|Blood for Oil:
The Quest for Fuel in World War II
First published in
The legendary German Field
Marshal Erwin Rommel once wrote: "The battle is fought and decided by the
quartermasters before the shooting begins.".
Students of military history tend to pay
lip service to the importance of logistics, preferring to read about tanks
and artillery, mass and maneuver, attack and counterattack. The reasons for
that bias are easy to understand. There is no obvious drama in examining
supply lines, and it is easier and simpler to believe wars are always won on
millions of pages have been written about the tactics and strategies of
World War II, but relatively little about how almost every major decision of
that conflict was conditioned by the need for one commodity without which no
modern army can operate - oil.
The leaders of every nation involved in
World War II were aware of how crucial oil supplies were to their war plans.
The importance of oil had become apparent during the First World War. As
armies became more mechanized, the need for secure sources of fuel and
lubricants became the sine qua non for military operations. French
diplomat Henri Berenger was right when as early as 1921 he explained that,
in the next war: "He who owns the oil will own the world, for he will rule
the sea by means of the heavy oils, the air by means of the ultra-refined
fuels, and the land means of gasoline and the illuminating oils."
An examination of the
belligerents' attempts to secure oil for their countries during World War
II, in both the European and Pacific theaters, not only explains many
otherwise mysterious events, it also contains important lessons about
potential future conflicts.
The European Theater: Pre-war Indicators
"To fight, we must have oil for our
machine." - Adolf Hitler
For all his faults as a military
strategist, Adolf Hitler must be credited with having as good an
understanding of the economic underpinnings of large-scale warfare as anyone
in the Nazi high command. Upon his accession to power in 1933, he
immediately began a search for methods to increase oil exploration and
Between 1933 and 1939, German domestic
crude oil production nearly tripled to 4.5 million barrels per year. As was
true of most countries in western
Europe, Germany was rich in coal, but poor in petroleum. Under Hitler's
orders, German engineers began working to produce synthetic fuels, mostly
from coal and lignite, at an unprecedented pace. By 1941, synthetic fuel
production had reached a level of 31 million barrels per year. Austerity
programs were instituted long before the beginning of the war, and fuel
bought from the Soviet Union and Romania was stockpiled against future
Despite all those measures, though,
there simply was not enough oil available in Europe to satisfy the huge
requirements of a mechanized force in the service of a country with
expansionist aims. A panzer division typically consumed 1,000 gallons
(approx. 30 barrels) of fuel per mile traveled. Thus, despite the Draconian
measures practiced by the Wehrmacht, it
quickly became clear that optimum German tactics would have to be modified
to operate within the limits of available resources. That, as much as any
other practical or theoretical factors, led to the conception and practice
of the Blitzkrieg.
In fact, it is difficult to really
overstate the gap that existed between German army fuel needs and the
available supplies. The images of panzers rolling across Poland, the Low
Countries and France are etched in our minds as characteristics of the new
style of warfare Nazi Germany had created. It is easy to forget those
panzers made up only a small part of the entire force, and that the German
army was far from fully mechanized.
Though it varied from campaign to
campaign and unit to unit, as much as 70 percent of German supply transport
remained horse-drawn throughout the war. There were 5,375 horses assigned to
each infantry division. In fact, as the war dragged on and petroleum became
even more critical, horses became more important to the German war effort
rather than less.
Even with only its spearhead forces
completely motor-driven, Germany could not wage a long mobile war. Germany
needed more oil than it had to power its industries as well as the war
machines at the front. Thus, at the strategic level, too, necessity became
the mother of invention - the Blitzkrieg was seen as the solution,
whereby enemies could be decisively defeated before fuel supplies dried up.
In 1938, Hitler accomplished the
Anschluss of Austria with two mobile divisions: the 2nd Panzer Division
from Wurzburg, and the S.S. Leibstandarte Division from Berlin. Both
units were to drive triumphantly through Austria to Vienna. An omen of what
was ahead occurred about halfway through the operation when both columns ran
out of gas. Only frantic phone calls to civilian service stations along the
route averted what otherwise would have become a public relations disaster
for the regime.
Even before the actual
shooting started, therefore, the German high command realized merely
conquering territory would not be enough to win the
war. The fuel supplies of the newly conquered had to be appropriated for
German use. The intact capture of enemy oil fields became a primary (and
often herculean) task in all their invasions. The opponent could be expected
to defend them vigorously, and to attempt to destroy them if forced to
It would take a skilled group of
engineers and technicians to restore a war-ravaged oil field or refinery.
The army high command's Economics Section prepared for those eventualities
by commissioning Maj. Erich Will to form a unit of "oil commandos," whose
mission would be the technical occupation and repair of captured enemy oil
The first test of the Oil Commandos came
in the Polish campaign. A plainclothes team of 50 specialists in petroleum
exploration and production accompanied the XXII Corps in its dash across
southeastern Poland, with the aim of seizing the oil fields and refineries
of Galicia. The blitz began on 1 September 1939, and by the next day one
panzer division of XIX Corps had already temporarily run out of gas once,
due to a shortage of trucks to carry fuel forward.
The Oil Commandos, however, ran into
difficulties of their own. They arrived at the outskirts of the Galician oil
fields on 15 September, and set up an office at Jaslo. But by the time the
XXII Corps moved ahead to Winniki, the Soviets had entered the picture and
occupied the fields ahead of them. Germany ended up capturing only 30
percent of Poland's oil, and had to negotiate with Stalin for an annual sale
of oil equivalent to the other 70 percent.
Still, Hitler was well enough pleased
with the efforts of his Oil Commandos to expand their numbers' he created
the "Technical Oil Brigade," under Maj. Gen. Erich Homburg. At its peak, the
brigade consisted of almost 15,000 men, but smaller groups (called "Kommandos,"
or detachments) were sent to the field for specific tasks.
The War in the West, 1940-41
From a purely fuel standpoint, the fall
of France has to be considered the greatest victory of the war for Germany.
That is, for the first and only time, Hitler ended a campaign with more oil
than he had when he started.
The German army and air force had
learned enough from the Polish campaign to build up significant reserves for
the war in the West. When that blitz was over, the Wehrmacht had
captured more than 20 million barrels of oil from the French, Belgians
and Dutch. Since the invaders had used only 12 million barrels through the
campaign, the conquests represented a net gain of 8 million barrels. (For
reference, though, and to show how precarious the Germans' situation
remained, the United States in 1940 produced an average of 4 million barrels
During the campaign, the Oil Commandos
were deployed to seize the French oil wells at Pechelbronn, in Alsace. On 21
June, with the help of French collaborators, they succeeded in doing so
without firing a shot. The French demolition squads charged with destroying
the machinery were entirely unsuccessful. Not only did the Oil Commandos get
the 1.5 million gallons of petroleum in storage there, they returned
production to full capacity in a few months.
The same operation yielded an added
bonus in the form of economic intelligence. The Technical Oil Brigade's
specialists were able to rifle through the French files for data kept on oil
operations and geological surveys in the other countries of Europe. The
files on the Soviet Union were of special interest. They were bundled up and
sent to Berlin.
Meanwhile, oil also helped decide the
Battle of Britain. The Royal Air Force, with access to America's oil, was
able to utilize 100-octane aviation gasoline n its Spitfires and Hurricanes.
That improved engine performance, allowing faster takeoffs, quicker bursts
of speed, and larger payloads.
The Germans had to choose quantity over
quality. Since producing the higher octane aviation gas would necessarily
have meant lower output, the Luftwaffe command had 87-octane fuel
used in their planes. The resultant deficiencies were most keenly felt in
decreased "loiter time." With reduced engine performance, German aircraft
could only remain in British airspace for 15-20 minutes if they were to have
enough fuel to return to base. Considering how close a fight the Battle of
Britain turned out to be, any increased performance by the Luftwaffe
might well have proven critical to the battle's course.
A Paradox Arises
Early in 1941, with the formation of the
Afrika Korps to save the Italians from defeat in North Africa, the first of
many paradoxes to occur in their quest for oil fell upon the Nazis. As they
conquered territory after territory they accumulated more oil, but they also
took on the responsibility for the oil needs of the new acquisitions. Since
each state taken had been a net oil importer, Hitler found the gap between
oil supply and demand widening, even while his nation was seemingly winning
the war. Nowhere was that dilemma more evident than in the Mediterranean.
As a German ally in the oil war, fascist Italy was more of a hindrance than
a help. Italy imported 92 percent of its oil in 1939. (The plentiful oil in
their colony, Libya, ironically lay just a little too deep to be discovered
by the methods of the day.) When the Germans entered North Africa to fight,
they also had to take on the task of helping fuel the Italian armed forces.
Rommel worked wonders with the little
fuel that got past the British naval/air outpost on Malta, as well as
captured enemy stores, but no commander suffered more from fuel
uncertainties than he did. As early as June 1941, Rommel wrote: "We knew
that our moves would be decided more by the petrol gauge than by tactical
Roy Grinnell's painting shows B-24s
bombing the German oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania
He also encountered another oil paradox. With such vast distances to cover
in the North African desert, he found he sometimes did not have enough fuel
for his fuel-hauling trucks. There were instances when it took up to half of
a division's fuel allotment to transport the rest to the front. Trucks would
get forward only to find there was not enough gasoline for the return trip.
Oil and Barbarossa
By the end of 1940,
Hitler stood astride western Europe, with only Great Britain still actively
opposing his designs. The reasons for his turning against the Soviet Union
are still debated by scholars today, but clearly oil concerns played at
least a part in that decision.
The Soviets had sent over 4.5 million
barrels of oil to Hitler before he sent his armies east in Operation
Barbarossa. The Soviet Union was at the time the world's second largest oil
producer. Despite strict rationing, however, it still had to import oil from
the United States to meet its own needs. It was with a view to securing more
oil supplies for himself that Stalin forced Hitler's acquiescence to his
territorial demands in Romania. That was an ill-considered move, however, in
that it certainly doomed the Soviet Union to German attack.
Most of Hitler's crude oil came from the
Romanian fields at Ploesti, and Stalin's border land grab on that nation
thus put the Red Army uncomfortably close to critical German supply lines.
It was at that point Hitler irreversibly committed his nation to an
In a postwar interrogation, Hans Kolbe,
a U.S. spy in the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, offered this
assessment: "The German need to obtain Soviet oil was deemed the primary
reason for the attack. Since the Soviet deliveries were insufficient to
satisfy German needs for bringing the war [in the west] to a conclusion, the
only recourse appeared to be the seizure and exploitation by the Germans of
the oil resources of the Soviet Union."
Of course, Hitler had political and
military objectives in his invasion as well, namely the destruction of the
Soviet regime and the Red Army. Those objectives came into conflict with the
need for oil once the attack began. In his directive of 21 August 1941,
Hitler showed clearly what he saw as the critical goal of the invasion: "The
most important aim to be reached before the onset of winter is not to
capture Moscow, but to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal region
on the Donets, and cut off the Russian oil supply from the Caucasus area."
That latter area was the one from which
flowed 84 percent of the oil produced in the entire Soviet Union. An amazing
72 percent flowed from around Baku alone, the rest from the smaller
complexes at Maikop and Grozny. During the second year of operations in the
east, those fields became the primary targets of the German army and the
greatly expanded Technical Oil Brigade.
That still was not the limit of Hitler's
ambitions. Had he won the war on the eastern front, his next big operation
would undoubtedly have been one aimed at gaining the oil of the Middle East
through pincer attacks launched from the Caucasus and the Balkans, then
linking up with the Afrika Korps driving up through Palestine. It was a
grandiose scheme, but with the Soviets out of the way it might well have
succeeded. Fortunately, though, the next Axis oil paradox came into play
before Hitler had any chance to begin such a move.
The '42 Campaign to the Caucasus
Capturing the Caucasus oil fields would
require draining dry the accumulated German oil reserves. German planners
for the operation concluded that even under the most optimistic projections
there was only enough fuel for 60 days of full-on campaigning deeper into
the Soviet Union. As with the earlier campaigns against Poland and the West,
the 1942 operation had to be a Blitzkreig victory, or else the move
would suffer slow oil starvation and eventual defeat. Hitler took the
Army Group A, along with 6,000 members
of the Technical Oil Brigade, was sent crashing toward Baku in July 1942.
Army Group B was assigned to protect the flank by crossing the Don River and
taking (or at least masking) the city of Stalingrad.
From the very beginning, the omens were
not good. Unlike the earlier situation in the west, capturing Soviet fuel
turned out to be useless to the panzers because the Communists ran their
tanks on diesel, while the German machines ran on regular gasoline.
Therefore Baku had to be not only quickly captured, but its facilities then
had to just as quickly be put to use before the Wehrmacht ran dry.
By the early fall, Maikop was in German
hands, and by December oil was once again flowing from it, despite vigorous
efforts by Soviet partisans and saboteurs. But Army Group A never reached
Grozny or Baku. Hitler lost sight of his material goal and instead fastened
on one of only symbolic importance - Stalingrad. He transferred eight
divisions from Army Group A to B, and with its drive thus weakened, A was
unable to break into the mountains. Neither could it resist the Soviet
counterattack when it came, and Maikop had to be given up on 18 January
A campaign that was supposed to have
lasted only weeks had stretched into months, then years. Fully half of
Germany's oil reserves were poured into the eastern front. At the start of
the 1942 drive, Hitler said, "If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny,
then I must end the war." He should have taken his own advice.
The Allies Strike Back
The Allies were fully aware of the power
of the oil weapon. They kept a close watch on German oil production, even
sending teams of experts to examine the crankcase oil of downed Luftwaffe
planes to determine the quality of their lubricants. They were also
fortunate in having control of a large percentage of the world's known oil
reserves in America, Russia and the Middle East. Yet even they suffered
shortages, mostly due to devastating U-boat attacks on Allied tankers.
By the second half of 1944, once the
advancing Red Army had torn Ploesti and its oil fields back out of the Third
Reich, Hitler's forces had become almost entirely dependent on synthetic
fuel production. The synthetic fuel facilities became primary Allied bombing
Between May and September 1944, Allied
bombing reduced German synthetic fuel production by 85 percent. In a single
raid on 12 May, 935 Flying Fortress and Liberator bombers attacked the oil
facilities at Zwickau, Leuna, Brux, Lutzendorf and Bohlen. Every facility
was at least damaged, and half of them were shut down. Albert Speer,
Hitler's Minister of Armaments and Munitions, said, "On that day the
technological war was decided."
Despite the fact Germany produced record
amounts of armaments during 1944, there was not enough fuel or lubricants to
put into all those brand new machines. Speer concluded: "The loss of fuel
had... a more decisive effect on the course of the war than the difficulties
in armaments and communications." By shortly before V-E Day, Germany had
been reduced to what amounted to a pre-industrial level through lack of
B-17 Flying Fortresses took part in the
May 1944 fuel facility raids
For example, production of aviation gasoline had been reduced by 95 percent,
which created yet another oil paradox. Without fuel, the fighters could not
fly to protect the oil facilities, which meant more destroyed refineries and
therefore less fuel. Rather than waste fuel taxiing, aircraft were towed to
runways by teams of cows and horses.
Speer saw the inevitable end when he
encountered a column of 150 trucks of the German 10th Army, each of which
had four oxen hitched to it. Even many of the vaunted V-1 and V-2 rockets
had to be hauled to their launching sites by horse-drawn wagons.
The Battle of the Bulge drained much of
the last German fuel reserves. During its height, the advance guard of the
2nd Panzer Division was reduced to pressing on toward the Meuse River on
foot after their tanks had run out of gas.
The primacy of oil was never better
demonstrated that during the final battle for Berlin. During that bitter
fight, literally thousands of German tanks, planes and guns sat idle in
nearby warehouses for lack of fuel and lubricants needs to operate them.
Given all that, it is appropriate
Hitler's body was doused with gasoline and cremated after his suicide. It
was the final, ironic paradox.
The Pacific Theater
"God was on the side of the
nation that had the oil." - Prof. Wakimura, Tokyo Imperial
Halfway around the world from Berlin,
another Axis partner initiated a war with the United States for the sake of
oil. Japanese imperial ambitions had run headlong into its dependency on the
United States for petroleum.
Policymakers in America balked at
continuing to sell fuel to the Japanese so the Imperial Army could run
roughshod over the Asian mainland. Yet America remained cautious for a time.
A pre-war U.S. Navy analysis concluded: "An [oil] embargo would probably
result in an early attack by Japan on Malaya and the Netherlands East
Indies, and possibly would involve the United States in an early war in the
The Japanese, meanwhile, stockpiled as
much Californian and Mexican crude as possible, even offering to buy
outright one potentially oil-rich area of Mexico.
The drive for oil led Japan into the
first oil paradox of the Pacific War. The Japanese, fearful of a U.S. oil
embargo, sought to diversify their sources by gaining control of
oil-producing territories, but it was precisely that policy which eventually
led to the embargo.
Like the Germans, the Japanese were
aware of their petroleum vulnerability. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect
of the Pearl Harbor attack, was so concerned about his nation's lack of
crude that at one point he personally sponsored experiments by a "scientist"
who claimed to be working on a method to transform water into oil.
When the trade embargo against Japan was
put in place in October 1941, U.S. military planners realized war in the
Pacific had become inevitable. But intercepted and deciphered radio traffic
led the Americans to believe the Japanese would head straight for the
sources of oil in Indonesia and Malaya. The fields in the East Indies
yielded 170,000 barrels of crude a day and were only lightly defended. The
idea the Japanese might first make a major effort to put the U.S. Navy out
of action did not enter most analysts' minds.
For all their preoccupation with oil,
the Japanese overlooked its significance in the one battle where it
certainly could have had a decisive impact of the entire war - at Pearl
Harbor itself. Fixated on American warships and harbor facilities, the
planners never thought to strike the storage tanks that held the fuel supply
of the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet.
After their second wave of attack planes
returned to the Japanese carriers, some of the pilots tried to convince
their on-site commander, Adm. Nagano, to send a third strike against the
base's repair and oil facilities. But the admiral, who had at times doubted
the feasibility of the entire operation, was unwilling to risk another
attack. He gathered his winnings and went home; it was a grave error.
Every drop of oil on Oahu had been
transported there from California. Adm. Chester Nimitz, later
commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, recalled: "All of the oil for the
fleet was in surface tanks at the time of Pearl Harbor. We had about 4.5
million barrels of oil out there and all of it was vulnerable to .50 caliber
bullets. Had the Japanese destroyed that oil, it would have prolonged the
war another two years."
Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, who was relieved
of his command of the Pacific Fleet after the attack, agreed: "Had [the
Japanese] destroyed the oil which was all above ground at the time... it
would have forced the withdrawal of the fleet to the [U.S. west] coast
because there wasn't any oil anywhere else out there to keep the fleet
With the Pacific Fleet basing from
California, there could have been no Battle of Midway the next spring, and
the whole complexion of the war in the Pacific would have changed.
As it was, the Japanese had their way in
the Pacific for a short time, and grabbed most of the oil of the East
Indies, despite Allied attempts to destroy those facilities. For a time, the
Imperial Navy and Army achieved what Hitler never did - oil independence.
Then they ran into another problem that
rendered their possession of the oil fields meaningless - the second oil
paradox of the war in the Pacific. The Japanese had an insufficient number
of tankers to haul the needed oil to their industrial plants in the home
islands and the many outposts spread across their vast empire. For the
tankers they did have, they demonstrated an increasing inability to protect
them from the attacks of Allied submarines, surface ships and aircraft. Oil
had to travel thousands of miles to get from the fields of Balikpapan in
Borneo to home ports in Japan. The Allies were lying in wait all along the
Immediately after taking command of the
Pacific Fleet, Adm. Nimitz came to an agreement with Adm. Ernest King, the
Chief of Naval Operations, that "the primary objectives of the Allied armed
forces were to safeguard their own supply lines and then drive westward in
order to capture bases from which Japan's indispensable 'oil line' might be
One of the most important ship sinkings
of the war occurred when the U.S. submarine Grenadier sank the
Taiyo Maru in the summer of 1942. Over 1,000 Japanese petroleum experts
and technicians were on board, heading for the Indies to spur oil
production. A total of 780 of them perished in the attack. By the end of the
war, 110 Japanese tankers had been made victims of American submarines, and
joined the Taiyo Maru on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
The protective measures the Japanese did
attempt to take proved to be of little help. U.S. cryptanalysts had broken
the Japanese naval code and were fully informed of tanker schedules and
cargoes. The Imperial Navy was slow to respond; it did not establish convoys
for the precious tankers until 1943.
Soon the Imperial Navy itself began to
feel the fuel pinch. Training cruises were first shortened, then eliminated.
Strategic decisions were made based on fuel requirements rather than
political or military reasoning. In the Marianas campaign of 1944, for
instance, the Japanese battle fleet made no attempt to hinder the Americans'
advance because its fuel supply was too low. The Japanese were willing to
risk everything to defend the Philippines because those islands' location
made them critical for defending the long imperial shipping lanes running
from Borneo and Sumatra to Tokyo. But at Leyte Gulf, with Gen. MacArthur's
invasion force still vulnerable to counterattack, the Japanese 2nd Fleet,
under Adm. Takeo Kurita, turned tail only 40 miles from the beaches. He felt
he was too short on fuel to risk an attack.
There were no half-measures during the
great Allied counteroffensive in the Pacific War. Gen. Curtis LeMay assigned
the entire Guam-based 315th Bombardment Wing to strike at Japanese fuel
facilities. By the end of the war, Japanese refinery output was down to six
percent of normal, and the civilians in the homeland were reduced to such
things as attempting to brew fuel from pine roots.
The futility of that approach was
apparent even in Japanese government reports at the time, which disclosed
that to meet the target of 12,00 barrels of pine root fuel per day would
have required the full-time efforts of 1.25 million workers. Besides, the
pine root fuel gummed up engines beyond repair after only a short running
The saddest facet of the Pacific oil
situation, however, is that the use of kamikaze suicide planes was
developed partly as a means to conserve fuel. Though low on aviation
gasoline, Japan had an abundance of pilots. According to theory, three
suicide planes would be sufficient to sink an American warship, whereas
conventional attack required between 15 and 20 Japanese fighter-bombers to
do the job. More fuel was saved because those three planes would not require
any fuel to return to base.
Some historians, caught up in
conventional analysis of Japan's military predicament, have suggested they
should have pulled their naval and air forces back to the home area instead
of spending lives and materiél fighting in far off places. But an
understanding of the oil situation wipes that speculation away. An aircraft
carrier does no good in Okinawa or Tokyo Bay if the only fuel available for
it is in Sumatra. Thus the final Pacific War oil paradox: just at the time a
concentrated Imperial Fleet was needed to repel Allied attacks, it was
forced to scatter to maintain proximity to fuel sources.
An appropriate postscript to Japan's
defeated drive for oil occurred shortly after its surrender, when a
detachment of U.S. sailors went to arrest Gen. Hideki Tojo for war crimes.
He attempted suicide, and it took two hours to find an ambulance with enough
fuel to take him t a hospital. Thomas Moorer, who later became Chief of
Naval Operations, was witness to the scene, and he reflected: "What I
learned then was never lose a war, and the way to lose a war is to run out
"The war was decided by engines
and octane." - Joseph Stalin
"Above all, petrol governed
every movement." - Winston Churchill
With 50 years and a million pages of analysis between us and
the events of World War II, it is easy to forget the lessons learned at that
time. Today, with armed forces that are truly and fully mechanized, the
nations of the world are more dependent than ever on secure lines of oil
supplies to keep their armed forces operating. We would do well to remember
that the best tanks and warships money and technology can create are nothing
but inviting targets if they can't move, and oil is still the only substance
that can move them..