*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- metal

World War II Economics: Food and Raw Materials--Metals

metals in World war II
Figure 1.--Metals have been important in warfare since Bronze Age. With the Industrial Revolution they have become ever moire important. And never before in history have metals been more imprtant than in World War II. Here not only were metals needed in larger quantities than ever before, but also more fufferent metals, including some never bedoire seen as particularly important. Here the beligerant countries differed greatly in their access to needed metals. Neither Brutain or Germany had large mineral resources, although the British had vast coal resources stocks. The Japanese were in an even worse sutuation than Germany. But the British had a huge advanage, just across the Atlantic were the huge mineral resources of North America--Canada and the Umited States. And there were also mineral resources in Latin America and the wider Empire. As a result of the Riyal Navy, Germjany had far less access to needed resources. Here we see a scene at the Britania copper mine in the early-1900s. The mine boomed in the late-1920s and early-30s, becoming the largest producer of copper in the British Commonwealth. After iron, copper was the secind most important metal in the war, in poart because of crucial importance of eklectronics.

World War II was an industrial war dominated by modern new weapons produced by industry. Since the end of the Stone age, metals have been indispenable in warfare. And to produce modern weapons, a greater quantity and variety of metals were needed. Several materials were especialy important. The most imprtant were aluminum, chrome, copper, iron, nickle, tin, tungsten, uranium, and others. Here Anglo-American naval power proved decisive. It allowed the Allies access to the raw materials of most of the world, while the Germans after invading the Soviet Union faced serious problens finding needed mateials for the war effort. The Japanese found the raw materials they wanted in the Southern Resourse Zone, but American naval power made it impossibe to get those resources back to the Home Islands to support the war effort. Iron ore is the foundation of modern industry. It is needed to produce steel was the single most important metal. Steel was iron with small quantities of carbon added, but specialty steel needed for weapons needed metals like cobalt, chrome, and tungsten to create alloys. . Major weapons systems, including naval vessels, tanks, cannons, rifle barrels, bombs, and much more were made from steel. Germany was dependent on imports of even this basic metal. Germany throughout the war was dependent on imports from neutral Sweden. There were several others of critical importance. The list is very similar to that of World War I, although copper was much more important than at any time since the bronze age. This reflected the rapidly escalating importance of electronics. Japan also lacked most important raw materials. This was a major reason for expansion into Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia. A new metal became very important--aluminium. Aluminum was a light-weight metal and once so difficult to produce it was more valuable than gold. It proved indispenable for the contruction of modern, high performance aircraft. America had a far greater ability to produce aluninum than any other country because of its access to bauxite and massive electicity generating capability. As a result, alluminium was more common in American kitchens than was the case in Europe. On the previoius page we se3e American Legionaries and Boy Scouts unloading a collection truck during an aluminum collection drive in Wisconsin a few months before America entered the War. An unfamiliar new metal was added to the list--uranium. The German had access to uranium ore as a result of the seizure of Czechoslovakia (1939) and Belgium (1940). As Germnan scietists first reported nuclear fission, the situation seemed dire indeed, leasing to Albert Einstein warning President Roosevelt of the danger. When American scientisrs began looking for the metal as well, expecting to be forced to have to go into remote areas, they found a warehouse full of ore in of all places New York City. It would become invaluable for the Manhattan Project. And more uranium was found in America and Canada. There is a long list of strategic metals used during World War II. Here sare some of the most important, but by no means a complete list.

Industrial Development

The industrial Revolution created a demand for metals and not only the old standbys (Copper, iron, abd tin), but as industry developed a need not only for greater quantities but more and more metals which properties that advanced more and more new industrial processes such as alloy sreel. And this only increased with the development of electrial power and radio. These new industries and technologologies had a wide range of military applications. This was the case in World War I, but even more so in World War II. Many metals were required, including aluminum, chrome, manganese, plantinum, and zinc. A longer list of lesser minerals were needed, including antimony, beryllium, fluorspar, graphite, mica, talc, and much more. A fairly short blist of metals was vital for the War, esoecially iron, copper, and aluminum, along ewith other metals for alloy steels. But many more materails were needed for instrumebnts and a wide range of industrial processes. German conquest of much of Europe amd Japanese conquest of Southeast Asian meant that the Allies would have to turn to outside sources, especially Africa and Latin America. Africa would be vital for the Allied war effort. Latin America was also important. The Moddle East provided some oil, but most of it came from the United States and Latin America (Venezuela).

Specific Metals

Metals since ancient times have been vital in warfare. This is why historians have definned a substantial part of the ancient era as the Bronze Age--it was because bronze weapons were more deadly than stone weapons. And this accelerated with the subsequebt development of iron weapory. Over time steel was developed, but it was at first very expensive and only used to produce weaponry and armor. With the industrial revolution, metals became increasingly important in the many evolving industrial processes. And World War II was an industrial war meaning that a wide range of metals were needed by industry to turn out the vast mumbers of weapons and vehicles used in the War. Metals are not even distributed around the world. The Allies had access to industrail metals, thge Axis did not. Part of the motivation for the Axis in launching the War was to gain access to the strategic metals needed to wage war. Access to metals affected grand strategy for both the Axis and Allies. One amazing aspect of World War II is how the Germans with virtually no important natural resources except coal, managed to wage war so effectively for nearly 6 years. Oart if that stiry is the huge quantitiy of strategic materials provided by the Soviet Union while the two countries were allies (1939-41). The most important metal in warfare was the iron used to produce steel. All the major military weapons and vehiles required steel and in huge quantities. To make high quality steel, alloys were oriduced which required many different metaks like chrominum, cobalt, tungsten, and others. Electricity for the first time became a major factor in warfare which meant that copper was needed in large quantities, making it the second most important metal of World War II. And as the air war became a major part of the War. This meant that aluminum was needed in huge quantiies. Aluminum ore is not rare, but to produce aluiminum, huge quantities of electricity is needed. This was the major impediment to national production. Scientists in beligerant countries created all kinds of new weapons, often requiring a range of metals. Jet engines for examples required hugh-grade alloy steel. And of course the atomic bomb required uranium a little known metal before the war. And production of the needed uranium isotype required silver.

Non-metalic Materials

Uneven Distribution

American Role

America was unique in World War II in that it continued to remain adament about avoidin war long after it was obvious that it as claar that that their security was at stake. While at the same time it was the only country that had the capability to conduct war on a global basis. Pearl Harbor shattered the Isolationist argument. And America threw ins heart and soul into the War. The United States was a vast country huge resources. The War was an industrial resource requiring huge quantities of raw materials, especially metals. America not only had masny imprtant resources, but also unlike the Soviets, the finacial and technological capital to deveklop much more nd much more was bneeded. An American business magazine explined what what happened in America, "The crisis is barely realized. Few people are aware that one month after Pearl Harbor a squad of top U.S. specialists, metallurgists and geologists packed themselves into a plane for South America to set going an all-out metals survey of Latin America. Few more realize that for over two years, a small army of U.S. experts, state geologists and engineers has been scouring this country by pack horse and mud-splattered automobile in a similar exploration of the continental U.S. With this survey now broadening into hemispheric scope, the greatest hunt for metals in the history of the Western Hemisphere is on. It is brute weight of metal that must count in the next eighteen crucial months of this war, and the speed with which the hemisphere is made to disgorge new metal supplies may well tip the balance. The Axis has indicated its realistic grasp of the issue by making a beeline for metal resources in every country it has overrun. And the latest, smashing report of the U.S. Bureau of Mines is that the Axis by conquest is now almost evenly balanced against the Allies in vital metal supplies – one grim fact to underline the length of the contest ahead." [Fotune]

Soviet Role

`The Soviet Union was an even vaster country than the United states, covering a substantial portion of both Euoope and Asia. Within its territory was a huge repsitory of raw materail including manu=y mertalic mineral deposits. may were undeveloped, but a greatv deal was . And the The Soviet Union had one of the world's largest economies--although comparing it to Western economies in monetary terms is complicated. It appears to have been roughly the size of the German ecoinomy, but with a lesser heavy industry component--namely steel production. What the Germans did not have was the raw materials that the Soviets had in abundance. This was one of the attractions that fueld Hitler's invasion. But Soviet raw materails had another impact. The NAZIs and Soviets negotiated an alliance (August 1939). Both countries invaded Poland, launching World War II (September 1939). The Germans did most of the fighting, but in doing sought exhausted much of their stockpile of strategic materials. This put them in a difficult position as they prepared for the invasion of the West. Here the Soviets as part of their alliance provided them with massive quantities of grain, oil, and strategic materials. These supplies were vital in the German Great Western Offensive which resulted in the fall of France ((May-June 1940). The Soviets continued to deliver raw mnaterilas to the NAZIs througout 1940 and tge first half ig=f 1941). Soviet supply trains delivering raw material were crossing the supplies even as the Germans launched Barbarossa (June 22, 1941). The strategic materials needed for Barbarossa were largely supplied by the Soviet Union are seized by the Germans in large neasure because of their alliance with the Geramns.


Baptist, Fitzroy André. "The Exploitation of Caribbean bauxite and petroleum, 1914-1945," Social and Economic Studies Vol. 37, No. 1/2 (March – JuneE 1988), pp. 107-142.

Gray, James H. Article about Subury, Maclean’s (October. 1, 1947).

Heidebrecht, Aaron. "Lead and zinc: The 'gold' of World War II and Picher, Oklahoma May 1st, 1942 to June 30th, 1947," Pittsburg State University Digital Commons (Spring pril 24, 2012).

Schewe, Philip F. "Silver crucial for WWII bomb," Inside Sience (January 13, 2010).

Fortune (March 1942).


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Created:7:51 AM 10/1/2020
Last updated: 1:32 AM 11/25/2020