Fuel, the Food of the War Machine

A German High Command study in May of 1941 underlined that the monthly military requirements for 7.25 million barrels, the imports and home production accounted for only 5.35 million barrels, thus a deficit existed, which would exhaust German stockpiles by August 1941. This 26 percent shortfall could only be made up with petroleum from Russia. The deficit of 1.9 million barrels per month urgently dictated taking possession of the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains, along with Ukrainian grain and Donets coal.[1] Behind Plan Barbarossa of the war against the USSR was a plan to feed German soldiers with Russian grain, and its army and industry – with Soviet oil.

<< As a highly developed industrial state, Germany was dependent even in peacetime on external sources for an adequate supply of oil. Even though Germany’s 1938 oil consumption of little more than 44 million barrels was considerably less than Great Britain’s 76 million barrels, Russia’s 183 million barrels, and the one billion barrels used by the United States, in wartime Germany’s needs for an adequate supply of liquid fuel would be absolutely essential for successful military operations on the ground and, even more so, in the air. [2]  >>

According to archival materials recently released, before Germany waged war on the USSR, England and France were concerned that Stalin's supply of Baku's oil might be transferred to Hitler after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939. The US Ambassador to France, W. Bullitt, dispatched a telegram to Washington concerning “the possibilities of bombing and demolition of Baku,” discussed in Paris at the time. The operation was to have been carried out by the French Air Forces in Syria. On October 31, 1939 such attacks were discussed at the British General Headquarters: most politicians and diplomats in the UK were opposed to bombing Baku. Prime Minister Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, then Minister of Naval Forces, openly expressed their disapproval and tried to convince the others that a more feasible plan would be to prevent the transportation of oil in the Black Sea with British submarines.

Text Box:  

1942. Sothern Front. The remains of German Panzer and its crew
According to a report submitted on February 22, 1940, by General Gamelen to French Prime Minister Daladye, since Baku provided 75% of all oil requirements of the USSR, he believed the Soviets would fall into an economic crisis if those sources were lost, “Dependence on oil supplies from the Caucasus is the fundamental weakness of Russian economy. The Armed Forces were totally dependent on this source also for their motorized agriculture. More than 90% of oil extraction and 80% of refinement was located in the Caucasus (primarily in Baku and Grozny). Therefore, interruption of oil supplies on any large scale would have far-reaching consequences and could even result in the collapse of all the military, industrial and agricultural systems of Russia.” NKVD intelligence reports about these plans kept Stalin on his tiptoes: he urgently signed a peace treaty with Finland to appease France and UK.

– Although the plan was developed, it never materialized, as France itself fell pray to Hitler. Had it been put in action, English girls on the London’s Piccadilly Circus would have been flirting with German Waffen-SS officers instead of American GI’s, and Winston Churchill – hung for war crimes.

Text Box:  
           Stalingrad. The Pavlov House.
A squad of 30 men under command of Sgt. Pavlov re-took the building in a hand-to-hand combat, in which only 4 of his men survived. 
Known as Pavlov’s House, it was reinforced 
by 25 Soviet soldiers who defended it for 58 
days; with machine guns in many windows, 
the building domineered a large space of at 
least 1-km in radius. Sgt. Pavlov personally 
destroyed a dozen tanks with an anti-tank 
50-cal rifle from the roof of the building. 
German troops attacked the building twice 
daily, losing hundreds of soldiers. General
Chuikov joked that more German soldiers died
trying to take the Pavlov’s Hose than taking 
the city of Paris. 
        According to historian Anthony Beevor, after each wave of German assault against the building, the Soviet defenders had to get out and kick down the piles of German corpses in order for the machine and anti-tank gunners in the building to have clear firing lines across the square.
        After the war Pavlov became a priest
and wowed to kill no more.

Hitler wanted oil. He read about it, talked about it ad nauseam, and knew the history of the world's major oil fields. New Order would be invulnerable, but only if he captured the oil of the Caucasus and the 'black earth,' farmlands of the Ukraine.[3] 

In his tape-recorded dinner conversation with Marshal Carl von Mannerheim, commander of Finnish armed forces, at von Mannerheim’s 75th birthday celebration, Hitler raised this issue talking about the events of 1940:[4]

We had huge German production: however, the demands of the air force, our Panzer divisions - they are really huge. It is level of consumption that surpasses the imagination. And without the addition of four to five million tons of Romanian petroleum, we could not have fought the war… - and that was my big worry.”

By late July 1942, Germans captured a minor oil field of Maicop, Russia. Not surprisingly, before withdrawing from the city, the Russians had thoroughly destroyed all equipment, right down to the small incidental tools in the workshops. Consequently, by January 1943, the Germans were able to eke out no more than some measly 70 barrels per day[5].

Germans pushed on towards Baku, now thousands of miles from their homeland and supply centers. The date for assault on Baku was already fixed – September 25, 1942. A few days prior, generals presented Hitler with a large decorated cake, which depicted the Caspian Sea and Baku. German propaganda newsreels showed amused Hitler cutting for himself the most desirable piece, Baku, made in chocolate. Hitler had terrible table manners, according to some sources; he’d bite his finger nails and gorge on cakes [6]; [7]. Fortunately for the Allies, fate saw to it that Hitler's success in devouring Baku was limited to the allegoric chocolate piece of the cake.

Field Marshal Erich von Manstein tried to argue with Furher about the immediate strategic problem – the survival of the Sixth Army, battling Russians for the ruins of Stalingrad, and begged him to transfer the German forces in the Caucasus region to his command, but Hitler would not hear of it, “Unless we get Baku's oil, the war is lost.”

Hitler talked about how after the capture of Baku, the German armies would march triumphantly through Iran and Iraq and convene in India, where they would seal their victory over England[8].He then proceeded to rant about the importance of oil in warfare and how much fuel a single aircraft or a tank consumed. G. Kumanev, Doctor of History, Professor, Director of the National Academy of Sciences' Centre of Military History of Russia, stated, “The south was chosen as the main direction of the German offensive in summer 1942. After the offensive on the Caucasus with the passage to oil regions, Hitler planned to cross the Main Caucasus Range and reach the oil-bearing regions of Iran and Iraq.

Text Box:     1942. A Red Army Squad in Stalingrad

In August 1941 British and Russian units invaded Iran. It does not matter what legal pretexts were used, as in reality the attack was designed to accomplish three things: first, to protect the oil fields in Iraq and Iran; second, to secure a line of communication to protect the Gulf in case the German army broke through the Caucasus; and third, to establish a southern supply route to Russia. The Soviet government's legal pretext for invasion was the peace treaty it had signed with Iran in 1921, which permitted it to place troops temporarily on Iranian territory for the purpose of self-defense.[9]

German Caucuses offensive on Baku oil was to be paralleled by Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika drive eastward along the North African coast toward the Nile Delta, the Suez Canal, and Palestine. If Rommel had succeeded and driven Britain out of Egypt and the Nazi forces had broken through the Caucasus, Germany would have been in a position to threaten the Persian Gulf and gain access to Middle East oil.

In reality, German Armies Group South were spread thin, their supply lines to Germany (mostly railroads) stretched for thousands of kilometers through Russian territory. Germans could and should have been cut off and surrounded. The Soviet High Command, if they were military strategic geniuses as they claimed themselves to be, had a very good chance to surround not only the 22 German divisions in Stalingrad, but also all German formations in the Caucuses, 60 divisions in all, some 30% of the German military. The Soviets began doing just that (Operation Saturn), but half-heartedly, Stalin committed to having a bird in the hand (Stalingrad) than two in the bush. Demoralized by the catastrophic defeats of 1941, the Red Army needed a decisive victory. Stalingrad was a bird in the hand. Aside from its strategic importance, the symbolic meaning of the “city of Stalin” was significant.

Stalin would not take chances with an even larger operation requiring coordination, control and cooperation of different branches of the military, the skill which the Red Army lost during the purges of its commanding officers in 1937-39 and in its infamous defeats in the first months of war in 1941.  He continued wasting lives on battling the German 6th army, which was doomed and should have been left well enough alone to starve and freeze to death, surrounded in the ruins of Stalingrad. Instead, the Red Army should have let Von Manstein’s army rushing from the southwest to get through and join Field Marshal Paulus in Stalingrad, and then close the pocket again behind his panzers, now having Von Manstein’s join the party and have two German armies starving and freezing to G. Marchenko. On the outskirt of Stalingraddeath inside the pocket, instead of one.  Instead, the Soviets fought Von Manstein off in a series of fierce battles, helping him to make his mind to join with the German Army group A, retreating from the Caucuses.

The strategic importance of the 1942 Caucuses campaign and the battle of Stalingrad cannot be overestimated: Had Germans taken the Caucasus’ oil fields, the Stalinist regime could have collapsed, while Germany would have gained access to a major source of oil and enabled to capture the oil fields of Iran and Iraq. The fall of Stalingrad implied a major blow to the USSR, as well: oil tankers crossed the Caspian Sea and oil barges went up the Volga River, transporting oil for further distribution in the main land Russia. The simplest way to cut this major oil artery was to get Stalingrad. A couple of German tanks on the bank of the Volga would sever this oil artery. Suffice it to say that the largest tank manufacturing plants in the world were also in Stalingrad and Kharkov, now reduced to rubble. While Stalin had “plan B” – Text Box:  
Photo: A Soviet sniper team in Stalingrad street fighting.

expanding other and developing new oil fields and redeployed tank-manufacturing plants in the Urals, German oil shortage got only more acute.

As a result of these massive military operations on both sides, Field Marshal Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad, Germans escaped from the Caucuses with their lives, as did Field Marshal Von Manstein. Germany did not get a drop of Baku oil. Hitler was right – without oil the war was lost, although it would take another 3 years and millions of lives before Germany would capitulate, but not before it was utterly defeated and in ruins.

The Soviet High Command, after a series of catastrophic losses in the first months of the war, had no guts to take chances which existed to break the back of the German army in a swift campaign, but it did inflict on it a major defeat, the first in WW-II. Although German armies never reached Baku, the region’s oil industry was ravaged, all the same. Fearing a German victory in the Caucasus, Moscow planners had ordered much of the region's oil infrastructure to be disassembled and sent north and east to the more secure Volga-Urals region, where geologists had identified promising oil fields. Much of the equipment, factories, skilled personnel, and even the Baku-Batumi pipeline were moved elsewhere in the USSR, to Tatarstan and Bashkiria, creating a postwar oil boom there.


All rights reserved ● Copyright ©  2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.



[1] 3. W. Tomberg. "Wehrwirtschaftliche Erkenntnisse von 5 Kriegsjahren," (November 1944), pp. 58, 61; see also Speer’s remarks in Imperial War Museum, FDC 1, Interrogation of Albert Speer, 5th Session, May 30, 1945, p. 3. See also The Role of Synthetic Fuel In World War II Germany, by Dr. Peter Becker http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil

[2] Some material in this chapter, along with certain references are borrowed from “The Role of Synthetic Fuel In World War II Germany” by Dr. Peter Becker, Published by US Air-force military academy at AirPower.maxwell.af.mil

[3] Yergin, Daniel. 1991. "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" (New York). P. 334.

[4] Hitler’s visit to Finland. http://www.soviet-empire.com/ussr/viewtopic.php?t=33564

[5] Yergin, Daniel. 1991. "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" (New York).pp. 336-37.

[6] Hitler had shocking table manners, gorged on cake and suffered flatulence, reveals never-before-seen profile. By Luke Salkeld 17 Feb 2009. Daily Mail, UK.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1147744/Hitler-shocking-table-manners-gorged-cake-suffered-flatulence-reveals-seen-profile.html#ixzz1NZYjywNS


[8] Yergin (Id), P.338


[9] Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East: Concepts, Definitions, and Parameters.  Geoffrey Kemp and Robert Harkavy. Brookings Press, 1997.