First go at a graph of British killed in the Second World War

After a fair share of swearing, toil, tears and sweat, I’ve come up with a first attempt at a graph representing the numbers of Britons killed during the Second World War. As I’ll explain, this has involved a fair amount of fudging and compromise, and I would not claim that what I’ve produced is perfect, but I still think the project is worthwhile and I’ll also give some examples of how I think it’s been useful.


A. Sources of imperfection

1) Casualties, deaths and killed.

In other posts in this sequence, you can read about some of the problems I’ve faced. At a fairly early stage, I decided that I would have to graph deaths, not casualties or losses. First, deaths are final, whereas an individual could become a casualty several times: not a problem in itself, but potentially a source of misleading interpretation. Second, the military counts PoWs as losses, and important as this was for their purpose, their loss has a rather different emotional quality to death. In addition, their return at the end of the war played havoc with statistics. Since even wartime death could be defined in very different ways in different services, I tried as the basis for my work to use contemporary definitions. So these figures don’t include those who died ‘of natural causes’ during their military service, but the RAF figures do include those who died from training accidents as well as during ground or flying battles. For the civilian figures, I drew on the reports from Registrars General in Fighting with Figures, which give a higher figure than those calculated by the Ministry of Home Security at the time, and include those killed as passengers at sea as well as those killed by enemy bombing. Even so, looking at the classifications available to Registrars under the international system in use at the time, (a modern version here, which hasn’t changed much) it’s plain that there wasn’t room to stretch the boundaries of ‘war-related’ death too much.

2) A cumulative graph

Wartime deaths were not always reported at the time they occurred. It therefore makes more sense to produce a graph of cumulative casualties rather than month by month deaths. This also helps with point 3)

3) A complete run of results?

For none of the armed forces is there a complete list of month by month casualty figures in the National Archives. For the Army and Air Force, there are such runs for part of the war, but not all of it. For the Navy and Merchant Navy, I had to calculate these myself. The civilian casualty figures produced from air raid reports at the time are complete from March 1940, but omit losses from other sources (you can read Richard Titmuss’ thoughts on civilian casualty figures here). For the Army and RAF, I have therefore sometimes had to rely on estimates and averages. Where I can, I have tried to include extra information here to give better ‘texture’ to the averages. For example, there are no cumulative figures for Army deaths before mid 1941. Rather than average the results over the months in between, however, I have taken information from the contemporary records of casualties by campaign to indicate the losses of April-June 1940 and the desert/Mediterranean campaigns of 1940-41. At other times, averaging has been simply unavoidable, for example with RAF losses between Marcy 1944, May 1945 and the end of the war.

4) Comparable results.

Wartime casualty figures have the advantage of giving a month-by-month account of losses. They have the disadvantage that they are almost always inaccurate, usually in that they underestimate losses. The army’s figure for its cumulative losses produced in the summer of 1945, for example, is significantly below that given in June 1946 in the White Paper Cmd 6832. Partly, that’s because people kept dying after the war’s end, but mostly it’s because it took time for combat accountancy to catch up with actual deaths. Such figures, however, are given as totals, rather than as month by month losses. How to solve the problem of using a set of comparable and accurate figures but retain the ‘feel’ of what was happening during the war? Here is where I’ve done the greatest bit of ‘fudging’ which I am least comfortable with statistically. With the exception of civilian figures, I have used those given in Cmd 6832, and taken those as broadly representative of the ‘reality’ at the end of the war. I realise that they include ‘extra’, post-hostilities deaths, but I also know that compared to the figures produced by a year by year search of the CWGC database, Cmd 6832 still seems to represent a conservative estimate, so those postwar deaths will be matched by those missed whilst battle was going on. I have assumed that wartime under-reporting was consistent as a proportion of casualties, divided up wartime totals by monthly figures, then allocated the post-war figures of Cmd 6832 in these proportions. I suspect this is probably a bogus assumption: it seems logical to suggest that reporting would be more subject to error at times of greater stress on the system, so that my method if anything flattens out losses over time. But I can’t see a way around this whilst maintaining my sanity. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have created any really anomalous results in a graph on the scale I’m working at, but it does mean that I would be hesitant to use my findings to make cast-iron assertions on the precise dates at which, for example, military deaths exceeded civilian ones.

B. Why is this still useful?

1) Visualising the war in one go

I think this graph is very useful in thinking about what Britain’s war was like. The spikes of military casualties at the start and end of the war are very apparent, as is the sudden loss of civilian life during the Blitz of 1940-41 (and during the V-weapon offensive of 1944, although the curve of RAF casualties at the same point risks hiding that). The relatively attritional nature of the wars that faced the RN, RAF and Merchant Navy is also apparent from the shape of their graph lines. The levelling out of civilian casualties after spring 1941, and Merchant Navy casualties after May 1943, also tells us about important swings in Britain’s favour. Using this graph, we could repeat what have become cliched statements about ‘more civilians than soldiers dying before… (insert date)’, but we’d also have to point out the huge increase in military deaths in 1944.

We can also super-impose the lines of the three armed services to suggest that, despite the way the war is usually discussed, it is unlikely that the numbers of civilians killed ever exceeded the number of servicemen and women killed. although the two came close in the spring of 1941. This depends on whether one includes merchant seamen as civilians – something I’m not really happy to do, since I think they deserve their own category (‘semi-combatants?’).


2) Some comparative suggestions

On this graph, I’ve included two other data points as a way to encourage some thought about how Britain’s war experience compared to an ally and an enemy. One is an estimate of the number of Germans killed in the 1943 bombing of Hamburg – a one off, not a cumulative figure. The other is the estimated number of Russians who were killed during the Stalingrad campaign alone. These were just two figures that were easily to hand: obviously one could add more depending on what point was being made. The problem with cumulative figures for Germany and Russia is not only reliability, but the difficulty of actually showing such data on the same graph as one for Britain – since the British figures would tend to get lost in a blur at the bottom of a larger scaled graph. This could, of course, be exactly the sort of point one might like to make.

3) Further information and research.

The journey of making this graph has been rather more important and intellectually satisfying than the destination. The issues thrown up by my research – particularly on the place of death and mourning in the myth of the war – are really fascinating, and will definitely influence what I right. Just having easy access to lots of casualty statistics is also useful. For example, I’m currently writing about the Battle of Britain, and being able to compare graphically the casualties from Civil Defence regions in July-August, as opposed to September-October 1940, makes a point about how bombing was experienced differently in those periods quickly and clearly.

I’d really welcome comments, suggestions on adaptations or improvements and queries.


35 Responses to First go at a graph of British killed in the Second World War

  1. Alan Allport says:

    Very interesting, and well done!

    Though perhaps unavoidable, the treatment of fatalities alone does seem to exaggerate a little bit the military portion of the total. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the percentage of civilian casualties who were wounded rather than killed was 58%, whereas in the case of the armed forces it was only 51%.

    Any chance of getting some bigger .jpegs?

  2. Dan says:

    You’re absolutely right about the wounded – which I think explains some of the confusion amongst writers about when military casualties exceed civilian ones, incidentally. The problem is that figures for naval wounded are simply not there: I’d have to go through all the personnel records, which are still embargoed for data protection reasons at the Naval Historical Branch. You could do something with just the army and air force figures I guess. The other question is exactly who counts as wounded – I _think_ that civilians had more of a say in whether they counted themselves as casualties: that would definitely require some qualitative research as well.

    Bigger jpegs. Not whilst fitting it to the blog. But what I will experiment with is putting the graphs onto their own pages, which should allow me to make them bigger, or linking to the files themselves.

  3. trenchfever says:

    Just edited to link to files, should be slightly better images of graphs.

  4. One of my pet theories is that the bloodiness of the First World War can almost entirely accounted for not by the incompetence of the generals but by the length of time the army was in contact with the enemy on the Western Front.

    I think this graph sort of bears me out. On the two occasions the British Army meets the German army in North West Europe there is a massive increase in the death rate.

    Incidentally, there should be a way of producing better images.

    Anyway, many thanks, this is fascinating stuff.

  5. Errol says:

    Very interesting. I realise that you may expand on this in each service’s post, but how have you attempted to define ‘Briton’, and how successful do you think you have been at excluding Dominion and other non-colonial deaths?

  6. trenchfever says:

    Patrick – I think that the two sharp rises when the army finds itself in a European ground war are indeed very striking, and absolutely make the point about the bloody nature of modern total war for the PBI. A future project is to graph losses from the start of both world wars on the same graph, which should be a great visualisation of that argument.

    Errol – So far as is possible, I have excluded Imperial and Commonwealth dead from this graph, in the sense that it should not include members of the Dominion or Imperial armed forces serving in units under British command. If I could, I’d like to include a line for those deaths as well – it would make the point, for example, that one reason that British army losses were so very low in late 1940-41 was that a lot of the fighting in that period was borne by non-British forces. Compiling reliable figures for the whole war is hard, although I will have another go. I haven’t been able to exclude servicemen who might not have counted themselves ‘British’ in identity terms, but who served in units defined as such by the War Office, Air Ministry or Admiralty, and I know that there are some anomalies (I didn’t, because the numbers are so small, count the American sailors killed serving with the Royal Navy, but this shouldn’t affect graphs on this scale). Another project, for which I have the data for year on year comparisons, is the ratio of casualties between British, Imperial and Dominion troops. I don’t know the extent to which this could be done for civilians.

  7. Errol says:

    I haven’t been able to exclude servicemen who might not have counted themselves ‘British’ in identity terms, but who served in units defined as such by the War Office, Air Ministry or Admiralty, and I know that there are some anomalies

    Identity was a tricky concept! 🙂
    So to ask about an area that I have a passing interest in, NZers in the (NZ) squadrons are excluded, but not those in standard squadrons (or Brits in the (NZ) squadrons)? I’m guessing that the Canadians and Australians in Brit RAF squadrons are a noticeable distortion/inconsistency?

    Keep up the good work!

  8. trenchfever says:

    The air figures I have drawn on are part of a series which elsewhere makes the distinction of RAF from RCAF, RAAF and RNZAF, amongst others in charts of total casualties. I presume that it’s force of enlistment, not service, that defined this, but I can’t be certain from the data left in the files. So I think the answer to your question is that most of those from the Dominions will be excluded, whether they served in all Brit or distinct squadrons. Similarly, the naval figures distinguish via enlistment, not ship. Army figures I don’t know, but it would surprise me if they differed. I don’t know the rates to which men from the Dominions returned to the UK to enlist as they did in the First World War, and I also don’t know about recruits from the Colonies. The squadron figures I’ve seen note force of enlistment, not service, in recording casualties.

  9. […] his graphs of all British casualties, Dan opted for running cumulative figures rather than monthly ones, and that is indeed better for […]

  10. […] Tomorrow night, I’ll be speaking to the Birmingham War Studies Seminar about British casualty figures for the Second World War. As a connected point of interest, therefore, here’s a site about the attempt to create a […]

  11. […] total British Army casualties. I found a graph here suggesting around 150,000 for 1939 – 1945 :- First go at a graph of British killed in the Second World War Trench Fever Ellis gives a figure of 368,491 evacuated (not just from Dunkirk of course) and I don’t know if […]

  12. wam says:

    Dear Sir,

    would you be so kind to provide me with an answer: how many British army soldiers were killed in Europe from June 6th 1944 till May 8th 1945 ?
    I do thank you in advance.

    Wlodek Mikulicz

  13. Dan says:

    Wlodek – I don’t currently have a copy of the Official History, by Ellis, to hand, but this would probably give the most accurate figures. I can tell you how many soldiers the British army thought had been killed at the time, from CAB 106/1207 ‘British and Allied Battle Casualties 1939-1946, compiled by AG Stats from Hot Spot Messages’, at the National Archives. This gives the number of army battle casualties as: 29,825 killed, 96,273 wounded, 15,359 missing and POWs, total 141,457. Another 474 Royal Marines were killed, alongside more than 10,000 Canadian soldiers. If you find another source for battle casualties for this period, it would be interesting to see how it compares – I haven’t got to D-Day yet!

  14. John says:

    The branches of these countries armed forces have the correct answers, everything else is just conjecture. I don’t care if it is 60 years or a 160 years.

  15. Trev says:

    Very interesting – pity the graphs are so small.

    On the point of the comparison with WW1 – In think its clear that WW2 casualties were so much less because for most of the war we were not engaged in major fighting. For the individuals of course (not least Bomber Command) the experience was severe, but the Western Desert and later Italy and Burma involved relatively few troops.

    In WW1 we were for 4 solid years involved in major fighting.

    Only when we were committed to Western Europe do the figures become comparable. I think it would be interesting to compare the daily average attrition rate between the NW Europe campaign with WW1 western front – there would not be much difference.

    Also for much of the Normandy campaign our land gains were not much different from WW1, up until the final ‘breakthrough’.

  16. I am looking for Albert West who was shot by a sniper in Italy He was my first love.

  17. Peter Clark says:

    Fascinating stuff – well done!
    Is there a register of names of British military personnel killed in action in WW2?

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