In WWII Soviet Forces Lost Estimated 7.5 Million to Combat, Accidents and Disease

  • Of this figure 7.25 million were Red Army regulars of whom 6.8 million fell in combat
  • A further 250,00 Soviet citizens died as Soviet partisans or militiamen
  • Nearly 300,000 died fighting for non-Soviet formations, mainly in German service
  • In total 7.8 million Soviet citizens died under arms

Majority of 25.3 million who perished overall were civilians and POWs, not combatants

Fri, Apr 17, 2015
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Over 30 million soldiers were wounded

Note: With the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War just around the corner we are publishing more material related to that epic conflict that is so important to Russian collective memory.

Comprehending the massive human and material losses suffered by Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union is crucial to understanding why this is so.

This article is the third chapter of a research paper from the pen of RI deputy editor and contributor Marko Marjanović. Other chapters are to follow in the coming days. Here are the links to the first chapter and second chapter.


Soviet Regulars

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G.F. Krivosheev has established that Soviet records indicate the Red Army and the NKVD sustained 8.67 million irrecoverable demographic losses in the Soviet-German War. This is probably the most widely cited figure for Soviet military losses in WWII particularly in Russia, but also in the West. It is the case, however, this figure is not actually synonymous with deaths among Soviet military persons.

First of all Krivosheev himself points out his estimate refers only to losses from listed strength. They do not include losses among 500,000 reservists who were called to service in the first days of the war, but were captured by the enemy before they could be integrated into their units and by and large perished in Wehrmacht's POW camps in 1941-42.[18]

Even more importantly Krivosheev's figures permit just 1.1 million deaths from listed strength to have taken place in German POW camps. He estimates the Red Army and the NKVD lost 4,059,000 men from listed strength captured. Of these he maintains 1,836,000 were repatriated after the war and 939,700 were re-taken on strength before the end of the war and nearly 180,000 managed to avoid repatriation and emigrate.[19] This leaves a difference of 1,103,000 who perished in German custody.

German historiography, however, has established that a far greater number of Soviet POW died in such circumstances. The lowest figure given is at least 2.5 million, with usually figures above 3 million being cited. It is the case that numerous reservists en route to their units, militiamen and members of various Soviet paramilitary formations, as well as simple civilians of fighting age were captured as prisoners of war and left to starve to death in German camps, however, the great majority must have been Red Army regulars, meaning there must have been far more than 1.1 million of them.

Krivosheev's figures can not be reconciled with what we know about the occurrence of death among Soviet prisoners of war. His total of 8.7 million irrecoverable losses (or 8.5 million deaths after accounting for losses due to prisoners of war who avoided repatriation after the war) is therefore almost certainly a sizeable underestimate.

Krivosheyev's research, however, is nonetheless the best starting point in determining the extent of deaths among Soviet regulars due to causes not connected to mortality in German POW camps. According to their records the Red Army and the NKVD sustained 5227 thousand killed in action, 1103 thousand died of wounds, 270 thousand died of disease and frostbite, 155 thousand died of other causes, mainly accidents.[20]

Additionally of the 3396 thousand Red Army regulars reported missing in action and 1162 thousand unreported losses from units in encirclement Krivosheyev estimates that 4059 thousand entered captivity, but the other 500 thousand fell in combat.[21] In sum there were some 7.25 million deaths of Soviet regulars due to combat, accidents and disease.

The figure for combat deaths in reality includes a small number of Soviet soldier who were shot by their officers for refusing to carry out orders without procedure in the heat of battle and a greater number of Soviet soldiers executed by German combat troops immediately upon capture. From the onset of the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Germans treated any Red Army soldiers who in the course of a retreat found themselves behind their lines as franc-tierurs and especially targeted female soldiers and political officers for execution. Occasionally they massacred captured soldiers deemed to have put up too much of a fight prior to capture.

Soviet Irregulars

Most Soviet citizens who fought in the Soviet-German War fought as regulars in the units of the Red Army or the NKVD. Many others, however, ended up fighting and dying in the various auxiliary and irregular forces. These included local anti-aircraft defense units, the paramilitary formations of policeman and railwaymen and the istrebitel'nyi militia. By far the biggest of such organizations, however, were the opolchenie militia and the Soviet partisans. Deaths in the ranks of these two forces made a significant portion of deaths among Soviet combatants as a whole. 

It is without a doubt the case that Soviet partisan guerrillas in fighting the much better euqipped, provisioned and positioned enemy troops took much greater casualties than they inflicted themselves. Thus the Swiss historian Christian Gerlacht has established on the basis of German records that major German anti-partisan operations on the territory of Belarus cost the occupier the lives of 1,500 German and auxiliary troops but killed some 9,500 Soviet partisans. Altogether Gerlach estimates the Germans suffered between 6,000 and 7,000 dead against the partisans in Belarus. Gerlacht also accepts as reliable the work of Pjotr Kalinin according to whom the partisan formations in Belarus reported the loss of 37,800 dead and missing.[22]

The British military historian Matthew Cooper estimated that across the entire USSR some 15 to 20 thousand German troops were killed fighting the Soviet partisans.[23] Presuming the basic ratio of German to partisan losses of 1:6 that may be gleaned from some of the indices relating to the partisan war in Belarus this would imply the Soviet partisans suffered some 100 thousand combat deaths in turn. Accounting for deaths from disease and deprivation and unreported deaths the partisan dead may be in the ballpark of 150,000.

In 1941-42 about two million men, who were mainly volunteers from the Soviet urban centers, served in the battalions and divisions of the opolchenie militia. These units were hastily assembled directly by the Communist Party apparatus rather than the military and were normally terribly under-equipped. When employed on the front they often suffered grievous losses with numerous captured and killed. Several of people's militia divisions suffered annihilation or near-annihilation, particularly in the Vyazma cauldron, as well as did numerous opolchenie battalions in the Kiev encirclement.

Total opolchenie losses may number in the low hundreds of thousands, however, a very high portion of its losses came in enemy encirclement operations. This means a very high percent of its losses was in terms of captured rather than dead. The casualty reports of the regular army themselves indicate that in 1941 it lost three or four captured for every soldier killed. Opolchenie then likely primarily died in German POW camps rather than in combat, with the front perhaps directly claiming the lives of some 100,000.

Non-Soviet Forces 

Many other Soviet citizens fought and died from 1941 through the end of 1945, but not as part of Soviet forces. The most numerically significant of these were the deaths among Soviet citizens in German service. They include a relatively small number of members of the Polish and Lithuanian nationalist resistance, a comparatively tiny number of anti-Soviet partisans in Estonia and Latvia, as well as a large number of UPA fighters in Western Ukraine.

During the war up to one million Soviet citizens entered into German service. They served in the Waffen-SS, the Wehrmacht and the Auxiliary Police. For many the motivating factor was local nationalism from which stemmed a principled opposition to rule from Moscow. For many others it was a matter of basic survival. Entering into German service meant escape from starvation rations, access to sometime badly-needed medical care, or a shot at winning the release of a relative in German captivity. For numerous people carrying a rifle for the Germans was not a matter of politics, but the difference between life and death of disease or malnutrition in captivity or under the occupation. In any case Krivosheev estimates some 215,000 Soviet citizens in German service lost their lives in battles against Soviet forces.[24] A much smaller number would have also fell in other theaters, in Italy and France against the Western Allies and in the Balkans against the Yugoslav partisans. 

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was organized by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and became active in early 1943. Under the German occupation it mainly fought the Soviet partisans, albeit between August and December 1943 it also took on the Germans. When it moved to expell ethnic Poles from Volhynia and Galicia it clashed heavily and bitterly with the Polish Home Army. After the Soviets reoccupied Western Ukraine it resisted Soviet rule battling the Red Army, the NKVD, police and the government-sponsored Istrebitel’nye militia into late 1940s and early 1950s.

Unlike the UPA the Polish Home Army (AK) was active against the Germans from the start. However, until 1944 it fielded fewer than 7,000 active fighters across the entire pre-war Poland. For the most part it did not seek battle against the Soviet partisans who were instructed by Moscow to do the same and the engagements between the two were limited. The Polish government in exile in November 1944 instructed the Home Army to cease any operations against the Soviets and in January 1945 the movement was formally disbanded by its leadership. Though many Polish fighters disregarded these instructions this nonetheless meant that Polish nationalist resistance after Soviet reoccupation was limited.

The Lithuanian nationalists did not offer armed resistance against the German occupation, but organized a number of guerrilla formations to combat the Soviets. 

Soviet reports indicate the various Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish anti-Soviet guerrillas suffered nearly 120,000 deaths in 1944-1945, the great majority of them UPA members in Western Ukraine, but including 12,000 in Lithuania. This figure is almost certainly greatly inflated, since the same reports indicate only 6,000 deaths among the Soviet NKVD, police, militia and army members, which would give a fantastic casualty ratio of 20:1.[25] If the 120,000 figure for the losses of anti-Soviet guerrillas is halved this produces a more plausible death ratio of 10:1. 

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army may have lost some 60,000 members from 1943 through 1945, the majority of them after Soviet reoccupation, but with some 10,000 during the German occupation. Perhaps some 10,000 Soviet citizens lost their lives in the ranks of the Polish Home Army, the majority of them under the German occupation, with a few thousand at most in the Polish anti-Soviet struggle after the Soviet reconquest. By the end of 1945 some 5,000 Lithuanians fell in the Lithuanian nationalist anti-Soviet struggle.

Summary

In all about 7.5 million fighters for the Soviet side died due to combat, accidents and disease (as opposed to dying in German captivity or being executed by the Soviet military authorities), of whom 7.25 million were regular soldiers and 250 thousand were militiamen and partisans. Some 290,000 Soviet citizens simultaneously lost their lives as part of various non-Soviet fighting forces, including 215 thousand in German service and the rest as part of Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Polish Home Army and the Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance.

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Red Army dead in combat6,825,000
Red Army dead due to disease270,000
Red Army dead due to accidents155,000
Total Red Army dead due to combat, accidents and disease7,250,000
Soviet partisan deaths150,000
Opolchenie militia deaths100,000
Total frontline deaths among Soviet forces (that is excluding POW and court martialed)7,500,000
Soviet citizens killed fighting in German service215,000
Soviet citizens killed as part of Ukrainian Insurgent Army60,000
Soviet citizens killed as part of the Polish Home Army10,000
Soviet citizens killed as part of Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance5,000
Total Soviet citizens who died as fighters for non-Soviet formations290,000
Total Soviet ciziens who died under arms7,800,000

18. G. F. Krivosheev, ed., Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century (Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books 1997): 236. 

19. G. F. Krivosheev, "Nekotorye novye dannye analiza sil i poter' na sovetsko-germanskom fronte", Mir Istorii, no.1 (1999).

20. Krivosheev, Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, 85.

21. Ibid., 236

22. Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts-und Vernichtungspolitik in Weissrussland 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999). 

23. Matthew Cooper, The Phantom War: The German struggle against Soviet partisans 1941-1944 (London: Macdonald and Jane’s Publishers Limited, 1979).

24. Krivosheev, Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, 278.

25. Alexander Statiev, The Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Western Borderland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 110, Table 4.4, 125, Table 4.10.

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