Economics / History / Warfare

Hitler’s Achilles Heel

The Imperator Knight, keeper of the Youtube history channel TIK, makes a splashy statement:

Titling this entry “The MAIN Reason Why Germany Lost WW2 – OIL” naturally opens TIK’s assertion to Al Murray’s retort, “No, it’s much more complicated than that;” except 1940s realities do not support TIK’s theory:

By January German rail traffic had fallen to 40 percent of the level before the transportation campaign had begun.  What was left of the marshalling yards and sidings were so jammed with cars that could no longer be formed into trains that on December 9 the Germans began derailing vast numbers of cars to free space.  Coal traffic had sunk so low that all factory workers were furloughed from December 24 to January 1 to conserve fuel. Coal stocks outside the Ruhr dwindled to a few days’ supply, and most of the stocks of parts that had allowed the continuation of arms production were used up during December. Weapons production fell steeply in January 1945, declining 30 percent from its peak in July 1944.  Coal and coke piled up in the Ruhr; mining was cut back. Elsewhere, locomotives lacked coal, while weapons and ammunition that could not be moved jammed factory yards and warehouses. Within the Ruhr, steel production fell to a third of the normal level. The steady, although insufficiently systematic, attack on the marshalling yards had largely isolated the Ruhr by early 1945; Speer’s ministry described the region as an “island” on January 18.  On January 30 Speer reported to Hitler that the war was lost. “After the loss of Upper Silesia, the German armaments industry will no longer be able even approximately to cover the requirements of the front for armaments, ordnance and tanks.” The Soviet conquest of Silesia, which had been providing 60 percent of Germany’s coal, thus started the final slide to ruin, by rendering Germany wholly dependent on the tottering western industrial areas.

(If a reader wishes to read the entire tome, it is also available online here).  Coal, not oil was the dominant fossil fuel in the first half of the twentieth century.  Petroleum-powered weapon systems were a special breed in the Second World War, as only airplanes, armored vehicles and submarines powered with internal-combustion engines were restricted to diesel or gasoline.  Anything large enough to be powered with steam engines, such as surface ships, locomotives, factories or other industries like steel-making could be powered exclusively with coal as they had during the nineteenth century.

Steam engines could also be oil-fired, and the fact that all major navies worldwide transitioned in the 1910s and ’20s (any Allied First World War-era warships which weren’t scrapped due to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty were converted from coal to oil) became a major headache for both the Imperial Japanese Navy and Kriegsmarine in the fall of 1944.  Japan rapidly ran out of crude oil after the liberation of the Philippines and Germany became restricted to coal-to-gasoline synthetic plants after the Red Army overran Romania and its Ploesti oil industry in August 1944.  Losing Silesia in January was a double-whammy, as coal and oil supplies were simultaneously cut off.

A more accurate assertion could be Germany could not defeat the Soviet Union without adequate gasoline supplies for its Panzers, specifically the Wehrmacht had to capture the USSR’s Adygean, Chechen, and Azerbaijani oil fields if its offensives were to continue; but even here such a theory runs into huge historical hiccups.  Notice we don’t use the terms oil, diesel, petrol and gasoline interchangeably–this is on purpose.  The German tanks needed gasoline, not diesel or raw crude oil, as even the 70-ton Tiger II was powered by Maybach’s HL-230 V12 gas-burning engine.  All Panzers were powered with Maybachs, which required at least 74 octane.  Russian refineries were hard-pressed to produce such gasoline grades:

In 1940, a total of 29,414 million tons of oil was processed at domestic refineries, producing only 883,600 tons of aviation gasoline, 3.477 million tons of automotive gasoline, 5.6 million tons of kerosene, 1.274 million tons of ligroin, 1.459 million tons of diesel fuel, 413,000 tons of naval oil, 9.8 million tons of fuel oil, and 1.469 million tons of various lubricants. Of the 883,600 tons of aviation gasoline produced domestically in 1940, an overwhelming proportion was avgas with low octane numbers of 70 to 74. This was almost good enough for obsolete domestically-produced aircraft, but only 4% of the demand for B-78 aviation gasoline, the best of those produced in the Soviet Union and the one needed by the new generation of warplanes, was satisfied across the country.

It was under unsatisfactory conditions such as these with regard to supplies of aviation gasoline that the Soviet airforce entered the initial phase of their Great Patriotic War on 22 June 1941.

Russia’s refineries were inadequate to meet the Red Air Force’s needs, let alone the Wehrmacht’s, before Barbarossa.  The situation deteriorated after the invasion:

Despite the heroic efforts of Soviet oil workers, the extreme conditions of the war led to a drop in Soviet oil production, from 31 million tons in 1940 to 19.3 million tons in 1945, i.e., a reduction of 37.7%. They also aggravated the difficult situation in the oil industry’s refining sector, which turned out to be incapable of fully satisfying the growing demand for high-octane aviation gasolines.If 1.269 million tons of aviation gasoline had been produced in the Soviet Union in 1941, only 912,000 tons were produced in 1942. It should also be noted that Soviet refineries were producing avgas with low octane numbers. In 1941, an overwhelming amount (75%) of the aviation gasoline produced had octane numbers from 70 to 74, the ones needed by obsolete types of domestically-produced aircraft.

This was the condition of the Soviet Second World War oil industry despite the fact the Wehrmacht overran little Adygean or Chechen oil-producing territory (and none at all in Azerbaijan).  Had Case Blue succeeded and the Germans secured Russia’s refineries with little to no sabotage to the oil infrastructure from workers or the retreating Red Army, the Wehrmacht would have been faced with a critical shortage of refinery capacity.  How, pray tell did the Russians crush the Nazis when their oil production was still more than 10 million tons short of prewar numbers?

In response to a request from the Soviet government, the Allies increased deliveries of high-octane aviation gasolines and lubricants. According to the official data for the years of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War, 2,159,336 short tons of petroleum products were delivered from the United States alone under Lend-Lease and commercial contracts. The amount of high-octane aviation gasoline, converted into the metric system, was 1,197,587 tons, including 558,428 tons with octane numbers above 99. One other important item: in the nomenclature of American oil deliveries, the Soviet Union also received 267,088 tons of automotive gasoline; 16,870 tons of kerosene; 287,262 tons of fuel oil; 111,676 tons of lubricants; 5,769 tons of paraffin; 4,788 tons of chemical additives; and 999 tons of other products.

It should be emphasized that in addition to petroleum products, the oil component of Lend-Lease included deliveries to the Soviet Union from the United States of equipment for four refinery complexes, along with drilling rigs and other oil industry equipment, pipe casings and compressor/pump piping, portable collapsible pipelines, instruments, tankers, tank trucks, railroad tanker cars, filling station pumps, and much else.

The Americans delivered the gasoline needed to fly the Red Air Force, allowing the domestic industry to focus on the Red Army, whose armored vehicles were almost exclusively powered with diesel engines.

Needless to say, if Fall Blau had succeeded beyond measure, the Wehrmacht would still have run out of fuel in the mother of all Pyrrhic victories.

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