Oil, the Food for the War Machine

A week after German invasion into the USSR, the union of oil workers in the Caucuses “took the initiative” to extend their work to 12-hour shifts, with no days off, no holidays, and no vacations until the end of the war. Now all the oil produced was oiling the Soviet war machine, sputtering in 1942, but turning into an unstoppable Juggernaut by mid-1944. The oil workers were losing health working round the clock, just not as quickly as those killed at the front.

Text Box:  

Allied bombing of oil fields in Ploesti, Romania 

Even before Hitler’s ambition on Russian oil came to naught, Romania had developed into Germany’s chief supplier of oil. From 2.8 million barrels in 1938, Romania’s exports to Germany grew to 13 million barrels by 1941, a level maintained through 1942 and 1943.[1] Allied air raids on the Ploesti oil fields and refineries in August 1943 destroyed 50 percent of the Romanian refinery capacity. Even so, Romanian deliveries amounted to 7 million barrels in the first half of 1944 and were not halted until additional raids on Ploesti had been flown in the late spring and summer of 1944.[2]

Germany’s own domestic output of crude oil increased from approximately 3.8 million barrels in 1938 to almost 12 million barrels in 1944[3].

It is interesting to note that after the fall of the Nazi regime, West Germany’s domestic crude oil production began to rise again in 1947 and by 1959 it reached 32 million barrels, a figure which would have appeared astronomical to Hitler and Speer.

Yet the production of domestic crude oil during WW-II never equaled in any way the levels attained by Germany’s other major supplier of oil – the synthetic fuel plants.

A technological breakthrough in gasoline production occurred in the United States in 1935: it made possible to produce isooctane with a reading of 100 in large quantities[4]. By 1939, both the American and British air forces had begun using the improved high octane gasoline, and their planes could then be equipped with correspondingly more powerful engines. In Germany, also, a method had been devised to manufacture such gasoline, but the process was much more complex, cumbersome, and expensive. As a result, Lufwaffe had no fuel equal in quality to that available to the Allied air forces.[5]

Germany had plenty of coal. The hydrogenation process developed in Germany changed coal directly into gasoline. Coal is a hydrocarbon containing little hydrogen, while gasoline is a hydrocarbon containing much hydrogen. The trick was to liquefy coal by attaching hydrogen molecules to it. This was the basis of the hydrogenation process, which required high temperatures and high pressures. Germany needed much more fuel than it had and Hydrogenation promised a way out of the bind. It allowed a gasoline with an octane reading of 60 to 72, and thus high antiknock properties, to be manufactured. With the aid of lead tetraethyl, the octane reading could be raised to 87. High octane gasoline was important, as its antiknock characteristics determined the compression ratio of an engine that used the fuel, and the compression ratio in turn determined the engine’s power.[6]

Germany had but two ways to increase fuel production: a) to secure the Russian oil fields, oil fields in Iran and Iraq and Middle East – an expectation which went up in smoke, and b) to increase the number and output of hydrogenation plants. A plan was devised late in 1942, projecting an annual production of synthetic fuel of 60 million barrels by 1946. The Allied massive air raids on the German hydrogenation plants in May 1944 sounded a thunderous death knell for the German war machine. Nazis plan “b” went up in smoke, as well.

<<By the end of 1942 the Axis threat to the Middle East was over. Rommel's army in North Africa was defeated, the Soviet victory at Stalingrad had turned the tide of the war in the East, and German threat to the Caucasus and Japan's plan for an invasion of India had been forestalled. For the rest of the war Allied oil supplies were never seriously threatened. In contrast, the Allied bombing campaign against Germany's oil facilities, including the synthetic plants in Germany and the Romanian fields at Ploesti, posed increasing constraints on German mobility and contributed significantly to the eventual Allied victory.>>[7]

Even the massive use of millions of forced slave laborers could not resurrect the lost German oil production fast enough. Albert Speer, the War Production minister, wrote to Hitler that the attacks in May and June 1944 had reduced the output of aviation fuel by 90 percent. Speer warned that if the allied air raids were sustained, war production of various grade gasoline and explosives would sink further, the last remaining reserve stockpiles would be eventually consumed, and the prosecution of a modern technological war would become impossible.[8] Needless to say, Allies obliged: they kept Text Box:  

The hydrogenation plant in Gelsenkirchen-Scholven, destroyed by Allied bombers.  The plant produced gasoline, and was a prime target. 
pounding the hydrogenation plants, the nodes of the railroad networks and oil storage facilities (or whatever was left of them) into the spring of 1945. As a result, Luftwaffe was effectively grounded, and all reserves of fuels were thrown to the East Front, against the advancing Red Army.

In 1943-45 Germany still had some food. But despite strict rationing, it was running out of fuel. The Luftwaffe would have to come out and fight or see its planes destroyed at the factory, while its fuel – at the refinery plant or storage. Before getting through to the bombers, the German pilots had to accost the more numerous, better armed and faster American fighter planes. The heavily armed Messerschmitt Bf 110 was deadly, but it was slower than the speedy Thunderbolts and Mustangs armed with rapid-firing machine guns. The big, slow twin-engine Junkers Ju 88 was more dangerous because it could fire its rockets into the tight B-17, B-29 formations from a long distance. Henceforth, Americans put waves of fighter planes way ahead of their bomber armadas. Germany's severe shortage of aviation fuel had sharply reduced training of new pilots. Rookie German pilots were sent into combat after only 160 flying hours compared to 400 hours for the AAF, 360 for the RAF and 120 hours for the Japanese. With limited experience, their life expectancy dropped to a couple of sorties. Luftwaffe was losing roughly 1000 planes a month to RAF and USAAF, and another 400 planes to the Soviets. By 1944 Luftwaffe never had a fighting chance against the air raids by more numerous, better trained Americans and British with their superior planes.[9]

In February, 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 33% of its frontline fighters and 18% of its pilots; the next month its losses grew to 56% of its fighters and 22% of the pilots. April was just as bad, 43% and 20%, and in May Goering faced a grim statistic of 50% of his fighter planes lost and 25% of the pilots. By 1945 Germany had no more pilots; it did not have enough young men among Hitler Youth to be trained as pilots, and turned to BDM (Bund Deutche Madel), Nazi girls organization. Luckily for them the war was over before they could be trained. German factories continued to produce many new planes… invariably shot down. Increasingly the Luftwaffe went into hiding; American bombers now had losses down to 1% per mission,[10] mostly due to technical problems.

Having achieved absolute air superiority, tactical and strategic, Eisenhower decided to go ahead with the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. He could guaranty his troops that “if you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.”[11]

If Germany circa 1918 were to find itself in such dire straits, it would be forced to negotiate peace. – But in Nazi Germany, which mass-mind-programmed its citizenry and created several generations of young people ready to gladly die for their Fürher and Faterland, the fighting would continue to the bitter end.


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


[1] United States Strategic Bombing Survey, The Effects of Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy (Washington, 1945) p. 59.

[2] United States Strategic Bombing Survey, The Effects of Strategic Bombing on the German War Economy (Washington, 1945); p.75,

[3] Wolfgang Birkenfeld, Der synthetishe Treibstoff 1933-1945 (Göttingen, 1964), p. 217

[4] Dr. Peter W. Baker

[5] Wolfgang Birkenfeld, Der synthetishe Treibstoff 1933-1945 (Göttingen, 1964), PP. 70-74.

[6] Birkenfeld (Id) pp. 60-64

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

[8] Albert Speer, "Dritte Hydrier-Denkschrift vom 30. August 1944."

[9] Murray, Strategy for Defeat; PP 308-9

[10] Wesley Frank Craven and James L. Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II: v. 2. Europe: Torch to Pointblank (1949) 3:664

[11] McFarland and Newton, To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority Over Germany, 1942-1944 (2006) p. 239