Relative Contributions to Victory:
On the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion of 1944, a U.S. news magazine featured a cover photo of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was labeled as the man who defeated Hitler. If any one man deserved that label, it was not Eisenhower but Zhukov, Vasilevsky, or possibly Stalin himself. More generally, the Red Army and the Soviet citizenry of many nationalities bore the lion’s share of the struggle against Germany from 1941 to 1945. Only China, which suffered almost continuous Japanese attack from 1931 onward, matched the level of Soviet suffering and effort. In military terms, moreover, the Chinese participation in the war was almost insignificant in comparison with the Soviet war, which constantly engaged [and] absorbed more than half of all German forces.
From June through December 1941, only Britain shared with the Soviet Union the trials of war against the Germans. Over 3 million German troops fought in the East, while 900,000 struggled elsewhere, attended to occupied Europe, or rested in the homeland. From December 1941 through November 1942, while over nine million troops on both sides struggled in the East, the only significant ground action in the Western Theater took place in North Africa, where relatively small British forces engaged Rommel’s Afrika Corps and its Italian allies.
In October and November 1942, the British celebrated victory over the Germans at El Alamein, defeating four German divisions and a somewhat larger Italian force, and inflicting 60,000 axis losses. The same month, at Stalingrad, the Soviets defeated and encircled German Sixth Army, damaged Fourth Panzer Army, and smashed Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies, eradicating over 50 divisions and over 300,000 men from the Axis order of battle. By May 1943 the Allies pursued Rommel’s Afrika Corps across northern Africa and into Tunisia, where after heavy fighting, the German and Italian force of 250,000 surrendered. Meanwhile, in the East, another German army (the Second) was severely mauled, and Italian Eighth and Hungarian Second Armies were utterly destroyed, exceeding Axis losses in Tunisia.
While over 3.5 million German and Soviet troops struggled at Kursk and 8.5 million later fought on a 1,500-mile front from the Leningrad region to the Black Sea coast, in July 1943 Allied forces invaded Sicily, and drove 60,000 Germans from the island. In August the Allies landed on the Italian peninsula. By October, when 2.5 million men of the Wehrmacht faced 6.6 million Soviets, the frontlines had stabilized in Italy south of Rome as the Germans deployed a much smaller, although significant, number of troops to halt the Allied advance.
By 1 October 1943, 2,565,000 men (63%) of the Wehrmacht’s 4,090,000-man force struggled in the East, together with the bulk of the 300,000 Waffen SS troops. On 1 June 1944, 239 (62%) of the German Army’s 386 division equivalents fought in the East. With operations in Italy at a stalemate, until June 1944, in fact, the Wehrmacht still considered the west as a semi-reserve. In August 1944, after the opening of the second front, while 2.1 million Germans fought in the East, 1 million opposed Allied operations in France.
Casualty figures underscore this reality. From September 1939 to September 1942, the bulk of the German Army’s 922,000 dead, missing, and disabled (14% of the total force) could be credited to combat in the East. Between 1 September 1942 and 20 November 1943 this grim count rose to 2,077,000 (30% of the total force), again primarily in the East. From June through November 1944, after the opening of the second front, the German Army suffered another 1,457,000 irrevocable losses. Of this number, 903,000 (62%) were lost in the East. Finally, after losing 120,000 men to the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge, from 1 January to 30 April 1945 the Germans suffered another 2 million losses, two-thirds at Soviet hands. Today, the stark inscription, “died in the East,” that is carved on countless thousands of headstones in scores of German cemeteries bear mute witness to the carnage in the East, where the will and strength of the Wehrmacht perished.
After factoring in the role of the Allied strategic bombing campaign which damaged German industrial output and tied a significant portion of the Luftwaffe away from the Russian front as well as the role of the Lend-Lease campaign (which only started arriving in sufficient quantities after the most crucial period of the war, the Moscow counteroffensives, and never in any decisive capacity), Glantz concludes:
Left to their own devices, Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht; the ultimate result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches. Thus, while the Red Army shed the bulk of Allied blood, it would have shed more blood for longer without Allied assistance.