World War II was a global conflict that involved numerous nations and resulted in immense human loss. This article aims to examine the death rates by service branch for the major belligerent nations, including Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We will explore the factors that contributed to varying death rates, such as the strategies employed, tactical operations, and national leadership.
The various army branches across the belligerent nations took the brunt of WW2 casualties compared to their sister branches. Although it can be argued that the air and sea branches played a greater role in the war’s outcome it was the army that most nations staffed to exert their will. These army troops often faced their opposing army foes but came under air force attacks as well. It was in the various Soviet republics that the casualty numbers rolled up for the Soviet Union and Germany. Japanese casualties occurred in three major areas of engagement the Philippines, China, and throughout the Pacific. Overall, it is estimated that 19.0% of all combat forces died during World War II. Soviet, German, and Japanese percentages were much higher than the 19.0% average.
Table of Contents
Death Rates by Country By Service Branch
Army – Heer
The German Army, Heer, suffered the highest number of casualties. The nature of their aggressive campaigns led to heavy losses. Specifically, the regular German Army had a death rate of 31.1% and the Waffen SS had a death rate of 34.9%. There were several factors for such high death rates.
- German strategy relied on a series of short wars or political takeovers of states in one-on-one actions. With the fall of France, these short wars and political takeovers ended. It resulted in soldiers being in for the duration. The only way out for most German Heer soldiers was either death or a major wound.
- The Eastern Front where the Heer majority served was a highly attritional war with no holds barred. Neither side compromised often fighting to the death because losing was seen as worse than death.
- Hitler often declared a city or a front a fortress requiring forces to hold out versus retreating and regrouping into a better operational or tactical position. Most often these fortress positions were overrun suffering great losses.
- German mechanization was limited, and horses still provided the bulk of logistics and transportation away from the rail lines. German soldiers faced untold miles of marching taking a toll on their bodies. Additionally, the nonmechanized forces could not respond as quickly to enemy actions leading to greater manpower losses.
- Germany lost the air advantage and the German soldiers on the ground death toll rose accordingly.
Air Force – Luftwaffe
The German Luftwaffe experienced significant deaths due to intense aerial battles and strategic bombing campaigns. However, their death toll was 17.3% versus over 30% for the Heer. Being a part of a Luftwaffe aircrew was indeed a deadly calling but unlike the Heer, a greater percentage of their personnel were away from the action.
Navy – Kriegsmarine
Germany’s Kriegsmarine faced relatively lower casualties compared to either the Army or Air Force branches. Overall, the Kriegsmarine suffered an 11.5% death rate. However, within the Kriegsmarine, the U-boat servicemen suffered a death rate of 75%. But like the Luftwaffe, most Kriegsmarine servicemen were not frontline service members.
Royal Italian Army – Regio Esercito
Italy’s Army suffered notable casualties, particularly during their campaigns in North Africa and the Balkans. The Regio Esercito had 3,040,000 service personnel with 246,432 deaths, an 8.1% rate.
The Regio Esercito suffered numerous disadvantages in modern equipment and adequate resources. However, it was their leadership at both the government and military command levels that ensured their failure. Italian invasions into Egypt and Greece were ill-planned and executed.
Royal Air Force – Regia Aeronautica
The Italian Air Force faced substantial losses due to the challenging conditions and inferior equipment. The Regia Aeronautica had 130,000 service personnel with 13,210 deaths, a 10.2% rate.
A common theme ran through the Italian service branches including, the Regia Aeronautic, as they had on paper impressive numerical quantities. Whereas these forces were antiquated or unmaintained. The Regia Aeronautica had at Italy’s declaration of war 3,296 planes but only 2,000 were operational. Less than 200 fighters were considered modern vintage but were slower than all opposing forces fighters.
Royal Navy – Regia Marina
Italy’s Navy experienced the highest death rate of 12.0% for any Italian service branch. primarily due to the British naval dominance in the Mediterranean. The Regia Marina had a sizable fleet, especially in relationship to the Mediterranean Sea. The Regia Marina had 259,082 service personnel with 31,347 deaths.
However, the Regia Marina had several distinct disadvantages against it, including.
- The Regia Marina did not keep up with technological advances such as radar and sonar during the interwar years.
- The Regia Marina did not have a dedicated air wing to support their operations and provide defense against opposing air forces.
- Italian High Command did not support the Regia Marina’s concept of taking Malta when Italy declared war on France. This oversight would have deadly consequences later for Italy’s naval operations supporting North Africa.
- Most Italian warships were antiquated and had not been modernized before WW2’s outbreak.
- The Regia Marina suffered from fuel shortages as they had very few natural resources and had been cut off from their prewar sources.
Imperial Japanese Army
The Japanese Army endured high casualties, with fierce resistance encountered during their island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Army had 6,300,000 service personnel with 1,326,076deaths, a 24.2% rate.
- More so than any other belligerent nation, Japanese soldier deaths were due to illness and starvation. Approximately two-thirds of the Imperial Army deaths came this way.
- Outside of mainland Japan, most Japanese troops served in China fighting a battle of attrition.
- Like Germany, Japanese troops had long-term enlistments. Thereby increasing the odds of death.
- Normally Japanese troops did not surrender and would continue to fight even against overwhelming odds. This culture of non-surrender included Banzai charges resulting in large death casualties.
Imperial Japanese Army Air Service
Imperial Japanese Army Air Service deaths are included in the Imperial Japanese Army’s totals.
Japan’s Navy suffered significant losses, particularly during decisive naval battles like Midway and Leyte Gulf. The Imperial Japanese Navy had 2,100,000 service personnel with 414,879 deaths, a 19.8% rate.
All branches of the Soviet military had 34,476,700 service personnel with 8,668,400 deaths, a 25.1% rate.
Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army – Red Army
The Soviet Red Army suffered the most casualties, primarily due to the scale and intensity of the Eastern Front. The Soviet strategy of attrition warfare contributed to high losses.
Operation Barbarossa took the Soviet leadership by surprise and the German ‘war of movement’ encircled several Soviet armies during the 1941 invasion.
- Operation Barbarossa
- The Battle of Bialystok-Minsk in the opening weeks of the war resulted in Soviet forces losing 417,729 men, including 341,012 killed or missing.
- The Battle of Kiev 1941 in the opening months resulted in 616,304 killed or missing, including 480,000 prisoners.
- The Battle of Bryansk resulted in 100,000 killed or missing and 600,000 captured
- The Battle of Smolensk resulted in 486,171 people irrevocably (dead, missing, and captured)
- Of nearly six million Soviet soldiers that were captured, around 3 million died during their imprisonment.
- Stalin’s Great Purge of the Red Army’s leadership from 1936 to 1938 negatively affected the Soviet response and capabilities during the German invasion.
- The Red Army utilized repeated mass attacks to blunt the German invaders. It resulted in massive death tolls but buying time to call up reinforcements, establish a better defensive posture, and a counteroffensive.
Air Force and Navy
The Soviet Air Force and Navy are included in the Red Army’s totals.
The United Kingdom and the United States
Both the United Kingdom and the United States strategically chose to emphasize naval and air power more so than their Axis foes. Even Japan who relied heavily on their naval force did not project it as much as the Anglo- American coalition. Additionally, the United Kingdom and the United States ground forces’ operational and tactical methods deemphasized manpower and emphasized technology and mechanized mobility to a far greater degree.
Both nations were democracies, and their leadership was more sensitive to casualty rates than the non-democratic leaders. Accordingly, there were no mass attacks such as the Soviet or Japanese armies utilized. Although both nations had relatively small armies before the war, they freely borrowed tactics from all others establishing some of the best combined arms capabilities of any nation by mid 1944. Operation Cobra, leading to the breakout from Normandy, may have been the ultimate combined arms operation of the war. This operation devasted the German forces through withering air and ground attacks with massive casualties suffered by the Germans and few by the Americans.
Therefore, both nations’ total death rates were well below 4 percent. Just a fraction of all the other major belligerents.
Military Casualties by Country by Service Branch Data
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Source: Wikipedia, “World War II casualties”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties, Date Accessed June 25, 2022.
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