The Second World War featured some of the deadliest battles in history, with casualty figures far surpassing anything we’ve seen at any other time of conflict in history. While we still remember many of them – like the infamous urban struggle at Stalingrad, or the daring amphibious Allied landings on the Normandy beach – most of them are left out of history books today.
10. Battle Of Crete
Fought between May 20 and June 1, 1941, the Battle of Crete was an airborne assault launched by Nazi Germany to capture the strategically-important island of Crete in Greece. After a failed British expedition to defend Greek territory against the German attacks, the remaining British, Commonwealth, and Greek troops were evacuated to Crete, making the island an important position for both sides. The Germans, along with their overwhelming superiority in the air at that time of the war, planned a large-scale assault using elite parachute and glider troops, aiming to capture key airfields for reinforcements.
While the Allies outnumbered the Germans, they lacked coordination, communications, and heavy weaponry, and German dominance of the air soon made effective defense of the island nearly impossible. The battle resulted in a German victory and high losses for both sides, with 4,000 dead, 2,000 wounded, and 11,300 captured out of 47,500 troops involved for the Allies, and 7,000 dead on the German side.
9. Battle Of Monte Cassino
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a military confrontation between the Allied forces and Nazi Germany in Cassino, Italy. From January 17 to May 18, 1944, it was a grueling attempt by the Allies to fight their way up to the Italian peninsula due to the heavily-fortified Gustav Line, as Monte Cassino and its historic Benedictine monastery had been turned into an important stronghold for the Germans.
The battle soon turned into a stalemate and led to the deaths of a shockingly-high number of troops. By the end of it, the Allies forces suffered about 105,000 casualties, with a total loss of around 80,000 soldiers on the German side. While Polish troops did finally gain control of the monastery, they found it unoccupied as the Germans had already retreated to a new defensive line. Till today, the indiscriminate and almost-total destruction of the monastery by Allied forces during the assault remains a matter of controversy.
8. Siege Of Budapest
The siege of Budapest was one of the most destructive chapters of the war, lasting from November 1944 to February 1945. Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress city due to its strategic importance to Nazi Germany, and the city was defended by around 90,000 German and Hungarian troops against 170,000 Soviet and Romanian attackers. The offensive saw intense hand-to-hand urban fighting that resulted in massive losses of military and civilian lives, with additional damage to the cultural and historical heritage of the city.
Many relief attempts were made by the Germans and Romanians occupying the city by the time the battle began, though to little success. Red Army soldiers launched an assault on the city on January 14, 1945, capturing Buda by February. Many fascist soldiers were mercilessly shot throughout the episode, and by February 14, the city was entirely under Soviet control. The casualties were anywhere between 100,000 to 160,000 on the Soviet side, and about 70,000 troops on the Axis side, with an additional 40,000 civilians that died in the crossfire.
7. Battles Of Imphal and Kohima
The battles of Imphal and Kohima were important turning points of the Second World War, though they’re often overshadowed by other major engagements ongoing in the European theater around that time. The Japanese launched an offensive codenamed U-Go in spring 1944, targeting the Allied base at Imphal in north-east India and simultaneously attacking the small village of Kohima on the Imphal-Dimapur Road. The garrison at Kohima, heavily outnumbered, held out for many days, although they relied on air-dropped supplies throughout the engagement.
Meanwhile, the Japanese attack on Imphal began in early March but failed to defeat the Indian and British defenders by the beginning of May. The Allies launched a counter-offensive to take advantage of the retreating Japanese soldiers in Kohima, linking up with forces at Imphal around June. The Japanese offensive would ultimately fail, resulting in almost 60,000 dead and wounded, while the Allies suffered around 17,500 casualties. The victory at Imphal and Kohima allowed the Allies to plan a return to Burma and turn the war in their favor across the region.
6. Battle Of Manila
Japan’s empire began to crumble around the beginning of 1945, as strategic cities across Southeast Asia started to surrender to advancing Allied forces without much resistance. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, however, experienced a grueling, fierce battle from February to March 1945, now remembered as the Battle of Manila. It was the only urban battle between Japanese and American forces within a city, resulting in the deaths of around 6,500 Americans, 20,000 Japanese, and 200,000 Filipinos.
By the end of it, almost all of the Japanese and half of the local population in the city were killed in the brutal house-to-house struggle. The Imperial Japanese soldiers, tasked with defending the city to the last man, faced overwhelming firepower from the Americans, leading to desperate and retaliatory actions against the local civilian population.
This phase is also sometimes referred to as the Manila Massacre – a period of severe Japanese brutality against civilians that included rape, massacre, and violent mutilation perpetrated by frustrated troops facing capture or certain death. Japanese General Yamashita was found responsible for these atrocities and subsequently executed for war crimes after the war.
5. Second Battle Of Kharkov
The Second Battle of Kharkov – or Operation Fredericus on the German side – was a bitterly-fought offensive that happened in two distinct phases: the Soviet offensive from May 12 to May 28, 1942, and the subsequent German counteroffensive from May 18 to May 23, 1942.
It began when Soviet forces pushed to reclaim the strategic city of Kharkov and take control of the region. This offensive, however, faced stiff resistance, resulting in the costly encirclement of Red Army forces, with around 240,000 Soviet soldiers dead and 1,000 tanks lost.
The Germans retained control of Kharkov until January, 1943, when the tide of the war began to turn on the Eastern Front . Soviet forces had reached the outskirts of Kharkov by February, forcing the German forces under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to withdraw. It proved to be a wise decision, as it allowed the Germans to regroup and launch a counteroffensive using SS-Panzer Corps and other Panzer divisions. They reached the city’s outskirts by March 7, 1943, bringing Kharkov back under German control.
4. Battle Of Tulagi and Gavutu–Tanambogo
The Battle of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo was the land part of the Guadalcanal campaign, fought from August 7 to 9, 1942 on the Solomon Islands. The objective was to capture Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo, where the Japanese had established a naval and air base in the early phases of the war. The assault was executed in the face of fierce resistance from Japanese naval troops, primarily carried out by US Marines led by Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division.
The battle saw some of the most brutal fighting of the war in the Pacific theater until that time, resulting in the Allied capture of these islands with high losses on the Japanese side. The successful capture of Tulagi’s natural harbor later turned it into a vital naval base for Allied operations in the South Pacific.
3. North Africa Campaign
The North African Campaign was one of the longest-running military offensives of the war, lasting from June 1940 to May 1943. It consisted of many large-scale strategic battles between Allied and Axis powers in the deserts of Libya and Egypt, along with battles in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Axis forces aimed to secure oil supplies, cut off British access to resources in Asia and Africa, and relieve pressure on the eastern front after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
The campaign consisted of three phases – the Western Desert campaign, Operation Torch in Algeria and Morocco, and the Tunisia campaign – and saw fierce fighting and high casualty rates on both sides. The Allies, led primarily by the British Commonwealth and later aided by the United States, eventually achieved victory by neutralizing nearly 620,000 German and Italian troops, at the cost of about 220,000 men on their own side. This success opened a second front against the Axis forces, as it directly led to the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland.
2. Operation Kutuzov
Officially known as the ‘Orel Strategic Offensive Operation’, Operation Kutuzov was a major Soviet offensive of the Eastern Front, launched in the immediate aftermath of the German defeat during Operation Zitadelle in 1943. The offensive aimed to exploit the weakening capabilities of the German forces and entirely eliminate the German salient centered on Orel during the larger Battle of Kursk.
It was fought by three Soviet army groups – the West Front, Bryansk Front, and Central Front – and involved a multi-pronged attack on the Orel territory held by the Germans for nearly two years.
Operation Kutuzov began on July 12, 1943, with a heavy artillery barrage, as Soviet forces attacked with overwhelming strength and drove through the German defenses, pushing the Nazi forces back to the ‘Hagen-Stellung’ line. The losses were staggering in numbers, especially for the Soviet side that lost more than 685,000 soldiers during the battle, compared to about 185,000 total casualties for Germany.
1. Operation Bagration
Operation Bagration was a major Soviet offensive against Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front, fought from June 23 to August 19, 1944. It was launched in support of the Normandy Invasion in the West and aimed to take advantage of Germany’s declining military power during the waning phases of the war.
Named after General Pyotr Bagration, the Red Army planned the offensive carefully, deceiving the Germans into expecting an attack further south in Ukraine while amassing armor and troops opposite Army Group Center in the north. It resulted in a successful attack that took German commanders by surprise, destroying 28 out of 34 German divisions and liberating large parts of the Soviet Union. The losses on both sides were severe, however, with an estimated 350,000 to 670,000 German soldiers and over 750,000 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded during the entire offensive.