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. In the air, over 4000 aircraft supported operations while an additional 4300 tanks and armored vehicles supported the Germans’ Blitzkrieg. Against this force, the Soviet Army fielded approximately 2.7 million frontline soldiers. From June until December, the invading German forces swept most of the Soviet military out of the way and advanced deep into Soviet territory. Operation Barbarossa was considered finished when the German advance was halted just outside Moscow. German and allied forces suffered 800,000 casualties over this period. Soviet losses exceeded 5 million with more than 3 million of those being taken prisoner.
4. Largest Amphibious Invasion – Operation Neptune (June 6th 1944)
On June 6th 1944 allied forces from several nations landed in Normandy, France during Operation Neptune – often referred to as D-Day. Neptune was part of the larger Operation Overlord – a plan conceived as a way to open up another front against the Germans and help bring about an end to the Second World War. During Operation Neptune, the western allies landed over 150,000 men, either on the beaches or behind enemy lines during parachute drops. The five landing beaches were codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword and were assaulted by the Americans, British and Canadians. Paratroopers, American, British and Canadian, landed behind the beaches and captured bridges and disrupted German reinforcements. All of this was supported by thousands of aircraft and nearly 7000 warships and support vessels. By the end of the day, both sides had suffered around 10,000 casualties. Importantly, the allies had established a beachhead from which they would advance deeper into France and towards Germany over the coming months.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the series Band of Brothers contain relatively accurate depictions of parts of Operation Neptune which involved American forces at Omaha beach and the 101st Airborne Divisional drop zones behind the beaches.
3. Deadliest Conventional Bombing Raid – Operation Meetinghouse (March 9-10th, 1945)
In ‘total war’ a nation’s entire population is mobilized to support the war effort. In the Second World War this often meant that a country’s civilian population were also legitimate targets. In Europe and the Pacific, civilian populations on both sides had to endure bombing. Just as British, Russian and German cities were flattened, so too were the cities of Japan. As the American military advanced closer to Japan over 1944 and 1945, the number of bombing raids on Japanese cities increased. The deadliest of these occurred over the night of March 9-10th 1945 when 330 B-29 Superfortress bombers raided Tokyo and dropped 2000 tons of incendiary bombs on the city. Most of the homes in Tokyo were of wooden construction and the windy conditions that night only helped to spread the fires. Firefighters could do little as the flames spread creating a firestorm which consumed the city. In total, 25% of the city was destroyed, over 260,000 buildings burned to the ground and an estimated 100,000 people killed. Its destruction was rivalled only by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
2. Longest Campaign – The Battle of the Atlantic (September 3rd, 1939 to May 8th, 1945)
The Battle of the Atlantic was continuously fought from the start of hostilities between Britain and Germany to the surrender of Germany in May 1945. The campaign largely involved the German, British, American and Canadian navies and air forces, although many other nations participated on a variety of smaller scales. While the Germans periodically used their small surface force, battles were generally between German submarines (u-boats) and the warships and convoys of the Western powers. Over the campaign, the u-boats enjoyed a few periods of prolonged success and raised concerns that Britain might be cut off from outside supply. Nonetheless, the shipbuilding and technological advantages possessed by the allies eventually outpaced that of the German Navy and the u-boats were on the defensive after the spring and summer of 1943. In all, Germany lost over 780 submarines and 30,000 crewmen. The Allies lost 3500 merchant vessels with 36,000 merchant seamen.
1. Most Casualties Suffered – The Soviet Union
After reading through this list you probably noticed how many of the ‘biggest’ involved battles or events on the Eastern front. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the nation which holds the unenviable record for most casualties suffered during the war is the Soviet Union. From June 22nd 1941 until May 8th 1945, the Eastern front was the largest combat front anywhere on Earth and involved the most troops. For nearly four years, the Soviet Union shouldered the burden of the fighting and it shows in civilian and military casualties. Statistics on the total Russian losses vary greatly and there is no single definitive figure. In a country so large and during a war which was so brutal in nature, soldiers and civilians just disappeared, were lost in the chaos or vanished amidst incomplete or destroyed records. That said, figures accepted by the Russian government put the losses at 26.6 million – nearly half of all deaths estimated during the Second World War.