World War II German Military Weaknesses: Natural Resources / Strategic Materials


Figure 1.-- One of Germany's greatest weaknesses was the lack of many vital natural resources to supply factories. The most critical resource Germany lacked was petroleum, but Germany also needed to import iron ore and many other industrial metals. Germany was only able to pursue the War for 6 years because its Soviet ally shipped it vast quantities of natural bresources (1939-41) and its early conquests gave it access to the natural resources of other European countries. Here DJ boys collect scrap metal. The photograph is undated but looks to be very early in the War, perhaps October 1939. Click on the image for a fuller discussion of the photograph.

Strtegic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an etended conflict. Acquiring natural resources was a major war aim of Germany and the other Axis powers. Only one country at the outbreak of World War II had the industrial and agricultural capacity as well as the resource base to wage world war and that was the United states which had no desire to participsate in another world war. The Soviet Union had significantly expanded the Russian indutrial base, but weakened the country's agricultural productivity through enducung the Ukranian famine and collectivzing agriculture. Like the United States, the Soviets posessed enormous natural resources and like Germany, they had designs on neigboring countries. Britain was less well situated. It had a substantial industrial and scientific base, but except for coal and iron, limited natural resources. And it had to import large quantities of food. Those resources, however, existed in the Empire and overseas trading partners like America. The Royal Navy existed to ensure access to those resources in time of war, but had been allowed to decline in strength during the inter-War period by budget-minded governments. France was better situated in terms of Britain as to food production and as a result of its navy and alliance with Briain was guaranteed access to needed raw materials in its colonies and trading partners. The Axis powers were less favorably positioned for War in term of raw materials. Germany was an important industrial and scientific power, but could neither feed itself nor possessed the strategic resources needed for industrial world war. The one critical resource Germany possessed in abundance was coal. Other important strategic materials would have to be imported. This made Germany vulnerable to blockade and as in World War I, Germany did not have the naval power to contest a Royal Navy blockade. Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war it planned to wage. Germany's answer to this was a synthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. The limited resource base was why Hitler in his strategic thinking from a very early stage looked east to the copious resources of the Soviet Union--resources that were not subject to a Royal Navy blockade. Italy was the least prepareed of all the major beligerants. Italy had neither the industrial base or the raw materials to wage a protracted war. Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but its industrial base was small in comparison to America. And the Home Islands had almost no natural resources. Japan had acquired some in Korea and Manchuria. Like Germany, Japan had virtually no petroleum and imported most of its needs from the United States, making it even more vulnerable than Germany.

Importance

Strtegic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an etended conflict. Acquiring natural resources was a major war aim of Germany and the other Axis powers, but the lack of these resources affected the conduct of the War launched to obtain them. The Axis powers were less favorably positioned for War in term of raw materials. Germany was an important industrial and scientific power, but could neither feed itself nor possessed the strategic resources needed for industrial world war. Germany's Axis allies were in a similar situation. Italy was the least prepareed of all the major beligerants. Italy had neither the industrial base or the raw materials to wage a protracted war. Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but its industrial base was small in comparison to America. And the Home Islands had almost no natural resources. Japan had acquired some in Korea and Manchuria. Like Germany, Japan had virtually no petroleum and imported most of its needs from the United States, making it even more vulnerable than Germany.

Other Beligerants

Yje countries Germany set out to counquer were in a far bttr situation regarding raw matrials. Only one country at the outbreak of World War II had the industrial and agricultural capacity as well as the resource base to wage world war and that was the United states which had no desire to participsate in another world war. The Soviet Union had significantly expanded the Russian indutrial base, but weakened the country's agricultural productivity through enducung the Ukranian famine and collectivzing agriculture. Like the United States, the Soviets posessed enormous natural resources and like Germany, they had designs on neigboring countries. Britain was less well situated. It had a substantial industrial and scientific base, but except for coal and iron, limited natural resources. And it had to import large quantities of food. Those resources, however, existed in the Empire and overseas trading partners like America. The Royal Navy existed to ensure access to those resources in time of war, but had been allowed to decline in strength during the inter-War period by budget-minded governments. France was better situated in terms of Britain as to food production and as a result of its navy and alliance with Briain was guaranteed access to needed raw materials in its colonies and trading partners.

Specific Resources

The one critical resource Germany possessed in abundance was coal. Other important strategic materials would have to be imported. This made Germany vulnerable to blockade and as in World War I, Germany did not have the naval power to contest a Royal Navy blockade. Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war it planned to wage. Germany's answer to this was a synthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. Oil while by far the most imporant resource, was not th only raw materoal Germany needed to wage another world war. ome of the most imprtant was iron, tungsten, cobalt, copper, rubber, and other materials. The limited resource base was why Hitler in his strategic thinking from a very early stage looked east to the copious resources of the Soviet Union--resources that were not subject to a Royal Navy blockade.

Aluminum

Aluminium was another vital metal needed by the German war industry. And Germany had to import vuryallu all of the bauxite ore neded to produce aluminum. Early German victories were achieved by their modern, all metal aircraft like the ME-109. Germany was largely dependent on Hungary and Yugoslavia for bauxite. Hungary was a NAZI ally and Yugoslaviaas inaded nd ocupied by the Germans (April 1941). Norway was another vital source of aluminum. As in other occupied countries, Noregian industrialists collaborated with the German ocupation forces. And new factories were built for manufacturing li=uminu,. Th ciuntry's abundant hydro-electric power made it the perfectplace to produce aluminum. One historian repors that " ... Norwegian companies worked for the Germans, as collaborators, without ideologically having a Nazi orientation. The companies simply continued to operate on the basis of commercial, competitive interests. But by doing so they were actively aiding Germany in its efforts to win the war.” [Frøland] After failing to defeat Britain and then invading the Soviet Union and declaring war on America, th Grmns needed vast quantities of aluminum, much more than the quantity neded to build the relatively small force used to achieve their ealy victories. the Germans develped a plan to increase Norwegian aluminium production sevenfold. It was to be a cooperative effort between Norwegian Aluminium Company (NACO) and Norwegian Hydro. The problem was bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminumm. Norway did not have bauxite and as the war began to go against Germany, getting the needed bauxite to Norway proved impossible. .

Coal

Germany lacked virtually every natural resourc needed by an industrial nation. The one critical resource Germany possessed in some abundance was coal. The Ruhr Valley is located in the central part of the German state North Rhine-Westphalia at here were located major coal deposits. The Ruhr region in western Germany thus became the core of the German industrial powerhouse that developed in the mid-19th century.
The Ruhr was not the only place in Germany that had coal deposits, but the bulk of the contry's coal was located in the Ruhr. The first coal was mined in Germany (12th century). Coal mining only became important in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. This transformed the mining regions of the Ruhr Valley and neighboring Saarland into the industrial hearr of Germany and of Europe itself. It propelled Prussia's unification of Germany as Austria failed to industrialize. Germany at the turn of the 20th century was one of the the world's chief miner of coal, after only the United States and Britain (1900). Coal powered German industry and the rail trnsport system. It was the primary fuel for home heating. And with the advent of electrification, coal powered German generators. Germany was basically self-sufficent in coal, but it was not an important exporter. German industry required almost all of the production of German mines. This was a factor in World War I. German industry was dependent on imports, but not for fuel. The War was fought before oil and the internal combustion engine had become critical to warfare, although the lack of oil affected German air, naval, and mechanized warfare (tanks and trucks). World War II was very different. To wage war, Hitler neded oil, coal wold not due. Coal was vital for industry, but oil was needed for military operations. Ironically, while Germany had most of the coal it needed for domestic industry, the Wehrmacht's stunning industry caused an energy crisis. While German had coal, two developments emerged. First, domestic demand for coal increased because of the War. Second many of the countries Germany conquered or came to influence did not have coal or the quntity they needed. This was espeially the case of Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, but even France needed to import some coal. Most of the coal they had been importing before the War came from Britain, primarily the Welsh coalfields. Thus if the Germans wanted the economies of these contries to contine to operate and support the war effort, they had to supply coal from domestic production. Ths created a fuel shortage in Germany that did not exist before the War. The operation of the German Grossraum actualy worsened the energy situation in the Reich. The Germans even had to share some of their precious oil supply for the same reason. The operation of the captive economies varied in importance. The functioning of the Swedish economy was vital because Sweden was Germany's primary source of the iron ore needed to manufacture steel. German technology devloped a synfuel indstry to convert coal to petroleum products. This along with the Ploesti oil fields were German's primary sources of oil after Soviet deliveries ended as a result of the Barbarossa invasion (1941).

Cobalt

Cobalt was another strategic metal, used to oroduce military grade steel. Chromite ore was mined in only a few countries in the world. It was Turkey’s most important export. NAZI Germany was Turkey’s major trading partner during the 1930s. More than half of Turkey’s exports were to Germany before the War. Britain and France as the war wanted to prevent Germany from acquiring Turkey’s Chromite ore and also to build up their supplies of this strategic metal. Turkey offered to sell all of its Chromite ore production to Britain and France for 20 years if they agreed to buy the agricultural products which Germany had been importing. Germany threatened to cut off imports from Turkey if tgey sold Chromite ore to other countries. Beginning with the Allied abandomment ifCzechoslobakia, the Turks began to reassess their strategic position and rlation with the Allies. The Soviet Union norovided Germany subtantial quantities of cobalt under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Nonn-Aggression Pact. Turkey signed the Turco-German Non-Aggression Pact (June 18, 1941), days before Hitler launchd Barbarossa. After invading the Soviet Union, the Germans obtained needed cobalt from Turkey, another country thet had to pay for the shipments.

Copper

Copper was a major strategic metal. This was primarily because of the high conductivity of copper. And electricity was vital for viutal weapons systems, motor vehicles, aircraft, and naval shipping. It was also vital in comminications equioment, radar, and sonar. Germany had to import some 70 percent of the copper it needed for its war economy. Germany had some domestic siurces. Before the War, however, Germany got most of its copper from Britain. It was re-exported from South Africa, Canada, Chile, and the Belgian Congo. British-occupid Cyrprus was also a source of copper before the War. All of the Brutish shipment of course were immediately cut off. After the War began, the Soviet Union began supplying copper to the Germans. After invading and occupying Yugoslavia, the Bor copper mine proved an important source. Sweden was another source.

Iron

Germany had to import iron ore needed to produce the steel which was the backbone of the country's war industries. The major source was Sweden, a neutral country. Before the War, some 75 percentif Sweden's iron ore exports wee to Germany. And after Germany launched the War, the Swedes were terified of a German invasion. During the winter, the Swedes had to ship their iron ore through Norway, one reason the Germans invaded that country (April 1940).

Nickel

Nickel was used to make alloy steel. The primary use for noth the Germans and Allies a strengthening agent in many of these alloys. This was mostly for the use in armor plating, especially tanks. The German jet engines created a need high-pressure gas jets using rapidly spinning turbines to compress air and eject it through exhaust nozzles. The fast-spinning turbines reached high temperatures and stresses and required new metal alloys to withstand these forces. The same problem existed in the rocket program. The same problen caused the United States to issue nickles (5 cent pieces) without any nickels. The nickel was replaced wiuth silver, showing the value of nicklel tob the war effort. Canada was the major source of nickel during World War II. Germany had no domestic production. The Soviets produced small quantities. The Germans seized a huge bounty from the sucessful invasion and occupation of France (1940). There were thousands of locomotives and rolling stock, weapons stores, and raw material stockpiles. This included nickle. [Evans, pp. 333–334.] One of German strategic interests in Finland was the nickle mines in the Pestamo area. Nickle was one of the strategic metals that the Soviets provide to the NAZIs as part of the NAZI-Soviet Pact (1939-41). During the Continuation War (1941-44), German troops German troops moved into Finland to assitv the Finns gaining access to valuable resources, especially the nickel mine at Kolosyoki. Generaloberst Lothar Rendulic, was given command of the 20th Mountain Army and all German troops stationed in Finland and Norway (June 1944). When the Finns exited the War in the East. Hitler ordered him to hold onto the Kolosyoki nickel mines for as long as possible.

Oil

Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war it planned to wage. Oil was not such an imprtnt factor in World war I, but the importance if oil had steadily increased during the inter-War era. And the the key to Blizkrieg ws mobility. And this required vast quntities of oil. Germany's answer to this was a synthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. Germany before and during the War. A major objective of German diplomacy was to bring Romania with its Ploesti oil fuelds into the Axis. This gave the Germans their only important source of natural resources and after occupying the country, did not have to pay the Romanians for theur oil, it was their contribution to the war effort. Another source of oil in the early phase of the War was the Soviet Union. The Soviets which under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact agreed to provide the Germans large quantities of oil and other important natual resources. These deliveries ended bruptly after Hitler invaded to destroy his former ally and its people in addition to seizing those resources for Germany (June 1941).

Phosphates


Rubber

Metals like alluminum and steel are obvious components of metal weapons. Rubber is less so, but in fact was a vital comonent of World War II militat=ru weaopons. Rubber compnents were part of an incredible amount of war items. Some were obvious like gas masks and life rafts. In most cases it was less so, buthere were was very substantial quanities of rubber used in planes, tanks, and naval ships. This was in part because rubber was wrapped around every inch of military wiring used in the war and there were many rubber parts in weapons systems. We do not have fugures for German weapons, but data for American weapns are illustrative. Sherman tanks were made with half a ton of rubber. THe much lrger German tanks used even more rubber. An American B-17 bomber used 1,1825 pounds of rubber. The Germans mostly used smaller planes, but rubber was important. American battleships contained an incredible 20,000 rubber parts. This surely was the case for the German battleships. U-boats were much smaller, but rubber was still important. The problem for the Germans was that 90-95 percent of the world’s rubber supplies were grown within 15 degrees of Singapore, especially Makaya and almost all of this was in British hands. As a result, imports plummeted with the advent of the War. The Germans imported 92 t of rubber in 1938 and only 17 t in 1940. Imports increased slightly in 1941-42, but them plummted further in 1943. We are not sure where these imports came from, but probably relate to the possibilities created by the additinal ports made available after the fall of France (1940). Germany's Axis ally, Japan within day of Pearl Harbor launched an offensive with seized Malaya and Singapore and the surounding area. This gave them control of the bulk of the world's production of natural rubber, but it was no benefit to the Germans. The Axis had no way of transporting the rubber from Japanese occupied Southeast Asia through the British and American naval blockade of Germany. The primary source of German rubber syntheic production. This increased from 5 t in 1938 to a high of 117 t in 1943. Reclaimed rubber was another important siurce, peaking at 44 t in 1941. [USSBS] The USSBS data does not include crumb rubber which may have totaled 6,000 tons. Unlike oil, the Germans appear to have fully supplied their rubber needs during the War. We note that Armaments Minister Albert Speer does notv even mention rubber in his book after the War. [Speer] This suggests to us that rubber was not a major priblem g=for the Germans.

Tin

Tin, along with many other metals, was used for the production of projectiles such as bullets. It was also used in canning, ann important way of providing food to men in the front lines. The use of tin packaging for the civilan popultiomn was greatly reduced by both the Germans and Allies. Tin foil was shreaded and the flakes dropped from aircraft as they entered enemy airspace and caused radar controlled weapons. This was primrily done by the Allies and calld shafe. It confused radar operators as to the number of incoming planes. The major source of tin was Southeast Asia (Malaya and the Dutch East Indies)b there was alsi importabt prodyction in Latin America. Tin was a rare metal that the Soviets did not have. Germany produced negligble quantities. The Japanese seizure of Southeast Asia (1942) did not aid the Germans. There was no way of shipping tin and other resources to Germany.

Tungsten

Tungsten called wolfram by the Germans was needed to harden steel needed for machine tools, armor, and artillery. The only European source at the time was Portugal and Spain. Because Germany did not occupy Portugal and spain, they had to pay for the tungsten. And because Portugal was the main source, the British began a bidding war. Prices soared. The hrd pressed German war economy could not provide the coal and other material needed by the Portuguese, Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, demanded payment in gold.

Uranium

The Germans acquired stocks of uranium when they invaded and occupied Belgium (1940).

Sources

Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War (New York, NY: Penguin, 2008).

Frøland, Hans Otto. Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Speer, Albert. Richard and Clara Winston, trans. Inside the Third Reich (Avon Books: New York, 1970), 734p.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). The Effects of Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy (Overall Economic Effects Division: 1945), 296 p.







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Created: 8:09 PM 3/10/2010
Last updated: 5:56 AM 12/26/2018