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Nations at war
Eichholtz, Dietrich. War for Oil: The Nazi Quest for an Oil Empire. Washington, DC: Potomac Books Inc, 2012
xvi + 175 pages
List of Maps; Translator's Note; Introduction by John Broadwin; Preface; maps; tables; Notes; Biographical Notes; Glossary of Terms: German-English; Glossary of Terms: English-German; List of Abbreviations; Selected Bibliography; Index; About the Author and Translator
Given the vital importance of petroleum in the Second World Warfor example, Japan went to war largely to assure itself of supplies from the East Indies in the face of the Allied embargo on fuel shipmentsit's surprising so few books have tackled the subject. Among that limited number, Payton-Smith's Oil: A Study of War-Time Policy and Administration, part of the British official history series, mostly studies the bureaucratic aspects of managing oil resources and supplies. It's also pretty much guaranteed to induce somnolence. Goralski and Freeburg offer a broader and more general perspective with some worthwhile moments, but their Oil and War seems to keep drifting away from the main topic into a vaguely sensationalized overview of the war.
Dietrich Eichholtz, on the other hand, writes very specifically about Germany's need for oil, what sources seemed to be within reach, and the strategy that guided the Wehrmacht to captureor attempt to capturethose supplies. Because of that narrow focus, the book excludes many other oil-related topics:
- Doesn't investigate global economics of oil production and consumption
- Doesn't include much in the way of worldwide petroleum statistics
- Doesn't really discuss European or German consumption rates
- Doesn't detail German measures of conservation or curtailment of mechanized operations, flight training, etc.
- Doesn't discuss Allied bombing of oil infrastructure or German defenses
- Doesn't offer any indication of how production suffered from aerial attacks
- Doesn't deal with loss of fields, such as the Soviet occupation of Rumania in 1944
Instead, Eichholtz's work views oilfields as German economic and military objectives, and within those confines he has authored a very interesting and successful volume.
The book begins with succinct notes about various German estimates for oil requirements for the Wehrmacht in the immediate pre-war years, making it clear demand far exceeded supply, even givenas the estimates postulatedvastly increased production of synthetic fuels, expanded output from Rumanian oilfields with most flowing directly to the Reich, and German control over all other crude production in Europe outside the Soviet Union. The Kriegsmarine's Z Plan for building a first-class blue-water fleet rings hollow when fuel requirements are factored into the equation. Likewise, the needs of the expanding Luftwaffe seemed astronomical and unrealistic, despite the fact that Goeringeconomic czar as well as head of the air forcealways ensured his fighters and bombers retained top priority at the gas pump.
Essentially, in a "live to eat, eat to live" cycle, petroleum became both a primary objective of warfare and a means of enabling warfare. Much like Japan, Germany would need to fight to ensure oil supplies in order to be able to fight.
Despite this pressure to maximize sources of fuel, after the successful 1939 campaign in Poland, the dividing line between German and Soviet occupation zones placed approximately 75 percent of Galician production in Moscow's hands. As Eichholtz wryly remarks, "Insiders, however, doubtless understood the border would not be permanent."
Although Germany's share of Poland's Galician fields fell into its hands virtually undamaged and teams of petroleum specialists arrived almost immediately, the Reich failed to boost exploration and production. Under German control, by 1941 the fields barely reached pre-war levels of output. Not until 1942-1943 did Berlin manage to increase yields.
Conquest of France and the Low Countries in 1940, on the other hand, gained negligible production due to the dearth of oil in the west. Similarly, German exploration teams failed to identify any fields worthy of exploitation. On the other hand, Germany seized huge amounts of oil from storage tanks and refineries in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, more than making up, Eichholtz asserts, for all the fuel consumed by the Wehrmacht in its blitzkrieg campaign in the west.
The magnitude of that one-time windfall, however, paled in comparison to the quantity of crude oil pumped in Rumania, the fourth largest producer in the world. At the start of the war, most of that production was controlled by the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. Although Germany was one of Rumania's largest customers, the foreign-owned oil companies attempted to limit the amounts of fuel exported to the Reich. In those circumstances, Berlin held little leverage. Fortunately for Hitler, when war came King Carol II realized Germany represented the only possible source of modern military equipment for rearming Rumania's army. German representatives in May 1940 thus managed to successfully conclude a major arms-for-oil arrangement on terms highly favorable to Berlin, completely bypassing normal purchasing contracts and provisions. Subsequent to the fall of France, German companies also utilized brutal negotiating tactics to purchase controlling shares of foreign oil firms in Rumania at bargain-basement rates. Despite German attempts to modernize facilities and discover new fields, the production of Rumanian oilfields was already in decline. Nevertheless, with as much as 96 percent of the annual production going directly to Germany, the Rumanian fields remained the Wehrmacht's biggest supplier by far until occupied by the Soviets in 1944. Eichholtz provides no information about the level of disruption caused by Allied bombing of Ploesti or other facilities during the war.
Despite replenishing stocks with captured western supplies and assuring the Wehrmacht of Rumanian petroleum, German economic planners continued to forecast serious shortages of fuel by 1941. Projections for Operation Barbarossa estimated sufficient fuel for combat operations for only two months. Furthermore, the principal energy experts all agreed that, even in a post-war world, German-dominated Europe could not attain energy independence unless guaranteed access to crude extracted in the Near East. As result, the German leadership looked at every possibility for solving the petroleum problem.
Indeed, Eichholtz asserts key figures in the Reich "...believed that the most desirable aim of Germany's engagement in the Middle East was not so much to support and fuel the flames of a problematic pan-Arab 'liberation movement' or even to end British rule in India, but rather to replace Britain as the dominant oil power in the Middle East." Similarly, German industrial and financial institutions remained eager to regain concessions in the region lost to them as a result of the First World War. On the other side of the coin, regaining oil facilities in Iraq and Iran would also deny their production to the British, which would likely serve as a death blow to London's ability to wage war. The author briefly reviews the minimalist, unsuccessful Axis intervention in Iraq in 1941, labeling it a comic opera. Ironically, the Axis aircraft arriving to help seize control of Iraq and its oilfields were barely able to obtain enough fuel for their own operations. Eichholtz writes that few historians have taken proper note of the crucial nature of this brief campaign, given the huge stakes. Even if Germany had been unable to make use of the Iraqi fields, preventing British use of the oil could have been a turning point in the war.
The book next considers the Russo-German War within the context of Germany's urgent requirement for petroleum. To begin with, the author emphasizes how the directive for Operation Barbarossadespite efforts of economic expertsfailed to mention the critical importance of capturing Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus. Nonetheless, Fuehrer Directive 32, "Preparations for the Period after Barbarossa," issued on 11 June 1941, specifically included the so-called pincer offensive from the Caucasus and from Libya to occupy the oilfields of the Near East.
In any event, during the initial stage of Operation Barbarossa, Petroleum Unit South followed closely behind the German 17th Army and occupied the eastern Galician oilfieldsformerly Polish, but in Soviet hands since 1939on 30 June and 1 July. In September, Petroleum Unit North brought the Estonian shale oil deposits back into production and gradually ramped up the flow, although this could never be developed into a major source of fuel. Petroleum Unit R reached the small oil patch around Romny on 22 September to find equipment removed and wells plugged with concrete. Reopening the limited fields around Romny was not considered worth a great deal of investment in manpower and equipment, and production there never amounted to much while in German hands. Of much greater import, Petroleum Unit C was forced to sit idle due to the failure of Army Group South to open the way to the principal Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus. Thus one of the two giant oil pincers came to a halt at the end of 1941.
During the winter of 1941-1942, the clamor for oil increased dramatically, and German forecasts grew even more alarming. Without fresh sources of fuel, the panzers would soon be immobilized. Eichholtz neatly summarizes the internal debates about the relative value of Soviet Caucasus oilfields vs. Near Eastern fields, taking into account actual production, total capacity, pumping equipment, sulfur content, refineries, storage facilities, pipelines, the need for a fleet of tankers to ply the Mediterranean, etc. Whatever the comparative importance of the two oil-producing regions, for 1942 Hitlerrecognizing the supreme significance of petroleumordered Operation Blue to sever Moscow from Caucasus crude and capture the fields for German use.
But what of the other oil pincer?
When Rommel and his Axis forces captured Tobruk and advanced into Egypt in the summer of 1942, the goal of the dual offensive into Iraq and Iran seemed within reach. Furthermore, German economic experts promptly produced reports about Egypt's oilfields and refineries, located along the western shores of the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez. The experts generated rather glowing predictions of copious production once the facilities were captured by Rommel, butwith his divisions stalled at the Alamein linethis turned out to be no more than wishful thinking.
Rommel's failure meant only Army Group South could succeed, and preparations had been underway for months in order to ensure that success.
On January 13, 1942, the supervisory board of Konti Ol held a meeting at which Ernst Rudolf Fischer and Karl Blessing assured the assembled elite of those Germans concerned with oil that preparations for the "Caucasus expedition" would continue to be vigorously pursued, despite the fact that the high hopes for launching it in the year just past had been disappointed. In any case, they maintained, the Germans had gained experience in 1941, especially in Estonia and at Romny, and had identified important problems that would be encountered on a much larger scale in the Caucasus. Thus the Germans clearly expected that as the Soviets withdrew from the Caucasian oil fields they would dismantle and remove drilling and refinery equipment, exactly as they had done in other already occupied oil-producing regions. Supervisory board chairman Walther Funk in his capacity as Reich economics minister held out the prospect to Konti Ol of possible relief action and countermeasures, "regardless of how extreme [seien sie auch noch so drastisch]."
Two weeks later Gunther Schlicht, DEAG's director, a member of the board of Ost-Ol GmbH, and Konti Ol's most important production specialist, presented more precise data in planning for the procurement of drilling equipment. Because of the anticipated destruction of the oil fields in the Caucasus, the Germans "should prepare to dig new wells." Approximately 600 drilling rigs should suffice which, operated with German efficiency, "should be adequate for the Caucasus, as compared with 836 Russian rigs." Nevertheless, Schlicht continued, enormous difficulties would have to be overcome until then: "First, there are not enough rigs on hand and because of current delivery problems...they cannot be supplied with the requisite speed; second, only limited numbers of the required technicians, in particular drillers, are available; and third, at the outset transportation problems in Russia will be so great that it will be extremely difficult to bring material for the first expedition to the oil fields and will require perhaps around 300 freight trains."
Given the huge requirements under wartime conditions"a task that has never before been given to any other oil industry in the world," according to one expertPetroleum Unit South was expanded into the Technical Petroleum Brigade with more than 5000 men. Eichholtz provides an OB, including drilling battalions, signals, transport, AA units, and a hospital. Even with such an organization ready to move into the fields immediately behind the combat troops, experts warned that due to "a glaring shortage of skilled technicians, especially engineers, geologists, drillers, and shift bosses," it could require six months or more to see any production from Maikop and Grozny.
Even such a pessimistic forecast, Eichholtz explains, seemed to be based on the assumption that "the foray into the oil fields of the Caucasus would not encounter effective enemy resistance and would quickly lead to success."
It should come as no great shock to readers when the author reveals that's not the way the German summer offensive in southern Russian unfolded in 1942. The advance did not go quite according to plan. Although Hitler had toyed with the idea of attempting to capture Maikop with paratroopers and troops disguised in Soviet uniforms in order to seize the oilfields before they could be destroyed, in fact they were razed before Stalin's armies withdrew. According to Eichholtz, the destruction exceeded the worst fears of the technicians of the Technical Petroleum Brigade.
Not long after the capture of Maikop, with the offensive into the Caucasus stalled, Hitlerrealizing there was no longer hope of advancing rapidly and capturing facilities intactordered the Luftwaffe to begin bombing Soviet oil storage depots at Astrakhan, Saratov, and Kamyshin as well as the fields around Baku. Meanwhile, specialists from the brigade wrestled with the job of rehabilitating the Maikop fields.
Toward the end of November the petrol men reported to Goering on conditions at Maikop, and he flew into a rage over the lack of progress. By mid-January approximately a dozen wells had been unplugged and technicians were in the process of drilling three new bores. Eichholtz estimates the unit extracted about 1000 tons of Caucasian oil, the bulk of which the brigade utilized itself in order to perform its work in the fields.
On 17 January 1943 the petroleum brigade was ordered to destroy everything that could not be removed, and to evacuate the Maikop area at once. Shortly afterwards, the unit was redeployed to work in the Estonian shale oil region. Meanwhile, German Army Group A was withdrawn from the Caucasus in order to avoid being isolated there, and Sixth Army lurched toward a slow and painful death in the Stalingrad pocket.
Like Rommel's desert pincer, the Caucasus pincer had failed, and with that failure Germany's dream of procuring sufficient supplies of petroleum vanished, even though the Reich's leadership might not yet realize it. Thus, it would no longer be possible to supply the Wehrmacht with all the fuel it required in order to fight and win a total war against the Allies.
For such a slender book, Eichholtz provides a great deal of useful information, probably because he concentrates on a relatively narrow topic. Had the author been willing to expand this volume, it would have been nice to see more about the European infrastructure of oil industry (refineries, distribution, and so forth) as well as more about the comparative demands for petroleum products in various nations and various sectors of the German economy. More details about relative consumption levels of panzer divisions, air units, U-boats, etc would also have been valuable.
Nevertheless, based strictly on what the author set out to accomplish, War for Oil: The Nazi Quest for an Oil Empire proves a resounding success, and most students of World War II will learn facts new and fascinating.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Potomac Books.
Thanks to Potomac for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 29 July 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone