Hidden History: Oil Won World War II

Does World War II come down to waves of Russian men? Is it American economic and farm output? Is it code breaking? How about technology like radar and the bomb? There is always talk of what won the war, and one gigantic element is usually left out: oil. Allied oil production advantages set the situation in their favor and provided troops with an insurmountable edge. Oil even started the war, but regardless of how it began, oil would settle the war.

War had changed significantly from the start of the Great War, growing mechanized and taking to the skies at greater speeds and for more important missions. Like an industrialized economy, industrialized warfare’s life blood is oil and its derivative products. It is easy to hate on evil, polluting fossil fuels today, but without oil, no global war on two far flung fronts could be handled as skillfully as the US did in World War II.

The set up to WWII had multiple players making moves to secure oil. Hitler had learned from Mussolini that the threat of an oil embargo during his Ethiopian campaign made him press on faster, as any supply cut would have forced him to withdraw immediately. The Nazis leaned on I.G. Farben and synthetic fuels to supply its war machine. Hydrogenation of coal would be how the Germans would make up for their petroleum disadvantage compared to the Soviets, British, and the Americans. Germany, under Goering’s economic mismanagement, had a strange quest for autarky, thinking that if they could be self contained, they would not be harmed by economic consequences to warfare. Others within the Reich made nice with smaller nations in southeast Europe to secure their oil exports, with 58% of the oil imports coming from the Ploesti oil fields of Romania. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact specifically included oil exports from Russia into Germany.

The US used the oil weapon against the Japanese as part of diplomatic sanctions for Japanese aggression in the Pacific. These were the days when the US was a dominant oil power, so an embargo left the Japanese in 1940 facing an active war against China and only two years of oil supplies. Taking oil properties from European powers in the Pacific in a Japanese version of blitzkrieg was their answer that led up to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese island conquering was an eastern mirror image of the Nazi push into the Russia agriculture and oil areas. 

Oil and fuel supplies were on everyone’s mind. Hitler was quoted as saying, “My generals know nothing about the economic aspects of war,” as his initial idea was to drive south and take over the black earth area of Ukraine and Baku oil fields. Moscow was too big a prize to resist. Britain, the lumbering, aging empire, kept its supply lines open and placed supreme importance on defending choke points. The Battle of the Atlantic had at its center U-boat Wolf Packs hunting giant tankers of oil supplying the British. American aid before direct involvement was in allocating tankers to the Brits to keep their island nation standing firm.

In addition to Germany’s coal to fuel work, there was America’s expansion of its pipeline network from oil producing states to east coast refineries, and Russia’s attempts at developing its oil sector for more exports for more hard currency. American ingenuity and hard pressure by oil companies to push up on the price cap to boost exploration and development increased America’s production from 3.7 million barrels per day in 1940 to 4.7 million barrels per day in 1945. Considering oil depletion rates, the 30 percent increase in production in five years is a staggering thought in an era where an increase of one million barrels per day is considered a dream by men such as T. Boone Pickens.

War had changed. Mechanized armor brought about new strategies. Even when the Germans were fighting the Poles in ’39, they had some supplies still on horse-drawn units. Operation Barbarossa began with three million troops, 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. Not much later, the Nazis and Soviets would engage in the largest tank battle ever at Kursk. No horses. Air battles and bombing involved jet fuel, as well as ingredients for explosives. Radar guided the RAF to faster interception points, but there are those who credit the 100 octane jet fuel of the Spitfires over the 87 octane Luftwaffe planes with the deciding edge. Synthetic rubber mattered as Japan in the early days of the Pacific war had taken control of much of the world’s natural rubber harvesting regions (at that time). America could only respond to the extremely wide gaps in the Pacific battlegrounds effectively because of their oil resources that fueled the joint air and naval efforts of MacArthur as he island hopped his way up the Pacific.

The US was a powerhouse with no exaggeration, as it supplied six billion of the total 7 billion of oil consumed by the Allies in World War II. The other key was that American oil supplies were in a safe zone. US oil was a California, Texas and Midwest affair, protected by two oceans and miles of land from invasion. It could be transported along the coasts or through pipelines. This was far more reliable than the British sources that were flung around the Empire’s colonies. The Nazis and Japanese never had such luxury. Their fuel sources were in occupied lands. Not just raw materials, but the Allies also had decades of technical expertise in maximizing their petroleum resources.

The American continental geographic security mattered. Two battles, taking place nearly in synch, reveal oil’s importance: Stalingrad and El Alamein. The battles are known as the turning point in the war both in Churchill’s speeches and for when defeats ended and victories began for the Allies. Some historians will say that the Battle of Moscow was the turning point between the Nazis and Soviets and write compelling cases. Stalingrad is when defeat in the east was cemented for the Nazis. Both battles were about oil.

With either the oil of the Middle East or the oil of the Soviet fields, the Nazis would have breathing room for supplying their highly efficient mechanized forces. The Nazis were attempting to take the Suez and Palestine, with plenty of sympathetic figures in the Middle East due to decades of occupation and the common enemy of Jewish interests. Arabs love a strong horse, and it is hard to see them resist signing up with the Nazis if Rommel’s tanks had cleaned the British out. Rommel and Hitler both fed each other excited tales of the dream of crushing the British and Soviets and meeting up in the Baku oil fields with victory certain. Even without the oil, taking the Suez would cut the Empire in two, making raw material transit much longer and more exposed to U-boats. The Mediterranean becoming a Nazi lake would make efforts to invade Mitteleuropa much tougher. 

Operation Blau was a direct assault on the Soviet oil fields. Stalingrad was Hitler’s attempt to correct the mistake of the broad front advance in ’41. With the element of surprise in ’41, had the Germans simply pushed harder towards the Caucasus rather than make a move to Moscow, they could have taken the oil fields of the south without any destroyed wells. By mid-’42, the Russians and Germans had been fighting for a year and destruction of the wells would take place even if they fell to the Germans. Nazis reached destroyed wells that they could not rehabilitate. Stalingrad became a bigger problem, and what was a sideshow for the true objective turned into a defining moment. Through bloody fights over multiple months, Stalingrad held.

The long pushback had begun. The advantage of American men and not just material would pour in, and the oil would flow, fueling the ever-growing number of Allied planes, tanks, and troop transports. The last gasp of the Nazi war machine died in the western forests. Some of the tanks that survived the onslaught of the Battle of the Bulge ran out of fuel and had to be abandoned. Even Hitler’s odd quest for super weapons would do him no good without oil to make the war economy go. How would a jet fighter help if it did not have the fuel to fly?

Geniuses in Los Alamos building the bomb, Rosie the Riveter, radar, the Jeep, lady code breakers… these groups all get a glorified showing in Hollywood and news media recaps of WWII. These are easy, progressive-approved items of technology and diversity. The millions of Russian dead get air time when politically convenient. Few, if any, give a nod to the good roustabouts, pipeline architects and petroleum engineers that made everything go. Like our modern world, no one ever wants to admit that everything we enjoy floats on a sea of oil.

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7 Comments

  1. Eddie Willers July 26, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Good article and food for thought.

    It reminded me of the time I lived on the Mexican Gulf Coast, in an oil-producing town, and coming across a monument to the dead of the six Pemex tankers sunk in the 1942 Gulf Campaign.

    Mexico had been neutral, up to that point, although supplying men (in the form of migrants, who could join the US military or work in agriculture) and materiel (mainly oil). The sinking of these ships gave them a solid casus belli for joining the Allies formally.

  2. Nice writeup. For infrastructure nerds out there, a few other interesting details.

    The safety of the US oil supply was something the US achieved, rather than had at the start of WWII. The “Big Inch” Pipeline from Texas to the Northeast was quite an achievement in a short span of time:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Inch

    There is also Operation Pluto – the undersea petroleum cable between the UK and Normandy, that was laid shortly after D-Day, and helped fuel the allied war machine on the continent.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Pluto

    1. Thanks Stirner. I left out the Big Inch but the infrastructure build out and production increases are legendary. We ended up creating a problem of market not production for after the war and then likewise during the initial stages of Arab-Persian Gulf production.

  3. The Germans had no chance of taking the oil fields of Russia. The Russians were way to good at destroying everything in the face of German advances and the few oil fields they captured where destoyer beyond repair. Of course the Soviet army without oil wouldn’t have last long which is why the most valiblable allied import was American deseasil fuel.

  4. “Few, if any, give a nod to the good roustabouts, pipeline architects and petroleum engineers that made everything go.”

    Well of course not, because these are all very much the wrong type of white male. Even now, it is largely the work of white males that keeps our energy infrastructure going.

  5. It is great to read about the brilliant planning and efforts that went on back home during the war effort. Everyone hears about the combat stories but seldom are told the unsung stories of the hard work that was crucial to the success of the overall war effort. I somehow doubt such thought or quick action would be taken today in the event of a national emergency or crisis.

    This was an excellent article and my hat is off to Ryan. Great job!

  6. jet fuel–>aviation fuel.

    My father worked with a man who marched to Moscow with horses towing his guns, envying the elite motorized artillery units. When everyone was walking back, he said, the motorized units envied his horse-steak dinners.

    Crude oil production was important, but just as important was the US’s tremendously advanced refining and chemicals industry. You don’t turn poor quality lamp oil into high octane avgas or styrene for synthetic rubber without a massive, well-integrated industry that doesn’t have to deal with constant bombing raids.
    And that’s not even considering how much gasified hydrogen and benzene you need to make explosives.

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