Valor Friday

| May 5, 2023

The scale of the Second World War made the “Great War” seem like a small regional conflict by comparison. Total deaths from the war are impossible to know with any certainty. Estimates of total dead are 85 million. That’s almost four percent of the total world population. In Europe, the deaths from the war were the worst mass loss of life since the Black Death. For comparison’s sake, 85 million people is more than live in California, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania combined.

Among the hardest hit countries was the Soviet Union, who lost between 20 and 27 million people. The number of deaths (not including those wounded and forever altered by the war) in the USSR during WWII represent 10-15% of the country’s total population. If we in America were to suffer similar losses today, it would be like the entire population of the state of California disappearing.

On the Axis side, Germany suffered the heaviest loss of life by any single nation. Of their population of 69 million, 5.7 million wouldn’t make it out. That doesn’t include Austria and the other annexed territories gained during the war. Nearly 10% of the entire population of pre-war Germany was lost during the fighting.

The military forces of the world were larger by orders of magnitude than they had been for the last major war. Globally, 127 million men and women were mobilized and in uniform during the six year long war.

Dark Green – Allies before Pearl Harbor
Light Green – Allies after Pearl Harbor
Blue – Axis
Grey – Neutral

The fighting was actively waged on all six human inhabited continents. No corner of the world was “safe” and the list of countries not involved directly or indirectly can be counted on a single hand. It was truly, by every definition of the phrase, a “world” war.

The human toll of the war cannot be undersold. It’s unfathomable to imagine tens of millions of people dying. The Holocaust was the horrific extermination of all “undesirables”, the Jews, Gypsies, mentally retarded, homosexuals, and others. Conservative estimates of civilian casualties put the global total of dead due to military activity or crimes against humanity at 30 million people. Deaths due to war-related famine number between 19 and 28 million civilians dead.

The country with the largest number of civilian deaths during the war was the Soviet Union. They lost between 4.5 and 10 million civilians due to military action and the Nazi atrocities and another 8-9 million in famines caused by the war. India, though only losing 87,000 in military action, lost 2-3 million at home due to famine.

The other Allied nation that suffered horrendously was China. Largely forgotten in the West, the Japanese were just as brutal as the Nazis. They left behind millions of dead in their wake as well. In China, between 7 and 8 million civilians due to military action and war crimes and another 5-10 million other civilians died by famine. The Dutch East Indies similarly lost 2.5-4 million with French Indochina losing between 1 and 2 million in war-related famine or disease.

The tens of millions of men and women who put on the uniforms of their country also faced death, disease, and dismemberment. On the side of the Axis, the German war machine saw the most dead or wounded. Of the 18 million men in uniform, more than 5 million never made it home and 6 million were wounded.

The Germans during the war, had taken more than 5.7 million Soviet soldiers prisoner and interned 1.8 million French. In total, mostly at and near the end of the war, more than 11 million men of the Wehrmacht were imprisoned by the Allies, the largest number of enemy prisoners of war in history (by a large margin).

The lives of those captured were often as good as forfeit. More than 50% of Soviets taken prisoner by the Germans would die in captivity. Germans captured in Yugoslavia were similarly about 50/50 on surviving the ordeal. At least 15% (and possibly as high as 30%) of Germans captured by the Soviets would perish.

Overall, 30% of the Wehrmacht would die during the war. Most of those (more than 4 million) were in the German Army. As a percentage, men in the Waffen-SS would die at a 1-in-3 rate. The Air Force and Navy fared a tad better, with only 17% and 11% dying respectively.

The Soviet troops also had about a 1-in-3 chance of living through the war. The Japanese had a slightly better 25% death rate among their troops. Among the other major belligerents, the UK and the US lost a comparatively small 3% and 2.5% of their military to death during the war respectively.

Among the numbers killed were the staggeringly large number of troops who were missing and never accounted for. Germany has never been able to account for more than 2 million of their men in uniform. Huge numbers of servicemen were forever altered, even if they survived.The Soviet Union came out of the war with more than 2.5 million men permanently disabled.

The battles themselves were enormous affairs. Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, involved 3.8 million German troops and 3 million Soviets. This is the largest military operation in human history. The German battle line included a staggering 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery, and 2,500 aircraft.

World War 2 can lay claim to the largest of several different types of battles. The Siege of Leningrad (with casualties between 1 and 5 million) from 1941 to 1944 is history’s largest siege.

Marianas Turkey Shoot

The Battle of Philippine Sea (1944) stands as the largest aircraft carrier battle, with fifteen American carriers, nine Japanese carriers, 170 other warships, and some 1,700 aircraft. The American Fifth Fleet Fast Carrier Task Force (TF 58) of that battle remains the largest naval formation to wage battle. It was such a target rich environment for aviators that it came to be known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

The Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944) was the largest naval battle in history. It had more ships by displacement than any other naval engagement, more tonnage sunk, and was fought over the largest geographic area. The combined fleets of the Allies and their Japanese foes carried more than 200,000 men.

The Eastern Front Battle of Kursk in 1941 was the site of the largest air battle. More than 5,000 aircraft from both sides would fight in the sky in less than two months of combat.

To feed the war machine, unprecedented construction of war equipment. You’ll recall that in WWI 200,000 aircraft were built. In World War II, the US alone built more than 300,000. They built almost 100,000 in just 1944. Total aircraft production by all parties during the war was more than 800,000. The sheer numbers of aircraft made during the war would shape the air forces and civilian aircraft fleet for decades. Many are still in service today.

As with the First World War, aircraft technology progressed rapidly during the war. Designs that were state of the art at the beginning of the conflict were obsolete by the end of the war. Within a specific model of aircraft, drastic changes would be taken to their designs as lessons were learned in battle. The P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt were both re-designed with bubble cockpit canopies to better pilot visibility.

As one example of the rapid advancements, the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were the peak of late-1930’s heavy bomber design. Crewed by 10 or more men, the four engined planes could carry at most 8,000 pounds of bombs. At such a heavy load, they were limited to about 400 miles. A more typical wartime load was 5,000 pounds for 800 miles.

Designed during the war, and first flying in early 1945, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider was a single-engine attack aircraft with a single pilot. Entering service just after the war, a Skyraider could carry a similar 8,000 pounds of bombs. Three fewer engines to maintain, one tenth the crew, and smaller, faster, more nimble, and easier to maintain, you can see the dramatic evolution aircraft design had taken in just a few short years.

Among the most-produced aircraft of the war, the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft takes the top spot. More than 36,000 were built, which is second only to the 44,000 Cessna 172s made for the most produced aircraft of all time. It’s worth noting that the Cessna 172 has been in continuous production since 1956 to get those kinds of numbers. All of the Il-2 Sturmoviks were built between 1941 and 1945. A staggering 10,762 of the type were lost to enemy action.

Fighters would be the other aircraft with the biggest production runs. The Brits made more than 22,000 Spitfires and the Germans more than 34,000 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and 20,000 Focke-Wulf 190s. The Soviets made more than 16,000 of their preeminent fighter, the Yakovlev Yak-9.

Ford’s B-24 production line at Willow Run

The most produced American aircraft of the war was, and this might surprise some readers, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. More than 18,000 of them were made at five plants across the United States. At the Ford Willow Run plant in Michigan, at their peak, the factory was turning out a complete B-24 bomber every 59 minutes. In comparison, the better known Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress saw “only” fewer than 13,000.

To train American airmen, more than 15,000 T-6 Texan and more than 11,000 BT-13 Valiant trainers were made. To protect the bombers, more than 15,000 P-51 Mustangs, more than 13,000 P-40 Warhawks, and more than 10,000 P-38 Lightnings were made. To transport men and material, more than 16,000 DC-3/C-47s were built.

In the Pacific Theater, the Navy and Marine Corps fielded huge numbers of aircraft. F-4U Corsairs numbered more than 10,000, F6F Hellcats more than 12,000, and nearly 10,000 TBF Avengers were delivered.

Of the top ten most produced aircraft of all time, seven of them were built completely (or nearly so) during World War II. One interesting aircraft production tidbit I always found interesting was the US built almost 10,000 of a fighter we didn’t even like.

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was manufactured in great numbers, but for Soviet service through the Lend-Lease program. The Airacobra, the first fighter with a tricycle landing gear and an innovative engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, lacked an effective turbo-supercharger. As such, the Brits and Americans, who were operating bomber escorts at high altitude, didn’t like it. The Soviets, who were battling at much lower and medium altitudes, loved it though.

Today’s US Air Force, the largest air force in the world, has 133 active bombers (72 B-52s, 18 B-2s, and 43 B-1s.) and about 1,900 active fighter jets (F-15, F-16, F-22, and F-35). All of the Aircraft in American military service (~5,000) pales in comparison to the numbers of just a single one of those aircraft types listed above.

In fact, there were 17 aircraft that each topped 10,000 made during the war. Five saw more than 20,000 built. The ten largest air forces in the world today have fewer than 20,000 aircraft in service combined.

Since the war, the aircraft of WWII, despite the massive numbers produced, have slowly dwindled in number. Many were lost during the war. Many were scrapped in the post-war drawdown. Of the aircraft in which more than 10,000 were made, this is how many survive today (some of those listed as surviving are merely wrecks);

Model Produced Surviving Airworthy
Lockheed P-38 Lightning 10,037 26 10
Mitsubishi A6M Zero 10,449 26 1
Petlyakov Pe-2 11,400 4 0
Grumman F6F Hellcat 12,275 25 7
Vought F4U Corsair 12,571 80 38
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 12,731 45 6
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk 13,738 88 40
Hawker Hurricane 14,533 47 18
Junkers Ju-88 15,000 2 0
North American P-51 Mustang 15,875 267 169
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt 15,686 51 14
Convair B-24 Liberator 18,482 13 2
Supermarine Spitfire 20,351 201 77
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 29,001 23 1
Messerschmitt Bf 109 30,480 108 15
Yakovlec Yak-1,-3,-7,-9 31,000+* 1 (Yak-3), 10 (Yak-9) ?
Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik 36,183 20 2

*In the 1990s, 21 (12 Yak-3 and 9 Yak-9) aircraft were made in the former Soviet Union using original plans and dies.

From 1942 until the end of the war, the United States alone averaged 170 aircraft lost per day. Not all of these were combat losses. For scale, there are currently just 177 F-22 Raptors in service in the whole of the Air Force. Among out NATO allies, Sweden, Norway, and Finland each have fewer than 170 aircraft in their respective air forces.

“Thousand bomber raids” were undertaken by Britain. The first, and largest, was the 30 May 1942 bombing of Cologne, Germany by the Royal Air Force. More than 1,000 planes were dispatched on what was the largest air raid of the war. More than 860 of them dropped bombs on the German city, unleashing more than 3,000 tons of munitions.

The Americans’ largest air raid of the war made that one look small. On 3 February 1945, 1,500 American bombers of the 8th Air Force bombed Berlin. They were escorted by 1,000 fighters. They dropped so many bombs that it started a conflagration on the ground, driven to the east by the wind, that burned uncontrollably for four days. The US Air Force currently has about 1,200 fighters and fewer than 100 bombers in total service.

Aircraft production pales in comparison to the number of ground vehicles made during the war. As with aircraft, rapid advances during the war led to a lot of variations and evolution of designs.

The Allies produced 6,792,696 artillery, mortars, and guns. The Axis made 1,363,491. While the Allies were only testing missile technology, the Axis (almost exclusively Germany) made 45,458 of them. Two-thirds of those were the V-1 Flying Bomb that terrorized Britain.

Panther production line

Among tanks, the Soviet T-34 was the most produced of the war, with 84,000 of the type delivered. That outpaces the production from the other belligerents. The US built 50,000 of the next most produced tank, the M4 Sherman. Germany, renowned during the war for their effective tank designs, made 8,500 Panzer IV tanks, their most produced model.

The largest of amphibious operations also were undertaken during WWII. Operation Overlord, the Allied Invasion of Normandy, which started on 6 June 1944, saw an assault force of more than 175,000 try to land on Continental Europe. Within the first 24 hours, 155,000 of them had made it ashore. One and a half million men had been moved through Normandy by the end of July.

During the war, the Axis forces (mostly Japan) built almost 400 large naval vessels (frigate and larger). The Axis built more than 2,000 submarines. The Allies greatly outdid those numbers. They built more than 2,600 large vessels and almost 600 submarines.

To support the massive amphibious operations like Overlord and the numerous ones throughout the Pacific Theater, the Americans built 35,000 landing craft and the British made nearly 10,000. They constructed almost 5,000 patrol boats to support coastal operations.

Among the large ships built, the Japanese built 14 fleet carriers and 6 escort carriers. The Brits built 15 fleet carriers and 29 escort carriers. The Americans meanwhile made 29 fleet carriers and a whopping 121 escort carriers.

The other front line capital ship, the mighty battleship, saw several types constructed. The Brits commissioned 5, the Yanks 10, and France 2. Germany built 4, Italy 3, and Japan 2. Many more cruisers were built. Britain put out 35, America 52, and the USSR 6. The Germans and Italians made 3 each, while Japan commissioned 12. The Allies built more than 663 destroyers and almost 1,300 frigates and destroyer escorts. The Axis put out 111 destroyers and 234 frigates.

All these men and machines need logistical support. Food, fuel, equipment, and men needed to be transported all over the world and resupplied while they were there. German U-boats and Japanese subs were torpedoing huge numbers of merchant ships. To replace them and expand the shipping capacity of the pre-war fleets, new ships were constructed. Among the most prolific was the American Liberty Ship.

Liberty Ships were designed to be easy to assemble with less skilled labor than traditional shipbuilding methods (welding seams versus riveting). The American industrial capacity produced more than one LIberty Ship a day. More than 2,700 of the type were built between 1941 and 1945.

A Liberty Ship’s keel would be laid (the start of construction) and it would be ready for launch in only 24 days. And these were not small vessels. They displaced more than 14,000 tons, were more than 440 feet long, and had a 56 ft beam. The crews would consist of 40-60 Merchant Marines and 20-40 US Navy armed guards. Only four Liberty Ships survive today, with three still remaining afloat as museum ships.

1958 US Navy Reserve Fleet photo, an example of the sheer number of surplus vessels post-war. 

The Royal Navy ended the war with more than 1,300 patrol vessels, 131 submarines, 801 frigates, 62 cruisers, 14 battleships, and 11 carriers. The US Navy had more than 7,000 vessels in service on VJ Day 1945. This included 28 fleet carriers, 71 escort carriers, 23 battleships, 72 cruisers, more than 230 subs, 377 destroyers and thousands of smaller ships. The Americans would hold, at this point, 70% of the world’s gross tonnage of naval vessels displacing more than 1,000 tons.

WWII surplus ships from both the British and American fleets would be the back bone of fleets the world over for decades to come. There are still some WWII ships in active naval service. The Philippine Navy still operates a handful, including BRP Laguna (LS-501). Laguna was originally USS LST-230 of the US Navy. She saw action in the Invasion of Normandy and during the follow-on landings in the south of France later in 1944.

Due to the Cold War, American war planners retained huge numbers of WWII-era warships just in case. Post-war, there were 24 locations where this reserve fleet was stored. Slowly the vessels were scrapped, sold to other nations, or sent to be museum ships. There is a still a WWII barracks ship being held in the reserve fleet, and the last WWII warships were only finally disposed of in the last decade.

Dec. 5, 1948 – Walnut Ridge, AR, U.S. – Hundreds of surplus World War II airplanes sit in rows at an airplane cemetery in Walnut Ridge, AR on December 5, 1948. Some of the planes were flown in straight from the factory, cut into pieces and melted down. The planes were mostly B25’s and B26’s

Similarly, many of the tens of thousands of combat aircraft from the war were retained in bone yards. Since most of them had become obsolete by the end of the war and the impending jet age, most of the aircraft were just cut up and scrapped.

P-38 Lightnings being scrapped

Britain devoted 9% of their GDP to defense in 1939, and by war’s end they’d pushed that to a peak of 52%. That would be equivalent to an annual defense spending of $1.5T. They currently spend a bit over 2% on defense. In the US, at the start of the war, government spending was about 30% of the country’s GDP. At its peak in 1944, we were spending 79% on government (mostly military expenditures). We currently spend about 3% on defense. If we were to up that to the historical high, the US would spend more than $18 Trillion.

In the US, 20% of the working age population was in the military. Unemployment was down to 1.6% by the end of the conflict. It was really a “world war” in that it required everybody’s participation. Since WWII we’ve fought in many wars where few people back home are even aware with any specificity about what is going on. Sure, we know there’s troops in foreign countries fighting and dying, but the vast majority of Americans won’t know someone involved. Not so with World War II.

There was not a person alive during the war that didn’t participate in the war (directly or indirectly) or have their life affected by it. With the possible exception of the uncontacted tribes living deep in the Amazon Rainforest, every man, woman, and child alive on planet Earth during the war was personally touched in some way by the largest, most expensive, and bloodiest war in human history.

Soviet Victory Parade 1945

Even the victory celebrations were historic affairs. The Soviet Victory Day Parade in 1945 saw more than 40,000 troops march through Red Square along with 1,850 vehicles. Similar celebrations were held in Berlin (by the victorious Allies), London, and New York. They all involved tens of thousands of men and hundreds of vehicles.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that there will come a time for a larger, costlier war. I hope I’m not alive to see it, because imagining the scale of the last World War is too much for me to grasp.

Category: Historical, Valor, We Remember

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BlueCord Dad

Great job Mason! As a history buff, I’m really impressed by the amount of research it must’ve taken for these last two posts. Thank you for your efforts!
Lest We Forget🇺🇸


Oustanding article! Many forget or did not know.

Last edited 6 months ago by Anonymous
Old tanker

Great read, thanks.

As an aside, I heard through an aviation related forum that the FAA may be permanently grounding the remaining airworthy B17s over wing spar issues. If so this will be the last year to see one fly.


Communists killing their own populations dwarf the deaths in WWII. The author seems to lump them all together. No, Stalin starving up to 10 million Ukrainians in the Holodomor was not “Deaths due to war-related famine” and then Chairman Mao said hold my beer…

Pol Pot killed a third of the Cambodian population. Highest kill percentage ever.


Exactly my point

USMC Steve

Given the absolutely stupid crap Stalin pulled such as killing off almost every officer in his army, or jailing the survivors, I consider every death they had from 1939 to 1945 as attributable to him. And many of his other policies that also killed millions of his own civilians. That includes their bloodbath against Finland in the Winter war.

jeff LPH 3 63-66

BZ on your post Mason

Maine Highlander

Mason, I’m new to the Valor Guardians website. Are you an academic historian or merely a history buff? Did you write this article specifically for this site or is it part of a larger research project?

Very well written, informative, and comprehensive. I knew a lot about the Soviet Union’s losses but not so much about Germany’s. I really enjoyed your discussion of logistical support as I’ve spent time in the rear with the gear. Thanks for the great read.


Please let us know when the book is done; I want!!

George V

What I find amazing is the rapid design and facilities for construction of massive quantities of aircraft, ships and military vehicles when the state of the art design tools were the slide rule, drafting table, and published tables of logarithms, trig functions, and other math tables. I have a small booklet that belonged to my father-in-law, who started as a machinist, showing the proper angles, lathe speeds and feeds, and other specs needed to properly machine gears, bearings, and other machinist functions so the parts would actually, like, work. It’s over 1/2″ thick, all tables in teeny-tiny print. No computer needed, and somehow these guys made all this stuff.

Today we can’t make anything, it seems, without taking forever, or over budget or failing in a few years. Plenty of examples – LCS, F-35, Gerald Ford carrier.


This year we will make about 5K PATRIOT missiles. I imagine the Ukes will shoot that many by July.


It’s the same with NASA, who claims with absolute, that building another Apollo rocket would be impossible today.


At some point I’d bet a future world war will be over in a few hours. Usedta hope we weren’t that stupid, but this century has convinced me that we are – in spades.

Anna Puma

Flugwerks built a few FW 190s in very recent times, most used a Soviet engine while two used an R-2800. Some of these are airworthy. The French air force after World War II produced another 64 Fw 190A-5 models as the NC 900. Oh the irony.