Wednesday, June 05, 2013


Four out of five of the Wehrmacht troops killed during the Second World War perished on the Eastern Front in Hitler's 'war of annihilation'.  But the average losses per division on both sides in an equivalent period were to exceed that during the Normandy landings. Like most people, I admire bravery because I lack this quality myself.  I have no doubt that had I taken part in something like the Omaha invasion, I would be numbered with those who were quite useless, immobilised with fear.

Others showed extraordinary bravery.  In the British landing at Sword, which fortunately did not enter legend for all of the wrong reasons that the American landing at Omaha did, young French women risked their lives to help the wounded:

"Purely by chance, a student nurse who had left her bathing dress in a beach hut the day before had arrived on a bicycle to retrieve it.  She ignored the wolf whistles of the amazed squaddies and set to work bandaging wounds.  Her work lasted two days and during the course of it she met her future husband, a young English officer." - (from D-Day, Anthony Beevor.)   

Tomorrow, or by the time you read it, this day in 1944.


Roger McCarthy said...

'Four out of five of the Wehrmacht troops killed during the Second World War perished on the Eastern Front in Hitler's 'war of annihilation'. But the average losses per division on both sides in an equivalent period were to exceed that during the Normandy landings.'

Not a fair comparison as on the Eastern Front most divisions spent most of their time on quite inactive sections.

Look at those maps that milityary historians are so besotted with that show changes in front lines - with each change meaning tens and hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings - and you see that along the fronts held by the Nazi Army Groups North and Centre there was little movement between January 1942 when the Soviet winter counter-offensives stalled and Operation Bagration in June 1944 when they finally resumed and kicked the Nazis out of Russia.

So divide total Ostfront casualties by all the divisions and by the full 46 months length of that war and yes you will get a lower average figure than for Normandy alone in June-July 1944.

On the other hand divisions in Army Group South (and its variously named successors) in the Ukraine and Caucasus and the Soviet armies that opposed them suffered casualties vastly greater than those of any in Normandy with whole divisions and indeed armies being utterly destroyed, refounded and destroyed over and over again.

So a more correct point of comparison would be with the divisions engaged just in say the first months of Operation Barbarossa or at Stalingrad or Kursk or the destruction of Army Group Centre in 1944.

And as generally most divisions on the losing side in an Eastern front battle were destroyed completely while even most of the German divisions in Normandy got away with at least some of their men and equipment I have no doubt that such a comparison would not stand at all.

Omer Bartov's books the Barbarisation of Warfare and Hitler's Army are particularly good on this with some unbelievably depressing statistics on casualties and their impact on unit cohesion and should be in the library of anyone with a serious interest in WW2 and real the role of the military in the Nazi state.

But this is all corpse-counting historical pedantry and your main point is of course right.

Roger McCarthy said...

And not long ago I did some research on my Grandad's war record.

Being in his early 30s in 1939 he was too old for a combat unit but too young to be passed over and so he was recruited into the 51st Highland Division's supply corps as a petrol tanker driver.

This meant that in June 1940 when his division was the only British unit left in France when the rest of the BEF sailed away from Dunkirk he was driving a lorry full of petrol around French country lanes being hunted by Stukas and Messerschmidts - a single round or bomb from which would have burned him alive in his cab.

And when Rommel's 7th Panzers broke through and set about surrounding the 51st he and his supply company headed for the coast at St Valery in the hope of getting off in another mini-Dunkirk.

But with the German tanks in hot pursuit they passed a French artillery battery where all but one of the gunners was dead or fled but that one poilu was still trying to aim and load his 75mmm cannon to hold the Germans back while others got away.

And my grandad despite probably never having even fired a shot in anger from a rifle never mind a field gun volunteered to stay behind with that Frenchman and helped him fire that bloody 75mmm gun for hours and held back the German pursuit.

After which he somehow still made his escape to the coast and unlike most of his comrades in that division found a boat (one of his comrades who by the sound of it may have been in the same company did leave an account of that escape, got back to England, was given a few days leave and the Military Medal and had a somewhat less eventful rest of the war guarding Italian POWs in Stirling Castle and driving and fixing trucks in North Africa and Burma.

He never spoke much about the war or left any account of what he did to win that medal so it came as a surprise even to my mother when I found the medal citation online 40 odd years after he died.

But that simple 'someone has to do it' courage showed by my grandad in June 1940 is almost unimaginable and profoundly humbling to me 73 years later.

We really owe an incomprehensibly huge debt to all those millions of ordinary men doing incredibly brave things because if they didn't nobody else would.

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