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The Bloodiest Battles of World War II

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Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Hey, Jane. You may wonder, what does Billy Joel have to do with World War II?

Jane McGrath: You got me on that one. I don't think I know that.

Candace Gibson: My personal favorite Billy Joel song is All About Soul. But there's one called Leningrad actually. And we are going to be chatting a little bit about bloody World War II battles today. That's almost a tongue twister.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it is.

Candace Gibson: So just to give you guys a little bit of context on World War II and the casualties, a little reading on that.

Jane McGrath: So World War II, if you can believe it, was actually the bloodiest war in human history, at least that we know of. And an astounding 50 million lives were lost during the entire war. It's crazy to think about how many people that was.

Candace Gibson: When we think about the advancements in technology that accompanied the warfare in World War II, it's easy to understand because we're not talking about men going into hand-to-hand combat alone anymore. We're talking about air raids and bombs.

Jane McGrath: Sure, you've got airplanes that are really advanced by this time.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and you've got the Japanese Kamikaze pilots that we've talked about before, and a way to kill people without having to physically be near them. And so I think that rendered soldiers a lot more ruthless in their strikes.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And we're talking about the most powerful nations on the planet at this time. And of course, if you're not familiar with them, the major Axis powers at this time during World War II were Germany, Italy, and Japan. And there were some other Axis powers that joined them as well, but these were the most powerful.

Candace Gibson: And the Allies, the opposing forces, would've been Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR - back when we were very tight. And then, as we know, in the course of history we drifted apart for a while and were working on reparations. And things were going pretty swimmingly now. Actually, in the Soviet Union was where one of these very bloody battles took place. And so Jane and I are each going to enlighten you guys about some dire straits. And I'm going to start with Leningrad. So I was listening to Billy Joel on the way to work this morning. I wasn't listening to Leningrad, but I listened to that once I sat down at my desk. And looking at some of the lyrics, this is a profoundly sad song.

Jane McGrath: Is it? I don't think I've ever heard it.

Candace Gibson: Well, it essentially tells the story of a young boy named Victor who's alive during Leningrad. And then when he grows up he spends some time giving military service, and then when he's out he's free to choose to do what he wants. And he wants to become a clown because he's seen so much sadness in his life he wants to do something to give others joy. So I won't torture you by singing the song, but I will read you some of the lyrics. A child of sacrifice, a child of war Another son who never had a father after Leningrad And then when we learn that he's become a clown, Billy Joel tell us: The greatest happiness he'd ever found Was making Russian children glad And children lived in Leningrad And the siege of Leningrad was a 900-day siege that started in September 1941 and went all the way until January 1944. Leningrad was the second largest city in Russia, so it really was to the Germans advantage that they surround the city and work their way in. And that's exactly what they did. And they got a little bit of help from the Finnish, I think, coming from the north. And one of the first things the German did was cut out the railroad that went to Moscow. So no supplies were coming in for a city of about 3 million. And of those 3 million, I think nearly 400,000 were children. So people didn't have very much control over what was going on. They didn't have anything to eat. There was very little fuel as well. So dire straits, like I said. And Hitler decided that, even though the Germans were occupyin g this territory, they couldn't possibly care for all these people. So, in order to control the population, he wanted to downsize it. So he ordered these massive air strikes and raids. And what's more, the winter of January 1942 was bitterly cold so people were dying. But because there was so much snow and ice, you couldn't even see the corpses in the street. So the number of dead didn't become apparent until Spring came and people thawed.

Jane McGrath: That's horrifying.

Candace Gibson: It is horrifying to think about. It really is. And to think that you would be a prisoner in your own home. You couldn't walk around in the streets for fear that you'd be killed. And the thing is, evacuation was available. People could've chosen that route, but a lot of people stayed instead. I think only around 500,000 got out. And people who stayed behind tried to keep their lives as normal as possible. Children still went to school. People still stayed in the factories producing war gear and war equipment. And they suffered essentially on things like only a quarter of a loaf of bread a day - men, women, and children.

Jane McGrath: That's incredible.

Candace Gibson: And around 1943, they were able to start puttin in vegetable gardens for some sustenance and open the railways back up. But things were really rough. I think that one woman even recounted in a pretty recent interview that, when she was a little girl and lived in Leningrad, her dad worked in a tannery. And he would bring home animal skins and they would boil them and make stew from them. So things were very bad there. And finally, around 1944, the Soviets were able to quell the attacks and they finally were able to fight off the Axis powers. And the people of Leningrad generated a lot of sympathy from the Allied forces. And people in the United States looked at them as a symbol of perseverance and preservation. And those were some of the principles the United States was founded on, so they garnered a lot of admiration there. And even today, just in January, Dmitry Medvedev ordered that there be a recount of all the Soviets who died in the war because people still don't know. There's still body parts scattered everywhere, people still missing in action, unidentified bodies in mass graves. And I think that today, Russia is still grappling with the incredible losses - that shows just how powerful that was. And that's just one battle in the course of many throughout World War II.

Jane McGrath: That's interesting you bring that up. When I was researching for this, the article and the podcast, it surprised me how difficult it was to find exact numbers. Because I went into it thinking, "This is a war that happened in the 20th century." By this time we documented everything. We have film for goodness' sake, and we have documents that are readily available. But the idea that we don't know how many people died, we don't know what happened - it's really interesting to think about. Also, you brought up the idea of evacuation. And it made me think, "Why didn't?" I'm sure some people must've had the opportunity and didn't take it. And one writer I looked into thought that part of this had to do with the symbolic importance of Leningrad, because Leningrad was actually the birthplace of the Russian empire, and so it did hold a lot of symbolic importance for them.

Candace Gibson: It did. And even in the midst of air strikes and raids, people were scurrying to hide a lot of the museum artifacts and valuables, and tuck them underground or into very safe places that they could preserve the city's culture. And even today, Russia calls it the Great Patriotic War. And I think that estimates put the number of casualties between 641,000-80,000. So like you were saying, there's this huge range. And it is pretty sad that we don't have a definitive number. But thanks to Medvedev, hopefully we'll get that.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's really interesting. So like you said, Candace, Leningrad was over by January 1944. And by the summer, as you might know, D-Day happened. And if you've seen Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, you know what that day is. And the Allies came in and they invaded Normandy. They were doing well by this point. It was an amazing success. They were making their way across Northern Europe, Northern France, and they marched into Belgium. So the Allies were marching through Belgium and they started slowing down by the winter, about December. They weren't making as much progress as they were before. And Hitler took this opportunity to pounce. There was a major shift in the war, basically. Hitler was doing well for a couple of years and then the Allies on both sides of him - you have the USSR on the east and the Allied troops invading Normandy to the west. And he was struggling with both sides by this point at 1944. And so he was like, "We need to make a last ditch effort here. If we're going to even try to force the Allies to make peace, we have to launch something right now." And even his officers at this point thought this move was risky. But Hitler, he didn't want to surrender and he was willing.

Candace Gibson: He had guts. We'll say that.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And he willing to sacrifice a lot of his soldiers lives for it as well.

Candace Gibson: No surprise there.

Jane McGrath: True. So his strategy was to basically split the Allied troops. They were coming at him in Belgium. And you have the U.S. forces in the south region, and you have the British and Canadians in the northern part of Belgium. So he wanted to go between them and make a wedge. And this is where we get the idea of a bulge. I think Churchill came up with this unofficial nickname for the Battle of the Bulge.

Candace Gibson: And Jane and I were discussing earlier, I don't get why it's a bulge. Why not Battle of the Wedge?

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: A bulge doesn't seem accurate. But maybe you guys have some insight on that that you can email us about.

Jane McGrath: That's true. Please do. So that's where you get the unofficial nickname. So Hitler was a smart guy, as you probably know. He brought in 250,000 men with 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles. And tanks were a major deal in this battle. It's primarily known as a tank battle. And keep this in mind, since Hitler is driving tanks through he's going to need a lot of fuel as well. And this comes into play later. So he's driving his tanks through this wedge that he's trying to build and he takes a day that has particularly bad weather because he wants to ground the Allied air support. So on December 16th when the weather was particularly bad, he launched this surprise attack. And it's important that it was a surprise because it caught the Allies off guard. And this put him at a major advantage right off the bat. So he had the surprise going for him, the weather going for him - and in addition to this - this is what I found interesting. He also planted some saboteurs into the Allied troops. He gave some his English speaking German soldiers U.S. uniforms. And he sent them in to infiltrate and wreck havoc as much as they could in the U.S. forces. And they did things like spreading bad information, confusing people, and even switching road signs - which I just find - that's straight out of a cartoon or a silent movie comedy. I didn't know people did that to send them the other way. And so the Germans were doing well. They attacked first on December 16th. They drove the Allies back a few miles and were doing well. Finally, they got to this town named Bastogne that the Allies had occupied. And the Germans were able to surround the town. And they sent him a message. "Surrender now. We're definitely going to get you, but we're going to give you a chance to surrender." And this American Brigadier General, Anthony McCullough, replied a now infamous response - one word. And he said, "Nuts." And I'm not sure if I'm giving that the right inflection, because when someone asked what he meant he said, "Go to heck." And he didn't say heck, but you get the picture. So finally the weather cleared up. They were able to hold up with Bastogne, by the way, and the Germans were not able to take it. So the weather cleared up eventually, and by December 26th - you might now General Patton - came with his third army and he was able to help protect the town of Bastogne. And by January 3rd, the U.S. forces were able to gather their supplies to launch a counteroffensive. So by this time, the Nazis were also struggling with their supplies and fuel. They didn't have enough to keep their tanks running, to keep their soldiers fed. So they began retreating by about the 8th and 16th of January. One interesting point about this is that the Battle of the Bulge features what might be the first jet bomber raid in history, where they used jet bombers to bomb a railway that was bringing supplies to the Allies. So that's a pretty interesting factoid right there. So in all, the Battle of the Bulge is known as one of the most bloody battles, at least that Americans have ever fought in. 19,000 U.S. soldiers lost their lives, just in this battle alone. And that's not including those who were wounded and missing - which were about 70,000.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and you explained to me earlier that the term casualties encompasses not only the dead - the injured, the sick, the missing.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And what we were discussing earlier, we're not quite sure of exact numbers even now.

Candace Gibson: Right. It's so fascinating to think, too, about World War II, not just in terms of the war, but in these many violent battles that constituted a larger whole. And we're talking about battles that were occurring in the USSR and over in Western Europe, as well as the islands over by Japan. The theatre of war was so widespread. And it's no wonder that today, and even contemporarily back then, there were so many books and operas and films and biographies written about the people who were part of the war. And figures like Churchill are so revered even today for their strategy and cunning.

Jane McGrath: Sure. He's one of my favorites, yeah.

Candace Gibson: And even just his bravado. I think he's such a great character. Never give up. And we see why, because you can persevere, just like the people in Leningrad demonstrated and the soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Bulge.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: And Jane wrote this article about the five bloodiest battles of World War II. And we have shared two of them with them. We're not going to tell you what the other three are because we want you to go read the article for yourself. So be sure to check that out on howstuffworks.co m. And if you have any feedback for us or suggestions for future shows, give us an email at history podcast@howstuffworks.com.

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