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In the first major action between the Germans and Americans, at the battle of Kasserine Pass http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Kasserine_Pass, the Germans inflicted casualties against (mostly) the inexperienced Americans at the rate of about 5 to 1. Fortunately, the Americans were able to improve substantially on this ratio in the days and weeks ahead.

The early American experience was by no means atypical; the Poles suffered physical casualties of between 3 and 4 to 1 in 1939, with this rising to about 15 to 1 counting prisoners. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_Poland_(1939) Allied to German casualty rates in France 1940 were similarly lopsided.

In the first few months of the 1941 campaign, the Soviets suffered casualties at six or seven times the German rate.

With the notable exception of Kasserine Pass, where American artillery held the day, the massive German kill ratios (in Poland in 1939, in France in 1940, and in the Soviet Union in 1941, the massive German kill ratios were accompanied by massive territorial gains.

This ratio fell steadily in 1942, with the Soviet to German casualty ratio of roughly 2 to 1, in line with their respectively populations, at the "turning point" campaign of Stalingrad. Diminishing kill ratios accompanied "diminishing returns" for the Germans in 1942.

In a war between 80 million (ethnic) Germans on one side, 130 million Americans, 170 million Soviets, and 50 million Britishers on the other, the Germans would have won if they could inflict casualties at the rate of 5 to 1 (or "better") on the Allies throughout the war, the latter' superiority in manpower and material notwithstanding. The Soviets, British, and Americans won because they were able to bring their loss ratios below their overall numerical preponderance.

Have any historical accounts tied Germany's early successes to the their massive early "kill ratios," and their subsequent lack of success to the fact that their "kill ratios" fell below their overall numerical disadvantage?

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One shouldn't confuse a statistical measure of success or failure with a cause of that success or failure. –  mgkrebbs Jul 13 '13 at 7:15
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4 Answers 4

Have any historical accounts attributed Germany's early successes to the their massive early "kill ratios," and their subsequent lack of success to the fact that their "kill ratios" fell below their overall numerical disadvantage?

Professional historians would never attribute something as complex as the development and unfolding of the Second World War in Europe to 'kill ratios'. That's history in a vacuum since you're leaving out all other aspects of the war and concentrating on pure ratios and math, thus leaving out context. 'Kill ratios' are in effect a reflection and form part of the result(s) of what historians study, research, and write about, they are not the main theme or area of concentration.

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The only time "kill ratios" really matter all that much is when using attrition warfare.

While important in World War I, to the best of my knowledge, this strategy was never employed in a large scale on the fronts Germany was involved in.* The Germans themselves went out of their way to avoid this kind of warfare, instead preferring fast exploitation of front breakthroughs to cut the communications (and force the surrender) of large numbers of enemy units.

The Germans' basic problem was that they had less resources (in both men and material) than their opponents, so in the long run any serious losses on their side, regardless of ratios, would doom them. Russia could have afforded to operate at a deficit in losses the entire war, and still could have won, as long as they could make it up more than the Germans could.

Eventually the Germans stretched themselves too thin on the Russian front, and the Russians were able to gather enough forces to start achieving their own breakthroughs. If you keep track of "ratios", perhaps things started to swing in the UN's favor at this point, but the underlying issue was that the German forces couldn't replace their losses on anywhere near the scale that the Russians could. Any changes in loss ratios you may see at that point are a symptom, not the cause.

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* - The one big exception I can think of is the Battle of Stalingrad. However, you could argue that this was almost more of a siege than a battle of attrition. –  T.E.D. Jul 12 '13 at 23:43
    
"swing in the UN's favor " Did you mean in the Soviets' favor? The USSR was more than just Russians. Also, "fewer" not "less" resources :/ –  Eugene Seidel Jul 13 '13 at 7:20
    
@EugeneSeidel english.stackexchange.com/q/495/1420 –  Andrew Grimm Jul 13 '13 at 8:23
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@EugeneSeidel United Nations (UN) was normal terminology for what we now call "the Allies" at the time. Not used to much now to avoid confusion with the postwar organization. –  DJClayworth Jul 15 '13 at 16:40
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Actually, Kasserine Pass was the "exception" to the rule, because the Germans didn't achieve their objectives despite the 5- to -1 kill ratio. But in the other examples cited, the Germans' massive kill ratios were accompanied by massive territorial gains. These gains(in e.g., the Soviet Union) decelerated as the kill ratios decelerated. –  Tom Au Jul 15 '13 at 17:14
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Kill ratios are a tactical consideration - the Allies were more interested in beating Germany from a strategic position: deprive it of resources and manufacturing capability, and overwhelm it with mass production and superior logistics. It's fortunate that Monty, Patton and Zhukov were excellent tacticians, but it was Eisenhower and Shaposhnikov, with the support of civilian political leadership, who truly understood how to beat the Germans with logistical supremacy in support of an aggressive offense.

This was also U.S. Grant's strategy during the end phase of the Civil War, and the kill ratios strongly favored the South (nota bene: Cold Harbor).

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If you take the campaign as a whole, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the combined kill ratio of Union to Confederates was about 1.9:1, in line with the strengths of the respective armies. But the Union had moved 60 miles closer to Richmond, achieving their strategic objective, and the kill ratios soon came down. –  Tom Au Sep 6 '13 at 14:17
    
Alfred Young in "Lee's Army During the Overland Campaign" went to new sources for losses and showed that Lee's losses have been understated considerably and several sources of reinforcements he obtained have been ignored. –  Oldcat Jun 9 at 23:11
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In a battle or campaign, there are several stages; the attack, the killing, and the exploitation of the advantages gained by the battle and resulting killing.

In the invasion of Poland, for example, the Germans began by inflicting physical casualties at the rate of two or three to one on four Polish armies (out of seven), defending the northeastern, northwestern, southwestern, and southern parts of the country. This led to Polish prisoner captures of 10 times or more the German physical casualties in the exploitation sequences following the initial breakthroughs, and the destruction of the Polish armies. The end result was that the four German columns could "gang up" on the single Polish army defending Warsaw (the other two were in the Soviet zone).

In the invasion of France, the penetration of the Allied lines via a thrust through the Ardennes resulted in the splitting of the Allied forces, north and south. The Germans then destroyed the northern force (except for the survivors of Dunkirk), then overwhelmed the now outnumbered and outgunned southern force.

In Russia, the ratio of physical casualties was something like two Soviets for one German, but German armored thrusts exploited the resulting breakthroughs and the captures of large "bags" of Soviet prisoners at Smolensk, Kiev, and elsewhere, that caused the disproportionate Soviet losses of both manpower and land. In 1942, the ratio of physical casualties remained at about 2 to 1 for most of the year, but the Soviets had "wised" up and lost far fewer prisoners. And point of the defense of Stalingrad (before the November counterattack), was that city fighting would prevent an exploitation sequence such as a German thrust down the Volga to Astrakhan, and the reinforcement of the southern Caucasus thrust. By late fall, the onset of winter and the weakening of German armored forces allowed the Soviets to counterattack, and enjoy their own exploitation sequence by surrounding Stalingrad.

Although the Germans initially inflicted physical casualties of five to one, on the Americans at Kasserine Pass during the early going, a heavy artillery bombardment and German supply shortages prevented any exploitation sequence, so the early favorable results (for the Germans) became meaningless.

Bottom line, kill ratios can be important, but only to the extent that they set up the exploitation sequences like the ones discussed above. Absent such exploitation sequences, their importance is limited.

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