*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- economics raw materials food metals

World War II Economics: Food and Raw Materials

World War II food and raw matrrials
Figure 1.--Metals had been important in warfare since the end of the Stone Age. And to produce modern weapons, a greater quantity and variety of metals were needed. 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. A new metal became very important--aluminium. Aluminum was a light-weight metal and indispenable for the contrutction 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. Here American Legionaries and Boy Scouts are unloading a collection truck during an aluminum collection drive in Wisconsin a few months before America entered the War. The press caption read, "Collect 40,000 pounds of aluminum in Madison, Wisconsin: Legionaires and Boy Scouts unloading trucks of aluminum utensiles into enclosure on state grounds at Madison, Wisconsin Center of Dane where OPM conducted experimental aluminum drive. ???e, to test possibilities of nation wide airplane ??inds, enough aluminum for one large ??? reflected in the Wisconsin drive." The photograph was dated May 30, 1941. (The caption was torn which is why we are missing some words. Notice all the caers in the backgriound. Even before the War you never saw the number of cars like this even in major Euuropean city centers and Madison was not a major city.

Strategic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an extended conflict. Food resources were not just important, but asolutely vital. Control of the seas gave the Allies the ability to import needed resources. Many were available in the United States and Canada. The U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic attempted to cut the supply of these raw materials to Britain. The American submarine campaign in the Pacific suceeded in cutting the Japanese Home Islands off from their Southern Resource Area. Seizing the agricultural land of the East was a primary German goal. The Germans used food as a deadly weapon, adopting the Hunger Plan amd killed millions of innocent civilians. The Japanese also killed millions because of their food policy, but this was more a matter of rapaciouness and incomprtence thn an actuial hunger plan. Britain depended on the Dominions and America for food. The Soviet war effort could have been crippled because the Germans seized so much agricultural land. America through Lend Lease helped feed the Red Army. American ageiculure which substantiall\y increased production was a vitl part of the Allied war effort. World War II was an industrial war dominated by modern new weapons produced by industry. And to produce those weapons, raw materials were needed. Several materials were especialy important. The key resource was oil. Modern mechanized war is simply impossible without oil. It was need for land war, naval war, and the air war. The Allies, especially the United Sates, had huge petroleum rescource. The Germans were gained control of the Romanian Ploesti oil fields. They also had a synthetic fuel industry. At the beginning of the War, the Soviets supplied large quantities of oil and other critical resources to Germany, After the German invasion, oil became an increasingly severe problem for the Germans. Other key resources included chrome, copper, iron, nickle, rubber, and other materials. This list is very similar to that of World War I, although oil and rubber were much more important. Rubber became a problem for the Allies after the Japanese seized Malaya and Borneo where much of the world's rubbef was produced. The United States launched a crash program to produce synthetic rubber. Almost all of the rubber used by Germany was synthetic.


War since the dawn if times were fought with manoi=ower administered in various ways, club, spear, bow and arrow and other implements. Next came animal power, mostly horse power (about 1500 BC), first chariots tha calvalry. Next came wind power. The sail dates to the ancient Egyptians, but because if its unreliability was not extensiveky used in naval warfare until nuch later begunning with the European naval outreach (16th centurty). With the Inustrial Revolution. hydrocarbons came into play. First with the invention ofthe steam invention was coal. Steam engines provided the first efficent way to move men and material rapidly by both rail and sea (19th century). Next came oil which was first introduced in World War I for naval warfare and to a lesser degree for land and air warfare. Oil became the essential fuel in World War II, not only for the navies, but land warfare and aerial warfare in vast quantities. The Axis's lack of access to oil proved to be a major factor in the War. some times forgotton is the importance of coal. Coal poweed the viatal as well was findamental for the proper functioning of the war ecomonies of the beligetant powers. The War was finally ended with the atomic bombs dropped on Jaoan, ushring in the nuclear age.


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. A new metal became very important--aluminium. Aluminum was a light-weight metal and once so difficult to produce it was more valuable thab 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. Here American Legionaries and Boy Scouts are unloading a collection truck during an aluminum collection drive in Wisconsin a few months before America entered the War (figure 1). 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.

Non-metalic Materials


Carbon (C, an6) is a very common element. The most important form of carbon during World War II was graphite, a mineral form of carbon with a range of industrial uses. Graphite is the only non-metal element that is a excellent conductor of electricity. Graphite iss a solid material and thus ckassified asc a 'dry' lubricant. This is makes it useful in a range of applications inn which 'wet'” lubricants, such as oil,cannot be used. Natural graphite is primarily used in refractory applications. This means high intndity heat processes. This demands materials that will not melt or disintegrate under extreme heat. An example is in the crucibles used by the steel industry. These applications were the primasry use of graphite during the War. Of course graphite was alsoused in the process of building nuclear weapons. It is also used to make brake linings, lubricants, and molds in foundries. Before the War there were under ground grasphite mines in America (New York and Pennsylvania) From the point America entered the War (December 1941), grphite was only mined on the surface. Monana mines were important. This proved possible because working weathered rock was relatively easy. After the War mining in America ceased because miners could not compete with Sri Lankan graphite. The principal sources of graphite are tofay China, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and Madagascar. During World War II Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was also important as were Germany (Bavaria) and Korea. This all meant that unlike many other srategic materials, both the Axis and Allies had ample access. Mining in Sri Lanka was primitive and ore extraction was slow and cumbersome. The mines were only mechanized after World War II. The same process occurred in Madagascar.


One of the vital materials and least appreciated raw materials in World War II was Rubber It is a highly elatic substance polymerized by the drying and coagulation of the milky juices or latex of various plants, especially the tropical rubber plant. Rubber is now thought of primarily in connecton with automobile tires. The first uses of rubber were in fact associated with the clothing industry. Rubber was known to native Americans in Meso-America and brought back to Europe where its unique properties, especially its elaasticity were noted (16th-17th centuries). It was not until the early-19th century, however, that practical uses were found for it, launching a financial bubble. The reaction of rubber to hot weather, however, made it difficult to use until Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process. Besides its uses in clothing, rubber became a major industrial product. The most obvious was tires which becamne particularly important with the invention of the automobile and internal combustion engine. This began to become a factor in warfare wjn Americn trucks began to reach the Allies in large numbers during World War I. And rubber became far more important in World war II as it was the first highly mdechanized war in history. Tires are, however, only a part of the rubber story. Thiusands of products were made from rubberand mny found there way into comnplex weapons like ships, air planrs and motorized vehicles. The Allies controlled rubber production at the onset of the World wr II because most of it was oroduced in Southeast Asia, epecially Malaya, but the Dutch East Indies were lso imporytant. Pearl Hrbor and the ensuing Japanese offensive, radically hanged that situation. Japanese seizure of Mayaysia and the East Indies during World War II closed major suppliers to the Allies leading to the development of synthetic rubber in America. The primary Japanese objective was oil, but rubber was an impornt bonus. Americn supplied all the oil Britain needed, but there were no major alternative sources of rubber. Rubber became a problem for the Allies. Only a crash expansion of a synthetic rubber industry and expasion of rubber production in Latin America and Africa allowed the Allies to produce critical rubber products. Gas rationing in America was designed more to reduce rubber consumotion than the need to conserve gas.



Cotton is the world's single most impoortant textile fiber, constituring about half of total world fiber production. During World II, wool was the most inmoortant material used for uniforms, but cotton was much moire impoortant in cvivilan clothing. The Allies controlled large cotton producung areas. The American South was a particularly imprtant cotton producung area. The Southern cotton industry experienced a crisis after Workd War I (1920-24) and was further damaged by the Great Depression (1930s), although not as severly. The Boll Weevil was another major problem. Even so American was still a major producer. American production during the War was only a little above the the 1920-24 crisis years -- some 12.1 million bales 9480 lbs). [USDA] This helped supply both America, Britain, and other Allied needs. Britain controlled Egypt and and India, both important cotton producing area. Cotton had become an important symbol in Indian independence before the War. Ghandi launched the Khadi Movement (1920s). This involved a massive boycott of British cotton goods. He urged Indians to use simple homespun cotton textiles--khadi. Shortages created a high demand for khadi and 16 million yards of cloth were produced in 9 months. British authorities declared khadi subversive -- damaging to the British imperial rule. The British began confiscation and burning of stocks, even arresting workers resulting in increased resistance to British rule. [Yafa, pp. 309-11] Cotton was more of a problem for the Axis, rimarily the Germans. The Japanese conquered areas in China that produced cotton. Thus Japan used more cotton than the other Axis counries, for both uniforma and civilian clothes. Cotton uniform items wre used extensively by the Japanese militaty throughout it operatiins in the tropics. The Germans controlled no cotton producing areas. The Germans in an effort to reduce depedency on foreign sources, the Germans after World War I expanded the synthetic fiber industry. This would supply some of the civilan market that normally would have used cotton. The Germans expanded what cottion they had by blending it with synthetic fibers. World War II militaries mostly used wool. Cotton mostly supplied the needs of the civilian population. The military used cotton for some shirts (there wer also wool shirts) and fatigue unifiorms, but wool was the primary uniform material. The United States experimented with a tropical cotton uniform, but never adopted it. We are not sure about Soviet producrion. Cotton was also need for medical bandages and dressings.


Silk is a wonderfully strong, light, soft, and sensuous fabric produced from the cocoons of the silkworm. Of all the natural fabrics, silk is regarded as the finest and most beautiful. It has a seductive sheen---the result of triangle-shaped fibers that reflect light, acting like optical prisms. Layers of protein build up on the surface to a pearly sheen. And can be dyed countless colors. It was one of the great luxuries of the ancient and medieval world. Silk of course came orinally from China and was once a closely guarded national secret. It was one of the fabulos products that wound its way tonEurope over the silk road. from China, but Europe (primarily France and Italy) by the 19th century had developed an important silk (sericulture) industry. A seies of events including silk worm diseases and the inventioin of artificail silk basically destroyed the European silk industry. With the decline of the European silk industry. The the modernization of sericulture in Japan made it the world's foremost silk producer, surpassing the more backward industry in Chuna. Japan was producing nearly 60 percent of the world's raw silk which was mostly exported through Yokohama. Silk was the Japanese first success story on the world market. [Federico] It became vital to the kivlihood of the Japanese peasntry which produced the caoons as the mulberry leaves they fed on could be grown in lannd illsuited for agriculture. Silk exports played an important role in financing Japan's industrialixzation. [Lockwood] Italian production recovered somewaht, but the French indistry did not. Urbanization in Europe saw many French and Italian agricultural workers abandon silk growing for better paying factory work. And Japanese silk growers exported the raw silk to replace European production. In addition, Japan, China, amd other Asian countries which had formerly exported mostly aw materials (cocoons and raw silk), began to export more finished garments. The Japanese silk industry began to lose its markets first with the Great Depression and then the invention of Nylon in the United States before World War II. One author writes, "People told a story about the origin of the synthetic fiber's name as if it were true. They said it was an acronym that people in the U.S. textile industry, which had been waging an uphill battle against the advancement of Japanese silk, shouted in exultation: 'Now You Laugh Old Nippon'." [Techo] At the onset of World War II, the Royal Navy blockade cut off Germany from world market so it made it difficult to import silk, despite the developing close relationship with Japan (1939). When Japan launched the Pacific War (December 1941), the Allies were also cut off from Japanese and other Asian silk. The did not prove a major issuevas imotatiin silk had been invented in the late 19th century. And synthetic fibres such as nylon were used in products such as parachutes and hosierys, easily substitued for silk. This was more of a problem in Germany where there was shoerahge of the materials needed to produce synthetic fibers.


Synthetic fibers



Federico, Giovanni. An Economic History of the Silk Industry, 1830-1930 Book 5 (Cambridge Studies in Modern Economic History: 2009), p. 276.

Lockwood, William W. The Economic Development of Japan.

Techo, Henshu. Yomiuri Shimbun (July 17 2012).

United States Department of Agricukture. Economic Reserach Servuce. Quotes in Keith J. Collins, "The cotton industry in the United States, ERS Report 739 (July 1997)/.

Yafa, Stephen. Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber (Penguin Group: 2005).


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II strategic materials page]
[Return to Main World War II economics page]
[Return to Main strategic bombing campaign page]
[Return to Main World War page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 8:11 PM 4/12/2013
Last updated: 1:35 AM 11/21/2023