It is well-known that World War II was the largest and most widespread war in all of human history. It involved most of the world’s countries, was fought in three separate continents, and directly affected about 100 million people. But what many people today do not realize is the scope of the Eastern Front in WWII. The conflict on the Eastern Front, involving Soviet, German, Italian, Romanian, and other forces, was unprecedented in its spread and ferocity; therefore, this conflict includes some truly shocking numbers. This post details just some of these numbers, and the stories behind them.
The total number of deaths on the Eastern Front, including over 10 million Soviet soldiers. Axis losses totalled about 5 million, and a horrific 14 to 17 million Soviet civilians were also killed. Such massive numbers are nearly impossible to comprehend, and it’s insane for me to think that the fatalities of the Eastern Front are only slightly less than the entire current population of Canada, where I live.
Soviet dead, piled high by the Germans near Cholm, Poland, in January 1942. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-004-3633-30A/ Muck, Richard/ CC-BY-SA
The number of women who served in the Red Army during WWII. Under a policy incredibly foreign indeed to Western countries such as Great Britain, the Soviet Union allowed its female citizens to serve in combat roles. These women turned out to be valuable additions to the Red Army; the achievements of many surpassing those of their male counterparts. For example, Roza Shanina was a sniper active from 1944 until her death in January 1945. Despite joining the Red Army aged only 19, she was a gifted sniper and made 59 kills.
Roza Shanina with her 1891/30 scoped Mosin rifle. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
The number of Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik aircraft produced, making the Il-2 the most produced combat aircraft of all time. An irreplaceably efficient tool in the Soviet Air Force’s arsenal, the Il-2 was used as a ground-attack aircraft, and was able to defeat German Panther and Tiger I tanks far more easily than other tanks could on the ground.
Il-2s attacking, guns blazing, during the Battle of Kursk. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #225/F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0
Over 300,000 Soviets were killed or captured at the Battle of Bialystok-Minsk. Conducted by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre upon the onset of Operation Barbarossa, this battle lasted from June 22 to early July. Despite the short duration, however, Bialystok-Minsk had severe results for the Red Army. Army Group Centre’s 2nd Panzer Group (commanded by the famous Heinz Guderian) and 3rd Panzer Group completed a flawless pincer operation, encircling huge numbers of Soviet troops; most of whom would later die in the brutal conditions of German POW camps.
A POW camp for Soviets. The Germans were unprepared for the astonishing numbers of prisoners they accumulated on the Eastern Front, so many camps were simply hastily-fenced areas of grass, with no facilities or shelter. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B21845/ Wahner/ CC-BY-SA
53 tonnes was the weight of the Soviet Union’s gargantuan KV-2 heavy assault tank. Only 225 of these tanks were ever made, which was probably a good thing- they were slow, unreliable, and easily visible to the enemy due to their distinctive boxy turret. As a comparison, the IS heavy tank weighed 46 tonnes and the T-34 medium tank only 26.
A KV-2 abandoned by its crew in mid-1941. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-209-0091-11/Nägele/CC-BY-SA
The number of Hero Cities in the former Soviet Union. Josef Stalin awarded the first Hero City titles in 1945, to commemorate certain Soviet cities’ heroism in WWII. The twelve cities of Leningrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kiev, Kerch, Novorossiysk, Minsk, Tula, Smolensk, and Murmansk have received this symbolic title, and Brest Fortress in Belarus is titled as a Hero Fortress.
Section of Sevastopol’s Hero City monument. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Wardlemke
The number of troops sentenced to death by court martial for desertion by the time the war was not even four months old. Retreat was essentially not allowed in the Red Army, and NKVD “blocking troops” were put in place from the beginning. Their task was to stop and potentially arrest any retreating or deserting troops, something which they seemed to have done with great efficiency. Stalin’s famous Order No. 227 of July 1942 only encouraged these extreme tactics, as it instructed commanders to create blocking battalions which should immediately shoot any fleeing “cowards”.
Soviet stamp depicting the words “Not a step back!”; a phrase which was notably featured in Order No. 227. Image from ru.wikipedia. Attributed to Vizu and G. Stravitsky
The strength of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in 1941. After their initial encouraging gains, the Germans were gradually beaten down until their Eastern Front contingent numbered only 1,960,000 in 1945. The turning point of the Eastern Front is widely seen to be the Battle of Stalingrad, which was the Wehrmacht’s first real defeat at the hand of the Soviets.
Wehrmacht soldiers marching across the Russian countryside in 1943. Atribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-219-0595-05/CC-BY-SA
Around 2,000 Soviet planes were destroyed by the Luftwaffe on the very first day of Operation Barbarossa- a crippling blow to the Soviet side, especially considering that this number was about 1/6 of the entire Soviet Air Force. Such significant losses added to the Soviet Union’s plight in the following months, since the Luftwaffe had gained air superiority so quickly.
Ruined MiG-3 in a photograph taken not long after the start of Operation Barbarossa. Image from the Polish Archive via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author
The explanations accompanying these numbers have, I hope, illustrated some of the terrifying scope of the Eastern Front. The immensity of this conflict still remains just unimaginable to me, because of its inhumanity and cruelty as well as its massive extent. The Soviet Union occupied a giant geographical area, and it seems that the Eastern Front’s scale was very much proportionate to this. Although such large numbers are difficult to comprehend, whenever I read an account of individual bravery or sacrifice on the Eastern Front, that figure of 30 million always flickers into my mind. How terrible that 30 million people gave their lives, or were killed, or executed, in the all-encompassing conflict of the Eastern Front.
(2014, January 14). Barrier troops. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrier_troops
(2014, May 26). Eastern Front (World War II). Retrieved from http://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Front_(World_War_II)