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Oil Strategy in World War II

Aug 24, 2007 | Posted in Essays, Progress

The Allies hastened their victory by crippling German synthetic gasoline capacity and by severing Japan’s precarious supply lines.

“...the Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

This appraisal of the importance of petroleum to the winning of the first World War was offered in late 1918 by Viscount Curzon of Kedleston.

In 1924, President Coolidge wrote, with great prescience, that “the supremacy of nations may be determined by the possession of available petroleum and its products.”

World War II-by far the greatest, and probably the most sanguinary, conflict ever fought-dramatically emphasized the indispensability of oil to any strategy for victory.

U.S. output of gasoline for military use in the later stages of World War II was about 18 times greater than in the earlier war, and that of aviation gasoline about 80 times as great. Approximately half the tonnage of supplies shipped overseas consisted of petroleum products.

The margin of victory in World War II was achieved by the factories of America; the enemy was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of fighting machines produced by the world’s greatest industrial arsenal. And our floating and flying fleets and mechanized armies depended for their mobility upon petroleum products; without oil our military power would have been muscle bound-ponderous, formidable in appearance, but useless.

Oil-the attempt to conquer its sources or to manufacture it, the attempt to deny it to an enemy-was a major factor in determining the strategy of World War II. Campaigns were decided or influenced by the availability of oil or its lack; logistics-the science of military supply-revolved around petroleum products. In fact, the war started and ended in major efforts to keep the blood of war-oil-flowing through the veins of belligerent’s war machines.

It started for the United States in December, 1941, with Japan’s attack upon Pearl Harbor. Samuel Eliot Morison, the historian, writes in his history of U. S. Naval Operations in World War II (Volume III-“The Rising Sun in the Pacific”) that the oil embargo clamped on Japan prior to Pearl Harbor (the oil embargo and assets-freezing order of 26 July 1941) “made war with Japan inevitable….” He notes that “a general impoverishment” of the Japanese economy was threatened with insufficient oil for “normal domestic consumption, let along naval operations.” But Japan would not be turned from the path of the empire by economic sanctions. Her aggressions, already long started, were now aimed-first and foremost-at conquest of the oil she lacked; the oil-rich Malay Peninsula assumed a strategic priority.

It ended for Germany in the dust and ashes of defeat in the spring of 1945 with her war machine slowing to dead center, in part for lack of oil. Germany’s oil position during the war-built in large part upon synthetic fuel-was always precarious. The Oil Division of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey notes that “throughout the war her oil stocks, particularly critical items like aviation and motor gasolines, were so tight her whole military effort in the air and on the ground would have collapsed like a pricked balloon in three or four months had her oil supply dried up.”

But it was not until June 8, 1944, that the United States really commenced to attack this Achilles heel. Then, General Carl A. Spaataz sent his historic cable:

“Primary strategic aim of U.S. Strategic Air Forces is now to deny oil to enemy air forces.”

From August of 1944, with Germany beleaguered on all fronts, until war’s end, consumption of oil products in Germany generally exceeded production.

“Less than 500 tons of aviation gasoline were made during February, 1945, only 40 tons were made in March, none at all in April…Germany’s large reserve of military aircraft stayed on the ground with empty tanks….Tanks and armored vehicles were moved to the front by oxen…”

Germany died the death of a thousand cuts; the oil shortage was not alone responsible for defeat, but even if she had not faced general collapse in the spring of 1945, the shortages of oil would soon have brought her war machine to a halt.

In between the beginning and the end of the world’s greatest war, oil was a fundamental factor in strategy and tactics in the campaigns in the Mediterranean, in Europe, and in the Pacific.

The defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s famous Afrika Korps at El Alamein was prefaced, and made possible, by the systematic reduction-by air attack-of German-Italian oil stores and other supplies and by the strangulation of air blockade.

Shortage of oil was also a key factor in limiting the operations of the Italian Navy throughout the war. The Italian war reserve of fuel-far too low a figure-was exhausted by late summer, 1941. The Navy’s needs were at least 200,000 tons a month for full freedom of operations: rationing reduced the men-of-war to less than 90,000 tons a month in 1941, and the situation worsened steadily.

By the end of April, 1942, Italian fleet units were reduced to the fuel supply actually on board. As a matter of fact, they never took part in another war mission after mid-June.

In Europe, the influence of oil upon the development of the campaign-from Normandy to the Elbe-is familiar to all students of World War II. Generally George Pattons’s famous Third Army bogged down in the mud of Lorraine at a crucial time in the late summer of 1944, in part because gasoline supplied had not been able to keep up with his fast-moving tanks. The famous “Red Ball” express-a special supply truck line- had not been able to keep the fuel flowing rapidly enough to our advancing armies from the Normandy beachheads.

In the Pacific, where the burden of defeating Japan rested fundamentally upon the Navy, oil-fuel for ships, gasoline for planes-was the life blood of victory. The immense achievement of the Navy in developing a system of mobile logistics, which enabled combat ships to remain at sea for long periods, was possible because of tankers in large numbers and plentiful sources of oil. Refueling at sea was a routine operation; probably never since the days of sail had a modern Navy remained so long from port and sustained itself for such extended periods upon the high seas.

Just as the need for oil dictated the shape of Japan’s strategy-her initial drive toward the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies in 1941-42-so oil scarcities dictated the unusual and complex nature of her great last-ditch naval effort in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This action, the greatest naval engagement ever fought, took place in October 1944, when American submarines had reduced Japan’s metropolitan oil supply to dangerously low proportions and when General Douglas MacArthur’s landing in the Philippines threatened complete severance of Japan’s sea-borne line of communication to Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. Because of the oil shortage in the main Japanese islands, Tokyo was unable to base the bulk of its fleet in home ports. It was forced to station seven of its battleships and most of its remaining cruisers and destroyers at Lingga Roads, near Singapore, close to the sources of oil in the Dutch East Indies. A primary principle of strategy-never to divide your forces in the face of a superior enemy-had to be violated. Japan planned that most difficult of all strategies-the convergence of four separate and distinct forces, sent from bases in the home islands and Lingga Roads, at Leyte. It was a bold and ingenious plan-but never one a good commander would have chosen had he any choice. Timing was off; Japan’s four fleets were defeated in what proved to be the beginning of the end for Japan.

Thus oil was a key to victory in World War II, just as it has been the lifeblood of all nations called great during the past half century. In the Korean War, off Quemoy, in the global cold war, it remains a strategic factor of immense importance. Nuclear power, solar power,-other forms of energy- will, in time, supplement it; combinations of chemicals and the exotic fuels will power missiles and future piloted planes. But for the foreseeable future, as Calvin Coolidge wrote in 1924, “the supremacy of nations may be determined by availability of petroleum and its products.”

Reprinted with permission from…

Hanson Baldwin, 1959, “Oil Strategy in World War II", American Petroleum Institute Quarterly – Centennial Issue, pages 10-11. American Petroleum Institute.

Courtesy of the American Petroleum Institute.