A Fuel Shortage in World War 2 Germany caused largely by Germany's small oil reserves, was a factor in the German defeat.
During World War 2, Germany fought desperately to overcome an acute fuel shortage. They made heavy use of synthetic fuels but were only partly successful in alleviating their shortage, but, perhaps, the United States, now facing a possible eventual fuel shortage, can learn something from the German efforts.
Two major references for this web page were the book Inside The Third Reich by Albert Speer, and the article The Role Of Synthetic Fuel In World War II Germany by Dr. Peter W. Becker. See the following web page for the Becker article: German Fuel Shortage World War 2
Prior to World War 2, Germany was an energy-dependent nation. It depended heavily on foreign fuel imports:
German Fuel Source Million Barrels (Annually)
Domestic Oil Production 3.8
Synthetic Fuel Production 9.0
Import From Overseas   28.0
Import Overland-Europe  3.8
German Fuel Stockpile Prior to World War 2. The German stockpile of fuel consisted of only 15 million barrels. Obviously the German situation was precarious for a country about to take on half the world in a war.
Germans Expanded Fuel Supply as World War 2 Approaches. The Germans realized the graveness of their fuel situation and took action. Their infamous peace treaty with Russia in 1939 yielded them 4 million barrels of fuel per year (starting in 1940) and the Russians were diligent in delivering the fuel. Imports of oil from Romania was also drastically increased until imports reached 13 million barrels in 1941. The Germans also expanded their own small domestic production of oil and that of Austria which had been annexed by Germany in 1938. By 1944, the total domestic oil production had increased from 3.8 million barrels (1938) to 12 million barrels.
Additionally, about 5 million barrels of fuel were captured during the early military campaigns of World War 2 in western Europe in 1940.
The above increases in fuel obtained from various sources helped but were still inadequate as World War 2 began to place a high demand on German fuel supplies.
After World War I, the Germans began to look strongly at synthetic fuel production. The naval blockades, imposed on the Germans during World War 1 had taught them a lesson. Also, they were alarmed by reports, rampant then as now, that oil reserves around the world were about to be exhausted (Peak Oil!). When Hitler came to power, he was determined to make Germany independent of imported oil (sounds familiar?) and it was only natural that a high-technology country such as Germany, with large deposits of coal and lignite, would turn to the production of synthetic fuel from coal and lignite.
The various processes involved in producing synthetic fuel are discussed in the previously referenced article by Dr. Becker. One such chemical process of utmost importance was the Fischer-Tropsch Process. Hydrogenation of coal and lignite played a key role in the synthetic producing processes.
(It should be noted that modifications of the Fischer - Tropsch Process are in use today and the process is used in some efforts to produce a suitable synthetic liquid fuel from non-petroleum products.)
One problem with the synthetic fuel produced by Germany in World War 2 was the relatively low octane number of the fuel. High octane fuels were needed, particularly for German aviation and, in this area, the Germans had to play catch-up with the Americans and British who had ample supplies of high octane aviation gasoline. Still the Germans worked diligently on the problem and managed to improve the octane numbers.
It should be noted that the German Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, generally considered by experts to have single-handily prolonged World War 2 in Europe due to his production genius, does not come off too well in Dr. Becker's article referenced above. Dr. Becker blames Speer for slowing the construction of the synthetic fuel plants.
So, despite their best efforts, Germany faced severe fuel shortages in World War 2 and it is believed by the experts that the presence of the huge oil fields in Russia was one of the reasons, Hitler chose to attack Russia. (Note: there were other reasons, and, eventually, Germany would no doubt have attacked Russia, anyway).
To Germany's dismay, only a small amount of oil was ever obtained from the occupied Russian oil fields since the Russians used a scorched-earth policy as they retreated. As noted earlier, prior to outbreak of World War 2, Russia was supplying Germany with about 4 million barrels of oil per year. As the war proceeded, and Germany sought to recover oil from the occupied Russian oil fields, the amount of oil recovered was about the same - 4 million barrels per year - as the Russians had supplied to Germany prior to the war. As far as the Germans solving their fuel shortage problem, the invasion of Russia came to naught.
As the last few years of World War 2 approached, the Germans, despite their heroic efforts, could not solve their oil shortage problem. It began to catch up with them as aerial bombing of Germany by the US and Britain increased. Some of Albert Speer's comments on the matter as recorded in Inside the Third Reich follow:
"On May 19, 1944, after .....the attack, Hitler received me.....I described the situation......'The enemy has struck us at one of our weakest points. If they persist at it this time, we will soon no longer have any fuel production worth mentioning'."
On June 24, 1944, Speer states "....the allies staged a new series of attacks which put many fuel plants out of action. On June 22, nine-tenths of the production of airplane fuel was knocked out."
On July 28, 1944, Speer sent a memorandum to Hitler. "I implored Hitler......to reserve a significantly larger part of the fighter plane production......to protecting the home hydrogenation plants......"
November 10, 1944. "Meanwhile the army, too, had become virtually immobile because of the fuel shortage."
The World War 2 end was nearing for Germany, largely as a result of the on-going fuel shortage. Germany had fought the good fight but could not overcome the fuel shortage which had reached crisis proportions.
A final statement should be made: When Germany began to work to produce synthetic fuel, they thought oil reserves around the world were about exhausted. Now, however, it appears that the development of vast shale formation oil and natural gas reserves in the U.S. and elsewhere have greatly reduced the possibility of a future world energy crisis.
Some experts have alleged that one of the reasons the US invaded Iraq was to obtain control of Iraqi oil to help out with the developing oil shortage (an allegation strongly denied by the Bush Administration). Oil prices at the time of the invasion was about $30 per barrel and oil prices now, over seven years later, are about $50 per barrel. The Iraqi oil did not significantly solve the US problem existing at that time.
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The German fuel shortage in World War 2 was largely responsible for the Germany losing the war. They had inadequate oil reserves for gasoline and aviation fuel production. Plus, their synthetic gasoline production was never quite adequate.
Will fuel shortages occur in the U.S. as we may some day face an acute oil and energy crisis We must learn from the German experiences with their fuel shortages in World War 2!
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