In the first major action between the Germans and Americans, at the battle of 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. 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) 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 Britons 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
    Commented Jul 13, 2013 at 7:15
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    That's kind of like saying your sports team lost because they started scoring less points than the other team. It's not the cause of losing, it's an effect.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 22:17
  • @Schwern: The idea is more like asking if your football team lost because they advanced fewer yards. It's possible to win with fewer yards (turnovers, penalties kicks, etc.) Greater yards usually means greater score, but not always. As in my answer below, the "score" is determined by the exploitation sequences, not kill ratios. Your answer is a good one, though.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 1:03

6 Answers 6


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.

  • You're correct in the sense that kill ratio is not a cause but a consequence of the evolution of the war Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 21:10

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.
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 23:43
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    @EugeneSeidel english.stackexchange.com/q/495/1420
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2013 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. Commented Jul 15, 2013 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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 17:14
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    In Stalingrad, the Soviet plan was to hold the Germans in place long enough so that they could exploit the weaker lines to the sides. While the death tolls were horrific because of this, it wasn't about attrition.
    – user15620
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 0:55

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
    Commented Sep 6, 2013 at 14:17
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    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
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 23:11
  • Best single sentence written on WWII: "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."
    – Mark Olson
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 15:42

As mentioned by many here, kill ratios are only really significant if you're talking attrition warfare or at a basic tactical level. Otherwise they're an effect of losing the war, not a cause.

The underlying question of why those kill ratios turned against Germany is a very complicated one, but one important aspect is that the Germans had invented a new kind of mobile warfare and the Allies had to play catch up.

People often fail to appreciate just how much tactics and technology changed from 1939 to 1945. In the air, all-metal, monoplane military aircraft had only just replaced the biplane in front-line service (and in some cases, such as the Fairey Swordfish, it hadn't). On the ground, radios were bulky and expensive, and communication was still a laborious process often done by runners or cable. Tactically, many units and vehicles still lacked radios limiting the sophistication of their maneuvers and tactics; you can only get so fancy with flags and flares. At sea, the aircraft carrier was still untried, and the submarine still unconquered.

The Germans exploited this technological change by increasing the pace of warfare dramatically. They introduced radios at the tactical level, in individual tanks and aircraft. They trained their air, infantry, artillery, and armor to work in concert. They imbued local commanders with the know-how and ability to adapt to the local situation and make local decisions without waiting for orders form higher command. They added paratroopers to overcome strategic obstacles, and tactical air strikes to support deep penetrations.

The situation was now liable to change in hours rather than days. This is a pace the Allies were not prepared for. It's a pace that allowed the German army to find gaps and exploit them before the Allies could react. At this pace, the Allies could never be quite sure of where the Germans were. Superior Allied forces were surrounded and cut off as they raced to defend positions that had already been overrun. Faced with this chaotic situation, the Allies often retreated if they were unsure of their flanks.

The Germans ran rampant with this new style of warfare from 1939 to 1941, but the remaining undefeated Allies were learning. The Soviets and British learned through facing the Germans, being defeated, and having to rebuild their armies. The Americans were also building an army, but they had the luxury of doing it in peacetime, observing what was going on in Europe, and learning from it. The North African campaign let the US Army learn some hard lessons at a relatively small cost through defeats like Kasserine.

  • What you describe in your fourth paragraph is called "mission-type tactics" (as opposed to "command-type tactics").
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 7:19

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.


All answers to this thread mostly modulate the fact that kill ratios drive the war. They are correct: there are indeed more factors that simple kill ratios, for two good reasons:

  • Kill ratios are determined by other factors: tactics, technology, moral....
  • A kill ratio is bearable or not for a country depending on its resources

Still, it is interesting to follow how kill ratios evolved alongside those factors. On the land, Germans maintained most of the time a kill ratio in their favor and still lost ground and units that they did not intend to loose.

On the sea however, the situation was entirely different: the U-BootWaffe campaign against Allied shipping on the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean was a total defeat as soon as 1943, and in this specific strategic context, the kill ratio is an indicator to follow: In 1943, the Germans lost the battle of the Atlantic because sinking one Allied ship was too expensive in numbers of submarine lost.

Eventually, even on the sea, kill ratio is not the only factor: the other important indicator of victory for the Allies was that they started to pass convoys with no losses: this meant that the Germans had no more ways to fight against Allied reinforcement in United Kingdom: this allowed the Allies to enter a new phase of the war: the Normandy landings.

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    The importance of the kill ratio also depends on just how many people you have available to kill, and whether you're willing to kill them. For instance, in the Winter War, Finland had a better than 5:1 kill ratio vs the Soviets, but the Soviets had men and were willing to keep feeding them into the meat grinder.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 17:53
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    You could very well argue that the kill ratio changed because by that time, Germany had already effectively lost the war and was just prolonging the inevitable. Once it got to attrition warfare, Germany stood no chance against Russia and the USA. They had their best chance at coming out on top in 1941, a slim one in 1942, and after that, their military might was exhausted, fighting a long but pointless withdrawal from thereon. Point being, 1943 was well after the dice had stopped rolling.
    – DevSolar
    Commented May 30, 2021 at 22:01
  • The Normandy landings occurred exactly when Roosevelt predicted to Churchill at Casablanca that they would occur: late spring 1944, once sufficient landing craft had been manufactured. Commented May 30, 2021 at 23:40
  • Yes and at the beginning of 1943, U Boats were already taking fearful poundings @DevSolar you say Germany lost an attrition war: killratio is specifically important in such type of war Commented May 31, 2021 at 17:56
  • @totalMongot You misunderstood. Germany lost as soon as it became a war of attrition. Kill ratios didn't matter. Soviet Russia had so much more resources that no matter the kill ratio, Germany would lose anyway. Their only bid for a favorable outcome was to win a strategic victory in the first year, year and a half. As soon as that did not happen, and the spearhead of the Wehrmacht been blunted, there was no way Germany could recover from that.
    – DevSolar
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 18:22

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