Soviet Armed Forces Casualties in WW2

Soviet Armed Forces Casualties in WW2: In-Depth Analysis and Historical Context.

Russian soldiers with wounded
In 1941 Russian soldiers bring a wounded comrade back to the rear.

Soviet Armed Forces Casualties in WW2: In-Depth Analysis and Historical Context

During World War II, the Soviet Union’s military forces were engaged in some of the largest and most brutal combat operations in history. The Red Army, which encompassed ground forces, along with the navy, played a pivotal role in countering the German military. The conflict, marked by intense battles on the Eastern Front, led to devastating losses on both sides, and the number of casualties among Soviet military personnel remains a topic of historical analysis and debate.

The scale of the Soviet contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany often comes under scrutiny, particularly in terms of the human cost involved. Grigoriy Krivosheev, a Russian military historian, contributed significantly to the research on Soviet military casualties. The losses suffered by the USSR in its fight against Axis forces, which included countries like Romania, illustrate the extreme levels of destruction and the deadly nature of the combat seen during the period.

Overview

Soviet war victims.
Soviet war victims.

Soviet Union’s casualties during World War II have been a widely debated and controversial topic both within Russia and Eastern European countries. The complications arise from two core reasons. First, the difficult process of accurately tracking and defining military and civilian casualties amidst the chaos of the Eastern Front. Second, the ideological motivation of the Soviet Union to conceal the true human costs of the war from the world and its citizens.

Determining the exact number of casualties is intricate due to several factors, such as the inability to maintain accurate records during the confusing events of the Eastern Front, particularly in 1941. Moreover, there are conflicting methodologies used to extract different types of losses from available archival records and disagreements on the distinction between military and civilian casualties.

Ideology played a significant role in maintaining secrecy around the human cost of the Great Patriotic War. During the Cold War, the Soviet archives were mostly closed, and only a state-approved version of the ‘History of the Great Patriotic War’ was disseminated. Although some archives were opened during the Gorbachev era’s Perestroika and Glasnost policies, many crucial records remain inaccessible even today, with only government-sanctioned research teams having access.

Despite these limitations, independent Russian scholars have managed to compile a relatively realistic and workable model of the Soviet losses during World War II. The most significant effort in this regard can be attributed to a classified report by Colonel Podolsky in June 1945, shortly after the war’s end. Podolsky, the Chief of the Directorate for Accounting and Control of the Numerical Strength of the Armed Forces, aimed to quantify the Soviet military-related losses during the conflict.

The Soviet Armed Forces saw millions of deaths, including both combatants and non-combatants. Notably, over 800,000 women served in various capacities, including snipers, pilots, and auxiliary roles, leading to a higher number of women killed in action compared to other countries. The Eastern Front was the site of most of these losses, with a significant number of troops dying of wounds, becoming prisoners of war, or listed as missing or irrecoverable losses.

Russian femal sniper
A Russian femal sniper waiting for a target.

In conclusion, the precise figures of the Soviet Union’s casualties during World War II remain a complex and controversial topic. It is essential to acknowledge the brave efforts of Russian scholars who continue to uncover the hidden truths regarding these losses and strive to present a more accurate portrayal of the devastating human cost of the war.

The Podolsky report and the official falsification

German tanks, Soviet PoWs
German tanks roll forward, Soviet POWs flood back.

The Podolsky report provides valuable insights regarding Soviet military losses during World War II. Although it was compiled only a month after the war ended, its estimates of casualties are generally considered accurate.


However, the number of prisoners of war (POWs) and missing persons (MIAs) is considerably underestimated in the report, which is most likely due to the influence of the Stalin regime at the time. It was frowned upon to claim that Red Army soldiers had voluntarily surrendered or defected to the enemy.

Despite this information, Stalin publicly claimed in March 1946 that the USSR had suffered only around 7,000,000 casualties during the war, including both military and civilian deaths. This number, significantly less than that presented in the Podolsky report, suggests that the groundwork for the falsification of the history of the Great Patriotic War had already been laid.

Among the political motivations for this data manipulation were the cover-up of political and military mistakes and the ruthless deployment of their own soldiers (e.g. senseless mass assault attacks, Stalin’s ‘no-step-back’ order of 1942 or Koniev’s 1945 order, ‘in minefields our infantry attack as if they were not there’) by Stalin and his associates, as well as the portrayal of the Soviet armed forces as more competent and successful than they actually were.

In order to conceal the horrendous war losses from its own population, no population census was carried out in the Soviet Union for twenty years (from 1939 to 1959).

In the years following the war, several attempts were made to ascertain the true extent of Soviet losses. In late 1946, the Soviet Emergency State Commission (ChGK) issued a classified report which claimed that the Nazis and their allies had deliberately exterminated 6,716,660 Soviet civilians and another 3,912,883 POWs. However, this report was soon buried in classified archives, possibly due to its potential to reveal the true scale of the Soviet military’s losses.

Following Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and began a process of de-Stalinization. In February 1956, Khrushchev announced that the USSR had actually suffered over 20,000,000 casualties during the war. Some historical archives were partially opened to scholars, and a number of publications began to question the official narrative of the Great Patriotic War.

Unfortunately, this period of limited transparency did not last long. Leonid Brezhnev, who replaced Khrushchev in 1964, soon closed the archives and restricted access to military records. Even during the era of glasnost in the 1980s, access to military archives remained limited. Due to these restrictions, accurate information about Soviet military casualties during World War II has remained difficult to obtain.

In April 1988, a commission led by Colonel-General M. A. Gareev was established to determine WWII Soviet casualties. The official Russian figures for Soviet casualties in the Great Patriotic War have remained consistent since 1988, with only minor changes despite advancements in research. The difficulties in accessing primary sources, combined with a history of falsification and suppression of information, have made it challenging for historians to unravel the true extent of Soviet military losses during World War II.

Current official Russian losses of the Red Army 1941-45

DEADSQuantity
KIA5,141,000
Died of wounds in hospitals1,190,000
TOTAL6,331,000
WOUNDED
Wounded (after deduction of those who died in hospital)13,960,000
Number of permanently war-damaged persons2,576,000
MIAs, POWs
Repatriated POWs2,015,000
Missing (MIAs, after troop reports)1,196,000
Unrecorded losses, most in the initial period of the war133,000
TOTAL3,344,000
TOTAL CASUALTIES23,635,000

In 1993, a groundbreaking study by Krivosheev emerged, shedding light on Soviet casualties, equipment losses, mobilization processes, and various wartime strengths during World War II.

Prior to this, such information had been inaccessible, and the study was well-received despite its numerous inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and apparent data manipulations.

Many Western authors published works based on Krivosheev’s data, without independently verifying or corroborating the information provided.

The study was expected to undergo revisions, incorporating newly available source material.

However, when the second edition was published in 2001, it contained the same World War II armed forces data as the original work, and the rationale and conclusions remained virtually unchanged.

This raised skepticism about the true motives behind the study, as it seemed to be more focused on embellishing history and overlooking the Soviet regime’s failures.

Although the second edition has not been translated into English, and independent Russian researchers continue to challenge the validity of Krivosheev’s work, it remains the official Russian Federation position on Soviet and Russian losses for wars in the twentieth century.

The most important data from Krivosheev’s work can be found in the following tables. These charts are intended to help the reader understand the relative losses and loss ratios in the various categories.

These visuals aim to help readers understand the relative losses and loss rates in various categories.

Losses according to Krivosheev

By quarter, 1941 to 1945.
The percentage of total losses for the quarter is shown in brackets.

1941-42:

1941-423rd quarter 19414th quarter 1941TOTAL 19411st quarter 19422nd quarter 19423rd quarter 19424th quarter 1942TOTAL 1942
KIA236,372 (8.4%)229,009 (13.8%)465,381 (10.4%)413,681 (22.3%)232,388 (15.0%)416,569 (16.6%)310,978 (21.3%)1,373,616 (18.6%)
Died in hospital40,680 (1.4%)60,791 (3.7%)101,471 (2.3%)45,651 (2.5%)55,761 (3.6%)69,470 (2.8%)49,344 (3.4%)220,226 (3.0%)
Died of disease or accidents153,526 (5.4%)81,813 (4.9%)235,339 (5.3%)34,328 (1.9%)26,294 (1.7%)53,689 (2.1%)34,842 (2.4%)149,153 (2.0%)
MIAs, PoWs1,699,099 (60.3%)636,383 (38.4%)2,335,482 (52.2%)181,655 (9.8%)528,455 (34.1%)684,767 (27.3%)120,344 (8.3%)1,515,221 (20.6%)
TOTAL irrecoverable losses2,129,677 (75.6%)1,007,996 (60.9%)3,137,673 (70.1%)675,315 (36.4%)842,898 (54.4%)1,224,495 (48.8%)515,508 (35.4%)3,258,216 (44.2%)
Wounded665,961 (23.6%)590,460 (35.6%)1,256,421 (28.1%)1,011,040 (54.5%)552,437 (35.7%)1,146,667 (45.7%)765,577 (52.5%)3,475,721 (47.2%)
Sick21,665 (0.8%)44,504 (2.7%)66,169 (1.5%)117,007 (6.3%)154,210 (10.0%)136,395 (5.4%)169,461 (11.6%)577,073 (7.8%)
Frostbite cases-13,557 (0.8%)13,557 (1.5%)51,410 (2.8%)--6,858 (0.5%)58,268 (0.8%)
TOTAL recoverable losses687,626 (24.4%)648,521 (39.1%)1,336,147 (29.9%)1,179,457 (63.6%)706,647 (45.6%)1,283,062 (51.2%)941,896 (64.6%)4,111,062 (55.8%)
TOTAL LOSSES2,817,3031,656,5174,473,8201,854,7721,549,5452,507,5571,457,4047,369,278

1943:

19431st quarter 19432nd quarter 19433rd quarter 19434th quarter 1943TOTAL 1943
KIA486,912 (22.6%)100,967 (14.8%)562,604 (19.6%)418,225 (19.4%)1,568,708 (20,0%)
Died in hospital65,474 (3.0%)53,254 (7.8%)111,125 (3.9%)70,903 (3.3%)300,756 (3.8%)
Died of disease or accidents30,200 (1.4%)15,231 (2.2%)14,413 (0.5%)15,315 (0.7%)75,159 (1.0%)
MIAs, PoWs144,128 (6.7%)22,452 (3.3%)115,714 (4.0%)85,512 (4.0%)367,806 (4.7%)
TOTAL irrecoverable losses726,714 (33.8%)191,904 (28.1%)803,856 (28.1%)589,955 (27.3%)2,312,429 (29.4%)
Wounded1,181,338 (54.9%)252,954 (37.1%)1,829,666 (63.9%)1,349,890 (62.6%)4,613,848 (58.7%)
Sick230,055 (10.7%)237,683 (34.8%)231,139 (8.1%)217,607 (10.1%)916,484 (11.7%)
Frostbite cases14,299 (0.7%)--443 (0.0%)14,742 (0.2%)
TOTAL recoverable losses1,425,692 (66.2%)490,637 (71.9%)2,060,805 (71.9%)1,567,940 (72.7%)5,545,074 (70.6%)
TOTAL LOSSES2,152,406682,5412,864,6612,157,8957,857,503

1944:

19441st quarter 19442nd quarter 19443rd quarter 19444th quarter 1944TOTAL 1944
KIA414,298 (19.3%)206,193 (15.7%)374,817 (18.2%)216,754 (15.8%)1,212,062 (17.6%)
Died in hospital95,021 (4.4%)86,901 (6.6%)75,017 (3.6%)72,907 (5.3%)329,846
Died of disease or accidents8,779 (0.4%)12,787 (1.0%)15,491 (0.8%)17,363 (1.3%)54,420 (0.8%)
MIAs, PoWs52,663 (2.5%)38,377 (2.9%)45,465 (2.2%)31,058 (2.3%)167,563 (2.4%)
TOTAL irrecoverable losses570,761 (26.6%)344,258 (26.3%)510,790 (24.8%)338,082 (24.7%)1,763,891 (25.6%)
Wounded1,289,049 (60.1%)677,318 (51.7%)1,261,089 (61.3%)748,725 (54.7%)3,976,181 (57.8%)
Sick280,714 (13.1%)287,890 (22.0%)284,353 (13.8%)282,385 (20.6%)1,135,342 (16.5%)
Frostbite cases2,979 (0.1%)--248 (0.0%)3,227 (0.0%)
TOTAL recoverable losses1,572,742 (73.4%)965,208 (73.7%)1,545,422 (75.2%)1,031,358 (75.3%)1,369,440
TOTAL LOSSES2,143,5031,309,4662,056,2321,369,4406,878,641

1945:

19451st quarter 19452nd quarter 1945TOTAL 1945TOTAL RUSSIAN FRONT 1941-45Campaign against Japan (9th Aug-2nd Sep 1945)TOTAL IN WORLD WAR II
KIA410,066 (19.1%)145,577 (17.1%)557,643 (18.5%)5,177,410 (17.5%)9,780 (26.8%)5,187,190 (17.5%)
Died in hospital78,017 (3.6%)70,011 (8.1%)148,028 (4.9%)1,100,327 (3.7%)-1,100,327 (3.7%)
Died of disease or accidents17,979 (0.8%)8,530 (1.0%)26,509 (0.9%)540,580 (1.8%)1,340 (3.7%)541,920 (1.8%)
MIAs, PoWs51,459 (2.4%)17,178 (2.0%)68,637 (2.3%)4,454,709 (15.1%)911 (2.5%)4,455,620 (15.0%)
TOTAL irrecoverable losses557,521 (25.9%)243,296 (28.2%)800,817 (26.6%)11,273,026 (38.1%)12,031 (33.0%)11,285,057 (38.1%)
Wounded1,341,025 (62.3%)522,834 (60.7%)1,863,859 (61.9%)15,186,030 (51.3%)19,562 (53.7%)15,205,592 (51.3%)
Sick252,523 (11.7%)95,221 (11.1%)347,744 (11.5%)3,042,744 (11.5%)4,863 (13.3%)3,047,675 (10.3%)
Frostbite cases1,087 (0.1%)-1,087 (0.0%)90,881 (0.3%)-90,881 (0.3%)
TOTAL recoverable losses1,594,635 (74.1%)618,055 (71.8%)2,212,690 (73.4%)18,319,723 (61.9%)24,425 (67.0%)18,344,148 (61.9%)
TOTAL LOSSES2,152,156861,3513,013,50729,592,74936,45629,629,205

Soviet involvement in World War II was significant, and the Red Army experienced considerable casualties and equipment losses.

The Soviet Union faced battles against both Germany and Japan, fought on various fronts, and dealt with a range of challenges, including disease among soldiers and civilians, as well as POW issues.

Throughout the war, military personnel such as soldiers, pilots, and snipers faced extensive odds, and thousands of women served in Soviet armed forces in combat roles, resulting in higher killed-in-action numbers for Soviet women compared to other nations.

Unfortunately, despite new available sources and ongoing research, the official Russian Federation information on World War II casualties remains rooted in the work of Krivosheev, which has been tainted by its association with the Soviet era and the apparent embellishment of history.

This undoubtedly limits our understanding of the true extent of the losses suffered during this period, and emphasizes the need for continued scholarship and analysis on this pivotal moment in history.

Types of Losses: Irreversible and Reversible

Russian PoWs
Russian prisoners of war in a collection camp.

Understanding the categories of wartime losses is key for accurate historical analysis. There are primarily two loss types that must be distinguished: irreversible and reversible.

Irreversible Military Losses

Irreversible military losses encompass those service members who were permanently lost to their nation’s armed forces throughout the conflict. This group includes those who were:

  • Killed in battle or succumbed to their injuries thereafter
  • Executed by military tribunal
  • Passed away due to accidents or sickness
  • Declared missing in action or deserted
  • Captured as prisoners of war

It’s crucial to delineate that prisoners of war are accounted for, with no consideration of their eventual state post-conflict. However, losses incurred through a military’s strategic defeat and resultant surrender are not classified under operational irreversible losses even if those captured met their demise shortly thereafter.

Demographic Irreversible Losses

Demographic irreversible losses subtract those service members who, despite initial capture or being declared missing, eventually returned home post-war from the operational irreversible losses.

Reversible Losses

Reversible losses include:

  • Those injured due to myriad causes
  • Personnel unfit for service from disease, accidents, or other non-combat-related issues

While most reversed casualties survived the war, a substantial number succumbed in subsequent periods, some even during the conflict, and many were left with permanent disabilities.

The detailed figures demonstrate that the Red Army and Navy endured approximately 11,285,000 operational irreversible losses. Inclusion of border and other internal service troops raises this number to about 11,444,100. A critical point is the exclusion of estimated 500,000 reservists, who, despite mobilization, were captured by German advances before unit integration. Arguably, these individuals should be considered within military losses, which adjusts total operational irreversible losses to a minimum of 11,944,100 personnel.

For demographic irreversible losses, the figure commonly cited is approximately 8,668,000 service members. The omission of the aforementioned 500,000 reservists, suspected to have perished or were killed during the conflict, presents a misleading figure. If accounted for properly, the real demographic irreversible losses stand at a minimum of 9,168,000. Upon close analysis of re-conscripted personnel and those who returned from captivity, the adjusted demographic irreversible loss figure is about 9,269,000.

The term “recoverable losses,” while widely used, can often give a false impression. Military operationally, a significant fraction of these casualties were indeed irrecoverable, being too gravely injured or ill to return to service. For the Red Army and Navy, recoverable losses are reported to be around 18,344,000, with about 1,336,000 in 1941 alone. It is estimated that more than a third of these Soviet losses could no longer be serve, which is based on the data available from the US and German armies at the time, which were much better equipped to evacuate the wounded and provide them with medical treatment.

When reflecting upon Soviet force mobilization throughout the war in contrast to average troop strength, an intriguing perspective emerges. From June 1941 to the war’s end, nearly 29,574,900 individuals were conscripted into the Soviet armed forces. By May 1945, armed forces’ strength was about 11,500,000 personnel, with 6,500,000 “with the fighting troops,” suggesting that around 23,523,000 personnel were effectively ‘lost’ from Soviet military capability during the war.

The final months of World War II in Europe were marked by intense conflict and strategic military operations led by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

Despite dwindling numbers, the average Soviet rifle division was reduced to merely 3-4,000 personnel by May 1945. There was a substantial push to advance as far west into Europe as possible. This advance was driven by geopolitical aims, including the significant desire to capture Berlin before the Western Allies could consolidate their positions in post-war Europe.

The Red Army, under Stalin’s command, displayed an immense drive to continue fighting, indicating that considerations of demobilization were not on the Soviet agenda until the war’s conclusive moments had passed.

The toll of the conflict on the Soviet Armed Forces was immense, with up to 23,523,000 military personnel lost during the war, encompassing those killed in action, missing, and severely wounded.

Among these losses were countless soldiers who became prisoners of war (POWs), many of whom could never rejoin the ranks due to the severity of their conditions.

This staggering figure underscores the profound impact the war had on military and civilian populations alike, and the high price paid by the Soviet Union and Germany in one of history’s most devastating conflicts.

Some of the Data Inconsistencies and Contradictions Relating to Krivosheev’s Low 1941 Loss Estimates

destroyed T-34 Model 1940
Killed crew members in front of a destroyed T-34 Model 1940 with cast turret.

In scrutinizing the data presented by Krivosheev regarding Red Army losses in 1941, a clear discrepancy is identified between the personnel strength at the outset and close of the year against the reported irrecoverable losses.

The figure estimated by Krivosheev stands at approximately 3,138,000 irrecoverable losses, a stark contrast to the anticipated numbers based on Red Army strength in June and December of 1941, as well as the number of personnel mobilized during that period.

Table Casualties 1, sourced from Krivosheev, contrasts sharply with the report issued by Colonel Efremov in May 1942. Efremov’s report highlights the mobilization of 11,790,000 men up to January 1942, excluding an additional 700,000 men in the subsequent two months.

However, on June 22, 1941, the Red Army’s strength was reported at 4,924,000, rising only to 9,315,000 by March 1, 1942. The projected strength without casualties for the same end date would have reached approximately 17,414,000 personnel.

From Efremov’s extensive calculations, the oversight becomes apparent. There is a gaping discrepancy of around 3,157,000 personnel unaccounted for in the Red Army records.

Red Army strengthReported CasualtiesActual LossesMobilised soldiers in PeriodProjected Strength without Casualties on 1st March 1942
Status 22nd June 19414,924,000----
Status 1st March 19429,315,0004,642,0007,799,00012,190,00017,114,000
losses not taken into account3,157,000

Consequently, actual losses from June 22, 1941, to March 1, 1942, appear to approach 7,799,000—far over the documented 4,642,000 operational front losses upon which the entirety of Krivosheev’s study rests.

Further analysis accentuates the contradictions. Krivosheev’s data suggests Red Army total casualties, including recoverable ones, tally up to approximately 5,329,000 up to March 31, 1942—after considering that around 1,000,000 wounded/recovered service members returned to service.

In stark contrast, Efremov’s figures point to a shortfall of around 2,470,000 losses, underscoring a significant underestimation in Krivosheev’s statistics.

Krivosheev’s record of initial Red Army strength and reported average monthly strength on operational fronts evinces another significant discrepancy.

For instance, average strength on operational fronts during the third quarter of 1941 was claimed to be 3,334,400 and then reduced to 2,818,500, whereas reports indicate that the actual strength, including the front lines and reinforcing units as of December 1, 1941, was significantly higher.

Red Army statistics

The Casualties tables, while incorporating approximately 300,000 personnel returned to the war economy and roughly 700,000 mobilized personnel in civilian militia units by 1941’s end, reveal that approximately 3,899,000 personnel remain unaccounted for or ‘missing’ in the Red Army.

Red Army StrengthReported CasualtiesActual LossesMobilised soldiers in PeriodProjected Strength without Casualties in December 1941
Status 22nd June 19414,902,000----
Status December 19417,319,0004,474,0008,372,80010,790,00015,691,800
Officially unrecognized losses3,898,800

This discrepancy highlights that the actual losses versus the 4,474,000 reported approach an estimated 8,373,000 men between June 22 and December 31, 1942.

The study glosses over the gap in personnel with qualitative assertions that do not satisfactorily account for the ‘missing’ personnel estimated between 3,200,000 and 3,400,000.

One such assertion posits that 1,162,600 unrecorded casualties from the war’s initial months fill this void, suggesting these were missing in action when front and army loss reports were unattainable.

However, this attempt to reconcile the numbers fails to acknowledge that a majority of these ‘unrecorded casualties’ had already been included in Krivosheev’s irrecoverable MIA loss figures for 1941.

Final assessment of the 1941 losses

However one views Krivosheyev’s statistical data for 1941, it is clearly inconsistent with virtually all other data on the Eastern Front from reputable sources. Even worse, Krivosheyev’s team clearly chose to ignore a number of internal Red Army staff reports (now declassified), almost all of which contain a much more truthful summary of Red Army strengths and losses from June to December 1941.

It remains shameful and embarrassing that the official Russian historiography on Red Army losses in 1941 is so ridiculously out of date – intentionally or otherwise.

Equally culpable are a number of Western authors who continue to use the 1941 figures from Krivoshev’s statistical study without bothering to provide substantive evidence. Fortunately, a growing number of Russian academics and authors rightly seem to regard this as a disgrace to the millions of Soviet soldiers who fought in 1941 and are no longer prepared to follow the official line.


References and literature

Operation Barbarossa: the Complete Organisational and Statistical Analysis, and Military Simulation, Volume I – IIIB (Nigel Askey)
World War II – A Statistical Survey (John Ellis)
Chronology of World War II (Christopher Argyle)

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