Military History & Espionage


Blood for Oil:
The Quest for Fuel in World War II

First published in
January-February 1993

by Michael Antonucci

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 battlefields.

For instance, 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.

Field Marshal
Erwin Rommel

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 production.

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 needs.

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.

Oil Commandos

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 retreat.

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 facilities.

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 per day.)

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 requirements."

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 invasion.

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 gamble.

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 1943.

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 targets.

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 fuels.

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 University

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 Pacific."

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 operating."

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 route.

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 blocked."

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 time.

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 of oil."


"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..