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The Top 10 Worst Battles of World War II

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte in 2018. He specializes in World History.

From Monte Cassino to Stalingrad, this article examines and ranks the 10 worst battles of the Second World War.

From Monte Cassino to Stalingrad, this article examines and ranks the 10 worst battles of the Second World War.

What Was the Worst Battle of World War II?

Throughout the Second World War, a number of terrible battles were fought between the Axis and Allied forces that resulted in tremendous bloodshed, death, and destruction. Of the battlefield engagements that transpired, several battles stand out above the rest in regard to the number of participants that were both wounded and killed.

This work examines (and ranks) the 10 worst battles of the Second World War. It provides a brief history of each event, followed by an overview of the total number killed and wounded. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of these remarkable battles will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

What Is a War Casualty?

Before we examine and rank the 10 worst battles of the Second World War, it is important to first identify (and define) what a “war casualty” consists of. For the extents and purposes of this work, the term “casualty” will refer to any individual (in this case, soldiers) that is either incapacitated or prevented from serving in a combat role.

As such, casualties will include those killed in the line of duty, wounded, or captured by enemy forces. Likewise, the term will also be applied to soldiers that are incapable of fighting as a result of illness and/or desertion.

The 10 Deadliest Battles of WWII

10. The Battle of Monte Cassino
9. The Battle of the Bulge
8. The Second Battle of Kharkov
7. The Battle of Luzon
6. The Battle of Narva
5. The Battle of Kursk
4. The Battle of Moscow
3. The Battle of Berlin
2. The Battle of France
1. The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Monte Cassino

The Battle of Monte Cassino

10. The Battle of Monte Cassino

  • Date(s) of Event: 17 January to 17 May 1944
  • Number of Casualties: 185,000 (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Allied Victory

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the “Battle for Rome” or the “Battle for Cassino”) refers to a series of four separate Allied assaults against the Winter Line that was held by Axis forces in Italy. Devised by Allied planners as a campaign to reach Rome (and break the Gustav Line), American-led forces poured into the sector with hopes of quickly ending German resistance.

Despite their best efforts, however, Axis forces were able to hold out against repeated bombardments and full-frontal assaults for five months due to their strong defensive positions, delivering catastrophic damage to Allied forces in the process. Although the Allies eventually broke through to the city of Rome, the Battle of Monte Cassino continues to be recognized as one of the most difficult battles fought in the Second World War.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Monte Cassino?

In regard to the number of people killed and wounded during the Battle of Monte Cassino, scholars commonly cite casualty rates of approximately 185,000 people (dead and wounded). Of these, approximately 55,000 Allied casualties occurred during the capture of Monte Cassino itself, followed by an additional 20,000 Germans. These initial numbers quickly accumulated, however, following the subsequent capture of Rome (pushing Allied casualties to an astounding 105,000 losses (with Axis casualties currently unknown).

Air and artillery bombardments were also responsible for countless civilian deaths, with 2,026 people perishing in the town of Cassino alone. Thus, when examined together, it is not difficult to see why the Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the worst battles of the Second World War.

The Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge

9. The Battle of the Bulge

  • Date(s) of Event: 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945
  • Number of Casualties: 189,000+ (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Allied Victory

The Battle of the Bulge (sometimes referred to as the “Ardennes Offensive”) refers to a massive German offensive along the Western Front between 16 December 1944 and 25 January 1945. Launched in the heavily-forested Ardennes region (located between Belgium and Luxembourg), German forces hoped to deliver a devastating blow to the Allied advance by splitting their lines and recapturing the Belgian port of Antwerp. In doing so, Germany hoped that the encirclement and destruction of Allied forces in the area would help to force a peace treaty and save Germany from imminent defeat.

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While initially successful in their efforts, American and Allied forces eventually thwarted the surprise attack, resulting in a full retreat of German forces a month later. The battle, in turn, would prove to be one of the most decisive Allied victories of the war and would be marked as the last major offensive by the Axis Powers.

How Many People Died in the Battle of the Bulge?

In total, military historians and scholars currently estimate that 185,000+ individuals were killed or wounded during the month-long Ardennes Offensive. Of these casualties, American forces lost an estimated 89,500 personnel (19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded, and 23,000 missing or captured), whereas German losses are believed to have reached upwards of 100,000 soldiers.

The battle was also devastating in terms of the total number of tanks, guns, and aircraft lost. Allied forces lost an astounding 733 tanks during the battle, along with 1,000 aircraft. The Germans, in contrast, suffered the loss of 554 tanks, as well as 800 aircraft. Taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Battle of the Bulge was one of the deadliest conflicts of the Second World War.

The Second Battle of Kharkov

The Second Battle of Kharkov

8. The Second Battle of Kharkov

  • Date(s) of Event: 12 May 1942 to 28 May 1942
  • Number of Casualties: 307,000+ (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Axis Victory

The Second Battle of Kharkov (also referred to as “Operation Fredericus”) refers to a major Axis counter-offensive that occurred during the last half of May 1942. Occurring near the city of Kharkov (hence its name), German forces launched their attack against Soviet forces with the objective of eliminating the Izium bridgehead, which served as a staging area for Soviet forces.

Spearheaded by the German 6th Army, German forces quickly overwhelmed Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s forces through a pincer attack that cut off three of their field armies from the front and resulted in their complete encirclement. Following six days of massive air strikes, artillery barrages, and machine-gun fire, the Germans were able to deliver a devastating blow to Soviet forces, providing their army with a much-needed morale boost for the time being.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Kharkov?

In total, scholars currently estimate that the Second Battle of Kharkov resulted in approximately 307,000 casualties on both sides of the conflict. Of these numbers, approximately 277,190 Soviet troops were lost in the battle (dead and wounded), followed by 20,000 to 30,000 German troops. This lopsided victory proved devastating to Soviet forces in the area, as an additional 1,250 tanks, 2,000 howitzers, 3,200 mortars, 500+ aircraft, and 57,000 horses were also destroyed in the battle (compared to the loss of 108 tanks, 49 aircraft, and 110 airmen on the German side).

When taken together, the Second Battle of Kharkov was truly devastating in regard to the number of lives it consumed; for these reasons, it is regularly cited by historians as one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

The Battle of Luzon

The Battle of Luzon

7. The Battle of Luzon

  • Date(s) of Event: 9 January 1945 to 15 August 1945
  • Number of Casualties: 400,000+ (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Allied Victory

The Battle of Luzon refers to a major battle that occurred in the Philippines between January and August 1945. Taking place on the largest island of the Philippines (known as Luzon), American and Filipino resistance forces simultaneously launched an offensive against Japanese forces defending the island on 9 January 1945, utilizing naval vessels off the coast for a massive amphibious assault.

Despite landing on the island with approximately 280,000 troops, Allied forces faced stiff resistance from the Japanese defenders, forcing them to fight for every inch of land in the weeks that followed.

While control of the island was finally established by early March (nearly two months after the initial attack), Japanese soldiers continued to fight the Allied forces from their hideouts in the mountains until the surrender of Japan occurred in August 1945. Amazingly, some Japanese holdouts continued to press their attack for several more years (despite the official surrender of their country).

How Many People Died in the Battle of Luzon?

In terms of specific losses, scholars currently estimate that the Battle of Luzon was responsible for approximately 400,000+ casualties (dead and wounded) on both sides of the conflict. Japanese losses were extremely high during the battle, resulting in over 217,000 dead and 9,050 individuals that were taken prisoner. U.S. losses, in contrast, were estimated to be approximately 8,310 killed and 29,560 wounded.

These numbers are a bit deceiving, however, as they do not account for the tremendous number of civilian deaths that also occurred during the bitter struggle for control of Luzon itself. As of May 2022, scholars currently believe that an additional 120,000 to 140,000 civilians were killed during the conflict (with many of these deaths resulting from murderous actions taken on behalf of the Japanese defenders). Thus, when taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Battle of Luzon was one of the bloodiest and most devastating conflicts of the entire Second World War.

The Battle of Narva

The Battle of Narva

6. The Battle of Narva

  • Date(s) of Event: 2 February 1944 to 10 August 1944
  • Number of Casualties: 548,000+ (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: German Victory

The Battle of Narva refers to a major WWII battle that transpired between 2 February 1944 to 10 August 1944. Taking place along the strategic Narva Isthmus, both German and Soviet forces fought ferociously for control of the region following the declaration of Joseph Stalin’s “broad front” strategy.

The battle consisted of two phases, with Soviet troops attempting to overwhelm Nazi forces by establishing strategic bridgeheads and mass attacks. Despite their best efforts, however, German forces were able to effectively hold their eastern bank bridgehead against Soviet attacks, annihilating their forces in a series of major counterattacks in the months that followed.

Although Germany would eventually lose the war, their defense of the Narva Isthmus proved devastating for Soviet ambitions and morale in the area. All attempts to recover Estonia were thwarted as a result of the battle, while campaigns in the Baltic Sea region (in general) came to a screeching halt for nearly seven and a half months. As such, the Battle of Narva would prove to be a major (but short-lived) victory for the Germans.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Narva?

Regarding the Battle of Narva’s total casualties, scholars currently estimate that approximately 548,000+ individuals were killed or wounded throughout the duration of the conflict. Of these numbers, Soviet losses amounted to over 100,000 dead, along with an additional 380,000 wounded.

Likewise, an additional 300 tanks and 230 Soviet aircraft were also lost during the battle. German losses, in stark contrast, were substantially less (in the vicinity of 14,000 dead and 54,000 wounded), demonstrating the superior fighting ability of German troops during this phase of the war.

Taken together, the Battle of Narva resulted in a massive loss of life during its six-month duration. When viewed (and examined) alongside other battles taking place during the war, it is not difficult to see why the Narva conflict was one of the worst engagements of World War II.

The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk

5. The Battle of Kursk

  • Date(s) of Event: 5 July 1943 to 23 August 1943
  • Number of Casualties: 1,000,000+ (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Soviet Victory

The Battle of Kursk refers to a major engagement between Soviet and German forces on the Eastern Front during July and August 1943. Occurring near the city of Kursk (which was only 280 miles from Moscow), German forces initiated the battle through the launching of “Operation Citadel,” which was developed as a means to “pinch” Soviet forces within the Kursk salient (providing the Germans with a quick encirclement and victory over their enemy). Recognizing their deployment’s design, however, Soviet forces launched a series of powerful counterattacks that halted the German advance quickly and effectively.

In the chaos that ensued, Soviet and German forces engaged in the largest tank battle in history (involving over 6,000+ tanks at its peak). Through their impeccable bravery and determination, Soviet forces were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Germans, resulting in their full retreat.

The Battle of Kursk also proved monumental in that it effectively ended German offensive capabilities on the Eastern Front, paving the way for a slow (but steady) advance of Soviet forces for the remainder of the war.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Kursk?

In total, scholars currently estimate that approximately 1 million people were killed or wounded during the Battle of Kursk. Of these casualties, the Germans are believed to have lost 200,000 men during the month-long campaign, whereas Soviet losses reached an astounding 800,000. As with other battles on our list, however, these numbers do not reflect the battle’s total devastation, as a large number of tanks, guns, and aircraft were also destroyed in the engagement.

For the Germans, nearly 2,500 tanks and artillery pieces were lost in the battle, along with 840 different aircraft. The Soviet forces, on the other hand, lost an astounding 4,000 tanks and artillery pieces, along with 3,000 total aircraft.

When viewed together, the Battle of Kursk was truly one of the most devastating engagements of the war, as it resulted in a tremendous loss of life and unprecedented destruction on the Eastern Front.

The Battle of Moscow

The Battle of Moscow

4. The Battle of Moscow

  • Date(s) of Event: 2 October 1941 to 7 January 1942
  • Number of Casualties: 1 to 1.6 Million (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Soviet Victory

The Battle of Moscow refers to a massive engagement along the Eastern Front during the Second World War between 2 October 1941 and 7 January 1942. Consisting of two separate periods, the Battle of Moscow occurred along a 370-mile sector of the Soviet Union as German forces attempted to seize control of Moscow. Following their launch of Operation Typhoon, German forces hoped to take Moscow through the utilization of a “two-pincer” offensive; however, their efforts were quickly halted by Soviet defenders who fought against the invaders with tremendous ferocity.

Relying on sheer numbers, Soviet forces held out against the German offensive by constructing a series of three defensive “belts” around the city’s perimeter. After grinding the German offensive to a near-halt with these lines, the Soviets then launched a number of counter-offensives with reserve forces from the Siberian and Eastern Military Districts, resulting in the slow (but steady) retreat of German forces from the area.

Although Moscow would not be fully secured until early 1943, the Red Army’s victory over the Wehrmacht at Moscow would prove to be a major victory for the Soviet war effort (and morale). For the first time since June 1941, the Soviet forces had stopped the Germans in their tracks and, in turn, destroyed Hitler’s ambitions to defeat the Soviets by Christmas of that year. The defense of this iconic city would later become a key symbol of Soviet resistance against the Axis Powers and would serve as a major turning point in the Second World War.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Moscow?

In regard to total losses, historians estimate that the Battle of Moscow was responsible for approximately 1 to 1.6 million casualties (dead, wounded, and captured). Of these numbers, the Soviets are believed to have lost 650,000 to 1,280,000 troops (with roughly a third of these numbers accounting for those killed in action).

German losses, in contrast, are believed to have been in the vicinity of 248,000 to 400,000 troops. Historians are quick to point out, however, that these figures are likely far higher, as both Soviet and German officials attempted to conceal true losses from public record in the months and years that followed the battle.

Whatever the actual numbers may be, one thing is for certain: the Battle of Moscow was a terrible engagement that resulted in a tremendous loss of life for both sides of the conflict. In terms of its size and scope, it was truly one of the worst battles of the Second World War.

The Battle of Berlin

The Battle of Berlin

3. The Battle of Berlin

  • Date(s) of Event: 16 April 1945 to 2 May 1945
  • Number of Casualties: 1.3 Million (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Soviet Victory

The Battle of Berlin (also known as the “Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation” or the “Fall of Berlin”) was a major battle that occurred between 16 April 1945 and 2 May 1945. Characterized as one of the last major battles of the Second World War, the battle began when three separate Soviet army groups attacked the German capital city of Berlin from its north, east and southern borders.

After successfully encircling the city, the Red Army began a rapid takeover of the city itself, engaging with remnants of the Waffen-SS, Wehrmacht, and Hitler Youth members in the following weeks. Although the remaining German units fought with unparalleled ferocity, the disorganized nature of their defense allowed the Soviets to overwhelm their positions quickly, thus cutting off a number of German positions in the process.

With defeat imminent, Hitler (and several of his key military and government officials) committed suicide on 30 April 1945 once it became clear that victory was unobtainable. Two days later, the city’s main garrison surrendered, with a complete end of hostilities being declared on 9 May 1945 (thus, ending the war in Europe).

How Many People Died in the Battle of Berlin?

In terms of direct losses (both killed and wounded), scholars currently estimate that approximately 1.3 million people were killed, wounded, or captured during the Battle of Berlin. Of these numbers, approximately 83,116 Soviet troops were killed, with an additional 280,251 individuals wounded in action. Likewise, approximately 1,997 tanks, 2,108 artillery pieces, and 917 aircraft were lost during the battle. German casualties, in contrast, are estimated to be nearly 100,000 dead and 220,000 wounded, with an additional 480,000 troops captured by enemy forces.

Historians are also quick to point out that civilian casualties are important to include in the battle’s aftermath, as approximately 22,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting (with upwards of 100,000 or more wounded).

When taken together, the Battle of Berlin was truly one of the most devastating battles of the Second World War, as its tremendous loss of life and destruction were catastrophic in terms of its social, economic, and political impact.

The Battle of France

The Battle of France

2. The Battle of France

  • Date(s) of Event: 10 May 1940 to 25 June 1940
  • Number of Casualties: 2.4 Million (Dead, Wounded, and Captured)
  • Outcome: German Victory

The Battle of France (also known as the “Western Campaign,” “French Campaign,” or the “Fall of France”) was a major battle that occurred between 10 May 1940 to 25 June 1940 between Axis and Allied forces. Occurring shortly after France’s declaration of war against Germany, German and Italian troops launched a major invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France simultaneously, utilizing armored units to push through the Ardennes and Somme valley.

Completely overwhelmed by this show of force, the Belgian, French, and British forces (who were providing support) were forced to retreat all the way to the coast (resulting in massive evacuation efforts at Dunkirk). Although a number of French and British divisions attempted to make a valiant stand against the Nazi invaders, they were eventually overwhelmed by the German’s superior air and tank power, resulting in mass casualties.

The Battle of France would prove devastating to Allied morale during the first months of World War II, as the engagement resulted in the collapse of the French Army, the flight of the French government overseas, and the establishment of a neutral Vichy government (providing Germany with a substantial foothold in Western Europe).

How Many People Died in the Battle of France?

Regarding the total number of casualties that resulted from the Battle of France, military historians and scholars currently estimate that approximately 2.4 million people (on both sides) were killed, wounded, or captured during the conflict. Of these numbers, approximately 376,734 Allied troops were killed, followed by the loss of nearly 2,233 aircraft and 2,300+ tanks.

Captured personnel, in contrast, is believed to have exceeded 1.7 million individuals (resulting in a massive blow to the Allies’ war effort). Regarding Nazi forces, casualties were far less, with approximately 27,000 troops killed, 130,000 wounded or missing, 1,200+ aircraft, and the destruction of 822 tanks.

When taken together, the Battle of France was truly devastating in terms of the number of people killed or wounded in such a short span of time. Both sides of the conflict would feel its true effects for the remainder of the war.

The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad

1. The Battle of Stalingrad

  • Date(s) of Event: 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943
  • Number of Casualties: 2+ Million (Dead and Wounded)
  • Outcome: Soviet Victory

Topping our list of bloodiest WWII engagements is the infamous Battle of Stalingrad. Taking place between August 1942 and February 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad refers to a major engagement that occurred along the Eastern Front between Soviet and Nazi forces.

Taking place in the city of Stalingrad (modern-day Volgograd), Nazi forces first invaded the city due to its strategic value as an industrial and commercial center on the Volga River. Likewise, its name (derived from the Soviet Union’s leader, Joseph Stalin) was viewed by Hitler and the German high-command as a politically valuable (and symbolic) target, as its loss would be viewed as a major defeat to Stalin and the Red Army.

Following the launch of the German offensive against the city, both the German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army (supported by the Luftwaffe) poured large numbers of troops and armor into Stalingrad, reducing much of the surrounding city to rubble within weeks. Due to fierce (and unexpected) resistance, however, the invaders could not take complete control of the city, resulting in deadly house-to-house fighting in the following months.

Although defeat seemed inevitable at first, Stalin ordered a massive counterattack known as “Operation Uranus” to be launched on 19 November 1942. Utilizing a two-pronged attack, the Axis forces were quickly surrounded and cutoff from resupply by this newfound surge of Soviet forces, leaving them susceptible to attack on all sides.

Despite being overwhelmed and nearly destroyed by this sudden reversal, Hitler forbade his troops to break out or surrender, ordering the 6th Army to hold its ground and fight valiantly to the death.

Although German forces initially held out against the Soviet encirclement with a degree of success, the complete exhaustion of their ammunition and food over the following months forced them to finally capitulate on 2 February 1943 (against Hitler’s command).

Their surrender would prove to be a major turning point in the war, as it represented the first major defeat of German forces on the Eastern Front and served as a tremendous morale booster for Red Army troops in the following months.

How Many People Died in the Battle of Stalingrad?

In terms of its bloodshed, scholars currently believe that approximately 2 million individuals were killed or wounded during the Battle of Stalingrad. Of these numbers, Soviet losses are estimated to be 478,741 killed (or missing), with an additional 650,878 wounded.

Likewise, it is currently believed that approximately 2,769 aircraft, 4,341 tanks, and 15,728 artillery pieces were lost by the Soviets as well. German losses, in contrast, are estimated to be approximately 747,300 to 858,374 dead, wounded, and captured.

In terms of equipment, it is estimated that Nazi forces lost over 900 aircraft, 1,500 tanks, and 6,000 gun emplacements throughout the duration of the battle. When taken together, it is not difficult to see why the Battle for Stalingrad was the worst (and bloodiest) battle of the Second World War.

Works Cited

Articles/Books:

  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: A Biography. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Marples, David. Russia in the Twentieth Century. New York, New York: Pearson Educational Limited, 2011.
  • Shirer, William and Ron Rosenbaum. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Battle of Stalingrad.” Owlcation. 2019.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Deadliest Wars in History.” Owlcation. 2021.

Images/Photographs:

  • Pixabay Commons.
  • Wikimedia Commons.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Larry Slawson

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