Peter Caddick-Adams on generals killed on the battlefield
“Russian general casualties in Ukraine today are significantly higher – whether seen as a proportion of all Russian generals or as a percentage of the 200,000-strong army they command – than the Allied commitment in 1939–45,” writes historian Peter Caddick-Adams
The world has been agog at the number of Russian generals killed in Ukraine over the last few weeks. This appears to be the tip of the iceberg, for “at least 15 senior Russian commanders have been killed in the field,” according to Markiyan Lubkivsky, a spokesperson for the Ukraine Ministry of Defence. The total was later amended to 16, including five named colonels and four lieutenant colonels.
By 27 March 2022, Ukrainian officials said the total number of Russian generals lost in battle was confirmed at seven. Russia has not confirmed this, and the tally has not been independently verified. But the seven Russian generals believed to have been killed include three army commanders: Andrey Kolesnikov, of the 29th Combined Arms Army, killed on 11 March; Andrey Mordvichev, leading the 8th Army, who died in a Ukrainian raid on his command post at Kherson airfield; and Yakov Rezantsev, general of Russia’s 49th Combined Arms Army, killed in another airfield strike, apparently on 25 March.
In addition, four other generals are reported killed, according to western sources. On 26 February, Magomed Tushaev, a Chechen major general in Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia), died when a column of 56 tanks was attacked near Hostomel (although it should be noted that some Chechen sources dispute his death). Around 1 March, Andrey Sukhovetsky, deputy commander of Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army, was shot by a sniper. The first week in March saw the death of Vitaly Gerasimov, chief of staff of the 41st Combined Arms Army, outside Kharkiv; while on 15 March, Oleg Mityaev, of the 150th Motor Rifle Division, died as his men stormed the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol. There is evidence that some of these generals were targeted by Ukrainian Special Forces, using sophisticated eavesdropping devices.
We do not know how many Russian generals are leading troops in Ukraine, but best estimates are that up to 10 Russian armies, each led by a general, supported by a deputy commander and chief of staff, both of whom are also generals, are involved, giving a total of perhaps 30 officers of general rank. At least 12 divisions, led by major generals, have been identified. This suggests a minimum of 42 generals, possibly closer to 50, are directing combat formations in Ukraine. Below them, numerous brigades and now around 100 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), commanded by colonels and lieutenant colonels respectively, have been involved. Based on these figures, up to 17 per cent of 42 Russian generals may have been killed.
Are these significant losses in themselves, or are senior officer casualties routine in intense combat of the kind we see in Ukraine?
- War in Ukraine | 9 milestone moments in the history of Russia & Ukraine that explain today’s invasion
Generals killed in WW2
The western experience of losing generals during the Second World War was low, for the size of armies involved. America lost four lieutenant generals and nine major-generals during the war, but nine of these were due to accidents, mostly aeroplane crashes. The British and Commonwealth forces lost a similar number – 16 lieutenant and major generals, of whom eight were killed in accidents, again mostly aircraft crashes. In addition, 20 American brigadier-generals and 24 British and Commonwealth brigadiers also died on active service, a striking proportion in accidents.
These casualties were sustained while commanding far larger numbers of troops, and spread out over several years of war. Fatal aircraft crashes, which also claimed the lives of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, who oversaw D-Day; Battle of Britain commander Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory; and the brother of George VI, Air Commodore HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, reflect the fact that aircraft were far more primitive and senior figures had to fly frequently over huge distances to command the vast forces at their disposal.
In summary, based on what we know, Russian general casualties in Ukraine today are significantly higher – whether seen as a proportion of all Russian generals or as a percentage of the 200,000-strong army they command – than the Allied commitment in 1939–45.
More like this
- Read more | Why has Russia always refused to let Ukraine go?
In 1998, author Aleksander Maslov listed 235 Soviet generals killed in combat in his Fallen Soviet Generals, with more than 200 more dying in other ways. They commanded a force that rose from 4.8 million in 1941 to mobilising 29.5 million men and women into the armed services during the course of the war.
An equally staggering total of 136 German generals were killed in action or died of wounds during the Second World War. A further 30 died in accidents; 64 took their own lives; and 20 were executed by the Nazis. Both these totals more closely reflect the current Russian model of anxiety to please senior commanders by moving as close to the front as possible – and, in the fatal cases, too close.
British generals in the First World War were almost as likely to be killed or wounded as private soldiers
It was also a German tradition of senior commanders being generally closer to the front, perhaps reflecting poorer communications, but with battlefield knowledge of when to commit reserves. Overall, a striking number of German officers were awarded medals for bravery, rather than command. However, given the size of the German armed forces, which included 315 infantry divisions, each commanded by a general, where a total of 13.6 million volunteers and conscripts passed through its ranks, today’s Russian losses of its leaders are far, far higher by any metric.
- Read more | How were women treated in Nazi Germany?
How many generals were killed in WW1?
The conflict where we know most about general officer casualties is the First World War of 1914–18. According to the pioneering work in 1995 of Frank Davies and Graham Maddocks in Bloody Red Tabs, some 232 British and Commonwealth generals, including brigadier generals, became casualties, of whom 78 were killed or died as a result of active service. However, as the duo helpfully identified a total of 1,257 senior commanders who served in the same period [a research project at the University of Birmingham supported their conclusions], this equates to a casualty rate of 18.5 per cent over 51 months of fighting. This is remarkably close to my estimate of Russian general casualties in Ukraine today.
This staggering statistic means that British generals in the First World War were almost as likely to be killed or wounded as private soldiers. As we do not know how many Russian commanders are involved in Ukraine today, it is impossible to know the same figure, but with a force of 200,000, it cannot be far different.
None will compare with the misfortune of US General John Sedgewick in the American Civil War, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May 1864. Admonishing a Union soldier for hugging the ground under fire, the general touched him gently with his foot, and said, “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way… They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Whereupon Sedgewick was immediately felled by a fatal shot.
Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues. He lectures at universities, military academies and staff colleges around the world and spent 35 years as an officer in the UK Regular and Reserve Forces. His next book, 1945: Victory in the West, is due to be published by Penguin in May 2022
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99